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The Answer Man, Series 9, Volume 2 (Part I)

Posted Mar 1, 2013

To celebrate another advancement in his style – see the new logo?! – the Answer Man has broken his latest column into three parts, here attacking such issues as kickers working over footballs, the new uniforms and 300-pound fullbacks


So, check it out: I've got a logo now!  You've gotta admit, it's pretty sweet.  Simple, striking lines and a suggestion of barely contained power.  Yeah, sounds like me.

 

I wonder if I can tear the new logo off my chest and hurl it at bad guys like a big cellophane net that then disappears.  Wait, never mind, that was just about the dumbest thing Superman ever did.  Besides, my superpowers tend more towards "looking stuff up" and "interpreting the NFL Rulebook" than "midair battles with evil aliens inside a Fortress of Solitude."  Equally important tasks, just different.

 

Anyway, I like the new logo, and if any of you miss the picture of me taking flight from One Buc Place (really, that's me!), well, this is far from my first makeover.  When I first started the column in 2004, I stayed mostly behind the scenes, just using pictures that went with the content for that week.  (And, boy, that was some hard-hitting content about a backup fullback and trick snaps in my first article, huh?)  My work was such an immediate hit that by the seventh column I had already had an, um, portrait commissioned for use on the site.  As you saw if you clicked the link, I was extraordinarily muscular back then, and I had an electrified helmet thingy that…uh…enhanced my already powerful brain waves.  Yeah, that.

 

I kept giving the fans the thumbs-up with that portrait through 2007, though by 2005 I was occasionally mixing in a close-up shot that unfortunately drew some unflattering comments about my chin.  I'm not bringing the specifics of that up again, but use your imagination.  Also for reasons that do not need to be dredged up again, I went on a hiatus for several years that had many readers believing the Answer Man was gone for good.  When I finally resurfaced in 2010, I had a new image to go with my columns, this one apparently focusing more on my mundane powers.  I mean, nothing screams "smart guy" like glasses and a pencil tucked behind the ear.  Not sure what I was doing with my hair back then, either, but I did like the way this one enhanced my dreamy blue eyes.

 

Apparently, that one wasn't too popular with the editors, however, as it only lasted for three-and-a-half columns.  I say three-and-a-half because the fourth one was a weird little spinoff I did focused only on draft trades, and my picture was just up in the corner of an image.  (If you've got time, read through that one.  It's still pretty interesting, if I dare say so myself.)  After that, I got a sudden occupational shift, apparently to an "Answer Pirate" or something.  Mercifully, that one stuck around for just two columns (!), it's exit perhaps hastened by somebody saying I looked like a piratey Chris Kattan.  Really, somebody said that, and it was so true.  Take a look.  Finally, the next week, I debuted in my new uniform, helmeted and caped, hurling myself away from team headquarters, presumably in pursuit of some very elusive answers.

 

Well, I hope you enjoyed that trip down memory lane as much as I did.  My point in all of this is to say that each time I get a new look I think it's worthy of a little celebration.  And so I'm going to treat myself by doing something a little different over the next week or two.  Rather than one giant column today (my last one was 7,500 words, and that was showing some brevity compared to some other efforts), I'm going to split this one up into three shorter columns and post them over the next 10 days or so.  You'll still get the same amount of questions and answers as usual – actually, probably a little bit more – just spread out a little bit.

 

So, let's jump off the nostalgia train and get to some current topics in part one of this three-part episode.  Oh, and if you want to add to what is a rapidly growing mailbag of questions, you can send it in here.)

 

**

 

1. BuccanBobby of San Francisco (formerly of Tampa) and his curiously unnamed wife ask:

 

Greetings Answer Man and thanks for heralding in a new season of excitement for those of us in pursuit of intriguing football knowledge. I've got a football question that may require (and test) your knowledge of football science. Also, (as has become the norm when I write to you) there is the obligatory fashion question from my wife. My question pertains to the football...we all know that kickers can be a bit quirky and unique. However, they appear to have a common trait in the squeezing of the ball between their hands and the subsequent compression of the nose of the ball against the ground or kicking tee prior to kicking off. Soooooo, here's the easy part, can you provide us with insight, from the kicker's perspective, on exactly what benefit they believe they are creating by such manipulation, and is their desired impact on the ball more effective in warmer or cooler weather? Secondly, and perhaps the harder part, can you validate, either through your own knowledge of science/physics, or tap into your wealth of resources, and provide us with the scientific explanation of what the kicker's manipulation actually does (if anything), and if the manipulation is more effective in achieving the desired result in cooler or warmer weather…or let us know that what the kickers do to the ball is just a bunch of hooey and has no real impact on the kick. From my wife: She says the NFL has committed a major fashion faux pas with its Nike uniforms and the placement of that awkward and out of place looking Nike collar. I say it's not a collar in the traditional sense but rather a poor attempt to replicate the old neck collars worn by those who may have had a stinger or minor neck injury, and she believes they were just trying to do something different and make a statement with a collar (I believe they're as ugly as the old 1979 Chicago White Sox uniforms). Can you clear this up, who's right? And does the NFL measure any fan sentiment regarding the collars, and will they be back next year? Much appreciation for a great column, lo these many years. Well Done Answer Man! Regards, BuccanBobby.

