Players, not plays

The above quote is a favourite of Vic Ketchman, the acerbic face (or voice) of the Green Bay Packers franchise in the NFL. Vic has a way to go before he becomes as quotable as Vince Lombardi, but this particular utterance is one of the great truisms of the sport.

For those who don’t know, American Football is a great sport. Imagine chess meets pub brawling if you need a point of reference. The game is brutal and balletic, containing expert precision mixed with mindless violence. The looping arc of the ball during the game’s final hopeful Hail Mary allows all of us time to pray, with our collective breaths held.

American Football is all about ‘plays’. Teams look to run around 80 plays per game, and each play offers the opportunity to make territorial inroads or to score points. Each play is carefully constructed by the coaches, called by the play-caller (usually the Head coach) and carried out by the players on the field at the time. Perfect execution will more often than not lead to yards gained or points scored, but the play will break down quickly if any link in the chain is broken. Maybe the Quarterback’s eyes have been read, the snap is not fast enough, the route is run sloppily by the Wide Receiver or the Left Tackle fails to block his man. The construction of the play may have been perfect, the practice during the week was intense, but if the execution was no good on gameday, it’s Goodnight Vienna.

You need the best players to make the play work. Any coach worth his salt has a decent playbook and can call an appropriate play, but if you haven’t got the players to execute, players who can beat their man opposite, players sharper than a diamond-edged sushi knife, you’ve got no chance. Players, not plays.

Australia is currently enduring a rather laboured debate on education, which seems to be focused on money. We’re spending more money than ever – why aren’t outcomes improving? And the answer: we’re spending the money on plays, not players. I think the plays aren’t very well constructed either, but that’s another blog.

Money is an issue in terms of status. In a country where the pragmatic and practical tend to drown out the intellectual and cultural, money is important, and rather than flinging money at ‘discovery maths’ (whatever that is), as South Australia has done recently, the country could do better simply to channel money into improving teachers’ salaries. Make the profession more attractive, to train and hence to retain. Sure, you may end up getting mercenary teachers, drawn by the filthy lucre, but so what?

Peter van Onselen, in the Weekend Australian, said with regard to education degrees that ‘there’s nothing wrong with low entry standards of quality teachers emerge from these courses’. Yes, I suppose so, but logic would tell you that if you recruit from a poor talent pool, you still have poor talent coming out at the end of your training programme. Recruit poor players and train them well: you now have well trained poor players. Recruit the best players by whatever means are at your disposal and these players will have no difficulty learning your playbook inside out, executing the plays to perfection and even having that touch of genius that enables them to (occasionally) tear up the playbook and inspire a generation. For the complete analogy, see Bart Starr’s ‘Quarterback sneak’ at the Ice Bowl in 1967.

Don’t spend the money on training (plays), spend it on getting the most talented teachers (players). That’s how to improve the education system. In the NFL, you have a chance of winning it all if you have the best QB in the league, irrespective of the quality of the rest of the roster. In a School, you’re only as good as your roster, and no-one counts for more than any other.

Players, not plays. Vic knows.