Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Derrida and the New England Patriots

I find it utterly pointless when teams (or the specific offense or defense) talk about finding their "identity." That's language Mike Tice used to use: the offense has to find its "identity." Frankly, nothing matters less to winning football games. If you're worried about finding identity, are you really focusing on scoring more points than a specific opponent and winning the game?

The proof of the pointlessness of team "identity" is the New England Patriots. They've won 3 Super Bowls with no distinct philosophical identity. They cater game plans around specific opponents. Look at their defense under Belichik. Usually they use a 3-4, but often it looks distinctly like a 4-3. Against teams that pass a lot certain linebackers play more; against teams that run a lot, other linebackers play more. Sometimes they blitz a lot in a game; sometimes they spend most of the game rushing three or four and dropping everybody else into coverage. They don't play defense to show a particular identity: they play whatever defense they think can defeat the other team. New England's offense has also lacked this identity. Are they a grind it out, ball control offense? Sometimes. ARe they a spread-'em-out and throw every down offense? Sometimes. They don't care. They don't care how you think of their identity, since they know their real identity is as a team that wins football games.

Here's where Jacques Derrida comes in. Derrida talks about a decentered universe, in which a structure no longer has a distinct center (roughly, a center is a main idea that gives a structure meaning). To quote Peter Barry on post-structuralism, "The event concerns the 'decentring' of our intellectual universe. Prior to this event the existence of a norm or centre in all things was taken for granted (...) In the twentieth century, however, these centres were destroyed or eroded (...) In the resulting universe there are no absolutes or fixed points, so that the universe we live in is 'decentred' or inherently relativistic" (66-67).

I would like to apply Barry's summation to the NFL to argue that THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS ARE THE ULTIMATE POST-MODERN FOOTBALL TEAM. They have no fixed identity--they adapt what they are to the situation. There's not unity, but disunity to their strategies. At the very least, their game planning and strategy is post-structuralist in that they don't rely on fixed points. Once could say they take Derrida's concept of "freeplay" to the football field.

However, most of us have a lot of anxiety about a decentred universe, and so we try to replace the center with something (this was Derrida's critique of Levi-Strauss). When there is no center, we create a center. In this case, we choose symbolic figures to represent the center so that we can make sense of the structure. For the most part, we've made Belichik (the deconstructive genius who creates this decentered form of football) and Tom Brady (the quarterback, and therefore symbol, or their succes) the representitive center of this structure. And maybe they are, in some ways, the center. But in style and strategy, they are a decentered football team.

Works Cited
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.


  1. having an identity as a team doesn't mean one dimensional. it means being confident in what you can do. the patriots are able to do a number of different things and do them well but primarily on offense they are very conservative (but not passive. the bears play passive conservative. the patriots are always looking to set up a big play and this is what seattle does)-- they use their backs and their tight ends and wr screens and play action. when they go deep its always on play action. if they throw the ball 45 times in a game, and they do well, then its screens and play action and ball control stuff. they work their diversity to fit an opponent ... when they lack the running game to run the power game. if the patriots have their way they are a power run team that uses play action for passes. they know brady isn't dan marino and they don't try to make him carry the team as a passer. even when he throws 40 times in a game they make certain the game isn't on his shoulders. the exception, of course, is at the end of the game.
    a team lacking an identity doesn't know what they can do or can't do. they don't to play to the personel. that's how the packers defense was a few years ago. zone one game, blitz the next, and it never worked because they didn't know what they were doing or what they were supposed to do.