Every great football game, at its heart, is like an action movie. Once you cut out the commercials and halftime, they’re both about the same length. They both build along the same story arc. Depending on your home city (or which side you happened to gamble money on), each game has a protagonist – a burly male hero – with a few trusted allies that faces down an black-hearted maniac and his band of unforgivable, faceless thugs.
Hollywood has made dozens of football movies in recent history. Every year at the studios churn out least one football film – and some years will see as many as four or five football stories committed to celluloid. With Hollywood’s recent love of biopics, it’s safe to assume that more than a few famous players will see their lives and careers dramatized on the big screen. And few things satisfy an audience like the rags to riches story of a league doormat surging to the championship. But as much as the studios love to bank on an underdog story to fill out their quarterly income statements, few football films have actually managed to appeal to more than a niche market. And fewer still have managed to garner any kind of critical acclaim.
But Hollywood has learned that even if pure football can’t deliver box office rewards, the game of football is exciting to watch. And the techniques used by football players can be used to deliver some terrific sequences. This countdown takes a look at some classic techniques used in football and how Hollywood has managed to capture the essence of what makes it so very entertaining to watch – and used this to enhance their own unique stories.
Follow me through the hole to see the top ten techniques that Hollywood has learned from the NFL…
10. Run Blocking
The objective of run blocking is to build and maintain forward momentum and clear a path for the ballcarrier. Run blocks come in all shapes and flavors, with such terms as drive blocks, trap blocks, scoop blocks, angle blocks, fold blocks, and alley blocks. But on a fundamental level, they’re all the same – taking someone and getting them to move the fuck out of your way, so your more athletic teammate behind you can burst through the hole, score a touchdown, and get all the glory. Later on, while he’s banging the head cheerleader, you get to enhance your draft potential by downing pint after pint of tasty chocolate peanut butter cup ice cream. Everyone wins!
In The Bodyguard (1992), after an impromptu performance in a nightclub by Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston) has disintegrated into complete chaos, her security team moves in to whisk her away to safety. The Danny Aiello doppleganger Mike Starr, whose character was great at hurting people but apparently never understood the nuances of personal security, uses his 6’3″ frame and considerable bulk to tunnel his way through the crowd and create an escape route. Then he turns to find that that Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner) has cut the opposite direction and isn’t even on the same side of the field. Then later, Farmer has sex with the football.
NFL Example: Damien McIntosh – Kansas City Chiefs
9. Pass Blocking
The purpose of pass blocking is to protect your quarterback from harm. It’s a slow retreat, a controlled backpedaling that enables you to react to the maneuvers of a defensive lineman and hold him at bay until the ball has been released downfield. Good pass blocking is something of an opposite to run blocking – rather than building forward momentum, it’s about absorbing an opponent’s momentum and thus neutralizing his charge.
At the end of Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Boromir (Sean Bean) attempts redeem himself for his moment of weakness that led to his attempt to take the one ring from Frodo. Confronted by a horde of blitzing orcs, hobbits Merry and Pippin are effectively helpless. But Boromir steps in and demonstrates a variety of pass-blocking techniques, including a chip block, a cut block, and the currently defunct (and illegal) throwing-a-knife-into-the-opposing-player’s-neck block. But then some snaggle-toothed, nappy-haired Polynesian beast comes in late with a cheap shot and ruins what otherwise would have been a spectacular effort.
Punting in football is a bit like editing in the movies – it’s something of an “invisible art.” It’s rarely celebrated, and in general you only notice it when something goes wrong. But it’s also one aspect of football where acting ability comes into play. Whether trying to sell a fake punt to a wary defense, or taking a dive to draw a fifteen-yard roughing the kicker penalty, punting is one aspect of football where budding thespians can audition for the world at large.
In The Dark Half (1993), an adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, Timothy Hutton plays two characters, the serious writer Thad Beaumont and his own murderous evil twin. Beaumont, who had been writing crime fiction under the pseudonym George Stark, holds a symbolic funeral for Stark after the subterfuge is exposed in a foiled extortion attempt. But Stark manages to take physical form and rises from the grave, systematically using his trademark straight razor to slaughter everyone who was even tangentially involved with his burial. After Stark, clad in pointed cowboy boots, tracks down the magazine photographer Mike Donaldson (Kent Broadhurst), he chases him through a hallway and slashes him a few times before ultimately dispatching him with a very solid punt to the head. Is it a coincidence that a football is the approximate size and shape of a human head? Well…let’s hope so.
