Jan 312015
 

Like last year, I’ve been asked to give an hour long presentation at the Brøndby IF Super Bowl party. Rather than attempt to adapt those notes into traditional post, I’ve decided to post them in their original bullet point form, which is probably the quickest way to convey the information. I was asked to start with a discussion of the evaluation process for quarterbacks and the developments of that position. Afterwards, I discuss the matchups between the offensive and defensive units of the Seahawks and Patriots (less lengthy notes, as I will use film for much of that portion of the presentation). As I state in the presentation, I hope that these notes will make the game more interesting by illuminating sometimes hidden aspects of the game:

  • Quarterback Position
    • I’ve been asked to talk about the quarterback position – how do you evaluate it and what do you look for in a quarterback, why are the players drafted where they are drafted, and how has the position developed – through the lens of Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Johnny Manziel
    • Probably the hardest position to evaluate in all of sports – why?
      • My theory is that growth and development are never a sure thing in the NFL.
      • The NFL is so fast and complex that you can almost never know how a player will adjust – it isn’t book smarts/pure intelligence, it is the ability to scan the entire field and anticipate with the correct timing and take in large amounts of information on the fly – you won’t know if they will develop until they do – there are some predictors, like success at the college level, intelligence, accuracy, etc – but a quarterback is never sure to develop beyond where they currently are, and it is hard to now where they are when they are playing in college (so many factors, like the offense they played in, the talent around them, the level of competition, etc).
        • If a QB is 75% of the way there during their rookie season, there is no guarantee that they will even get to 80% – Andy Dalton might be an example
        • Other times, a QB goes from 75% to 85% to 100% – Peyton Manning had a rough rookie season, but kept improving and improving.
        • Colin Kaepernick probably started at 50% pro style offense refinement as far as what he was asked to do in college in a run/option heavy offense, 100/100 potential when he came into the league.         Sat for a year, worked hard, jumped to maybe 80/100 refinement, plus all of that great athleticism, presence, competitiveness, intelligence, etc. But most will say that he stalled in 2014 at 80/100 on the refinement scale. Can he make the leap and bust that plateau? Hard to predict.
      • Tom Brady is a great example of difficulty in evaluation. When he was at Michigan, there was a more physically talented quarterback there – Drew Henson. He threw harder, ran faster, was a better athlete – basketball star and drafted high in baseball. In college, if they were throwing a curl route, the ball might have gotten there at the same time. BUT Brady may have been more aware of other routes and anticipated that throw, and released the ball a split second before Henson would have.         Henson may have been more locked in on that one route, and thrown the ball a split second later – but it got there at the same time because his arm was stronger, and it probably looked more impressive.
        • As a talent evaluator, that makes it tough.         As an NFL coach you look at Brady coming out of Michigan and think – he isn’t a great athlete, he isn’t going to be able to scramble, his arm isn’t amazing, he isn’t very well built…many evaluators thought he fit the mold as a backup at best.
        • But sometimes (and this is what evaluators seem to be shifting their opinion on), being able to do less makes you better.         Brady couldn’t run, he didn’t have the Jay Cutler rocket arm, he couldn’t out muscle guys like Cam Newton can – his only chance was to develop as a true pocket quarterback – so he was forced to, his back was against the wall – either he developed as a pro style QB, or he failed. He had no chance to find success in the NFL because of other physical traits.
        • Henson was kind of the opposite. He could do everything. He got a $17 million baseball contract. His back wasn’t against the wall – he didn’t just have to be a pocket quarterback. He made it to the big leagues in baseball briefly, played a few years in the NFL, but his career never took off. Maybe if he couldn’t play baseball, and if he wasn’t such a good athlete, and if he couldn’t have thrown as hard, he would have been forced to develop like Tom Brady. Or…maybe he wouldn’t have developed in that way, anyways (almost no one develops into a Tom Brady level quarterback).         This is why predicting success is so difficult.
        • Back to that curl route example – The way Brady does it computes better for the NFL, obviously. Arm strength IS very important, but Brady has enough.         In the NFL, all of those other factors play more of a role. In that example, over the course of time, Brady has made the NFL throw – the quarterback who didn’t see the whole field may have missed something else open, or his lack of anticipation may have allowed a faster defender to get in the throwing lane. Over time, the quarterback who can see the field and process the information and throw with the correct anticipation, touch, and accuracy, will far outperform the rocket armed quarterback.
      • Similar evaluation with Aaron Rodgers v Alex Smith
        • Rodgers was kind of skinny, not imposing, not an amazing athlete, arm wasn’t thought to be sensational.
        • Smith was thought to be the entire package by many scouts – bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, easier to coach than Rodgers.
        • I thought it was an obvious choice for Rodgers – quick release, great feel for the game and pocket presence – but the NFL is tempted by the “prototypical quarterback” – which is big, strong, fast, throw hard, etc. Especially with the #1 overall pick.
        • Smith was not a finished/refined product – came from a spread system – took him time to become a solid NFL QB.
        • Rodgers was a finished product in a pro system and had time to sit behind Favre – not many QBs get this anymore
          • But many evaluators thought he would fail because other Tedford quarterbacks failed
          • Similar draft profile in recent years was Teddy Bridgewater – slipped in the draft because of his slight build and lack of great athleticism or arm strength, but showed an accurate arm and the ability to process information in a pro style offense in college, and a good enough athlete to evade pressure.
            • His rookie season was good…but, as stated above, my opinion is that it is almost impossible to predict improvement in a QB.
