NFLvolution – Trend-setting in a Cyclical Game

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A little over a year ago, Redskins’ GM Bruce Allen made a huge splash before the draft by agreeing to trade two future first round picks and a second rounder to move up just four spots in order to acquire Baylor quarterback, Robert Griffin III. Redskins fans expected Griffin to be their savior, but the nation wondered whether the ‘Skins gave up too much. At the time, it wasn’t a sure thing that RG3 would bring a consistently underperforming and mediocre team back into contention. And Washington has had a bad recent history of overpaying for big names.

What the fans did not know was exactly how Shanahan planned to utilize RG3. Surely, he brought a new dimension to the offense with his legs. But no fan or media member, and especially the New Orleans Saints, knew what was coming when RG3 took the NFL by storm in week 1, dropping a 40-point bomb on the Saints in the Superdome. It seemed that the mastermind had designed a specific college playbook for Griffin featuring a number of designed runs and quick passes, which were mostly easy, horizontal completions. He was a perfect fit for Shanahan’s offensive system, which also showcases a quarterback’s mobility by featuring constant play-action rollouts, giving his quarterbacks space to work with. Shanahan made the offense even more potent by implementing a ton of read-option play designs, which basically means a fast, athletic quarterback like RG3 can decide after the snap whether he wants to throw a quick pass or run with the football, entirely based on what the defense is giving him. The read-option is a college football concept that many analysts have long thought wouldn’t translate well to the NFL, mainly because defenders, particularly the defensive linemen, are much faster and more athletic at the next level.

At the time, RG3 was one-of-a-kind, and a lot fans and analysts were wondering how and when defenses were going to adjust to this college-based offense. It was only a matter of time, right? I mean, this is the National Football League. This couldn’t possibly develop into a trend…

Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh disagreed. Both saw the beauty and potential of this offense, looked at their roster, and figured they could replicate it. Carroll opened up the playbook significantly following the team’s mid-season BYE week, and the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson-led offense began to thrive. In San Francisco, after Alex Smith sustained a concussion, Harbaugh benched him for Colin Kaepernick despite the fact that the 49ers were winning, Smith was having a great season, was coming off a career game, and Kaepernick had never started an NFL game. By the time all three quarterbacks were all starting (week 10), Wilson, Kaepernick, and RG3 made a mockery of the NFL. What they were able to accomplish from week 10-onward was nothing short of incredible:

Robert Griffin = 13 total TDs, 2 INTs … The Redskins finished the season 7-0.

Russell Wilson = 17 total TDs, 2 INTs … The Seahawks finished the season 6-1.

Colin Kaepernick =  13 total TDs, 3 INTs … The 49ers finished the season 5-2-1.

Oh, did I mention that Griffin and Wilson were rookies last season, and second-year QB Colin Kaepernick had never started an NFL game? Yeah, it was THAT unreal.

You know what they say: “Two is a coincidence, three is a trend.”

So why couldn’t NFL defenses stop the trend?

After all, in 2012, 89% of Griffin’s passes were under 20 yards. That’s an incredible statistic, proving that even though RG3 may have been able to throw it downfield, he often didn’t even attempt. With that in mind, the read-option just seemed like another gimmick like the “wildcat” that Miami broke out in an infamous game against New England in 2007.

The Wildcat died shortly after though. So what’s the difference between this trend and that gimmick?

Well, there are two major differences. The first is that Wilson, Kaepernick and Griffin are accurate passers. That makes defending the read-option much more difficult. And it’s extremely rare; you have to understand, these three guys may be the only athletes in the entire world who have the ability to pick up yardage on the ground with their legs and pick apart an NFL defense with their arms on a consistent basis.

But the biggest difference between the Wildcat and the read-option that the Seahawks, Redskins and 49ers implemented last season is the existence of a third element. This element is crucial to why the read-option may be here through the long haul for them; it’s because there’s a third threat that the defense has to be held accountable for. Other than similar quarterbacks, what do the 49ers, Seahawks and Redskins all have in common? They have successful running games with extremely talented running backs . That’s the third order. When teams not only have to account for a quarterback’s running ability, as well as their arm/accuracy in the passing game, BUT ALSO Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore or Alfred Morris….then they are posed with quite the problem. For an NFL defense, it’s easy to defend the read-option with a mobile quarterback who isn’t a great passer. And it’s possible to defend the read-option with an accurate quarterback, especially if the majority of the throws are under 20 yards. But it’s practically impossible to defend a quarterback’s running ability, his accurate arm and the passing game, AND a very talented running back/successful running game. It’s almost like the defense has  to pick two elements to defend every play, because it’s near impossible to defend all three elements effectively for 70 snaps a game. That’s why, for RG3, Wilson and Kaepernick, as long as they have Pro Bowl running backs and the ground game remains a threat, the read-option will remain successful. The only thing preventing longterm success is durability, as the Redskins found out the hard way with RG3 last year.