NFL Example: Filip Filipovic – Dallas Cowboys
7. Breaking Tackles
One of the defining elements of any great power back is the ability to run over defenders. Fancy footwork is fun to watch, but gives nowhere near the visceral thrill that comes from seeing a solid power back lower his shoulders and drive through an overmatched cornerback. And great plays are made when players refuse to be tackled, tucking the ball low, driving with their legs, and taking one or more defenders along for the ride.
In the execrable Brett Ratner abomination X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), English soccer legend Vinnie Jones is horribly miscast as the Juggernaut. Having touched a mystical gem, the Juggernaut obtained incredible strength and inexhaustible stamina, as well as becoming physically impossible to stop once he builds up sufficient momentum. In this scene, the Juggernaut runs through a horde of defenders in an attempt to get into Alcatraz prison and kidnap the Leech, a young mutant whose power is to neutralize the powers of other mutants who come near him.
NFL Example: Brandon Jacobs – New York Giants
6. The Fumble
What could possibly cause a collection of graceful professional athletes to transform into a gaggle of clumsy oafs more effectively than a fumble on a snowy day? Players crash into each other, losing their footing and clutching wildly at thin air as they chase a wildly bouncing football across a snowbound field. The chaos is part of what makes the game of football great. How else would Leon Lett, an otherwise modestly talented player, have managed to secure his place as a legend in NFL history?
In what was considered the weakest of the Indiana Jones films, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) opened with a nightclub scene in Shanghai. When a local crime boss short-changes Indiana for the return of an urn full of an emperor’s remains, a poisoned Indiana is forced to chase the antidote across the floor as dozens of patrons attempt to flee the melee. Expatriate entertainer Wilhelmina Scott (Kate Capshaw) is engaged in a similar attempt to track down the priceless diamond that was an original component in the bargain. Although the diamond gets lost in cascade of ice, the singer eventually saves the archaeologist’s life by tucking the vial into her dress and giving to him after he engineers their escape.
NFL Example: Shaun Ellis – New York Jets
5. The Blindside Sack
In the film version of Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games (1992), Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) stumbles into the midst of an assassination attempt while he’s visiting Buckingham Palace with his family. The masked IRA assassins, including Sean Miller (Sean Bean) and his kid brother, disable the Prince of Wales’ car and shoot his bodyguards, and while they’re busy trying to pull the royal family out of the vehicle, Jack seizes the opportunity and launches himself at Miller’s blindside. Jack knocks the terrorist senseless, recovers his weapon, and guns down several of the remaining assailants while taking a bullet to his own shoulder.
NFL Example: Antoine Winfield – Minnesota Vikings
4. The Stiff Arm
Offensive and defensive tactics in football can be broken down into two very simple, diametrical opposites: pushing and pulling. The offense is trying to push the defensive players out of the way, and the defense is trying to pull the offensive players down to the ground. As such, the offensive stiff-arm is perfectly legal, while its defensive counterpart, grabbing the facemask or the back collar of the jersey results in a fifteen yard personal foul penalty. There are few things that can embarrass a defensive player more than being manhandled by a well-applied stiff arm, and it’s one of the few chances for offensive players to actually deliver some punishment of their own.
In the high school classic Three O’Clock High (1987), the seemingly unstoppable Buddy Revel (Richard Tyson) has decided that he intends to fight Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) at three o’clock. Nothing, not the principal, nor the Dean of Discipline, nor police detectives or the threat of being expelled yet again will slow him down. Jerry’s pseudo-girlfriend Franny (Anne Ryan) rediscovers her bravery (after an aborted attempt to “bond” with Jerry on a table in the student store) and courageously steps between the hulking Buddy and his prone target before she’s easily dispatched by one of Buddy’s massive hands.
