For Florida State fans, the question wasn't if Bjoern Werner would burst onto the scene, but rather when. Nole fans didn't need to wait long, as the sophomore defensive end hailing from Berlin Germany made a name for himself in front of a national audience in Florida State's third game of the year against Oklahoma, during which the ESPN broadcast team mentioned his name no less than 10 times.
Werner's combination of discipline, brute strength, and relentless motor is one of the reasons Florida State's defense has begun to take the step from average to elite, after making the jump from terrible to average last season. In Florida State's two games against top-ten opponents, Werner has notched 8 solo tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, a sack, a fumble return and a touchdown. And those are just his counting stats -- his real production is difficult to quantify because he so often changes the track of the ballcarrier, allowing another defender to make the tackle on the now out-of-position running back.
Werner has yet to encounter a tackle capable of blocking him yet this season. But opposing tackles have found a way to neutralize his effectiveness: holding.
Holding is a penalty in football, but despite dominating the man across from him on most of his 136 snaps this year, officials are not flagging opponents for holding Werner. Werner does still manage to make a play in a few of these instances, but his effectiveness is and will continue to be reduced if opponents are allowed to continue the practice without penalty.
Is this because Werner is white? White defensive ends aren't all that common in the ACC, much less white superstars at the position. It crossed my mind that because a good white defensive end is relatively uncommon, Werner might need to earn a reputation for being good before he earns the calls that a player of his caliber rightly deserves. But I'm not ready to accuse the officials of racism.
A better explanation might be Werner's background in German soccer.
Werner's on-field demeanor is extremely businesslike. He doesn't celebrate boisterously, he doesn't dance, he doesn't wave his arms to pump up the crowd, and he never, ever argues for calls.
It's that last lack of emotion that might actually be hurting his game. Officials don't like to be shown up, and if a defensive end isn't pleading his case, the official isn't going to be on the lookout -- no matter how much the head coach insists the foul is occurring.
From where does this lack of on-field lobbying come? I suggest it is Werner's background in German soccer.
Werner didn't start playing American football until he was an adult, after which he came to a prep school in Connecticut for two years before enrolling at Florida State. There are some benefits to playing soccer which translate to the gridiron, like hustle and footwork, both of which are certainly seen in Werner's game. Nonetheless, most of Werner's athletic experience has come via the pitch in Germany.
The SB Nation network, of which I am lucky to be a part, has many soccer experts. I sent out an e-mail asking for information about German soccer and received a tremendous response on its stance on arguing for calls and embellishing fouls.
One such expert on German soccer is Lars from BloggingTheBoys (SBN's excellent Dallas Cowboys site). He's a German national who follows the sport, and explains that arguing for calls is discouraged and diving is really frowned upon:
Diving is widely considered deplorable by the football viewing public and the media. Terms like "Sünder, Betrüger, Schlitzohr" (Sinner, Cheater, Rascal) are regularly used to describe the players engaged in such activities.
In 1995 the German International Andreas Möller took a dive against Karlsruhe SC when the closest defender was easily a car-length away. The officials were fooled nevertheless and called a foul. Based on the TV-pictures of the non-foul, public backlash against Möller got so big that the German Football Federation (DFB) banned Möller for two games and fined him 10,000 German marks - a first in German football. The dive or "Schwalbe" (A swallow in German) was henceforth thought to be close to extinction, but the stories of the swallow's demise were greatly exaggerated.
Since 2001, the DFB rules require a mandatory warning in the form of a yellow card for any player caught diving. Referees are specifically schooled in recognizing a dive in special courses, but the retroactive penalties based on TV evidence have been rescinded.
The Clubs themselves have been reluctant to institute tougher rules, arguing that that is the way the game is played at an international level, and adopting different rules would do a disservice to both the national side and the clubs engaged in international competition.
More recently, the VP of Officiating, Volker Roth, called for a red card for dives in the penalty zone, and an expert panel ("Expertengruppe Sport") has been installed by the DFB to develop a code of honor designed to combat divers ("Elfmeterschinder") and other agitators ("Prokokateur").
At the end of the day though, the clubs are part of the expert panel, and while they'll probably sign any type of non-binding agreement like a code of honor, they'll shy away from anything they feel could put them at a disadvantage internationally.
And there is little doubt in the German public's mind that particularly the mediterranean football teams warrant that type of careful approach.
This is the type of attitude indoctrinated in Werner as a soccer player in Germany from an early age.
SBN's Kevin McCauley of SB Nation soccer also chimes in:
I'm one of the soccer editors at dot-com and I run the Tottenham blog. It's more frowned upon in Germany than it is in Spain and Italy, similar to England. I think the Bundesliga [the German pro league] is the major league with the least diving and faking of injuries, but that's just like, my opinion, man.
It's not shocking to hear that he doesn't complain. There are a select few wind-up artists and complainers (Michael Ballack does it a bit, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil aren't immune to asking the ref for calls), but that's about it. By the standards of the Spaniards, Italians and English, those three aren't bad at all. No one on the German national team is a perpetual diver, with only Ozil doing it even occasionally.
There's a strong chance that Werner's German soccer upbringing taught him to not complain to officials or embellish fouls to draw a penalty.
Not to mention that though he is turning into a dominant player, he has very little experience playing American football. So not only was he taught to not draw penalties by his soccer coaches, but he probably hasn't been re-taught to do so by any American coach.
This might have been something that FSU worked on during the bye week. The best defensive ends are extremely productive in the stat sheet, but they also do a great job of knowing when to give up on a play and showcase the holding. How do they do that? Savvy defensive ends will twist away from the hold to show maximum jersey pull. They'll also take a dive to drag the offensive tackle down with them and showcase the holding. And of course, they'll get on the officials.
There's a delicate balance here that might be difficult for Werner to strike, not only because he doesn't have much football experience, but also because he has such a strong motor and never quits on the play. Some of the veteran acting techniques might not be reasonably expected of Werner, but he absolutely needs to start throwing up his arms and making some noise about being held.
If Werner can kick some of the habits learned from the land of the Bundeslegia and start drawing some holding calls, he might have a real case for defensive player of the year in a conference that has produced more NFL defenders in the last five years than any other.