… locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern … not a reduction at all, but—perversely—of expansion.
--David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
One of the unique things about football as a spectator sport is that its non-fluid pace of play offers constant strategic revelations. Indeed, for the pattern-minded set, the pre-snap read is perhaps more exciting than the play itself. The utilitarian roots of the game are hewn into language to this day: offense and defense begin each down in formation and each play is its own collapse toward entropy.
For most football people, formation—the order—is their defining aspect. You see it in how players are slotted toward one position or another in their youth (“too short to play quarterback,” for example), and in how coaches come to build their calling card (“Nick Saban is a 3/4 guy” or “Darrell Royal was a wishbone guru”). Yet perhaps nowhere in football is there less reliance on sustained order and more of a philosophical acceptance of randomness than in the cult of the “air raid.”
On the surface, the air raid offense is a pretty simple and fairly orthodox system: put the quarterback in shotgun and have him toss the ball quick to cross routes, screens, and verticals. However, all ordered systems much collapse, but as the air raid collapses it becomes more dangerous. In the same way a big box store makes a profit by underselling its merchandise, the air raid scores points by increasing the number of plays.
It’s a volume business, son, and air raid teams make profit at the margins.
And perhaps no one in the country has a better feel for the set, snap, and go tempo of the air raid than the visiting quarterback for Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel—better known by his nom de awesome: Johnny Football.
It is when chaos comes that Manziel makes most of his magic happen. Still clinging to its industrial lexicon, football deems these moments “busted” plays, and not every player has the wherewithal to ride out the storm. However, some quarterbacks can. They may scramble for a first down or scat about behind the line to extend the play or improvise with a receiver to double back on a route. Rare is the player who can do one of these things routinely. Manziel does all three.
What is so striking about el corrido del Juan Futol is that the air raid has traditionally been employed by the “Davids” of college football. A rundown of the air raid coaches finds them in far-flung outposts of major conferences like Lexington, Lubbock, and Pullman or small conference schools in Greenville, Rustin, and Houston, which was the Aggie coach’s last depot.
Now, though, the ordinate of top-tier Texas prep talent and the abscissa of high-octane play calls are intersecting in College Station, a foothold of the premiere conference in college football. Goliath is wearing track shoes, and the Aggies are hitting their stride right when they draw the country’s #1 team—a bruised up lot who needed a literal last-minute miracle to escape metaphorical death the week prior. In the showdown between order and chaos, you know who the universe has sided with since the big bang.
Vegas, however, has order a two-touchdown favorite at home.