But the trend showed it was here to stay in this year’s draft, as the New York Jets spent a second-round pick on Geno Smith, and the Buffalo Bills drafted FSU’s EJ Manuel with the 16th overall pick. Both read-option guys could start on opening day. That’s two franchises that who went “all in” on this trend. It’s a huge risk for an organization. A highly drafted developmental quarterback that busts can set the team back for years, and the GM and head coach’s jobs are tied to that gamble.

The NFL had began to trend toward bigger, more athletic quarterbacks anyway, not just because of their physical ability to shed tackles in and out of the pocket, but because of the recent rule changes in the NFL. All these safety-based rules that Roger Goodell is implementing favor the passing game.

One rule at a time, the league is turning into a finesse, pass-orienated flag football league that defense plays less and less of a part in. It started with cornerbacks not being able to touch receivers after five yards. Then the league banned corners from face-guarding, forcing them to turn around and “make a play on the ball,” whenever the ball was thrown at them, even though receivers aren’t required to do so. As if not contacting receivers running full speed wasn’t hard enough. Then the league started protecting receivers by outlawing horse-collar tackles and any hits above the upper-chest. Then the league banned hitting so-called “defenseless receivers,” even though they aren’t actually defenseless. Now players can’t even block someone that isn’t looking or involved in the play. Protecting the quarterback became the next big thing. Defenders can’t hit quarterbacks a millisecond after he releases the ball. They can’t hit a quarterback below the thighs, or above the chest. Tacklers can’t leave their feet when tackling. They can’t lead with their helmet. The list goes on.

Let me ask you something: How are defenders supposed bring down massively strong quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger, or elusive throws like Wilson, Kaepernick and RG3, if they have to focus on six hundred different regulations that force them to tackle a certain way? Good luck.

Defensive players stand little chance in today’s NFL. Offenses have figured this out, so we’ve seen teams open up the play books, spreading defenses out to all ends, and scorching them through the air. So should NFL offenses just start splitting 4 wide receivers out wide and pass out of the shot gun every play?

Not necessarily.

Bill Belichick knows that the philosophy described above yielded him the greatest offense of all time. But he also knows it was the main reason his 2007 undefeated Patriots team lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl. So while other teams tried to build their offenses similar to the Patriots, replicating their air-it-out 4-wide downfield offense, Belichick began changing his by starting three new trends.

The craze that began before the read-option QB, and that is still ongoing, is the 2-TE set. That is, finding large, athletic, pass-catching tight ends that can pose problems for defenses by running crisp routes and making plays in the passing game, while being able to block effectively if asked. Having tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (who Belichick drafted in the same draft class) is like having two queens in the game of chess; they can move wherever they want, and the defense has to account for them in any scenario, run or pass. It’s important to understand that the extra tight end on the field is replacing the fullback. The fullback is growing extinct in the NFL as teams lean heavily toward the pass, and teams have realized that running lanes can be opened by a potent passing attack, rather than relying on a fullback to create running lanes as a lead blocker. Fullbacks are easily accounted for by a linebacker. Tight ends like Gronkowski and Hernandez are too fast to be covered by linebackers, and they are physical and big enough to outmuscle defensive backs, so they pose tremendous matchup problems…especially when there two of them on the field.

But Belichick didn’t stop there. As if matching up with these monsters was hard enough. Belichick took advantage of one key rule (loophole) in the NFL: substitutions.

By rule, defenses can only substitute when offenses do. You constantly see players running on and off the field, sending out players for specific running or passing packages. The defense has time to match, sending out more defensive backs, linebackers or linemen….whichever is needed to suit the situation and adjust to the offenses’ substitutions. But when you have two versatile tight ends, like Gronkowski and Hernandez, whom as mentioned, can effectively burn defenses in the passing game, and block well in the running game, you can theortically run the hurry-up, and defenses can’t substitute, so they can’t adjust to defending your tight ends. Taking advantage of the substitution rule is what makes these two tight ends impossible to defend; regardless of the down and distance, the Patriots’ tight ends can be extremely effective, but the defense, by rule, can’t match up the right personnel for the situation.

