One Thing: Aaron Rodgers meta NFL master

The Green Bay Packers won their game last night against the Kansas City Chiefs 38 to 28. A 10 point victory is not considered a blow-out in the NFL but this game in particular was more conclusive than most 10 point wins. It was the way that the Packers beat the Chiefs that was so impressive. It looked like they were playing football an a whole other level than the Chiefs were — almost like they were playing a different game. They were. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing at such a high level that it sometimes seems like he’s playing at a different level than everyone else. While everyone else is playing football, he’s playing meta-football. There were three plays, when the Packers were on offense, that stuck out as examples of this.

One thing is a series of posts that examine a small part of a sporting event to explain and explore its meaning in a way that’s accessible to sports fans and laypeople alike.

Two of the three meta-plays from last night were offensive plays that resulted in penalties called on the Chiefs for having too many men on the field when the ball was snapped. When the offense snaps the ball, signaling the start of that play, each team is only allowed to have 11 players on the field. This is rarely a problem. Football players are pretty good at counting! The fact that it happened twice yesterday isn’t due to any deficiency on the part of the Chiefs but rather an intentional act of trickery by Rodgers. When the defense makes a substitution, one player runs onto the field while another player runs off to their team’s sideline. This isn’t an inconsiderable distance, especially when the play is starting on the far side of the field from where the defensive team’s bench is. Defensive players have been doing this for most of their lives though, and they have a good internal clock which tells them how much time they have to exit the field before the snap. What they’re not accounting for is Rodgers’ meta game. Rodgers notices when an opposing defensive player, particularly a bigger, slower lineman is substituting, and then rushes his team to the line and tries to snap the ball immediately. He speeds up the offensive process so that he can start the play before that defensive player makes it off the field.

This benefits his team in three ways: one straightforward, one sneaky, and one demoralizing. The straightforward advantage is that the refs will call a penalty on the defensive team, in this case the Chiefs. The penalty moves the ball five yards down the field, after which the Packers get to start their offensive play again. The penalty doesn’t automatically give the Packers a first down, but if moving those five yards would have otherwise, the penalty yardage will. The sneaky benefit is that this foul call doesn’t take effect immediately. The play will continue and at the end of it, the Packers get to choose whether they want the five yard penalty or the result of the play. Because Rodgers knows he can retroactively make that choice, he’s going to use the “free play” to try to advance the ball as far as possible in one play. It gives him the freedom to take a risk he might not ordinarily take, like throwing the ball into the end zone even if his targeted receiver is well covered, because he knows that if the other team does something great, like intercept the ball, the Packers can just choose to accept the penalty and the other team’s great play will be wiped away. (For advanced readers, note that 12 men on the field IS a reviewable call, so even if the refs miss it, the Packers will still have a good chance of backing the play out if they need to.) The third and lasting benefit is to frustrate and demoralize the opposing team. It’s hard enough to play against a team that’s as great as the Packers but it’s even harder to play against a quarterback who is masterfully manipulating the rules of football against you.

The other meta play from last night’s game is a similar trick that Rodgers plays. In this one, he tricks the opposing defense to come across the line of scrimmage before the center snaps the ball. Called “drawing the other team offside,” this is a common tactic that quarterbacks try but few are as good at it as Rodgers is. Check out the video of a touchdown that the Packers scored on the “free play” resulting from Rodgers’ tricky meta-game. The player to watch is number 91 in white and red. His name is Tamba Hali and a he’s one of the most fearsome pass rushers in the league. When he jumps offside, he not only gives the Packers a free play, with which Rodgers is liberated to throw the ball into the end-zone with no possible negative consequences, but, when he realizes he’s been caught offside and bamboozled, he stops briefly. This natural human reaction adds to the benefit of the play to the Packers. Not only do they have a consequence-free play but they get to run it with a half-ineffective Tamba Hali!

Thanks for reading. I’ll keep my eye out for more interesting plays to write about.
Ezra Fischer

Why aren't football players arrested when they break the rules?