      • Russell Wilson:
        • First round talent, had everything except for height. It is that simple – if he were a few inches taller, he would have been a top pick.
      • But it is important to note that I am not saying that there is a way to accurately find a great NFL quarterback – my point is that it is nearly impossible to predict and therefore has an enormous failure rate. This is not to downplay the importance of scouts and that some scouts are not great quarterback evaluators – but history has shown that the failure rate is extremely high.
        • If you look at what I said above, you’d be looking for a pocket quarterback with success and refinement in a pro style offense in college – guys who fit that bill include Joey Harrington and Matt Leinart – they just couldn’t do it in the NFL.
      • Best bet to find a QB who is successful: build the team around him, which will give whoever you choose the best chance to succeed.
    • Developments in the position
      • An argument that seems to be gaining steam among NFL evaluators is that an extremely mobile quarterback cannot also be a great pocket passer. The argument is that a pocket passer must have been a pocket passer for all his life, with his back against the wall like Tom Brady, in order to be great. Arguably, there is only one great QB who went from a running quarterback to a GREAT pocket quarterback – Steve Young. Russell Wilson is looking to change that perception – even though he was never exactly a “running” quarterback – he played in pro style offenses prior to the NFL – but the Seahawks currently ask him to run plenty of zone read plays and play action passing – he isn’t yet a great pocket quarterback (even though he executes exactly what Seattle asks of him – the offense just isn’t based on pocket passing to the extent of most NFL offenses).
      • Trend of previous 15 or 16 years: look for the QB who has it all. The player who was thought to revolutionize the position was Michael Vick. Strong arm, as electric as a ball carrier as anyone in the league – the idea was that he could kill you with his legs or from the pocket. This is what the quarterback of the 21st century was going to play like.
      • In most cases, it hasn’t quite worked out. Also important to note that the fail rate for first round quarterbacks was very high overall – so it is not as if drafting a pure pocket quarterback is close to a sure thing (as is probably obvious by this point in the presentation).
      • Here is a list of first round quarterbacks since Michael Vick who were thought to come from that mold – great athlete, great arm, came from a non-pro style offense
        • Michael Vick – “the future” – solid/electric NFL career, but never developed into a consistent/dependable pocket quarterback.
        • Ben Roethlisberger – played wide receiver until his senior season of high school, was mostly recruited as a tight end, but has developed until a multiple Pro Bowl, Super Bowl winning QB. Not entirely applicable to this list as he was never known as a running quarterback, and also important to note that he – like Russell Wilson – led his team to a Super Bowl championship early in his career on a run heavy team. Roethlisberger eventually developed into a pocket passer with great pocket awareness and similar evasion/improvisation skills to Wilson.
        • Alex Smith (arguably) – not a freak athlete like Vick, but a terrific one who came from Urban Meyer’s spread and had to be molded into a pocket QB – he did develop into a solid quarterback, but it took time.
        • Vince Young – some would argue that he was the most physically dominant quarterback in college football history his senior season and took over a Rose Bowl national championship against a USC team filled with NFL talent – looked promising early in his career, but failed to develop into an NFL caliber quarterback.
        • Tim Tebow – amazing athlete, failed to develop into an NFL caliber quarterback (a complicated issue – there are still people who make the argument that he could have succeeded if the offense had been built around his talents).
        • Andrew Luck – exceptional athlete and star NFL QB was always a pass first pocket QB despite his running ability – not entirely applicable to this group, but is a great athlete who was able to focus on becoming a great pocket QB.
        • Cam Newton – jury is still out on whether he will develop into a true pocket QB (or whether it is necessary). Has been successful and has won while developing into a pocket quarterback in an offense that takes advantage of his athleticism.
        • Jake Locker – great athlete so far has disappointed as a pocket quarterback – injuries have played a role.
        • Robert Griffin III – great rookie season, but fundamentals regressed since then – dropped very low in 2014, but still has a chance to regain form. Needs to rebuild fundamentals to have a chance – intelligence and great accuracy (when fundamentals are there) give him a chance.         Injuries may force him to do so (and thus could be beneficial to his development as a pocket QB – if he makes it).
        • Ryan Tannehill – jury is still out on the former WR, though looks to be a starting caliber QB in offense that takes advantage of his legs (uses the zone read in a similar fashion to Seattle).
        • Johnny Manziel – Incomplete, but did not look good his rookie season. Failed to win starting job and looked overwhelmed in few appearances.         Manic, amazing improvisational quarterback in college, strong arm – but can he fit into an NFL offense? His best chance seems to be to develop the maturity and game of Russell Wilson (their skill set in terms of size, athleticism, and arm strength is similar), or be used in an offense similar to what he ran in college. Manziel’s ratings would probably be: refinement 50/100, “magic/improvisational” potential (this is the argument that most people had for drafting him) 100/100 – unclear if that refinement will increase.
        • Notable non-first round quarterbacks:
          • Colin Kaepernick – similar to Newton, shows star potential and big game winning ability, but the jury is still out on whether he can develop into a traditional pocket QB.           Amazing athletic specimen (speed/arm strength combo among the best ever). Great work ethic, intelligence – but even work ethic and intelligence and talent do not guarantee ability to develop as a pocket passer.
          • Russell Wilson – has thrived and won a Super Bowl while in a run first offense with a dominant defense. Intelligent, smart with the ball, great arm and improvisational qualities – great pocket presence and footwork.           Refined pocket quarterback skills (also, like Luck, developed as a pocket QB) but has not yet been asked to be a high volume NFL pocket passer.
