Monday, January 14, 2013

The Morning After: NFL Divisional Round

It is becoming more difficult to deny the existence of a spectacular "sea change" in the NFL in 2012.

It is happening.  The NFL is having a revolution.  And the revolution is being televised for all of us to see.

Tactics in football can often fly under the radar as millions watch every game.  When a team shifts its defensive line from a 4-3 over front to a 4-3 under, nobody notes it or knows what it means.

But, when Colin Kaepernick is running down the field for a 56-yard touchdown run in the playoffs, it is a play of fantastic substance that is swinging the balance of power in the NFL.

He ran for 181 yards and passed for 263 more as the 49ers demolished Green Bay in front of the eyes of the football world.  This, in a game in which he was the biggest question mark and one which started with Kaepernick throwing an interception for a Touchdown the other way.

He was fantastic and despite his lack of experience, or even more damning, "big game experience", it was surely a game in which he wasn't ready.  But, then he went and did that.  He ran for more yards than any QB ever did in any game in the National Football League.  And here is an even more stunning number:  He ran for 3 yards after contact.

That means, according to ESPN, he ran for 178 yards without contact.  Please, allow a moment for that to sink in.

He ran for 178 yards without being touched.

And this is the revolution of the NFL game happening right before our eyes.

99 of his yards were on the zone-read option, a play we are all becoming quite familiar with.  It features a posture out of the shotgun that allows for an inside run to a RB or an outside counter by the QB that is primarily based on the movement of the unblocked edge rusher.  If he crashes inside to get the runner, the QB keeps and has the ability to turn the corner on the unblocked man.  If he stays high to keep the corner closed off, then they take the inside run without support from the crash.  It is a multiple choice question in which the defense can hardly ever guess correctly.  It is simple, but the NFL has not gone down this road much in the past because of conventional wisdom.

Ah, conventional wisdom.  No type of wisdom slows down evolution in sports quite like the good ol "way we have always done things".  And, of course, in the NFL, that has told us that you should never run your QB.  He will get killed.  The defenders are too big and fast and strong.  You can run that all you want, but don't come to us when he is getting carried off the field.

But, what if RBs get hurt all of the time?  Is that reckless to run them down the field with the ball in their hands, looking for yardage wherever they can find it?  No.  That is the risk of playing RB.  So, why is QB different?  Usually, because in our head, RBs are built to withstand punishment.  Also, they have the uncanny ability to not take direct hits very often.  The best way to survive the vicious NFL hit is to avoid it, right?

Well, what if we could find a QB who has those same traits?  What if he was fast as a running back - or faster?  Kaepernick ran a 4.53 at the combine, which would put him right there with with some of the faster running backs - Shane Vareen (formerly of California, now of New England) is sold to us as a speedster and ran a 4.50.  Well, Kaepernick is a fraction of a second behind him.  But, a slight fraction at that.

Now, what if the scheme was built around this truth?  What if the coaches really bought in?  And what if it was happening all over the league at the same time?  What if football was changing before your eyes in a way that made you recalculate your thoughts about a sport where Pro-Style I formation is all you hold dear?

What if Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin, Cam Newton, and Kaepernick were all here at the same time?  And what if Geno Smith and Johnny Manziel appear to be next in line?  Are you buying in that this is the new direction of the league or the next passing fad that will disappear soon?

Let's be clear - we have seen fads.  We know the Wildcat rocked the NFL's world for about 1 season.  We also know that one reason this works is because it defies convention and that nobody deals with it at the NFL level.  But, if it hauls off and makes it to the Super Bowl, it will not be quirky anymore - it will be mainstream.  As Smart Football wrote about last month, this is all mostly from the lineage of the air-raid offense, and now that the entire Big 12 is running it (it seems), it will truly be tested if people see it every week.

I confess, despite the fact that my team (part-owner) was getting steam-rolled on Saturday night, I do love the evolution of the NFL game.  The moneyball question in our sport is simple:  Since it appears that teams that have Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees have a decided advantage over teams that don't, how can the rest of the league compete against truly elite QB play?  If it takes 31 points to send those teams home from the playoffs, how can we get 35 from less-than-elite QBs?

