Mini Object Lesson: The Football Play

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

“Put that to music,” intoned NBC analyst Chris Collinsworth, after wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s one-handed catch for a touchdown last November. Video of the play went viral, and soon fans young and old tried to emulate Beckham’s ballet-like catch in playgrounds and backyards everywhere.

It was a beautiful feat. A dazzling one. Some called it poetic. And although it has been heralded as a one-of-a-kind catch, it joins a list of other one-of-a-kind catches and all-time great plays collected on highlight reels. But besides oohing and aahing over such moments, what more is there to say?

As a literature professor, I find myself watching football in poetic terms.

And by that, I don’t mean generalized notions of “beauty” or “grace under pressure.” The enjoyment I find in a poem is in the words, sounds, and structures that repeat, connect, or hang together in specific ways—its patterns—and especially in those moments that deviate and surprise—its variations. For me, football is most beautiful in the interplay of such pattern and variation.

Take the back-shoulder throw that many quarterbacks have now mastered. The quarterback throws the ball to the receiver’s “back” or “outside” shoulder—usually before the receiver (and the defender) has turned around to see it. It’s a modification of the in-stride, over-the-shoulder pass, and it’s extremely difficult to defend. The poetry of this play is found in its timing variation, not in its elegance. In its innovation on an established pattern.

On any given Sunday, you will hear commentators allude to variation. The quarterback “reads” the defense, sets up in the “read-option,” or recognizes a “hot read.” These “reads” are all about identifying formations (patterns) and using options (variations) to defeat the defense’s expectation. Likewise, defenses show different “looks” and make modifications often at the last second before the ball is snapped.

One hallmark of a great quarterback is his ability to audible: to modify verbally the set-play at the line. Conventional thinking says that an audible is beautiful when the variation results in a successful play. But even if the play fails, I often find beauty in the language of the audible. In Peyton Manning’s “Omaha, Omaha, Omaha” or “Bags Montana Fat Man,” where the “poetry” lies in strange variation where one doesn’t expect it.

So back to Beckham Jr. The beauty of the play comes from its high degree of variation: to catch a 43-yard pass at the goalline, after being fouled, bent over backwards, with only two fingers and a thumb. It’s unexpected and stunning. And then: it’s a new pattern in your mind, for watching the next game.