      • Trend that I believe is starting in the NFL: back to traditional pocket QBs. Speed may be seen as a detriment – the thought being that if the QB could run in college and high school, they did not have to develop the same kind of pocket passing/footwork/read the field skills as other QBs.
        • The interesting thing: more and more colleges are using spread systems with dual threat quarterbacks, and thus, while demand for pocket quarterbacks may be increasing, the supply has been decreasing for years.
          • From a college coach’s perspective, it is much easier to find an athlete with a good arm at QB (who may lack traditional pocket skills) than a traditional pocket QB (high schools are also moving away from pocket QBs)
    • Why are they drafted where they are drafted?
      • Take everything I just said into account – the trends in what coaches want to see out of a quarterback, the quarterbacks who are successful in the NFL, etc.
      • NFL teams are looking for a prototype at the top of the draft:
        • Tall, well built, strong arm, accurate arm, smart, competitive, great footwork, evidence of ability to scan entire field, success in an NFL style offense, mobility, maturity
      • This prototype rarely exists. The most prototypical prospect in recent memory was Andrew Luck: he was at least above average in all of those categories.
      • As noted, the trend may shift to placing less value on mobility.
      • Many great quarterbacks do not fit the prototype.         Tom Brady slipped because he was not well built, was not a mobile quarterback, was not considered to have above average arm strength, and to some extent because Drew Henson cut into his playing time.
      • Russell Wilson slipped because he is short. A short QB is not a prototypical QB – if he were 6’3”, he’d have been a high first round pick – he has everything else.
      • Aaron Rodgers slipped because the 49ers thought he was arrogant, and perhaps because he has a slight build. He played for a coach (Jeff Tedford) who had produced several first round QBs who failed in the NFL – Rodgers was penalized for this. Some scouts felt that he was a “system” QB who got flustered under pressure and wasn’t enough of an athlete to evade it.
      • It is an inexact science with a high fail rate.         The Patriots look like geniuses because they drafted Tom Brady, but in reality, they passed on him 6 times in the draft.
      • Which brings us to another issue that we do not have time to fully explore: even in the NFL, is it the system (Wilson in an offense that plays to his strengths and is supported by an all time great defense, Brady in a creative, talented franchise, had time to sit behind a good NFL QB). In other words, the eternal question is: would we be talking about these two players if they had been drafted by the Bills, or Raiders, or Jaguars, Browns, or any of the other number of teams who have struggled to find a quarterback for years – or is the reason why those teams are not relevant because they could not draft a Russell Wilson or Tom Brady caliber QB?         It is a long debate, but something to think about.
      • This upcoming draft, another tough decision.
        • Jameis Winston is very close to the prototype for an NFL quarterback prospect, but he has shown major red flags in immaturity and off field decision making.
        • Mariota has zero off field issues/question marks and has many prototypical features, but did not play in an NFL style offense and thus his ability as an NFL pocket QB is a bigger projection – unless the Eagles trade to get him, where his former college coach (Chip Kelly) will know how to take advantage of what he brings to the table.
  • Seahawks offense
    • Ball control – they’ve made their money by relying on their defense, running the ball, and making a few big plays each game, often at key times.
  • Patriots defense
    • Very good defense. Talent across the board, Revis is probably the best cover cornerback of the past 10 years.
    • Belichick is a versatile coach and therefore difficult to predict, but is consistent in molding his strategy to take away the strength of the opposing offense.
      • For that reason, I suspect that he will seek first to stop the Seahawks zone read, their most potent weapon
      • He has cornerbacks that match up well with Seattle wide receivers, thus freeing more defenders to focus on run defense.
      • Many coaches like a 1 high safety look in this situation, because it frees 8 men in the box to play the run.
      • I like 2 high safeties with press corners – we Monarchs have run the option for a few years with success, and the 2 safety teams give us more schematic problems – it is hard to block the safeties, and the cornerbacks can help build a wall across the front.         We look forward to teams who want to load 8 or 9 players into the box and play man coverage, because (as long as the personnel is relatively equal) we feel that we will create big plays as there is no real 3rd level of defense. That style of defense is more boom or bust – we’ve had times where we exploited it, and other times when it gave us trouble…but when it was the latter, usually because we had injuries or were otherwise outmanned, anyways.
        • Downside of 2 high safeties is fewer players devoted to Marshawn Lynch on traditional runs, which is problematic (and why the zone read and Seattle present problems to opposing defenses)
    • Show examples of Revis making a good play – patience is combined with his elite athleticism, range, and instincts
      • Quarter 3 – interception and pass breakup pretty close together
  • Patriots offense
    • Very good offense, versatile
    • Like their defense, Belichick will mold it to attack the weakness of the opposing defense.
    • The problem is, it is hard to identify the Seahawks weakness
      • They have great DBs and a great front, often with 8 in the box (base cover 3) to take away the run.
    • One thing that is possible, because the Seahawks are a zone heavy team, is to get your players matched up on the defenders that you want them matched up against
      • Seattle rarely swaps cornerbacks (though they did play more man coverage against the Packers)
      • Look for Belichick to use Gronkowski in creative ways to try to isolate him in a favorable matchup – he is always creative with Gronk and Gronk is his most dangerous weapon.
    • The Patriots might look to the Chargers film
      • The Chargers beat the Seahawks by taking advantage of their great tight end – Antonio Gates. They often did this with trips formations. Trips formations force the defense to either compensate to the trips side and leave a favorable matchup on the one receiver side, or help with the one receiver side and give away numbers to the trips side.
