I think you might be on to something with your Xbox controller theory, Tom. I have always used a similar analogy when trying to describe the obsession with technical perfection that infects NFL coaches. If they could control their players with a remote control, they would. That would do away with the athlete’s pesky instincts. A successful game for a position coach is when all of his guys do exactly as they were supposed to do. There are very specific rules for each player on each and every play. And every possible scenario is introduced during the week, so that whatever the opposing team may do, whatever look they may give you, you already have the answer.
If he plays man coverage with inside leverage, jab hard with your inside foot to threaten his technique, dip your shoulder, and release into your route. Man coverage, outside leverage: Jab step at him and bring your hands with you, deliver a blow and try to get on top of him so you can push your route vertical before breaking it off. Push up to your proper depth, and sink your hips at your break point. Keep your nose over your toes and don’t drop your arms, keep them pumping. Get out of that break at a sharp angle, don’t fade up the field. Come straight across at a 90 degree angle, otherwise the cornerback will come underneath and pick off our quarterback. But pay attention at the line of scrimmage—if we get a Cover 2 with a zone-dog, you sit in that zone, but you have to break it down a few yards short to account for the blitz. We may not have enough men to block that look, so get your head around. If they don’t bring the zone-dog blitz and they’re still in Cover 2, push your normal depth but understand the triangle between the corner, the safety, and that linebacker, and sit down in that throwing lane for your quarterback. Oh, and the snap count is on two.
That’s just an example of what a wide receiver would have to memorize for a single play. Coverages in the NFL go from Cover 0 to Cover 9, with all sorts of idiosyncratic adjustments for personnel groups and specific players, and different rules for every scenario. So, you see how this all starts to feel more like work than play—your mind is so filled up with rules that he feels like he is being controlled by remote. And if you deviate from the plan for a moment, it will not go unnoticed. Teams watch every play of every practice on film, and every single step is critiqued. Your position coach will let you know that you better get that shit right, or else.
The “or else” part is that you’ll be fired. I watched hundreds of my teammates and friends come and go because they couldn’t execute “the plan.” These were invariably talented athletes who were stars on their college teams, but in the NFL it’s about falling in and learning how to win favor with your coaches. You win their favor by making them look good, meaning they don’t get yelled at in the coach’s meetings because you fucked up. Even if common sense and years of playing the game tell you to do something else, you swallow your pride and follow orders. Why? Because the Book says so. What book? You mean, the Book? No, bigger. The playbook.
This is the biggest reason why extremely successful college players can’t quite find their footing in the NFL. Too many rules. And with all of these rules comes a dogged approach to rule enforcement. Nothing slips through the cracks, so, as a player, you become obsessive about executing these never-ending rules, because you have noticed that those who don’t are shown the door.
And that’s why college football looks more fun than the NFL. It is! The players have more freedom to screw up. In Monday night’s game, Oregon had to burn a timeout on the Auburn 2-yard line with 2:36 remaining because LaMichael James didn’t know he was supposed to motion out wide. Oregon coach Chip Kelly seemed cool about it, approaching James with a smile and a high five—it’s no big deal! Sure, maybe every college coach wouldn’t have reacted in the same laid-back way, but that type of mistake always elicits hellfire in the NFL, a penetrating death glare from your coach that says, “Look what you’ve done!!”
Also, I wouldn’t underestimate the daily presence of girls as a contributing factor to the overall difference in experience. College kids have classes with females, live near them, socialize and interact with them, have friendships with them, and are generally just around girls all the time. This may seem like a strange thing to talk about, but in the NFL there are no females anywhere to be seen. It is a sequestered environment, packed tightly with stressed-out dudes who spend all day every day together, feeding off of each other’s tension and paranoia. The calming effects of some healthy flirtation, or the mere scent of a woman, are nowhere to be found. The result is a bunch of grown men who, were it not for the large paychecks, would snap.
If an 18-game schedule doesn’t make NFL players snap mentally, they surely will physically. From the first moment a player walks onto the grass for an NFL practice, his adrenal glands are shooting off like fireworks. After all, he made it to the NFL! Holy shit! Every single repetition is the most intense of his life, far surpassing anything he did in college. He is running faster and hitting harder than he thought he ever could. He is exploding with energy! And it’s only April.
That pace never slows down. The body tries to keep up, every day, summoning that burst that the coaches praised months ago. The athlete’s mind and muscle memory is finite and precise. He knows exactly what signal to send to the body to make it perform. And he keeps dipping into the well, every day, until the body says no. The players out there this weekend, acting out football playoff glory for millions of adoring fans—their bodies are saying no. They have been for months now. But they are performing beautifully anyway, because something much more powerful is saying yes.