Best Seat in the House
Photography, sports and life as seen through the lens of Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar.
November 3, 2008 11:34 PM
Posted by Rod Mar
In my 99 years as a photographer, I've learned that there are a number of irrefutable truths when it comes to sports photography.
Many of these truths became self-evident when the Seattle Seahawks faced the visiting Philadelphia Eagles at Qwest Field on Sunday.
Irrefutable Truth Number One: If you wear shorts to the game, rain will fall. When I took the dog out for a walk this morning, the sun was shining and it was fairly warm. I decided to wear shorts to the game -- they're comfortable, allow good freedom of movement and if the turf is wet, you don't have the spend the day with cold wet knees after your pants get soaked from kneeling.
In the media workroom, I teased just about everyone I saw putting on rain gear and protecting their cameras. They pointed to Doppler radar maps on their laptops. I went back to my car to get my rain stuff. Sloshed through a sideways rain to get to my car. Cursed. Cursed again.
Irrefutable Truth Number Two: If it starts to rain during pregame and you put on a bunch of rain gear and wrestle rain covers onto your gear, the rain will stop just before kickoff. Got the towels, got the rain covers, put on the Gore-Tex pants and jacket, waited until the last possible minute before kickoff to go outside. And found that the rain had stopped. Whatever.
Irrefutable Truth Number Three: Wherever you are, that's the wrong place. Seattle's first drive began at their own ten-yard line. Philadelphia has the fifth best defense in the league, is known for their blitzes and is third in the league in sacks. Seattle was starting a second-string quarterback. You do the math, right? Betting with the odds, I hustled down to that end of the field, and placed myself on the sidelines about five yards behind the line of scrimmage on the left side of the field. This way, Seneca Wallace would be facing me as he threw, and when the blitz came, I'd be in a good position to shoot pressure and maybe a sack.
First play, the Eagles blitz and Wallace *just* manages to get the ball out of his hands when he's hit by a linebacker and knocked out of the pocket. I keep shooting him as he falls away, and then not an instant later, Wallace is raising his arms in celebration. The crowd noise is starting that familiar, crescendoing roar that comes with a long gain and as I look up, receiver Koren Robinson is racing for the end zone. Wallace knew it was a touchdown before anyone.
My only shot of the play is Wallace with his hands raised. I have no angle of Robinson.
(Nikon D3, VR 200-400mm/f4.0 lens @ 310mm, ISO 1250, 1/1000th sec.,f4.5)
Of course, after the game, my photo editor wants to know if I have any good frames of Robinson, not just Wallace. I call the office, the editor is in a meeting. I leave a message that says, "Dude, I just moved 22 photos from the game. Don't you think if I had a photo of a 90-yard touchdown, the only Seattle score of the game, I might have sent it?" He responds calling me a smarty-pants. Thankfully, he didn't call me a smarty-pants who missed a big play.
Which brings me to...
Irrefutable Truth Number Four: Whatever happens in the first quarter, stays in the first quarter.
I'll never forget a game the Seahawks played in St. Louis a couple of years ago. One of the Rams players ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, and I didn't get a good frame of it. At the time these things happen, they seem like the biggest, most important play you've every witnessed, and you somehow screwed up and didn't get a good frame at all.
At the time, Robinson's first quarter touchdown seemed like it would spark a great Seahawks effort, perhaps even a victory. Thoughts of stories being written for the rest of the year referencing "The Play That Turned the Season Around" gave me an instant migraine. But Seahawks fans know the rest of the story. Seattle never really made any offensive plays after that, their defense wore down and they lost yet another home game.
If it happens in the first quarter, it's very rare that it will matter in the end.
"Whatever happens in the first quarter, stays in the first quarter."
It could be an entire ad campaign. Or it could just be a convenient excuse.
Irrefutable Truth Number Five: Each game is a new opportunity to shine. Or stink.