        • This is a way that the Patriots may look to get Gronkowski in favorable matchups.
    • Gronkowski quarter 3 touchdown
      • Trips away from him – can get Gronk isolated away from Sherman
      • Simple slant, but Gronk is so big and athletic, the pass is perfect, hard to defend
      • Blount TD 3rd quarter – good solid football, line up and pound you – bodies on bodies up front, Blount finishes with authority – a big back who runs with power
        • Shows that the Patriots are a rare offense that can really shift identities from week to week – one week they are rushing for a ton of yards in an old school power/traditional NFL offense, the next week they are basically running a spread offense.
    • Patriots have versatile players to create personnel problems for defense
      • I.e. with Vereen and Gronkowski in the game, no telling if they will align in a traditional running formation or in a 5 wide spread
        • Though, as further explained below, the Seahawks are a simple defense that doesn’t really care what the opposition does – they will adjust and not be caught off guard.
    • Simplicity of Seahawks defense makes it less likely to be fooled by eligible/ineligible tactics
      • The Seahawks are in base so often that they can focus entirely on any exotic looks
  • Seahawks defense
    • Best unit on the field – an all time great defense
    • Execution defense – they do not run a ton of stuff, they just do what they do really well
      • Quarterbacks like Brady and Manning are so great because they can figure out exactly what a defense is doing – the defense tries to outsmart them and those quarterbacks pick them apart
        • But that doesn’t matter against the Seahawks.         Brady says: “I know what you are doing.” The Seahawks say: “So what? Try to beat us.” That is what happened last year with the Broncos in the Super Bowl and the Seahawks dominated (and people forget, the Broncos were an all time great offense going into that game).
    • THE SIMPLICITY OF THE SEAHAWKS DEFENSE IS A HUGE POSITIVE!!!!!
      • It is common to think that more complex is better.         But the simplicity of the Seattle defense allows them to play faster, execute better, and adjust to anything the offense sends at them. They are much less likely to be “caught” in the “wrong” defense than complicated defenses.
    • Brady has, in the past, struggled against teams who can effectively rush the passer with their defensive line (i.e. do not have to bring pressure) – think of Giants teams in the Super Bowl, who were built upon the foundation of their defensive lines.
      • Seahawks are such a team – their defensive line is versatile, fast, and dynamic – and they don’t even have all of their best players – great scheme and talent to meet that scheme.
    • Linebackers are also terrific – tons of speed – Wagner is one of the best in the game.
    • Richard Sherman interception first Packers drive – coach’s film
      • Amazing patience, technique, intelligence, closing speed, meets the ball at the highest point, great body control
        • Quarterbacks need to be kind of machines when processing information, if the receiver has good leverage, the QB is machine-like in processing that information and taking advantage – but Sherman can recover with his rare size/athleticism combination for the position.
        • This is why he is so great and such a great fit for the defense
      • Also shows their base cover 3
    • 1st quarter stop of Eddie Lacy on second drive (4th play)
      • Shows why Earl Thomas is so great – cornerback speed, fills exceptionally fast and hits for keeps – closest player in the NFL these days to Ronnie Lott – Lott started as a cornerback – Thomas has that kind of speed and range as well – not to mention the intensity and hitting ability.
      • Seahawks do not stay blocked and this is why they are great against the run – it isn’t because of a magical scheme – they play fast and don’t stay blocked and fly to the ball (cliché, but true for them)
      • The Packers had a chance to put the game away early, but the Seattle D stood tall and kept the Seahawks in the game
    • If you like defense, this really is one of the best of all time to watch
  • Final notes
    • Miscellaneous factors
      • Deflategate
        • I’m not going to spend much time on it, but yes, throwing and hanging on to a deflated ball can provide an advantage.
        • We do not know the facts of the case, so we can’t know the effect it will have on the Patriots – if they really have been using deflated balls for years, this could hurt them – you never want your first experience with a “new” ball to be in a big game. If this was a one time thing/accidental, it may have zero effect on the Patriots. We do not know the facts
      • Odd statistic: the Seahawks have not beaten a team with a healthy starting quarterback and which ended with a winning record since week three.
        • Very obscure sounding statistic, but also crazy how well their schedule played out – they played some bad teams, played the Cardinals a few times with injured quarterbacks, the 49ers were down this season, Rodgers was hurt in their playoff game. The last time they played against a winning team with a healthy starting QB was the Chiefs – loss. Their record against winning record teams with healthy starting QBs: 2-3 (wins in week 1 v Packers and week 3 v Broncos, losses to Chiefs, Cowboys, and Chargers…also a loss to Rams).
          • They have been dominant on defense, but this is the best argument against them. The Patriots are the best test they’ve faced since those early season games.
          • They are – no doubt – one of the best defenses of all time, and of course had no control over their schedule – they have knocked down everything in front of them down the stretch of the season.
          • If they were to lose, this will probably be a statistic people will point to in hindsight. If they win, it was meaningless.
    • Seahawks have the best unit on the field (defense), but the Patriots have a very good offense and defense. Seahawks offense serves the team well – ball control, great running back, underrated wide receivers (perhaps because of perception because they weren’t drafted high), quarterback who has made many big plays in key moments…but is less consistent than the other units in the game.
      • The great matchup is all time great Brady against all time great Seattle defense…BUT…it is very intriguing to see how Belichick will try to take away the zone read, and if Seattle can either defeat that strategy or generate offense in other ways. I think everyone who came here tonight knew that Brady v the Seattle defense was the all time great matchup, but hopefully now you can see why the Seattle offense v Patriots defense matchup is also intriguing.
Aug 242014
 

