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Reporting is the essence of journalism, the one thing that has to be right, the place where knowledge meets heart. Here is Peter King reporting on the NFL's new hybrid defenses (page 46), interviewing Saints coach Sean Payton, who gets out of his chair and challenges King to come up with the single word that best characterizes the NFL in 2011:
"Here's what happens in the game today," Payton said, ticking off the play clock. "Quarterback breaks the huddle at 17. He goes to the line. Sixteen, 15, 14, 13. He's probing the defense. 'Purple 57! Purple 57! SetHUT!!' That's not a snap count. It's information gathering. [The offense] knows he's not snapping on a dark color. For some teams it's a color, for others it might be ice cream flavors—just as long as the offense knows and the defense doesn't. On defense they're thinking, 'Hold it, hold it, hold it. Don't show the quarterback anything.' The offense is saying, 'Who's who? Who are we blocking? How do we attack it?'
"Twelve, 11, 10, 9. Quarterback sees some movement on the defense; he knows it might be phony. Eight, 7, 6. 'CHECKCHECK! Yellow 36! Yellow 36!' Now it's the real thing, an audible. Quarterback's guessing what he sees. For the defense it's still 'Hold it, hold it, hold it.' Five, 4, 3. 'SetHUTHUT!!' Now he snaps—and he has to read the defense while he's figuring where to go with the ball against guys trying to make sure he has no idea what they're playing."
Payton's word: Confusion. The best units these days—Jets, Packers, Ravens, etc.—attack from anywhere and everywhere and can't be categorized simply as 3--4 or 4--3. The old definitions of positions like outside linebacker and defensive tackle are becoming obsolete.
Similarly, in his exploration of the changes in the technique of tackling (page 56) senior writer Tim Layden peels back the layers to reveal how tackling has become one of the most uncertain elements in the modern NFL, altered not only by evolutions in strategy that stress creating turnovers—making stripping the ball almost as important as bringing down the ballcarrier—but also by rules changes designed to protect ballcarriers from injuries.
Layden talked to players and coaches across several generations, including Steelers All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who delivered an impassioned soliloquy on the new landscape. "I've been playing this game for 20 years," said Polamalu. "Everything is instinctive for me. But when the rules changes are this drastic, I don't think you can conform yourself, because then you'll get beat, and that's worse than getting a fine."
The game we love is changing, becoming even more interesting. The reporting tells us so.