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Original Issue


A concert pianist-composer and a computer analyst keep Cincinnati on top of the intellectual league

Even after television took pro football players out of the Pleistocene Epoch, it remained a recurrent croak that only insensitive louts would earn their daily bread engaging in violent assaults with similar boorish morons who walked on their knuckles, ate anvils for breakfast and had negative numbers where IQ should be. The pro football player was easy to spot out of uniform. At a cocktail party bubbling with sophisticated babble, that slightly desperate, giant-sized garden slug in the background trying to score a few suave points by lifting a Volkswagen onto the coffee table—that was the pro.

That blatant distortion began to wane as the game evolved into the national psychosis it is today. Naturally, for so long as the football Establishment forces the game on us as a quasi-science—with enough mysterious jargon to overwhelm every durable cliché—football will always provide a home for the witless. The main difference nowadays is that while a few dummies remain on the field (there also appears to be quite a few in the front office, in the stands and behind the microphones), most players have achieved the status of astute artisans.

No team provides a better casein point than the first-place Cincinnati Bengals, who can boast of having two of the most articulate young athletes in the country: Virgil Carter, a 26-year-old quarterback from Brigham Young, and Mike Reid, a 25-year-old defensive tackle from Penn State. They are no more typical of the player population than are, say, Duane Thomas or Tim Rossovich, but the continuing accumulation of bright examples like Carter and Reid does suggest that modern football demands enough in the way of intelligence to have pretty much eliminated those blighted souls, who must, out of necessity, carry their change in a handkerchief knot.

Carter has set a literal new standard for the shopworn phrase "student of the game," for he is a computer analyst whose diligent research into football has led to findings that dispute some of the most sacrosanct coaching theories. He has taught at Xavier University and has given seminars for the Data Systems Division of the A.O. Smith Corp. of Milwaukee. Unfortunately for his athletic ambition, which is considerable, Carter barely measures out at six feet, and his talent for throwing the long pass is suspect. As a consequence, and despite all his intellectual prowess, Carter has been relegated to second string with the Bengals, even though he had the highest completion average (62.2%) of any NFL quarterback last season, when he was also voted Cincinnati's most valuable player.

But since quarterbacks are supposed to be brainy, Carter is less an affront to the old stereotype than the 6'3½", 255-pound Reid, for whom Beethoven, Brahms and Berlioz are no less important than the blitz. Reid, of course, has long been recognized as a football player who could sit down at the piano and play serious music, the NFL's answer to Schroeder. But Reid is more than a performer; he also is a composer whose varied work has been heard both in the concert hall of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and on the dining room jukebox reposing in the Bengal training camp.

Coach Paul Brown has been more than a little vexed that Reid's concert performances sometimes have been followed by waspish reviews in the Cincinnati press. "He sounded good to me," Brown says. "Of course, the reviewers say that he sounds like a football player playing the piano, but I've always wondered what kind of notice Liberace would get playing defensive tackle." Reid undoubtedly appreciates the loyal if somewhat illogical defense by his coach, but it is no less probable that he has agreed with his critics. Like Carter, Reid holds honesty in high esteem, so that a failure in music can be no more denied than a missed tackle—even though he suffers more from a bad concert than a bad football game.

"In pro football," he explained one night last week, "it's easy to be intimidated by the situation. Football players won't say it, but it's fear, and fear drains that natural energy you have to have. That game and the situation—say 80,000 at Cleveland Stadium—are far greater than you are. It's a tough thing to overcome. You have to react as you would in any situation, and that requires knowing yourself. Let's face it, pro football has progressed from a national pastime to a definite part of the American culture. Dealing with that experience, being part of something that 97% of the American public can't do, is different.

"In a concert the real fear is not of making a mistake, but of not being accepted. Essentially you put your head in a guillotine and the public decides whether you keep it or not. When you run the risk of rejection, you run the risk of an emotional experience that's tough to deal with. There's a certain anonymity at defensive tackle, and if you play a bad game you have to face the coaching staff, but facing yourself is tougher. Admitting that you played lousy and then deciding to do something about it is easier than a concert, where you're one-on-one with the audience. If a concert turns out to be a disaster, it is also to yourself. It's very hard to accept if you have an involvement in music—and my involvement is so strong it is almost possession. I will always write music. Music makes more sense to me than anything else. Music is something that gives my life order."