The quarterback position is perhaps the hardest to play – and coach – in all sports. Few players have mastered the position, and even fewer coaches have mastered the art of finding, teaching, and producing quarterbacks who succeed at the NFL level.

Bill Walsh and Jim Harbaugh are two such coaches. Bill Walsh has produced Hall of Fame NFL quarterbacks as a head coach (Joe Montana, Steve Young), but also maximized the potential of several quarterbacks as an assistant coach in the NFL and as a head coach in college (Virgil Carter, Ken Anderson, Guy Benjamin, Steve Dils). Jim Harbaugh has, in his short career, produced NFL quarterbacks at both of his college stops, turning University of San Diego’s lightly recruited Josh Johnson into an NFL quarterback, recruiting to Stanford and producing star NFL quarterback Andrew Luck, resurrecting the career of Alex Smith of the 49ers, and channeling the raw potential of Colin Kaepernick into a rising star.

Both coaches emphasize the importance of fundamentals. Rather than expand into complex drills and arm mechanics, they ask their quarterbacks to master basic drills. Once mastery is achieved, the quarterbacks continue to work on the same fundamentals in order to maintain their skill in a constant search for perfection. This mastery breeds confidence, and confidence is essential for the position.

Jim Harbaugh (quarterback clinic):

Bill Walsh:

Jun 192014
 

The trend towards pass first offensive football has generally led to a decrease in run game intricacy. Spread and pass first teams have found that they can put up high point totals with only a few simple run blocking schemes. This approach is sound – with focus on the passing game, the simplified run game means that high levels of execution can be attained on the few blocking schemes that are in the playbook.

This does mean that some concepts of the past have been largely lost. The following play exemplifies the lost art of the complex run game, a tackle trap on a top nose guard (Tony Casillas), intended to make that nose guard’s life difficult while opening a sizeable hole and utilizing angles across the line of scrimmage.

The blocking scheme: Right tackle blocks down on star MLB Brian Bosworth.  Right guard pulls and looks for work. Center posts on star nose guard Tony Casillas, then walls off the defensive tackle.  Left guard goes for the other MLB.  The left tackle pulls and traps Casillas, while the fullback walls the other defensive tackle to the outside.

The blocking scheme: TE walls off the outside.  Right tackle blocks down on star MLB Brian Bosworth. Right guard pulls and looks for work downfield. Center posts on star nose guard Tony Casillas, then walls off the defensive tackle. Left guard goes for the other MLB. The left tackle pulls and traps Casillas, while the fullback walls the other defensive tackle to the outside.

The blocks take advantage of angles, including the smashing trap on Casillas.

The blocks take advantage of angles, including the smashing trap on Casillas.

Casillas is sent to the turf as running back Jacque Robinson (father of NBA star Nate) exploits a wide running lane.

Casillas is sent to the turf as running back Jacque Robinson (father of NBA star Nate) exploits a wide running lane.

Robinson is untouched into the defensive backfield.

Robinson is untouched into the defensive backfield.

Robinson finally faces impact at the goalline.

Robinson finally faces impact at the goalline.

Often, the best offensive system is the one that goes against contemporary trends. Increasingly, teams are finding that the spread offense is not a magic bullet. While the many variations of the spread ARE sound football, defenses are now built to stop them, and those offenses lack the novelty that once made them so difficult to defend.

Perhaps those defenses – built to stop the spread passing game and various zone running schemes – are now susceptible to a return to power running. The Stanford Cardinal under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, as well as the San Francisco 49ers under Harbaugh, have capitalized by building swift, powerful lines and incorporating complex run schemes and jumbo personnel packages. Once a staple, those schemes are now the novelty while the spread offense thrives. While mastering the execution of a run game complete with powers and counters and traps and whams and isolations can be difficult, it is more than possible with proper commitment.

The play:

May 272014
 

Perhaps the most explosive running play in the modern era of football is the veer triple option. From the time that Bill Yeoman’s Houston Cougars broke records with the play in the 1960s until the present day – peaking with the 49ers scoring 3 touchdowns in the 2012 NFC championship while using a variation of the scheme – it continues to rack up yards.

But related concepts appeared even before Yeoman’s day. Don Faurot may, in fact, have been the originator of the triple option, using it to power his Split-T Missouri backfield to great success in the 1940s. The video below displays the basic concepts that would power all future veer schemes: not blocking certain defenders in order to gain more blocking downfield and to give the offense a 3 on 2 or 2 on 1 advantage, similar to the fast breaks in basketball that influenced Faurot’s innovation. The footage – slowed due to the cameras of the time – shows the unblocked defenders steaming into the backfield while the dive back rushes ahead or the quarterback pitches behind (and notice the underhanded “pitch”).

Faurot coached the Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks during the World War II years, where he had an assistant coach named Bud Wilkinson. Wilkinson took the Split-T (and it’s signature option) with him to Oklahoma. There, the offense powered the Sooners to a 47-game winning streak from 1953 to 1957, an NCAA Division I record that still stands today.