The answer might be to find an offensive scheme where our QB can be elite by entering feet into the equation and not simply the arm.  And then find that QB.

There were many QBs before this point that got us to Cam Newton.  How Michael Vick and Tim Tebow (so far) and Vince Young never reached these heights might be a discussion about arm strength,  arm accuracy, football IQ, dedication to the sport, or the fact that they never found the right scheme.  Or, we might consider the fact that 1-year ago yesterday, Tebow was still in the playoffs, QB for the Denver Broncos and pulling off a playoff win with a scheme that was not that far from what we saw on fields this year.

But, his organization and their leader, John Elway, didn't seem to believe in the experiment - especially if Peyton Manning was available.  And who can blame him?

But, Kaepernick is not a "running QB".  He is a very strong passer with accuracy that seems to be strong to quite strong, and the ability to get the ball down the field.  Griffin-like, if you will.  And, he is one of only 4 QBs in the history of college football to run for 20 Touchdowns and pass for 20 Touchdowns in the same season.  The others?  Tebow, Newton, and Manziel.  He was finding Michael Crabtree and friends with great ease at times on Saturday, and all Green Bay could do was shake their heads and go home.

Not all of these QBs are going to ever run for 181 yards in a playoff game.  Geno Smith hardly likes to run at all.  But, he runs that globetrotter ball fake-routine that would make Mike Leach proud, and then make you pay with throws to all angles of the field.  And, he will go in the Top 10 this year (some say #1, but we are 100 days from the draft).

Many are telling us that this won't last because they will get hurt.  You don't want your QB taking hits like that, right?  And yes, there are shades of grey here.  Some QBs are going to learn the hard way that contact comes with a toll.  But, what if a team so believed in the scheme that the 2nd and 3rd string guys also are run/pass hybrid QBs?  Could it work?

Of course, you will always take Andrew Luck if you have a chance.  He is a tremendous athlete, but I would be pretty shocked to see Luck on a zone-read option where he is galloping down the field like Kaepernick or even Russell Wilson - another guy that prefers to beat you with his arm.  But, this might come back to the original question:  If you don't have Brady, Manning, Rodgers or Brees and yet you are playing for the same trophy, do you try to beat them at their own game with Alex Smith, Rex Grossman, or even Matt Schaub?  Or do you try to change your entire thinking about the NFL game, look to Dana Holgorsen and Kliff Kingsbury for inspiration, and match scheme with player in a way where the league is not sure whether to mock you or copy you?

Which leads us to other tentacles of this discussion:  Looking at how Dom Capers was embarrassed by this scheme on Saturday night, do we ask if decorated defensive minds in the NFL are able to adjust to this?  He won a Super Bowl 2 years ago, so he clearly knows what he is doing, but he almost surrendered 600 yards to what appears to be a relatively typical version of this dynamic offense.  It makes you wonder if Monte Kiffin is prepared to deal with the division going through the zone read in Washington.  The Tampa 2 is to slow down the West Coast offense and the greatest show on turf over in St Louis.  How many times did Tampa have to deal with what we are seeing in 2012?

I am not sure anyone knows where this is headed.  And it would have to win a trophy or two before anyone allows it better footing in the annals of football history than the run-and-shoot or the wildcat.  People will always prefer the idea of allowing a QB to drop back in the pocket and throw for 360 and run for nothing, because that is how we all were raised on our NFL football.

But, changes happen.  Bright minds see a problem and rather than running into the walls of failure repeatedly, they try to get creative and figure out a new way around the wall.

And maybe, in 2012, in places like San Francisco, Washington, and Seattle, we are seeing where this league could be heading.

Meanwhile, who knows how many NFL GMs are sifting through the college ranks and wondering who could be the next guy to build this around?

I am not sure Manziel could have picked a better year to do what he just did in the college ranks.  The question no longer seems to be whether he can play in the NFL.  The question seems to be, "how quickly can you get here?"