Dear Sports Fan;

Football is a rough sport, I get it, players get hurt in normal competition. But why isn’t someone like Pacman Jone criminally charged after wrestling an opponents helmet off and then slamming his head into it?

Is a fine or even a suspension (which it appears he will not be subject to) enough?


Dear Al,

You pose a good question, and one that I’ve addressed before on this site, but it’s worth thinking about again. Why is a violent act, which would be worthy of a criminal charge in other contexts, not illegal in the context of a sport? Why aren’t football players arrested when they break the rules?

First, let’s take a look at the incident:

Jones is the player on the Cincinnati Bengals, wearing white and orange, who tears the helmet off of Oakland Raiders rookie wide receiver Amari Cooker and then jams Coopers head back into his own helmet. Cooper’s teammates quickly come to his defense and a bit of pushing and shoving follows as the referees throw their yellow penalty flags to show that a foul has been committed.

Jones’ act is clearly against the rules of football. It would just as clearly be defined as assault if it happened outside of the context of football.


The rules of any sport describe a set of expected behaviors that fall on both sides of the line between allowed and not allowed. Fist fighting is illegal in ice hockey and golf, but you can get a good sense about which sport expects their players to fight by looking at the two rule books. Ice hockey has a clear rule about fighting – players who fight are given matching five-minute penalties. Golf doesn’t have a rule at all. A hockey player who fights is very unlikely to be prosecuted. A golfer… may just be in cuffs by the end of the day. Why the difference? A reasonable hockey player assumes the risk of being confronted with violence, legal and illegal, when he or she steps onto the ice. A golfer doesn’t. Even though fighting isn’t as prevalent in football as it is in hockey, it is a violent sport and its players reasonably assume the risk of being confronted with violence when they play. Athletes in contact sports have implicitly consented to violence.

Even if a player or an authority did try to prosecute a player like Jones, who goes to far, it would be a hard case to argue. Consider how difficult it would be from an outsider’s perspective to compare legal and illegal forms of violence. Here’s another incident which happened during this year’s preseason, in a game between the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers:

In this film, former rugby star Jarryd Hayne finishes a run by lowering his shoulder into a defender’s chest and knocking him to the ground. Let’s apply the same two tests to it: it would clearly be considered assault if it happened on the street but in the context of football, it’s not only legal, it’s deeply admired. I’m not a legal scholar, or a practicing lawyer, or even the fiancée of Vinny Gambini, but I feel like it would be very difficult to convict someone of assault for one incident on a football field if opposing counsel could show equally violent or even more violent acts that are explicitly allowed in the context of football. And I don’t think the legal system cares very much about whether an act is strictly allowed or not allowed by a sports league.

Aside from being flagrantly against the rules of football, what quality would one use to argue that Jones’ act is more worthy of prosecution than others? It’s not more damaging – earlier in the day, a New York Jets player was taken off on a stretcher and hospitalized during a legal play. Other injuries from just yesterday’s action included a torn Achilles tendon, a broken bone in a foot, several strained or torn knee ligaments, and several other concussions. Cooper, on the other hand, seems to be fine. How about force? Jones certainly didn’t use as much force on Cooper in that video than he would in a normal tackle.

This doesn’t mean that within the context of a sport, anything could and should be allowed to happen. For example, a player who snuck a knife onto the field and attacked an opponent would surely be prosecuted. No one assumes the risk of being stabbed during a sporting event. (Except fencing accidents, I suppose.) Our attitudes on this issue may also change – may even be in the process of changing already. Not so long ago, the law held that a married woman assumed the risk of being raped by her husband by entering into a marriage contract. That’s no longer the case and the world is a better place for it. With what we now know about the damaging effects of brain injuries on athletes, it’s possible that we are moving towards a world where flagrant and intentional violence toward a player’s head will be subject to legal charges.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

One thing: Why was the late Steelers touchdown important?