The following video shows the 1955 Oklahoma Sooners season highlights:

Bill Yeoman invented the veer offense at Houston in 1964. His offense went on to lead the nation in offense for three straight years, and led the country in scoring in 1968. For anyone looking to implement the veer, the 1968 playbook remains a masterpiece. There is no better source for understanding the offense:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/2939669/1968-Houston-Veer

The veer scheme eventually powered the wishbone offense. The final wishbone powerhouse were the Oklahoma Sooners and Barry Switzer, who used it to win 3 national championships and 12 Big Eight titles. They also set the all time single game rushing record of 768 yards, as seen here:

The flexbone later grew out of the wishbone. The most notable current flexbone coach is Paul Johnson. This blog post details Johnson’s “If then” play calling methodology. This methodology is not only valuable to coaches looking to run veer based option offenses, but to any coaches who are looking for a methodology to systematically call their plays in order to exploit weaknesses in a defense.

http://footballislifeblog.blogspot.dk/2011/07/paul-johnsons-if-then-methodology-to.html

Perhaps the most famous current split back veer team is the De La Salle Spartans, known for their record 151 game winning streak. The highlights below show the birth of that win streak and display the speed and downfield blocking that continue to exemplify the Spartans.

In the following link, the architect of that team – Bob Ladouceur – details the ideals that formed the Spartans juggernaut. The article is not veer specific (though it does discuss the offense in some detail), but is essential team building material.

http://fastandfuriousfootball.com/wp-content/uploads/coachingmaterial2/De%20La%20Salle%20High%20Motivation.pdf

Finally, the most modern variation may only be a distant relative of the split back veer, but still incorporates the dive back, and the unblocked defender as the first man on or outside the tackle. Here, Colin Kaepernick uses the veer scheme several times during his record 181 yard rushing game against the Green Bay Packers.

May 172014
 

“Read option” is one of the most overused terms in football. From commentators to sideline reporters to sportswriters, a myriad of plays are lumped together and mislabeled “read option.”

In reality, every option is a “read” option. The quarterback always reads an unblocked defender or defenders to determine whether to give the ball, keep it, or pitch it.

Still, the “read option” has become synonymous with shotgun, spread option football. The play that epitomized the spread option running game is what most coaches call the “zone read.” The key feature of this play is that the offensive line zone blocks for a run to the right or left, while the quarterback reads a defender to the backside. If that defender over pursues the zone handoff to the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball to the space that he vacated.

5 Eagles offensive linemen for 5 Giants defenders; the 6th defender (in the yellow box) becomes the option key.

5 Eagles offensive linemen for 5 Giants defenders; the 6th defender (in the yellow box) becomes the option key.

In short, in the zone read, the quarterback and running back are going in opposite directions from one another.

The quarterback and running back aim in opposite directions

The quarterback and running back aim in opposite directions

The zone read – for whatever reason – became known as the “read option.” This was a fine development, until it began to be applied to every option play from the shotgun or pistol formation.

The option key tackles the running back, so the quarterback keeps to the vacated space

The option key tackles the running back, so the quarterback keeps to the vacated space

The option key tackles the running back; the quarterback has correctly kept the ball.

The option key tackles the running back; the quarterback has correctly kept the ball.

Easy yards for the quarterback

Easy yards for the quarterback on the zone read (“read option”)

The most glaring example of this phenomenon was during the “read option” explosion in the NFL in 2012, when both the 49ers and Redskins had great success with the “read option” from the Pistol formation. The only problem is that the vast majority of their success was not from the “read option,” but from the veer scheme.

In the veer scheme, the option/dive key is the first man on or outside the offensive tackle

In the veer scheme, the option/dive key is the first man on or outside the offensive tackle

The key difference between the veer and the zone read is that in the veer scheme, the dive back and the quarterback are both attacking the same side of the field. In the traditional veer scheme, the offensive line does not block the first man on or outside the play side tackle. This becomes the option key. The dive back aims – at full speed – between the guard and the tackle. If the option key can’t make the tackle, the quarterback hands off, and the running back runs underneath the option key, following extra blocks on the second level and third level (because the tackle and tight end – if there is one – do not block anyone on the line of scrimmage, which frees them to block downfield). If the option key can tackle the dive back, he can’t tackle the quarterback. The quarterback keeps the ball, and follows the same extra downfield blocking (note that in a true veer triple option – which the 49ers and Redskins rarely ran – the quarterback would have a second option key and the option to pitch to a pitch back depending on that option key’s movements).

 

The quarterback and running back attack the same side of the field in the veer scheme.  Here, the option key is too far up the field, so the ball is given to the dive back

The quarterback and running back attack the same side of the field in the veer scheme. Here, the option key is too far up the field, so the ball is given to the dive back

Thus, in the “read option” the quarterback and the running back go in opposite directions, while in the veer scheme they attack the same side of the field and follow the same blocking.

 

The offensive line walls off the middle of the field, and the dive back follows behind, while the option key cannot recover

The offensive line walls off the middle of the field, and the dive back follows behind, while the option key cannot recover

The dive back glides along the veer wall to the end zone

The dive back glides along the veer wall to the end zone

Less common in the NFL, but still mislabeled, is the midline option. The play is similar to the veer scheme, except that the option key is the first man on or outside the play side guard, and the dive back’s path is over center or just to the play side (depending on the coach). Again, this varies from the “read option” in that the dive back and the quarterback both run to the same side of the field.

May 082014
 

Stockpiling draft picks in the NFL forms the basis for successful franchises such as the New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, and San Francisco 49ers. It is where team building, the salary cap, and probability intersect.