Last week, I complained about missing an interception by Seattle cornerback Josh Wilson that he returned 75 yards for a touchdown. Had nice photos of the runback, but misfocused the actual catch. Part of my
excuse explanation was that it is harder to focus on something from far away, because the subject is proportionately smaller in the frame. It's easier to put the autofocus spot on something taking up 50% of the frame versus putting it on something that takes up 1% of the frame.
Fast forward to this week, when Seahawks safety Deon Grant's key interception in the end zone thwarted a Philadelphia scoring opportunity. I was about 70 yards from the play on the far 30-yard line when the ball was snapped. I'd been in the end zone on the previous play, a long gain by the Eagles and was using the 30 as my intermediate stop before running to the other end of the field. But Philly quarterback Donovan McNabb threw it in there and Grant picked it off.
Just like last week, I was far away from the interception, but this time I got the autofocus right.
(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens, ISO 1600, 1/1000th sec.,f4.0)
Irrefutable Truth Number Six: A picture is worth a thousand words, but it won't ask for a replay challenge.
When Seattle's Keary Colbert made what looked to be an amazing touchdown catch in the third quarter, officials ruled it an incomplete pass. Fans watching the replay on the video screens howled for a replay challenge. After the game, head coach Mike Holmgren explained his reasons for not making the challenge, including the rule stating that even though in most cases the ground cannot cause a fumble, in the case of a diving catch, the ground CAN cause the ball to be ruled incomplete.
(Nikon D3, VR 200-400mm/f4.0 lens @ 350mm, ISO 1600, 1/1000th sec,f4.0)
Earlier, Philadelphia's Jason Avant had dove for the end zone and split the pylons with his hands, but officials ruled his feet were already out-of-bounds. Philadelphia coaches near me were debating a challenge to the ruling, but since the ball was at the one-yard line and they were playing the Seahawks, they didn't feel the need to. Still, it made a decent frame.
(Nikon D3, VR 200-400mm/f4.0 lens @ 400mm, ISO 1600, 1/1000th sec,f4.0)
Irrefutable Truth Number Seven: Chimp for show, Shoot for dough.
Pop quiz, hotshot. Philadelphia has the ball is on the Seattle one-yard line. The Eagles have Brian Westbrook, on of the best running backs in the league in the backfield. Who is the ball going to?
I'm sure I'm about to see Westbrook either go over the top of the pile (makes a good photo) or put his head down and dive for the goal line beneath the mass of linemen. In these cases, teams add extra players to the offensive line, and one of the tackles is announced as an eligible receiver. This is because rules say that you can only have a certain number of blockers who aren't receivers, or something confusing like that.
Armed with the 200-400mm zoom, I'm ready for a straight ahead handoff to Westbrook. Of course, the Eagles fake the handoff, McNabb rolls out towards me and gently passes the ball to a wide open OFFENSIVE TACKLE in the end zone. The ol' tackle eligible play. I don't have him catching the ball, but there's no time for chimping. I find the big ol boy with the football and shoot him spiking the ball after his rare touchdown. I'm a little too tight with the framing, but 200mm is as wide as I can get with the lens.
(Nikon D3, VR 200-400mm/f4.0 lens @ 200mm, ISO 1600, 1/1250th sec.,f4.0)
Lesson? Even if you don't think you have the frame, now is not the time to turn on your review screen to see the great photos you just shot (or did not shoot). Keep shooting and see the play to the end.
Irrefutable Truth Number Eight: There's a reason the backup quarterback is the backup quarterback.
Seattle's Seneca Wallace is an incredible athlete, even by NFL standards. Fast, strong, agile, can dunk a basketball with ease, and is a decent backup quarterback. Which is an amazing way up the football food chain, if you think about it. Guys like Wallace have survived every level of football, made every roster cut, mastered the Babel of the playbook and can read defenses on film the way Roger Ebert breaks down the latest Coen Brother's movie.
But Seneca Wallacs is not yet a starting quarterback in the NFL, despite having started a handful of games during his career. As such, his reads, his reaction time, his sense of a collapsing pocket are not as refined as those of say a Pro Bowl player such as Matt Hasselbeck.
