Smart mobs and the NFL


Yesterday, we saw a nice moment in professional football.  On the last play of the game against the Indianapolis Colts, the New York Jets starting chucking the ball around with fair abandon.

“It’s basically a play when everyone acts like they’re still a kid in the schoolyard.  You keep lateraling it backward and never let someone tackle you." (Jets guard Pete Kendall)

Here’s how it went:

Chad Pennington, the quarterback, threw to Leon Washington who lateralled to Brad Smith who lateralled to Laveranues Coles who returned the ball to Pennington who threw the ball backwards across the field to Justin McCareins who fumbled backward "to" Smith who fumbled backward "to" Coles who lateralled to Nick Mangold, the Jets’ 300-pound center.  Strangest thing, Mangold fumbled.  His fumble was not recovered.  The game ended.

It was as if the Keystone cops had been smuggled onto the field in Jets’ uniforms.  And it looked at first as if this might be a moment of contagion, with the first fumble suddenly striking each successive player as an increasingly good idea, until the idea found its way to Mangold by which point it was orthodoxy.  Lateralling, that is to say, that went from something frowned upon to something you had to do, with highly trained, incredibly regimented professional football players looking for all the world like a smart mob.  Hope Howard Rheingold was watching. 

But, no.  Apparently, this moment of pure spontaneity was practiced by the Jets all week.  On balance, coach was pleased.

"It was close.  I guess we’ll have to practice it some more.”  (Eric Mangini)

Now there’s a lovely idea.  Practicing chaos.  Professional football is now so overformed, so surprised by its moments of creativity, so deeply discouraging of dynamism, that this must be a good thing.  The evolutionary path is clear.  We must hope the NFL will eventually embrace chaos that isn’t practiced.   I mean the military, on which football is so thoroughly modeled, has embraced complexity theory.  How long before football follows suit?

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