There are downsides to stockpiling picks. The extra draft picks are acquired by trading down in the draft or a previous draft (thus forfeiting a chance at a theoretically better prospect), or by trading a veteran for a draft pick (thus losing a proven entity), or by acquiring compensatory picks (which are given out by the NFL when a team loses a valuable free agent).

Why would some of the best franchises in the NFL consistently trade higher picks for multiple lower picks, trade veteran players, and let solid NFL players walk in free agency?

First of all, these teams have chosen to build through the draft, and not free agency. This has value that cannot be analyzed by thinking in terms of video game football, i.e. acquiring the most talented players possible. Instead, these teams seek to draft players who fit their program personality wise, and who fit their schematics athletically. This allows the teams to mold an “impressionable” rookie into their system, which has a greater chance for success than asking a veteran from another system to do so.

Once the drafted players are on the roster, another evaluation process occurs. These teams will constantly analyze which of their young players, do, in fact, fit the structure of the team both on and off the field. While they can learn about a free agent’s reputation on and off the field, it does not compare with their ability to know and analyze their own players.

This is vital in regards to the salary cap. Generally speaking, a team can extend the contracts of their own players for less money than if those players reached the open market. Signing a contract early is beneficial for a player, because it is a violent sport where injury can ruin a career at any moment, and it is valuable to sacrifice a chance at the free market in order to gain guaranteed money and eliminate the risk of losing everything because of injury. The team wins by keeping costs down; the player wins by getting financial security earlier.

Some of the multitude of draftees that these teams have will not re-sign. But these teams still rely on players being productive on their rookie contracts, because it is a cheap source of labor which keeps costs down so that the desired former draft picks can be extended, and the team can remain under the salary cap.

This is why probability is so important. It is impossible to “get it right” on every draft pick. Having more draft picks increases the probability that a few of the draft picks may end up being “keepers” on the roster.

Some will get cut before training camp. Some will contribute during their rookie season and beyond. A few from each draft class will get contract extensions to stay with the team. THESE players are as sure a bet as there can be in the NFL – the team has had years to scout them as players and as people from within their own locker room.

After years of this steady building and stockpiling of draft picks, the extended players from various draft classes make up the team.

In essence, these teams have the best of both worlds: they have found players who they KNOW fit their system, and they can keep those players on the roster for cheaper than their fair market value would dictate. The increased picks also allow the teams to more freely choose the best player available in the draft – instead of focusing on need – because there are more picks to address needs later in the draft. This gives another advantage in fielding the best players possible to fit their system and resign at value.

Aside from team building, stockpiling draft picks does give a team the opportunity to move up in the draft should they want to. The 2013 49ers are a great example – they identified a player they wanted to get, traded up 13 picks in the first round to get him (which they were able to do because of their excess draft picks), and drafted Eric Reid, an immediate starter at safety who solidified their defensive backfield and went to the Pro Bowl his first season.

Stockpiling also means better picks in later drafts. In 1995, the Cleveland Browns – with both head coach Bill Belichick and executive Ozzie Newsome having influence – traded the #10 pick in the draft to the 49ers, who selected receiver JJ Stokes. In return, the Browns/Ravens received 4 draft picks, including the 49ers’ first round pick in 1996.

In 1996, with their own pick at #4, the Ravens chose the best player available, a left tackle from UCLA. They were criticized, because they already had a solid starting left tackle – Tony Jones (who would go on to a pro bowl and to start for two Denver Bronco Super Bowl champions). The player they selected, however, became arguably the best left tackle of all time – Jonathan Ogden.

But the Ravens were not done. With the 49er’s draft pick – #26 – they again drafted the best player available. This time, they selected Ray Lewis.

Belichick and Newsome had witnessed the virtue of patience in 1995, that led to drafting two hall of fame players in 1996, which set the Ravens franchise on a path to success that has not yet ceased. It is not surprising that the Patriots (under Belichick) and the Ravens (under Newsome) continue to build through the draft.

And in support of the theory of stockpiling draft picks in order to increase probability of success, Belichick’s Patriots would later receive four compensatory selections in the 2000 draft to compensate for the losses of linebacker Todd Collins, punter Tom Tupa, defensive tackle Mark Wheeler and offensive lineman Dave Wohlabaugh in free agency. This gave his team four extra chances at selecting a contributor, even if the chances of a late round draft pick lasting in the NFL are slim. Few people took note of pick 199, their compensatory selection at the bottom of round 6. With that pick, they selected Tom Brady.

The stockpiling draft pick system also perpetuates itself: Because these teams let free agents walk, and do not build extensively through free agency, they often receive compensatory picks which help them to stockpile draft picks.

The process can be slow, but it is the recipe for a healthy, system driven NFL team with a group of players who are more likely to be unified in sharing the vision of the coaching staff. Such cohesiveness is an intangible – and necessary – element of winning football, which is one reason why famous “free agent splash” teams (the recent Washington Redskins being a prime example) so often struggle to find consistent success.

May 032014
 

Aggressive defenses with multiple fronts and complex blitz schemes create problems for offenses due to their multiplicity and unpredictability. These defenses are high risk, high reward, and high difficulty. They require skillful play calling, as “choosing wrong” in terms of pressure leaves the defense susceptible to huge plays. Sound, simple defenses – while lacking the same attacking and confusion creating abilities – are not as susceptible to such breakdowns. In other words, aggressive defenses are “boom or bust,” and too much complication can lead to breakdowns at inopportune times.

