North Texas wide receiver Keegan Brewer in the Sept. 15 game.
Photo: Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
The coolest football game I’ve seen in a long time happened this weekend. Keegan Brewer, a punt returner for North Texas, a big underdog playing on the road against the SEC’s Arkansas Razorbacks, returned to be kicked, with instructions for a kamikaze mission that seem more out of drama class than football practice. The kick went up in the air and then… well, look at it.
If you’re wondering why none of those Arkansas players went all out and attacked that poor helpless player as he stood there helplessly, it’s because he and the coaching staff at the North Texas deceived them. The piece, which, as explained in a fantastic piece by SBNation’s Alex Kirshner, took months to prepare, forces the entire North Texas team, on and off the court, to claim that Brewer called for a good catch, either by stopping blocking, or staring aimlessly away from the field, as if the play was over. If Brewer had called for a fair strike, no Arkansas player could touch him, so everyone pretended like he did, and so the Razorbacks players assumed he did. Brewer then waited for anyone who could tackle him to walk away … then sprinted all the way down the field for a touchdown.
In a copycat sport involving dozens of coaches watching hundreds of hours of film each week, thus leading to every new strategy imaginable feeling chewed up and thrown away days after its introduction, faux fair catch play was ingenious and exciting, a clever bit of deception invented out of necessity by a heavy underdog, a brave David who defeated the self-satisfied Goliath. (And North Texas ended up winning the game.) If you saw such a play in a sports movie, you’d applaud the shrewd ingenuity of the good guys pulling one on the bad guys. The piece remains, three days later, hypnotic to watch. It makes you want to rejoice.
Except…well…the whole point of the right grip is to protect helpless punt returns that would otherwise be sit ducks for a huge dude sprinting straight at them to flatten them. Want to see what happens if you don’t have a fair capture rule?
There’s no player in any organized sport more defenseless than a punt returner who stares at the sky, waiting to catch the ball, while 11 men rush it at top speed. It’s the equivalent of walking down the highway blindfolded with your ankles tied together. Even if you think football is “too soft” like some people, you cannot oppose the rule of fair catch. Players would break their necks every week without it.
So, it seems particularly odd, and perhaps a little disturbing, at this particular moment in football history, that a manager is exploiting a rule intended to keep players safe for the benefit of his team, right? What North Texas Special Teams Coordinator Marty Biagi told Brewer to do, essentially, was just stand there and wait to be destroyed…and, fingers crossed, he wouldn’t be. ! Even Biagi understood what he was demanding of Brewer: “You can’t just put this on a Wednesday and then say, ‘Hey! Trust me ! “, did he declare.
It’s to the credit of Biagi and Brewer, along with the rest of their North Texas brethren, that the play was so well constructed and executed that Brewer wasn’t wiped out on the Fayetteville grass. But the very fact that Brewer, who I feel compelled to point out is a college sophomore who doesn’t even get paid for any of this, was asked to stand there helpless and naked and this about to have his head ripped off for our amusement, and he surely felt that saying no was never an option for him… kinda weird to celebrate, isn’t it? Of course, it’s funny and smart that North Texas got it right. What if they hadn’t? What if an Arkansas player realizes Brewer didn’t call for a fair hold and just layed him out? How funny and clever is that then?
But it’s probably also worth considering that Brewer was not laid flat, wasn’t completely destroyed by a rampaging tackler. And that’s, in part, because of the way football has changed over the past decade, making remorseless beatings from defenseless players much, much less common than they once were. There have been rule changes, but those changes have also impacted the way the game is played – they have made players more safety conscious, strange as it may be to say about football, more respectful towards adversaries in positions of physical vulnerability. This is exactly why the game design was so brilliant. What Biagi acknowledged was that while Brewer was definitely a sitting duck, the defender almost certainly was not just going to go all out and destroy it, because defenders are put off by those kinds of big hits, penalized for hard hits even though they’re actually legal, due to the growing focus on brutality in the sport. When defenders see opponents standing like sitting ducks, they don’t drool anymore, they calm down, wary, looking at the guy on the ball like a kid with a cookie a bit too much available… a kid who smells a trap. Ten years ago, Brewer might have been leveled anyway, fair catch signal or not, out of defensive instinct. Now instinct is the other way around. Now everyone is playing a little safer, just in case.
In a strange way, this doesn’t look like a one-time event, but a new front in football’s evolution – the next logical phase in the sport’s increasingly pipe-dreaming, almost certainly impossible, quest to make itself more sure. That is to say, the coaches try to play with the protections. This is an obscenely competitive business run by weirdly obsessed people, who have near absolute power over their charges, desperate for any possible advantage they can give themselves over their opponent. Establish a rule that tries to reduce the natural violence of sport? They will use it as a loophole again and again until you either close the loophole, making the game more dangerous again, or keep it open and make the game itself less eye-catching. Knowing what you know about footballers: where do you think they are most likely to land? Trying to make football safer is wrong, not only because the game itself is dangerous, but also because the men who run it don’t think in terms of ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’. As we see in Maryland and countless other football institutions, they only think about winning. If that forces you to walk through traffic blind and helpless, damn it, this is it.