Feb 202015

Super Bowl XLIX featured vintage Bill Belichick game planning – identify your opponent’s comparative weakness, and attack it repeatedly. Belichick is not unique in this strategy, but few teams have shown the ability to so successfully reinvent themselves schematically over and over again from week to week while maintaining excellent levels of execution. As noted here, however, it was unclear how the Patriots would attempt to attack a Seahawks defense with no clear weaknesses.

Belichick’s answer was obvious from the start: the underneath passing game. This makes sense, from both a personnel and schematic standpoint.

From a personnel standpoint, the Seahawks defense is filled with tall, rangy pass defenders; each of their top four cornerbacks are at least 6′ tall. While height has many advantages, a taller player with longer legs will have a harder time changing directions in small spaces than will a shorter player with shorter legs. Of course, some tall cornerbacks are special enough to match such short area quickness (Richard Sherman is one), but, in general, a quick footed short receiver has an advantage in tight spaces over a longer striding defender.

The Patriots under Belichick have a strong tradition of utilizing this lack of height as an asset – from Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch (5’9”) to prolific Wes Welker (5’9”) to current players Danny Amendola (5’11”) and Super Bowl XLIX star Julian Edelman (5’10”). Running back Shane Vereen (5’10”) also figured heavily into the passing attack during the game, catching 11 pass while only rushing 4 times. Amendola, Edelman, and Vereen combined in the game to catch 25 (!!) passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. As evidenced by the 8.84 yard per catch average, these receptions were largely of the underneath, move the chains variety.

From a schematic standpoint, the Seahawks are primarily a cover 3 team. They are, in some ways, the anti-Belichick team – they win because they are great at what they do, and they dare you to beat them at it (rather than making drastic schematic changes from week to week). There was no mystery to Belichick regarding the Seahawks defense. Their cover 3 defense would primarily feature 4 pass rushers, 4 underneath pass defenders, and 3 deep pass defenders. In theory, Belichick could gain a mathematic advantage with his 5 receivers in either the underneath zones (5 on 4) or the deep zones (5 on 3). The skill of the Seahawks, however, complicates theoretical discussions. The cornerbacks align in press coverage while matching patterns and being responsible for deep zones. Because they take away quick, short throws in the flat with this press alignment, and are talented enough to turn and run with receivers to the deep zones (Sherman being the prototype for such a technique), they almost function as if running a 463 zone. When combined with the fact that Earl Thomas is one of the fastest/best free safety “centerfielders” in NFL history – seemingly covering the ground of two safeties -, the defense can feel like a 464 to the opposition, explaining why they are among the all time great units to play the game.

The advantage for the Patriots would come underneath, in the middle of the field. It is there where Belichick could get his speedy trio of short receivers – Edelman, Vereen, and Amendola – matched up (often with option routes) on taller, rangier defenders, where their shorter legs would give them a quickness advantage and allow Brady to release the ball quickly, thus negating the ferocious Seahawks pass rush while avoiding the top Seahawks pass defenders. Belichick would then also work matchups, scoring one touchdown by taking advantage of a Rob Gronkowski versus linebacker matchup on the outside, and, as explained below, by isolating Edelman on a taller cornerback on the game’s decisive score.

First, we see the alignment. The Patriots align with a 3 receiver passing strength to their right. They have a good idea that this will leave Edelman lined up across from 6’3” Tharold Simon, with plenty of space to operate. They know this because the Seahawks rarely swap cornerbacks – there is a high degree of certainty that putting Edelman alone on the left would give him a one on one matchup with a tall cornerback not named Richard Sherman, and this is the matchup they wanted to exploit.

Three receiving threats to the right, and Edelman on the left, with plenty of space to work with to his right or left.

Three receiving threats to the right, and Edelman on the left, with plenty of space to work with to his right or left.

At the snap, Edelman breaks to the inside as if running a slant. Note the space to the inside of the field. Simon has no help – he MUST respect the threat of the slant and defend it with urgency.

No help and space to the inside = must defend the slant.

No help, and space to the inside = must defend the slant.

Now, from a closer angle, we see Edelman’s Michael Jordan moment. Like a great crossover dribble in basketball, the whip route (in which the receiver starts on a slant before pivoting to the outside) forces the defender’s momentum to one side, and then uses that momentum against the defender as the offensive player changes directions. And, as with Jordan’s NBA Finals winning crossover against Bryon Russell and the Utah Jazz in 1998, Edelman uses his left arm to help usher the defender to the inside.

Simon's momentum is to the inside; Edelman's left arm helps Simon on his way as Edelman quickly pivots to the outside; the 6'3'' Simon can't keep up.

Simon’s momentum is to the inside; Edelman’s left arm helps Simon on his way as Edelman quickly pivots to the outside; the 6’3” Simon can’t keep up.

We see the separation as Brady releases the ball. Simon’s long legs cannot match the short area change of direction of Edelman, and Edelman (for the second time on the route in the game) only needs an accurate throw to complete the go ahead score.

Simon's momentum is only just recovering as Edelman breaks to the outside.

Simon’s momentum is only just recovering as Edelman breaks to the outside.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

Compare Edelman’s whip route to Jordan’s game winning shot:


There were many stars of Super Bowl XLIX. Tom Brady earned his third Super Bowl MVP with a surgical 4th quarter comeback into the teeth of one of the best defenses of all time. But Belichick’s ability to take advantage of his players’ abilities (in this case, the asset of short receivers) while attacking his oppositions’ weaknesses (in this case, the liability of tall pass defenders) paved the way for success, with Julian Edelman’s Michael Jordan moment as a fitting end to the scoring.

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.