When the Pittsburgh Steelers took possession of the ball on their own 30 yard-line with 2:59 left in the game, they still had a glimmer of a chance to win or tie the game before time ran out. They were down 28 to 14 and would have needed two touchdowns and two extra points to tie or two touchdowns, an extra point, and a two point conversion to win. Time was not on their side, but they did have all three of their timeouts and the two-minute warning left to stop the clock. They also have a great quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and a potentially even greater wide receiver in Antonio Brown. They had a chance even if it was a slim one, but they needed to score quickly, leaving enough time on the clock for an onside kick (a kickoff play designed to get the ball back instead of giving possession to the other team) and a Hail Mary (a last-ditch attempt to score a touchdown from very far away.)

One thing is a series of posts that examine a small part of a sporting event to explain and explore its meaning in a way that’s accessible to sports fans and laypeople alike.

They moved the ball well down the field but thanks to a phantom penalty call that took back a 29 yard pass play and a sack that lost them another seven yards and valuable time, by the time they used their third timeout, it was clear to everyone involved that they were not going to win. With only 11 seconds left, the Steelers still needed to score a touchdown, successfully convert an onside kick, and then score another touchdown. That’s almost an impossible task. Still, the Steelers kept trying, and with seven seconds left, they did manage to complete the first of those three tasks: they scored a touchdown.

Unfortunately, the NFL doesn’t allow websites to embed video, so you’ll have to watch the play on YouTube. Go watch it, but come back! Brown, the excellent wide receiver mentioned above, runs a corner route (football speak for running straight up the field and then angling diagonally toward the sideline or corner of the end-zone) and catches the ball before his momentum takes him out-of-bounds. It’s a beautiful play, but it took five seconds, leaving only two seconds on the clock. Even though the extra point attempt is officially untimed, meaning it doesn’t take any time off the game clock, two seconds is still not enough to run an onside kick and still have enough left over to run even a single pass play. The game is logically over, the Steelers have lost, the Patriots have won.

But listen to the announcer, Al Michaels. Here’s what he has to say, “That might make a couple of people happy in a minute here, ’cause Malcolm Butler gets beaten and makes it an eight point game here for the moment. There are a couple of things that are going to be in play here right now.” And a few seconds later, “Well, speak about tangentially interested, there are a few people more than tangentially interested right now.”

What is he talking about? Why would this play, which could not possibly change the outcome of the game, be important to people? The answer lies in two activities that have an important symbiotic relationship to the NFL: fantasy football and gambling.

For fantasy football owners, (if you don’t know how fantasy football works, read the Dear Sports Fan post explaining it) a touchdown counts just as much in the third to last second of the game as it does in the middle of the game. A touchdown in a lost cause counts as much as one in a close game. In fact, garbage time, as time in a lost cause is called in fantasy football language, can be an important tactical consideration. Players on teams that are often losing by large margins tend to accumulate fairly good statistics as their opponents care a little less on defense or even rest some of their better players.

As for gambling, the Steelers late touchdown was an even bigger deal. One of the most popular ways to gamble on football is betting a line. When you do this, you’re betting not on one team to win or lose the game, but on one team to exceed the expectation that a bookmaker has set for them. Before the game started, most bookmaker’s expectation for the Patriots was that they would win by seven points. Therefore their expectation was that the Steelers would lose by seven points. When the Patriots were up by 14, with only a couple of minutes to go, people who had bet on the Patriots (to exceed their expectations and win by more than seven points) were in a position to win money. That last second touchdown, brought the score to 28-21, a difference of exactly seven points. This matches the pre-game expectation or line set by bookmakers. This is called a push, when the result matches the line, and no one wins anything! Gamblers get their money back and the bookmakers are out whatever their overhead for facilitating the transaction is plus marketing costs, etc.

The last second touchdown by the Steelers was meaningless to the outcome of the football game, it was important to fantasy football players and gamblers, two very important groups of people who follow football.