 

Answer Man: Thanks for the kind words, BuccanBobby.

 

I know the answer to your football-squeezing question, but I tried to get ahold of Connor Barth, the Bucs' kicker, just to get his exact words on the issue.  Apparently, he was off somewhere being quirky and unique, as you put it, maybe growing another one of his ironic mustaches.  (Seriously, Connor is far and away the funniest guy on the team, but he's not really quirky in the way you're stereotyping kickers.  Careful with that stereotyping, BB!  They'll get you for that, and these days not all NFL kickers are little guys.)

 

That maniacal squeezing and pounding you see the kickers doing with the football before every kickoff is essentially a hurried, two-minute version of a process that used to take place over the course of days in every NFL equipment room.  Kickers have been seen doing this for more than a decade now, since the much-hated "kicker ball," or "K ball" was introduced in 1999.

 

Ever taken a Wilson football directly out of the package, Bobby?  It's a thing of beauty, but it's hard and slick, with a somewhat slippery coating.  It's tight and small and very, uh, football-shaped, just the way you would expect it to be. The thing is, those aren't the optimal conditions for its effective use, especially if you happen to be a kicker.

 

Once a football has been used for a while, it's going to become a little rounder, a little softer, a little tackier and a little bigger.  For quarterbacks, it becomes a little easier to grip, although it eventually becomes too big and rounded and then it's relegated to punting duty on the practice field.  For a kicker, the bigger and softer a ball is, the easier it is to control with your foot.  It has a bigger "sweet spot," to borrow a baseball term.  They travel farther once they've been broken in a little bit, and they can be directed more easily to one part of the field or another.

 

Of course, the NFL isn't going to throw already game-used footballs into another game.  New balls are shipped to the site of every game; and the old game balls are used for practice, or eventually signed and given away.  In the past, to make sure that the balls were first-time-use for a game but also broken in a little bit, players (reportedly with the help of equipment people, but nobody here is pointing fingers) would work them in a variety of ways.  There are all kinds of stories out there about what was done to the footballs to break them in, but it was all just some form of what those kickers are now trying to do at the last minute – squeeze them, round them, soften them, make them tacky.

 

Nowadays, a dozen K balls are delivered to every game and they are sealed and kept under watch by the officials until they are needed.  They are removed from their bags in the officials' locker room before the game, and nobody on either team gets a chance to work them over.  Thus, all the last-minute squeezing.

 

As for the weather, a colder day just makes the job of getting the football into the condition a kicker wants that much more difficult.  Temperature affects the air pressure inside the football, giving it a more inflated feel in warm weather and a less inflated feel in cold weather.  The kicker certainly doesn't want the ball to be any smaller or harder, so he's going to work harder to round it out.  The colder ball is also going to feel harder because the leather will have less give, or bounce.

 

As for your wife's question and the issue of the aesthetic value of the new NFL jersey collars, that's obviously in the eye of the beholder.  By contrast, those White Sox uniforms – I presume you're talking about either the ones with the shorts (actually 1976) or the ones with the big collars (debuted in 1977) – were objectively and inarguably horrible.  No one can say otherwise.

 

To my mind, it's not as simple as "the new collar is good" or "the new collar is bad."  It seems to work better on some uniforms than others.  Not sure if you've ever seen the work of Paul Lukas, but he is essentially the leading authority on the web regarding uniform issues across all sports.  It is obviously a labor of love for Mr. Lukas, and his work is interesting enough to be frequently featured on ESPN.com.  In fact, I'm wondering if you've maybe stumbled upon one of his columns or are just super-smart about these things, because he basically says the exact same thing about the new collars being inspired by the old NFL neck rolls back when the uniforms were unveiled last year.