In that quest Reid shares a perspective with Carter, the analytical Mormon mathematician who started offering up football plays to a computer's peristalsis while he was working on his master's degree at Northwestern in 1970. Carter's wife Judy helped him by coding 8,373 plays from 56 games played during the first half of the 1969 season. On all 8,373 Carter kept track of 53 variables—time, down and distance, weather, playing surface, score and almost every other critical factor save which team puts its pants on two legs at a time. It added up to over 440,000 information tidbits that Carter then fed into the computer. The ensuing print-out, in so many numbers, said that a lot of football's sacred coaching bylaws were really so much bunk.

Among other things, the study showed that in some cases field position was more important than ball possession, and that the laws of probability could determine an offensive team's scoring chance from any spot on the field. Moreover, probability could dictate an expected value to the offensive team's field position, which could be expressed in points.

Thus: possessing the ball between your goal line and your 10-yard line is actually a deficit, worth a probable 1¼ points to the defensive team. The theoretical value for you increases, of course, as you move closer to the opponent's goal line, so that at your 45 your point value is a probable 1½, and it goes up to 2[2/5] at his 45. By his 25 your position is worth 3¾ points, it is 4½ at the 15 and more than six inside the 10. (Carter assumed the automatic point-after, and thus rated a touchdown at a full seven points.)

The computer shows, therefore, that it is better strategy to turn over the ball to the opponent inside his 10-yard line, where its expected value to him is negative, than to risk a play that could well backfire and allow him lo take over on the 20. In other words, do not try a forward pass into the end zone on fourth down (or a long field goal) unless you are utterly confident of the play succeeding.

Carter's computerized logic thus at once contradicts the reigning philosophy of the kicking game in nearly all its facets, especially the current practice of punting the ball high and straight down the field, so that the coverage can run under it. It is Carter's researched premise that it would be wiser for a team to bring back the nearly defunct coffin-corner kick or, better yet, utilize a little-known—and rarely, if ever, used—rule and let the placement kicker boot it out of bounds inside the five.

"There shouldn't be anything degrading about a punter trying to keep the other team deep in its own territory," Carter explains, "but no one ever seems to practice it. They think it's a 'college' idea or something. But there is a rumor going around the league that they're going to start subtracting 20 yards from a punter's distance when the ball goes into the end zone. If that happens, then you can be sure that they'll start kicking for the sideline."

The Carter computer studies also found that the expected point values (according to field position) remain unchanged, totally independent of whether a drive is long or short, or however it began. For example, if a team racks up seven first downs before reaching the opposition 20-yard line, the probability that it will score a touchdown is no greater or worse than the team that reaches the same spot on a return, one long offensive play or through a turnover. In each case, the touchdown probability is the same. Thus, that hallowed word "momentum," without which no football coach could ever explain victory or defeat, has almost nothing to do with the outcome of a game.

The same can be said for turnovers. Carter discovered that a team's morale suffered not a whit after being scored upon and, amazingly, that a team is actually more likely to score immediately after giving up some points. The computer also indicated that a fumble was more likely to occur on the first or second play in a series but that an interception was more probable after a quarterback had thrown several times.

"Another aspect," Carter said, "is that as you move down the field by passing, your expected gain per pass diminishes because you're running out of field. In running the football, the gains start off low, get higher around the 50, then tail off again. In my interpretation, I believe it's because teams tend to be very conservative at their end of the field, and it's easier for the defense to prohibit them from big gains. But when an offense moves out to the 50, they're more wide open. Even in a running-game offense, you should be just as wide open and versatile at your end of the field as you are in the middle of the field. There really shouldn't be any legitimate reason why you should run conservatively on the 10-yard line."

Carter, however, is not likely to bend Paul Brown's ear with his statistical revelation in order to help in Cincinnati's struggle in the AFC Central Division. For one thing, his study is an illustration of quantitative analysis and therefore makes no allowance for specific individual talents. "If you wanted to use this." he said, "you'd have to tie in your personnel, and then you'd have to adjust it to your desires as a coach. You'd have to interpret it with respect to your own philosophy. A computer will never make coaching decisions. The idea is ridiculous. You're dealing with probability, and you can't assign a number to all probable events. You can't give a number to how players are going to react to their pregame meal. You can't program desire. That's why a coach has to adjust this stuff to his own team."

