Sunday, December 27, 2009

Toilet Bowl 2009 thoughts -- the ever-shifting line of scrimmage

Cousin It had a nasty splitter.

Earlier today, the 2009 Toilet Bowl was great fun. More to come on that later.

For now, I'd like to discuss one particularly amusing aspect of how we play: kicking the ball at the line of scrimmage. Oh, how much fun it is, and oh, how the ethics around it have changed.

I think the general rule of pickup-style, schoolyard football games at pretty much any age level is that when a play is over, the following things occur: The ball is placed wherever the receiver was down; the offense takes a huddle several yards away; and the defense waits and can approach where the ball is -- the line of scrimmage -- but not pass it.

For obvious reasons, the line of scrimmage is a vitally important part of the game. It determines how far the offense must go to attain a first down and/or score a touchdown, which is the offense's primary goal.

Let me back up for a second. All schoolyard games, be it Stickball, Kill the Man With the Ball, Asses Up, even Boot Tag are played within certain clearly defined rules. But at the same time, part of the enjoyment of these games is in the gray areas. Basically, anytime you can take even a slight advantage, you do. It's not so much cheating as it is a requirement to do everything you can to give yourself or your team an edge – but without breaking any rules outright. For example, in Stickball, the fair/foul lines were often determined by some agreed-upon object (a pole, something painted on the pavement, a fat kid). If the batter hit the ball in such a way that it was not perfectly clear whether it was fair or foul, the batter would naturally argue that it was fair while the pitcher argued foul. As the batter, it didn't matter if you saw that the ball sailed just a bit foul (“IT WAS SLICING!”) -- if it was close enough for you to claim that it was fair, you did. Arguments would ensue; you'd win some, lose some, whatever. The point is: Without actual referees managing the games, there are plenty of moments where you could give yourself that slight edge and in those cases, you would (or at least try) -- because who's gonna call you on it? And if the other guy/team does, what are they gonna do, fine you? Schoolyard games are very Darwinian in that sense: If you're not on top of your shit – paying very close attention -- you're gonna get fucked.

Now I’ll get back to my earlier issue. In the case of Toilet Bowl-style football, one particular rule (the line of scrimmage) is of huge importance, as I described above, yet falls directly into the gray area I also described above, but a little lower.

Back in the day, when we was kids an’ all, when the offense huddled and the ball was placed at its determined point, the defensive players would try their hardest to be very subtle about nudging the ball back. A few inches here, maybe a foot or two if you were lucky. But this was a very delicate operation. If someone on the offense caught you doing it, you would sheepishly move the ball back to its original, proper position. Ethics, right? But if you were caught again, things could escalate – the line of scrimmage was treated very seriously.

Anyhow (thanks, Chuck, now I’m doing it), while discreetly shifting the line of scrimmage in your favor was a known part of the game, the onus was on the defense to be honest about it – or at least try to hide it as best you could.

But now that we’re older, the tables have turned. And not, shockingly, in favor of the game’s integrity.

As today’s Toilet Bowl made quite clear, the defense (on nearly every play) will nudge, shove, or just plain kick the ball as far back from the true line of scrimmage as it can until someone on the offense takes the initiative and replaces it. It’s not subtle anymore. No need to hide it. The offense knows you’re gonna do it; it’s more a test of will. How much will the offense put up with?

And it’s fun. Sometimes you kick it hard enough that it actually hits the huddle. The defense laughs – the kind of laughter like after someone farts. (Hey, farts are always funny. Argue against that, shitsteak, I dare you.)

But anyway, it’s weird how things have changed. Maybe we’re jaded or something in our age, but the integrity of the line of scrimmage and the unwritten rule that if you moved the ball back while the offense wasn’t looking you at least had to be sneaky – that’s over. It has transformed into its opposite. No longer must the defense be careful; the responsibility now lies with the offense.

And yet… there are still those times where you really do try to hide it from the offense. And when you do it right – when you move that ball back a few feet without them noticing -- it feels AWESOME. Who knows how many times today the offense wound up just short of a first down or the goal line because a cunning defender deftly pushed the ball back just that much. I can think of one time that I did, and damned if that isn’t my favorite moment of the day.

It’s an evolving thing, this schoolyard sport/activity/tradition thing we do. Things once respected no longer are. Best not think too deep on such ethically challenging questions as this, though. It's just a game, right? And as a wise man once said, “All in the game, yo. All in the game.”


ChuckJerry said...

That was probably the most poorly edited clip on YouTube. There were like 3 extra seconds in the front and the back.

Kicking the ball behind the line of scrimmage is just one of those things that's funny every time.

When we were 11 it was one of the things you'd start a big fight over, but today (or yesterday, as it were) it's just hysterical for some reason.

Win some, lose some.

Walt Clyde Frazier said...

Side and Open Bar's retelling of the 2007 Toilet Bowl would make Stephen A. Smith come in his pants.