Let’s Get Physical

There’s a tendency in sports analysis — and maybe it’s just because it’s football season now that I think it’s especially true in football — to attribute any and all mistakes to poor decision-making. There are no physical errors; only mental ones.

Take Jacoby Jones’ muffed punt in the Texans’ loss to the Ravens. Jones was excoriated not for failing to properly secure the kick, but for even trying to do so. It was an “inexcusable” mistake, akin to “driving a car on the freeway in the wrong direction and once he realized it he sped up to get to the next exit (which would actually be the on ramp) and while changing lanes had a head-on collision.” His “gaffe” is defined as “opting to field a punt that took several bounces in front of the fifth-year veteran at the Texans’ 13 and not being able to handle the football.

How “ridiculously stupid” was it? “[S]o ridiculously stupid that ridiculously stupid isn’t the best way to describe it.

Now, Jones’ play wasn’t smart. But it also wasn’t an unprecedentedly inexplicable act of boneheadedness — “boneheaded” being the adjective Dan Dierdorf used to describe it throughout the contest. Punt returners often field the ball after a high forward bounce to save some yardage. When they do this successfully, it’s a bold but rewarding play, especially in a game of field position. When they mess it up as Jones did, it’s boneheaded. The mistake here wasn’t that Jones decided to field the ball; it was that he fumbled despite one of the truest and easiest bounces you’ll see in football history.*

*Look how high the ball is. Without knowing the context, you’d have thought Jones was trying to catch the punt on the fly. In fact, catching a ball off that kind of bounce is even easier than catching one on the fly, since there’s so much less gravitational velocity.

Jones wasn’t the only player whose physical errors were transmuted to mental ones. After Billy Cundiff missed the 32-yard field goal that would have sent the AFC Championship to overtime, the postgame conversation centered first on whether Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh should have called timeout and then on an apparent scoreboard malfunction at Gillette Stadium and finally on whether said scoreboard malfunction was a nefarious attempt to throw off Cundiff’s timing. These things deserve to be considerations, but it seems to me that what mainly went wrong on Cundiff’s kick is that he hooked it really, really badly. These things happen to kickers.

On talk radio in Boston, Ravens wideout Lee Evans was similarly blamed after the game—not just for dropping a pass that was pretty clearly knocked out of his hands, but for failing to consciously grip the ball firmer knowing a Super Bowl berth was at stake. Evans was chided for his complacency, acting as if he were catching a touchdown in the second quarter of Week Six.

Even Kyle Williams’ second fumble in the NFC Championship, in which Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams poked the ball out of K. Williams’ arms, was considered by at least one to be a bit of a mental error on the part of the 49ers. The second question Jim Harbaugh was asked after the game was this: “When you put him back there, what were your instructions, at least for the last punt? Did you want him to be that aggressive with the ball?” As if Harbaugh would instruct (or should have instructed) his punt returner—in a game that had been, to that point, defined by field position—to stay away from the ball or to forget trying for any kind of return. Note that the previous San Francisco score had been set up by none other than Kyle Williams’ long kickoff return.

I’m guessing we do this because physical mistakes are uninteresting and inarguable. Saying Jacoby Jones “just missed the ball” provides minimal analysis and, worse yet in the arena of sports media, ends the conversation. There is nothing to debate about a physical mistake, no way for a fan to say, “Even I know not to do that!” And yet, way more often than not, physical errors are what determine games. Bad throws lead to more interceptions than bad reads of coverage, missing tackles leads to more touchdowns than missed coverage assignments.

So when you’re watching the Super Bowl, remember: Sometimes players just mess up, and it’s not because they’re stupid.

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