It is ironic that Carter, having mined his mathematical nuances from the computer, should now be riding the bench while Brown plays Ken Anderson, the Bengals' 23-year-old second-year unknown, who also happens to be a math major. Moreover, one wonders just what Carter would do with his newly discovered football findings if he were playing, since Brown has always called the plays for his quarterbacks.

In fact, Carter has no complaints on that score. "The coaches call the plays and that merely requires me to apply my mental faculties in other ways," he says. "I can't fault the system here. I've heard of other teams where they send the plays in from the bench, and it's a grab-bag approach. Our system is more scientific, and I appreciate that—enough so that I'll forgo any argument about calling my own plays."

Both Reid and Carter have in common that trait, a willingness to tolerate some measure of personal misery in order to participate in a game that each respects.

"While little things turn me away from football," Reid says, "that five or six hours on Sunday is worth being in it. It's a chance to evaluate yourself—and not many people get that kind of chance in life. After a football game, mentally I'm more alert. I do my best work at the piano after a game. Football is such a game of emotion, but music is nothing more than an expression of emotion." The night after the Bengals lost 27-6 to the Browns in Cleveland Reid worked at the piano for three hours. "What I did at that time made more sense than what I had done earlier in the week," he said.

"Music has never interfered with football, but there have been many cases where football interfered with music—like getting my hands beaten up so badly that I couldn't play. They fight each other sometimes, but in the experience of football, a game, you'll react to that far more emotionally than you will to something like a movie or conversation. It runs deeper. Musically, it's very good to feel that and then try to get it down on paper. That's a real struggle sometimes."

As for defeat, Reid says: "If you maintain the spirit of competition by giving your very best, that's the important thing. If I play across from Larry Little and he turns out to be the better player on that day, I've got only to know that I gave it my best. If you get obsessed with that scoreboard thing, you can go insane. You always want to win, but even in an 0-and-14 year you've got to derive some positive things from the experience."

Reid is similarly forthright about his tastes in music. No classical snob, he is especially zealous in praise of Elton John and calls Randy Newman, a relative unknown, the best pop writer in the business. He has written some pop tunes himself, but found his greatest musical satisfaction last February when the Cincinnati Symphony performed his Cries of Love and Hate, a cantata for solo voice, piano and orchestra.

"I enjoy almost any kind of music," Reid says, "provided that it's not just something being done as a commercial gimmick. I know various forms of expression are vital, but there still has to be some kind of order. That's the thing I find irritating about so many avant-garde things, like movies. There seems to be the idea that if it's for the sake of art, any form is good. I find that invalid. I suppose we're struggling to be an intellectual society and that's a hopeless goal for America, because it's just not an intellectual country."

Reid grew up in Altoona, Pa., the product of a family he describes as being neither musical nor athletic, although his older brother, Bill, played the saxophone and his younger brother, Gary, played high school football. Carter also prospered with a small-town upbringing, gleaning countless athletic and scholastic honors in high school at Folsom, Calif. At Brigham Young he majored in statistics, threw 50 touchdown passes and married the homecoming queen. Drafted by the Bears in 1967, Carter made his first pro start the next season, and promptly led the Bears to four consecutive wins before he was sidelined by a fractured ankle. Despite this record, he was sent off to Buffalo, where he stayed for about 20 minutes before landing in Cincinnati in 1970, where, implausibly, he led the newest team in the pros to a division title.

Last season, when Carter missed four games with a left shoulder separation, the Bengals lost six times in the last two minutes by a total of 21 points. Along with a certain amount of frustration, it also provided a new direction for Carter's mathematics muse. "I would really like to take a look at dimensions of scoring differential," he says, "to find out what difference it makes when you're six points ahead, 10 points ahead, three behind, etc. Last year we were ahead a lot of the time but the other team was always within striking distance. I'd like to have some concrete approach to help the guys."

"Virgil," Reid says, "is like my older brother, who seemed to know exactly what the course of his life would be at the age of one. He has a more analytical mind. I can't react to feeding information into a computer. We're mentally complete opposites but I tend to admire those qualities, because I can't match them."

The admiration is no doubt mutual, as both Carter and the computer would be first to say.