 

Like I said, I don't hate all of them.  They look okay to me on the Bucs' uniforms, which is obviously are top concern, though I like it a little better on the red jerseys than on the white.  That's pretty much true for me across the league, although I don't really like it on the Chargers' dark blue shirt.  (That may just be because the Chargers' uniforms are so great already and I don't want to see them messed with.)  This white Vikings jersey doesn't do it for me, but I actually like the Broncos' orange shirt with the added neck roll thing.

 

Does the NFL measure fan sentiment?  In general, you'd better believe it!  As for this specific issue, well, I guess the way they would measure it is how well the jerseys sold.  According to this Forbes.com article, jersey sales were surging last summer, so I can't see where the impetus would come from to make a change.  I suppose that's not what Mrs. BuccanBobby wanted to hear. 

 

**

 

2. Roger Anderson of Wesley Chapel asks:

Why can't we use one of our 300 offensive lineman in place of a fullback. He would be a decoy on several plays, and the smash through a line with two other OF's and an easy 5 yards or more. They can catch too for that special occasion. It might cost the other team a timeout. Just like the roles of TE's and other positions, the fullback is one to tinker with. Thanks.

 

Answer Man: Ah, the 300-pound fullback.  Is that football's version of the sumo-wrestler-as-hockey-goalie idea?

 

First, in Roger's defense, this is something we've seen before, for a play here or there if not for any extended period in a game.  It is not uncommon in goal-line or short-yardage situations to see a team bring in one of its defensive tackles to lead the way for the running back.  Warren Sapp did it for the Buccaneers in 2003 and even caught four passes, two of them for touchdowns.

 

But, remember, new Hall-of-Famer Warren Sapp was an exceptional athlete in a big package, and he could do things most 300-pounders cannot.  And, basically, that's what it comes down to – the limitations of an athlete of that size.

 

The fullback may seem like the uncoordinated brute force of the NFL, but in reality most NFL fullbacks are exceptional athletes, as well.  We're talking about 250-pound men who can move nimbly on their feet, change directions quickly, run with decent speed and catch passes with relative ease.  There are 300-pound athletes who can do all of those things, but generally not quite as well.  That's why the football world buzzes when somebody like 310-pound offensive lineman Terron Armstead of Arkansas-Pine Bluff runs a 4.71-second 40-yard dash at the Combine.  Run that as a cornerback and you can just about forget about being drafted.

 

The main issues for the guard-turned-fullback would be speed and agility.  There are two things a fullback does all the time that the lineman would have difficulty doing: 1) Clearing through the hole quickly, and 2) Changing directions quickly when a would-be tackler does the same.

 

Do you know why defensive tackles-as-fullbacks are almost exclusively seen on goal-line and short-yardage plays?  Because the goal on such a play is limited.  Sometimes you only  need a yard, and you're going to try to get it by smashing bodies in one very specific direction, trying to create just enough of a breach in the defensive wall to slip your ballcarrier through.

 

On most running plays, however, the goals are bigger.  A successful running play on first or second down is usually seen as a four-yard gain, and of course teams are hoping that a certain percentage of those four-yarders turn into 10 or 15-yarders, or more.  So a play is designed to create a seam, and sometimes the fullback has to hit that seam first and take out the scheme's (hopefully) last unblocked tackler.  He needs to hit that hole quickly, move his man and be out of the way for the tailback to dart through before the opportunity is lost.  Send your (comparatively) slow-footed 300-pound guard into that seam and he may actually be the one who ends up clogging it up.

 

And what if that last tackler isn't coming from the direction the scheme predicted he would be?  The fullback has to find him and change directions to try to block him.  That's an area in which the lineman would really struggle.  That problem would be multiplied many times over when we start talking about pass-blocking.

 

Not to mention, you only get five eligible pass-catchers on any given play, so to take out a fairly nimble athlete like a typical fullback who can conceivably get down the field a little bit.  Yes, some of the Bucs' offensive linemen probably could catch a pass or two – Donald Penn caught a punt, for goodness sake, last summer to shorten up one of the team's OTA practices – but they could hardly be considered a weapon in the passing game.  Almost every instance you see of an lineman catching a pass is in the end zone, when he has come in as the fullback and the team has run a trick play, faking the handoff and throwing to the wide-open big man.  Donald Penn has done that, too.  If you're 300-pound lineman is consistently in on offense, he won't really be a decoy in the long run.  The element of surprise will be mostly lost.