Vic said...


Great post and I was thinking the same things as I watched the games this weekend. No doubt that others will try to follow the same formula. This is a copy-cat league as has been demonstrated time and time again.

BUT....The difference between a fad and a "sea change" is hard to tell in year 1 or 2 of any fundamental change. I think we will know much more in the next two years. This off-season I expect defensive coordinators to be spending A Lot of time developing plans to counter the zone-option read. I think we will see some of these new schemes put into practice next Fall. I also expect that General Managers and coaches will begin to work together on this to identify the changes in defensive personnel that are going to be needed to meet this new offensive challenge. Do we see the evolution of the Linebacker? Does speed and versatility outweigh size and strength at that position moving forward? Does the 3-4 make more sense with two Safety sized Linebackers on the outsides? Will linebacker "stunts" be the answer where the outside linebacker crashes and inside linebacker goes outside on the snap to meet the QB? I am curious to see what these guys will do to counter what the zone-option read has brought to the NFL.

- Vic

scottmaui said...

Bob, obviously this revolution is going on and is more than just a fad, but the inherent risks involved don't just disappear. It only took one season for Griffin to have a devastating injury that could affect him for the rest of his career, based on a hit that he took while running. And that was after he was knocked out with a concussion on a run in an earlier game.

RG3 has the same shortcomings as Vick in terms of sheer size, so while Newton or Kaepernick can better withstand some hits, the QB's with slighter builds have to learn how to avoid the hits by sliding or going out of bounds. Vick's lack of willingness to adapt to that reality led to his downfall, from one of the hottest QBs in the league to a guy who can't stay on the field and suffers so much from the hits he takes that he isn't even effective when he is. RG3's head and knee injuries were both the result of him not playing smart and getting down or out when he should. Even Wilson has taken plenty of hits trying to get those few extra yards at the end of the run as if he were a RB, and while he hasn't been injured by it yet, he is taking the hits, and their cumulative effect.

Kaepernick avoided contact for the most part in that game, but I think that was largely due to a defensive scheme that really didn't properly account for his running, and failed to adjust. They were playing man coverage with DBs running down the field with their backs turned, leaving him free to roam the wide green openings unchallenged. He isn't always going to get 178 yards without being touched!

Give DCs an offseason to break down a season's worth of tape on these guys, and concoct some schemes to counter it, and we will likely see the pendulum swing at least somewhat back the other way, like we did with the Wildcat.

One other factor, BTW, which I think also separates QBs from RBs in this regard is their pads. RB's shoulder pads are designed to absorb maximum impact as the back lowers his shoulders and collides with defenders. QBs shoulder pads are designed to allow maximum mobility for the upper body to throw a pass. These two types of pads are not compatible with each other. So even if you literally had a RB playing QB who was in every other way trained to run like a RB and take hits like a RB, he would be more vulnerable simply because you can't throw passes effectively with a RB's shoulder pads on. Which means that QBs are always going to be more vulnerable to injuries as soon as they try to run as if they are RBs.

scottmaui said...

Oh one more thing...

Not that I know anything about any of this lol... But...

If I were a DC, one thing I would do is tell the DE/OLB to crash down on the QB regardless of whether he keeps the ball or not. Don't even wait to find out, and don't wait and try to "contain" him, just blast him directly. If there is even a chance that the QB is holding the ball and will take off as a runner, I believe the rules allow him to be hit like a RB. This is how defenses have to make them pay. If he hands the ball off, your edge rusher not crashing down may cost you some yards on the interior, but meanwhile the QB, who doesn't have RB pads on, will be taking a pounding. Over the course of a game/season, the cost/benefit of running these types of plays will start to swing the other way.

I know it is not as simple as that, but when I watch these kinds of plays, including how Ware was made ineffective waiting to figure out which way to run with the Skins final game, I just kept thinking that he should just hit RG3 regardless, and make him feel it whether he keeps the ball or not.

Dave said...

great article!