Such was the case during the 2012 divisional playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints. With 2:18 left in the game, the 49ers trailed 23-24, facing a 3rd and 7 at the 27 yard line. They came to the line with Frank Gore as the lone back, and immediately shifted to an empty formation, with a tight end and two receivers to the right, and two receivers to the left.

The Saints were an aggressive, blitzing team under coordinator Gregg Williams. This style helped lead them to a Super Bowl title in 2009, a year in which they were second in the league with 35 defensive takeaways. 2009 showed the “boom” of the defense, while the Saints were about to experience the “bust” in San Francisco.

The dangers of an overcomplicated defense 1

Above, note the Saints alignment. It is clear that they have called a blitz in an obvious passing situation in order to put pressure on Smith. It is no mystery where the blitz is coming from. There are FIVE defenders near the line of scrimmage between right tackle Anthony Davis and Frank Gore in the slot. While it isn’t clear which of the five will rush the passer – such is the benefit of the aggressive defense – almost half of the defense is concentrated near the line of scrimmage in an area covering not more than ten yards. Not surprisingly, this leaves other areas of the field open to exploit.
We also see wide receiver Kyle Williams in motion. Cornerback Patrick Robinson follows him to the inside. Herein lies the most interesting aspect of the play. As the play unfolds, Robinson continues running towards the center of the field – even as the ball is being run in the opposite direction. He will run himself to the opposite hash as Alex Smith runs down the sideline for a touchdown. Nothing better illustrates the problem with an overcomplicated defense. Because it requires players to execute so many different schemes and coverages over the course of the game, they must devote brain power to performing many different assignments throughout the game. This means that they often cannot play without thinking, which causes them to lose sight of what is important – the ball. Such is the case here, as Robinson runs in a direct path away from the ball.

The dangers of an overcomplicated defense 2

There is no misdirection as the play unfolds, above. Kyle Williams cracks the defensive end – a staple play from Pop Warner on up. Left tackle Joe Staley pulls to lead the play. Notice the five defenders to the right of the formation that we noted before the snap. They are wasted from the snap of the ball, with no chance to make a play. Cornerback Robinson is well on his way to the opposite hash. A simple quarterback sweep, and eight Saints are on the wrong side of the field. Of the remaining three, two are on the hash being cracked to the inside, and the third is Robinson sprinting in the wrong direction. The 49ers have almost half the field at their disposal, with Joe Staley leading the play and no one in sight for him to block.

The dangers of an overcomplicated defense 3

Above, we see Robinson on the hash, and the remainder of the Saints in pursuit.

The dangers of an overcomplicated defense 4

Joe Staley’s cut block seals the play.

Defensive coordinators must balance the benefits of aggressiveness and unpredictability with the necessity for execution. Many multiple, attacking defenses have been successful and will continue to find success, but coaches must ensure that the players are not so assignment driven that they lose sight of what is most important: stopping the ball. As the Saints showed against the 49ers, this issue exists even at the highest level of play. While it is easy to blame a player for an assignment mistake, a coach must also look to himself, and ask whether he has added more than his players can handle. Even if a player botches a seemingly “basic” defensive (i.e. a safety not covering his deep half of the field in cover 2), the coordinator must ask if this is a manifestation of the player’s inability to play without thinking as a result of overcomplexity. The danger of overcomplexity isn’t only seen in major plays of the game; often, it is in the moments of tentativeness that add up throughout the course of a game to act as an invisible sabotage to playing aggressive, winning defense.

Mar 292014
 

The wham block is an underutilized weapon that will turn the aggressiveness of a dominant defensive lineman against him.

Related to the trap, the wham block sends a skill player to block a defensive lineman from an angle with an element of surprise.  Often utilizing motion, the wham discourages penetration by sending the message that the defensive lineman can never know when he will be blindsided along the line of scrimmage.

Wham 1

Diagram 1 (above) shows the blocking scheme for the play.  Delanie Walker is sent in short motion, giving him increased momentum to blast Ndamukong Suh.  Notice how the scheme, combined with trap and fold blocks across the line, allows 49ers offensive linemen to block down the field.  This downfield blocking is a hallmark of big plays in the run game.  The scheme turns the Lions aggressiveness against itself, wasting the defensive linemen who were quick to penetrate up the field.

Wham 2

Diagram 2 (above): The moment of impact.

Wham 3

Diagram 3 (above): The meeting of scheme and execution.  The 49ers scheme has worked to perfection – two defensive linemen (including Suh, the disruptive force who necessitates the scheme) are already behind the play, wasted to the defensive.  Four 49er offensive linemen are down the field to make blocks.

Also note Vernon Davis.  As the play unfolds, he blocks his man across the field.  In diagram 1, we see the defensive end lined up on Davis’s inside shade.  In diagram 2, Davis has locked him to the inside.  In diagram 3, Davis has begun to drive him across the formation.  In diagram 4, Davis has driven him off the screen.

Davis’s block as well as the 49ers offensive line’s ability to block downfield reminds us that no matter what the scheme, the most important predictor of success is the execution of fundamentals. 

Wham 4

Discouraging aggressiveness encourages passivity, which helps to control a dominant defensive line or a particular defensive lineman.  The wham – despite having faded in popularity – is a valuable tool in achieving that end.  It is one of the power elements that Jim Harbaugh has brought to the table in turning also-rans at the University of San Diego, Stanford, and the 49ers into contenders.