Armed with this information, I know to shoot a lot of Wallace during the game, especially after Philadelphia takes the lead. Seattle's stuttery offense isn't feared by any defense in the league, and knowing that the Seahawks have to pass, the Eagles are setting their blitzers free.
Everyone in the stadium knows that Philly is going to come after Seneca Wallace hard. The Eagles, of course, know it, the Seahawks coaches know it, Seneca himself knows hit, and I know it too.
So I "cherry-pick" during the fourth quarter and sit behind the Seattle offense. Behind by more than two scores, I'm not worried that I'll miss a Seahawks' touchdown. Even seven points won't change the outcome.
Philadelphia doesn't disappoint me, and I get lots of photos of Wallace being chased around.
Eagles defender Mike Patterson gets his big paw onto Wallace's throwing shoulder, creating an incomplete pass.
Philadelphia's Juqua Parker (75) pressures Wallace into a fourth quarter sack.
Darren Howard wraps up Wallace for a late sack. I moved both a loose version and a tighter version. I was hoping the tight version played up the hands a little better. What do you think?
It must be so hard for a backup. The only way to get better is through real-game experience, and yet by virtue of his position as a sub, his chances are minimal up until the point where the All-Pro starter gets hurt. Then it's up the backup to play as if he'd had just as many snaps as the starter. It's a recipe for disaster, and that's why backups remain backups for so long.
Irrefutable Truth Number Nine: It's not very fair, but there are no photos of head coaches smiling during a game.
Correction. The coach who wins the Super Bowl smiles. No one else has a reason to. The job is too stressful, you want to control everything but control very little, and the only time anyone takes your photo is during a break in the action when you are usually yelling at an official.
Head coach Mike Holmgren was frustrated by what he viewed was an Eagles fumble that wasn't ruled as such. From across the field, I was able to capture his mood with a 600mm lens.
(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens, ISO 1250, 1/800th sec.,f4.0)
Irrefutable Truth Number Ten: The game will come to you.
Basketball coaches talk about this all the time. If a player is forcing things, that is, trying too hard to make things happen, they tell him to "let the game come to you".
It's code for relaxing just a little, turning the voices in your brain down a tad, and going with the flow.
If you read this blog often, you'll know that I put a lot of thought into each game, and am always trying to think ahead to what will be storytelling photos.
Even though that strategy often works for me, I still have to remember to keep shooting. Remember that we are providing a visual record of the game. If I keep shooting plays, I will have photos that are representative of what happened.
For example, after the 90-yard touchdown, Seattle's offense didn't do much. I didn't have to do too much to make a frame symbolic of that. All of Seattle's running backs were getting stuffed, and I found this image of running back Mo Morris getting stacked up. Seeing his face along with the composition of the defenders helps this frame.
(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens, ISO 1600, 1/800th sec.,f4.0)
Meanwhile, Philly's offense was chugging right along. A streak of 11 straight pass completions opened up the running game as well. Running back Brian Westbrook carried the ball as blocker and wingman Dan Klecko couldn't find a Seahawk in vicinity to block.
(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens, ISO 1600, 1/1000th sec.,f4.0)
The Eagles' offense, yes, flew, in the second half.
Westbook took off and evaded Seattle's Brian Russell on a long gain in the second half.
(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens, ISO 3200, 1/1000th sec.,f4.0)
Later, it was Philly's Kevin Curtis taking a turn leaping over Russell:
(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens, ISO 3200, 1/1000th sec.,f4.0)
The only Seahawk flying was safety Jordan Babineaux getting a ride as he tried to take down Philadelphia's Kevin Curtis.
(Nikon D3, VR 200-400mm/f4.0 lens @ 350mm, ISO 3200, 1/1000th sec.,f4.0)
These are the truths of sports photography...for this week. We'll see what happens in Miami next Sunday.
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