OAKLAND CA - DECEMBER 26: Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts looks on against the Oakland Raiders during an NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on December 26 2010 in Oakland California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Why simple is so hard and rare in sports, and why it kills every time.
Hip-hop weirdly enough owes one of its signature beats to a Swede, the guitarist Jorgen Ingmann. "Apache," one of the most sampled drum riffs ever, comes from the Incredible Bongo Band's version of his guitar instrumental. That beat then went on to be sampled in Sugarhill Gang's "Apache," the song you probably associate most with the NBA dance-cam now, and then in no fewer than thirty tracks after that. (One of those was "Ninja Rap" by Vanilla Ice. It's not a beat's fault where it winds up.)
In short: a Swedish guitar track written by an Englishman based on an American Western film became a hit for an English band, and then was covered by a band that didn't even really exist, and then became a favorite of the DJs in New York City who would become the bedrock of hip-hop. Somewhere, someplace, it is playing in one form or another at a wedding, and there is nothing you can or would want to do about it.
You shouldn't be able to use "Apache" anymore. And yet, it moves:
It's so simple-stupid, but it sounds like a heart-attack in slow motion every time that horn flash and guitar reverb comes around. You kick yourself for not thinking of it yourself.
Simplicity at its best does that. Peyton Manning, newly rebuilt and relocated to Denver, will likely run something very close to what the Colts ran in Indianapolis during their 10-year reign of terror. The plays are anything but classified material. In fact, there's not even that many of them, and in the passing game Manning prefers to savage defenses with three or four simple concepts. Everyone has known this for years, and that knowledge has helped almost no one stop it.
The playbook itself would, in theory, be familiar to any DJ in its design. There's some 40-year-old Bill Walsh in there, some reconstructed 70-year-old Sid Gillman, a bit of 1980s power run game, and a dash of Steve Spurrier in there. It's a mash-up of four or five offenses, sampling what works and then reworking it into a deadly framework for Manning to work over on the field.
At the highest levels of sport, simplicity kills. The San Antonio Spurs' playbook is one of the more old school you will find in the NBA. Chelsea beat Bayern Munich in the Champions' League Final not by lifting pages from the school of Spanish Tactical Genius, but instead by playing disciplined (and very lucky) defend-and-counter. The Air Raid variant Dana Holgorsen used to hang 70 on Clemson in the Orange Bowl is installed in three days, and has no written playbook used as reference.
Simplicity in strategy is in one sense a procrastinator's dream since it allows you to negate others' preparations by forcing much of the mental action to the field. The glorious blitz you spent months constructing for a specific formation and situation, Mr. Sleep-Deprived Defensive Coordinator? The offensive coordinator, working from the hip and calling the play on the field via signals, just made it an irrelevance with an audibled run to the other side for seven yards.
This effect becomes 3,000 times worse for opponents when you line up a compu-bot jock-genius like Peyton Manning or Tony Parker at the point. It was entertaining watching Steve Spurrier call three plays over and over again to beat Nick Saban in 2010. (Remember when Stephen Garcia beat Alabama, and actually played like a bronzed, Samsonesque god in that game? We do.) But It's infinitely more fun to get someone on the field capable of doing that for the coach, someone like Manning who not only sees what the coach sees, but then spends the game processing the defense like so much cheap pine into a wood chipper.
The procrastinator can only go so far, since negating someone's pre-game prep requires a lot of your own, both in the film room and in practice. Manning earned his pasty hide the old-fashioned way: in the film room, and then on the practice field. Quarterbacks in the Air Raid throw thousands of passes after that three-day installation, often simultaneously on the field to ensure the entire depth chart builds muscle memory. The simplicity of any successful system is bought with tears of tedium on the practice field.
Simplicity of design at the highest levels of sport has its obvious advantages: it compensates for the ludicrous speed of the game, and allows players capable of functioning at the furthest frontier of competence to stretch a bit further in the fractions of a second they have to perform.
Simplicity without exceptional talent in any sport is just primitivism, though. Take "Made You Look," a beat so good it would be hard--but not impossible--to ruin. Nas does more than that, though, and that's why the ghost of talent haunts coaches and fans so bitterly once it's gone. (Ask Colts fans after this year, and they will nod their heads sadly and concur.)
Design or talent alone only gets you to somewhere near competent. On Monday night in the NBA Playoffs against the ailing Lakers, Russell Westbrook went supernova for 10 full minutes of incandescent, unchartable brilliance.
The Thunder will now face the Spurs, a team of design, patience, and understated brilliance. Neither team invented their own DNA. It came inherited, and brilliantly evolved over years of hard work and trial. The design evident on both sides is worthy of a quiet intellectual reverence all by itself; the patience involved is staggering.
The expression of that design, though, in combination with players like Westbrook eschewing the whiteboard for unscripted freakball genius? That's where the hallelujahs are in sports, the moments where brilliance contained by simple constraints live. Made you look? When it's done right, yes. It will make you look every freaking time.