I watch a lot of football. You watch a lot of football. But have you ever stopped to think about how you watch football? Well, here's how I do it.
Years ago some magazine had a sidebar with tips from John Madden about how to watch football on television. The only one of the tips that I remember is that you should keep your eye on the offensive line before and immediately after the snap. Ever since reading that, that's what I do.
Initially, it was pretty difficult, because up to that point I was following the ball from the snap until the end of the play. Thing is, watching the guard and centers will tell you almost immediately if the play is a run or pass, the direction of the former and if there's a roll-out pocket on the latter. If you see the line move forward at the snap, it's a run, back up, it's a pass (or, I guess, a draw). If a guard pulls in one direction, chances are that's where the run is headed. If the entire line moves back and uniformly in one direction, that's going to be a moving pocket for a roll-out pass.
If it's a run play, I'll generally switch my focus to the running back, or more specifically, the area to which the running back is headed. Since it's almost impossible to see if a hole is open from the sideline perspective of the cameras, you kind of have to develop a sense for how many players are in the vicinity and if there are any free-running defensive players.
If it's a pass play, I start a "one one thousand, two one thousand..." count. Most NFL offenses have pass plays designed to get the ball out before you hit "four." If you get past four and the quarterback isn't scrambling, he's probably going to get knocked down whether or not he gets the ball out. For the most part, it's better to keep your eye on the line and/or backs tasked with picking up blitzers because 1) it's pretty much impossible to watch receivers that run routes any more than five yards down field after the camera sets on the quarterback, and 2) it gives you a much better sense of the pressure generated than simply watching quarterback look for receivers.
After I got comfortable watching plays develop this way, I started paying more attention to adjustments made before the snap. How many linebackers or defensive backs were crowding the line showing blitz? Did the center, quarterback, and/or running back(s) appear to point out those players? If so, did they back off? In most cases, at least one of the players that shows blitz ends up dropping off into coverage, in some cases being replaced by a blitzer that hadn't indicated he was rushing. At the snap, when the rush is set loose, are all the blitzers picked up? On a run, if it was impossible to pick up every blitzer, was the blocking scheme adjusted so the free-runner was furthest from the running back and coming from the direction away from where the ball is headed?
I'd argue that if you start keeping these things in mind while you watch games, you'll get a better sense of how the game is progressing, the strategy the offensive and defensive coordinators are employing, and how individual match ups are being played out. It's pretty gratifying to see a spectacular block that seals a running lane while the play's developing rather than having it pointed out by some color commentary jag during a replay.
One downside of this viewing approach, though: you'll find yourself getting a little pissed when, inevitably, the telecast holds too long on a replay, cutting back to the game after the next play is run. I mean, if I don't see every snap of the game, someting bad might happen. Now I'm going to have to switch the kitchen light on and off twenty five times while holding down the mute button on my cellphone.
Whew, that's better.