 

If the point is, as you said Mr. Anderson (I can't say that name without hearing it in my head the way Mr. Smith does in The Matrix), to tinker and be creative with the positions, I don't disagree with that.  I think you see that around the NFL, and specifically in Tampa, from time to time.  In fact, the Bucs' current starting fullback, Erik Lorig, came into the league as a defensive end, drafted in the seventh round in 2010.  However, Lorig was a 270-pound pass-rusher, not a 300-pound blocker, and he has since trimmed down to about 250 pounds to play fullback.  Plus, he had previously been a tight end when he started at Stanford.

 

Your kind of thinking is good for the game, Roger, IMO.  I just don't think this particular idea has legs in the long run.

 

**

 

3. Michael U. of Tampa, Florida asks:

Hey Answerman! Welcome back!! Here's my question: Has the Super Bowl host city (for example New Orleans) ever been in the Super Bowl (for example: the Saints in this year's Super Bowl), and if so, has it ever happened that they were the "visiting" team?

 

Answer Man: This one pops up in my mailbag every few years.  I could just answer it again and act like I put in a couple hours of hard research, but I won't.  Here's a link to time I answered it in 1996, and the answer hasn't changed since.

 

To sum it up if you don't feel like following that link, no there has never been a team that played a Super Bowl in its home stadium.  The closest we came was in Super Bowl XIX in January of 1985, when the game was held in Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers beat the Miami Dolphins.  Yes, with Stanford that close to San Fran, that did in a way make the 49ers a "home" team in the Super Bowl.  However, it wasn't San Francisco's home stadium, so I maintain that it doesn't count.

 

If you did click on that link, you saw that, for the most part, the teams in the host cities (when there was one) have never really gotten close.  Most of the time, they didn't even make the playoffs.  That article stopped at Super Bowl XL in Detroit (the Lions didn't make the playoffs); here's what has happened since:

 

SB

City

Home Team

Home Team Results

XLI

Miami, FL

Dolphins

No playoffs

XLII

Glendale, AZ

Cardinals

No playoffs

XLIII

Tampa, FL

Buccaneers

No playoffs

XLIV

Miami, FL

Dolphins

No playoffs

XLV

Dallas, TX

Cowboys

No playoffs

XLVI

Indianapolis, IN

Colts

No playoffs

XLVII

New Orleans, LA

Saints

No playoffs

 

That means that, so far, the tally is: In the 40 years that the Super Bowl has been played in the home of a current NFL football team, that team has missed the playoffs 35 times.  Wow.  Should we be talking about a Super Bowl Host jinx?

 

**

 

And, finally, some bad news.

 

Dan of Sarasota, Florida says:

Dear Answer (Man), Actually, I put my name in parens because I thought you wanted to know which Dan is writing, but I didn't expect you to print it. Now, because of the merciless ribbing from you, I've lost my job and my friends, my parents have cut me out of their will, my kids have abandoned me and my wife won't speak to me (so, it's not all bad news). Where did you say you live? (No, it's not a threat, I was hoping you had a spare room).

 

Answer Man: Mr. Higgs, I presume?

 

If you read my last column, you know I had a little fun with Dan sending in his first e-mail like this: Dan (Higgs).  But the question got in because it was a good one, allowing me to receive and then give some food for thought on the topic of bye weeks and how fair the system is.  Check it out if you missed it.

 

Dan is obviously a good sport, so it's sad to hear that he's fallen on such hard times, and so quickly.  On the other hand, it's kind of cool from my perspective.  Superheroes always love it when they discover another superpower they weren't aware of, or hadn't yet learned to harness.  (Think Bruce Willis discovering he has super strength and ESP in Unbreakable.)  Looks like I just discovered I have an overwhelming power to sway the opinions about one of my fellow men.  Now if I can just use that power to turn the public opinion against, say, Ke$ha instead of poor Dan here, I'll be in business.

 

**

 

Okay, that's it for Part I.  A reminder that if you were hoping to see your question answered, Parts II and III are still to come in the next 10 days or so.  Let's say the next fortnight, just because fortnight is a fun word.  And you can always send me new queries here.  As you can see from Dan's e-mail above, it never hurts to have a little fun with the way you present your question (or statement).

 

(One final reminder: I never answer questions about who I think the Bucs are going to draft or should draft, so you can save your time if you were going to send one of those.  Speculating on the Bucs' draft, free agency or roster plans is not part of my assignment, though I understand why there is so much interest in those topics.)