For example, the Patriots may spread a defense out by lining up with 2 WRs and 2 TEs out wide (only one RB in the backfield, virtually guaranteeing a pass) on the field for first down, so the defense will match accordingly by putting one or two extra defensive backs on the field to cover what is basically four receivers. Let’s say the Patriots gain 8 yards on the pass play. They can then rush to the line of scrimmage and use the same personnel to run the ball, this time with their tight ends now serving as blockers against a defense that still has too many defensive backs on the field from the first down play, which was clearly a pass. The defense hasn’t had time to substitute for the down and distance (2nd and 2 would require more linebackers and less defensive backs on the field to prepare for a running play because the Pats only need two yards to get a first down). But Tom Brady recognized the personnel mismatch, and the Patriots rushed to the line of scrimmage, disallowing a substitution, and pick up the easy two yards on the ground. First down.  THAT is exactly why the Patriots were the first team to run the hurry-up, regardless of situation and the time on the clock. The hurry-up also increases the number of snaps in a game offensively, which in turn yields more points. That’s just logical. Thanks to Belichick, these reasons are why the hurry-up offense and 2-TE sets are growing trends in the NFL.

With all these defensive rules practically beg offenses to throw, and QBs and TEs that are threats on the ground and in the air, and a substitution rule that prohibits defenses from matching offesnes’ personnel unless they sub first, you would think the NFL is going to turn into a fast-paced, hurry-up, all-throwing league. And it’s going to stay that way forever because it simply can’t be stopped, right?

Think again. There’s

The key to killing a fly is to clap above it, because by the time the fly senses you, you’re attacking where the fly is going to be. Football is the same way, both offensively and defensively. That’s why so many analysts compare football to chess. The best chess players are the ones that think multiple moves ahead. In chess, and in football, you have to ask yourself after every move: “what is my opponent trying to do?” Then you have to create a plan of attack, based on your where your opponent is going. There’s absolutely no sense in honing in on the present and focusing on current trends. The best coaches are the ones who are thinking ahead of the trends.

This is what makes Bill Belichick so great.

He knows the NFL is cyclical, and philosophies work in cycles. Don’t think for a second that the offense is the only thing predicating change in the NFL. I understand that the rules are geared toward offensive success, but the defense will adjust in a number of ways.

The main adjustment will be replacing a linebacker with a defensive back. Seeing as the running game is utilized much less, there’s no reason to have your traditional three linebackers in on every play. Defenses will start (and already have begun) using their nickel package (5 DBs) as more of a base defense. Safeties who can both defend the run and show great coverage skills will be more prominent. I expect to see a lot of teams utilize three safeties to matchup better with these mobile QBs and duel-threat TEs (perhaps the Saints will use Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper and newly drafted Kenny Vaccaro on the field at the same time). In that sense, defenses will be quicker, faster and more athletic, to account for these up-tempo, pass-first offenses.

So if you’re Bill Belichick, and you want to counter that adjustment, what’s your next move?

Seeing as defenses have sacrificed size and strength for athleticism and speed by replacing linebackers with defensive backs, there’s only one option: you beef up the o-line and go back to the old-fashioned ground-and-pound. You use the tight ends to create blocking mismatches with the extra DBs on the field by attacking a smaller, quicker defense with size and brute strength with a power running game. This strategy can be made even more effective by substitution rule. As I mentioned previously, you’ll start to see offenses take advantage of defenses that have extra defensive backs on the field.

After all, even though running the ball can’t pick up the large chunks of yards that moving the ball through the air can yield, there are many benefits to having a strong running game. Not only does a strong running game force the defense to add size with a better tackler (a linebacker) in an effort to stop the run, which puts a less athletic, slower player on the field that is forced to cover a carefully matched up slot receiver or receiving tight end. It also “pinches” the linebackers in closer to the line of scrimmage, which makes them much more susceptable to play-action fakes. This is how the outdated mantra “you have to run to set up the pass,” came into being. We’ve learned that philosophy isn’t necessarily true any more, as most teams actually do the reverse nowadays (pass to open up the running game, as I just mentioned).

Being able to run the ball effectively when needed has a lot of advantages though. Running the ball also allows teams to control the clock, keeping their opponents’ offense off the field longer, which cools off a quarterback’s rhythm and provides less opportunities for opposing offenses to score points. Controlling the clock becomes increasingly important in the second half when trying to preserve a lead. The great teams find a way to grind out the clock with long drives late in games, preventing comebacks. But relying on the running game will always have its advantages from a tactical standpoint too. Running the ball is safer than throwing. As Darrell Royal famously said in the 1960s, “There are only three things that can happen on a forward pass, and two of them are bad.” In reality, a pass can result in a loss of down (incompletion), a loss of yards (sack) or a turnover (interception/fumble loss).

As Bill Belichick has learned, this is an especially important concept for teams in December, when the weather starts getting cold and windy. It’s difficult to throw accurately and conduct a timing-based passing game in the elements, and games in December and January are the ones that matter (playoff games). The lack of running game was a big reason why Peyton Manning fell short in Foxboro for years. And it’s a big reason why the Patriots haven’t WON a Super Bowl since their dynasty years.