NFL Example: Kellen Winslow – Cleveland Browns
3. The Sideline Tackle
Sideline tackles can be amongst the most violent hits in football. A common complaint that resurfaced after Willis McGahee was sent to the hospital by a vicious Ryan Clark hit in the AFC Championship is that players don’t tackle properly anymore. Rather than wrapping up ballcarriers, defensive players will tuck their arms in and launch themselves like missiles, leaving their feet and leading with their shoulders or helmets. Too often you’ll see a safety or cornerback try to knock a running back off their feet and into the highlight reel – and fail – giving up another twenty yards in the bargain. It’s rarely worth the risk, except in the case of sideline tackles. With the sideline as an ally, if the tackler can transfer enough sideways momentum to the ballcarrier to force him out of bounds, getting a hold of him becomes a moot point. And as long as the defender takes a good angle, harder is better.
In Old School (2003), Will Ferrell is known as “Frank the Tank” for his ability to knock down brews rather than his ability to knock down ballcarriers. But once hazing season starts and he dons his black mask, Frank’s inner Jack Tatum emerges. When he catches up to Spanish (Rick Gonzales, seen these days on Reaper) on the edge of a campus fountain, Frank unleashes a perfect sideline hit on the hapless pledge. Even if Frank didn’t wrap him up (which he does), there’s absolutely no way that Spanish is staying out of the water.
NFL Example: Ray Lewis – Baltimore Ravens
2. The Diving Catch
Sometimes you manage to get great separation from the defensive back, but your team’s jackass quarterback just wants to show off how strong his arm is. You’re wide open by a good five yards, but instead of floating it in like he ought to, he tries to show off and adds just a little too much juice to his throw. Suddenly, the ball is practically out of reach and you’ve got to lay out and land testicles-first if you’re going to have any chance of hauling it in.
In the closing moments of Risky Business (1983), the Future Enterpriser (and future batshit-crazy Scientologist) Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) has had to repurchase every single piece of furniture from his household after the small-time Chicago pimp Guido (Joe Pantoliano) has burgularized the Goodsons’ posh suburban home. It’s never entirely clear whether the scheme was devised ahead of time by Guido and his girls – but if so, it was a brilliant one, particularly because nobody really loses (except for the hookers, who are dead inside anyways). The last item of furniture that Joel buys back is a Steuben glass egg sculpture treasured by his mother. One of Guido’s girls Vicki (Shera Denese) hurls the piece out of the back of the rental truck, and Joel clambers over chairs, a couch, and a piano to save Mrs. Goodson’s playoff hopes from shattering.
NFL Example: Santonio Holmes – Pittsburgh Steelers
1. The Halftime Locker Room Speech
Most halftime speeches by coaches are designed to be inspirational. After all, almost 50% of all football teams go into halftime with a losing score. Football films (and mostly all sports films) are filled with examples of coaches finding the right words to inspire their teams to surge back in the second half and eventually prevail. But what is far more interesting to watch is the coach who chooses a different path – one where the players are worthless infants that deserve little more than a bottle of dirt and a few salt tablets.
In the adaptation of David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) Blake (Alec Baldwin) has been called in by the firm’s owners, Mitch and Murray, to deliver an inspirational speech to its underperforming salesmen. In what is easily his most memorable performance as an actor, Baldwin berates the useless salesmen, threatens their jobs, and lords his own success over them. Few truly great players end up coaching in the NFL, but Alec Baldwin makes his position within the hierarchy of real estate salesmen very, very clear – he’s much better than them, and he knows it. And when he declares to Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon) “Coffee is for closers only,” it’s very easy to imagine him standing amongst the shoulder pads and stink of of a locker room, declaring to a humbled tight end, “Put…that…Gatorade…down.”
NFL Example: Mike Singletary
Honorable Mention: Using Various Football Maneuvers to Beat the Crap Out of People
There’s really no football equivalent for what Flash Gordon (Gordon Ferrao) accomplishes in the 1980 film adaptation of the venerable comic book. Ever the gentleman, Flash steps up to defend his lady fair when Ming the Merciless declares that she should be prepared “for our pleasure.” Flash is subdued almost instantly in an ordinary fight, but once a football-shaped fruit is placed in his hands, he becomes a one-man wrecking crew. Flash just keeps coming back for more, running over everyone in sight before he starts hurling fruits into the chests of the palace guards. The scene manages to pile in an incredible amount of football metaphors within seconds – and even throws in a sly reference to performance-enhancing steroids.