Now, allow me explain further what I touched on earlier regarding the Patriots’ change of philosophy and Belichick’s third trend.

The Patriots have been great from 2006-2011. Their air-it-out, downfield offense that spread defenses out has been the most prolific in history. Belichick started that wide open approach. They’ve had some dominating offenses and have even gone to two Super Bowls. I’d argue the 2007 Patriots (the team that broke all those records with Randy Moss) was one of the greatest teams ever assembled, but they couldn’t finish the job.

Why? Because they relied on the pass too much. The Patriots couldn’t run the ball when they needed to. With Laurence Maroney as the team’s lead back, the lack of running game was never exposed until the Super Bowl because they killed every opponent in the regular season. The Giants pass rush forced Brady and the pass-relient Patriots into mistakes…mistakes that wouldn’t have happened in the conservative offense that the Patriots ran in during their dynasty run ten years ago, even though the 2007 offense was MUCH better.

In the dynasty years, the Patriots’ offense had a conservative run-first philosophy that sported a 2-TE set (of Daniel Graham and Christian Fauria) who mainly blocked for Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk and Antowain Smith, but could also catch short passes. Brady never stood too long in the pocket, firing quick passes to nameless receivers like David Givens, Troy Brown, Deion Branch and David Patten on short, one-cut routes. Brady rarely ever took shots down field because he didn’t have to. The offense nickel-and-dimed their way down the field on efficient, methodical drives that featured a heavy dosage of running and quick, safe passes that kept the clock churning. Turnovers were limited because the offense did not put them in as much position to make mistakes (that a great pass rush could force). The defense consistently held on to the lead.

Which brings me to my next point. In an effort to prove both that the NFL is cyclical, and that Bill Belichick is ahead of the curve, has anyone noticed that this Patriots’ team is starting to look eerily similar to the teams that won Super Bowls in 2001, 2003 and 2004?

The 2-TE set that was not at all present in the Patriots’ sensational passing attack from 2005-2011 exists again. Stevan Ridley is a very similar running back to Corey Dillon. Shane Vereen is the Kevin Faulk. The Patriots have made an effort to get effective running backs that they never had from 2006-2011 (because at the time, they thought they didn’t need them). Danny Amendola is a reliable inside target like Troy Brown. There aren’t great receivers on the outside, but there weren’t back in the glory days either. And the Patriots have put an emphasis on defense lately, recently spending early draft picks on DE Chandler Jones (Mike Vrabel) and SLB Donta Hightower (Willie McGinnest), while adding physical DBs Aqib Talib (Ty Law) and Adrian Wilson (Rodney Harrison). Vince Wilfork remains ten years later, still eating up blockers in the middle.

I’m not saying the Patriots are going to be a conservative run-first team next year. I am saying that Belichick wants the balance they had back in their dynasty years. He wants to be able to run the ball with power, and he doesn’t want the offense to rely on Brady, as much as he wants it to run through Brady (there’s a huge difference). In the coming years, expect the Patriots to try to utilize the running game more often, while running more of a quick-hit, west coast offense that features short routes to tight ends and quick receivers, rather than the vertical, downfield 4-wide passing game we’ve come to know and love. This is all in an effort to win Super Bowls, not just get there with a great statistical offense. But getting there is important too, and Belichick recognizes that the Patriots have to win games in the cold, windy outdoor environments at home in Foxboro and on the road in Denver or Baltimore, so Belichick is building his teams accordingly.

In case I’ve strayed too far away from the point: NFL on-field philosophies are cyclical. When defenses add more defensive backs to react to the increased passing, they’ll naturally be sacrificing size and strength for speed and quickness. As a result, smart offenses will start bulking up the o-line using the tight ends to manhandle smaller DBs in the running game. Slowly but surely, the running game will start to play a major role in the NFL again. In fact, I’d argue that the trend has already arrived.

Notice the success that the Ravens and Patriots have had with the ground game and 2-TE sets, as well as the aforementioned 49ers, Seahawks and Redskins’ success with read-option quarterbacks and their running games. And recall example above, proving why the hurry-up can make offenses even more effective. The one common denominator (other than a good quarterback) among those successful, trendy teams is an emphasis on a strong running game.

What’s more, the pass-happy Falcons, Broncos, Packers and Saints have all vowed to improve their running games this off-season.

The point is: just a year ago, analysts figured teams needed a great quarterback to win a Super Bowl, as the NFL was purely a passing league. But as defenses continue to become smaller and quicker to adjust, teams will start to realize the advantages of a strong running game that are listed above. Defenses will eventually adjust to the increased running by beefing up their defenses. Then NFL offenses will lean toward the pass again…and the cycle continues.

The teams that have consistent success, like New England, are the ones that remain ahead of the curve in the NFL’s perfect circle.

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