Monday, September 21, 2009

The wildcat, the NFL, and complacency

Editor's note: Much of what I'll have to say below owes a lot to Chris Brown of Smart Football, specifically this article. It should be read.

I recently reviewed Madden 10. Before the game surprisingly showed up on my doorstep, I had mostly railed against the NFL and how little I actually enjoy it. A few friends observed that my complaints came shortly after my fantasy team was thoroughly shredded in week one. But I've always been bored with the game--almost certainly in large part because I grew up in Detroit, and well, I don't think I need to say much else. Frankly, I didn't even really get all that interested in college football until sometime in high school when my brother enrolled at the University of Michigan and I was looking around for similar options.

Many of the NFL's myriad problems can be, somewhat ironically, explained by early versions of the Madden series: Call a hail mary, drop back, hurl a completion for 40 yards. This isn't really an apt comparison, but it does demonstrate a few of the problems with NFL playcalling: Find the best players you can, make sure they execute as a professional player can (running routes, catching balls, etc.; which, ya know, isn't a problem in video games), and hope the quarterback does the right thing (or running back, if it's a running play). Simply put, NFL offenses are simple, and that makes the game, in my opinion, mostly boring.

It stands to reason, however, that college football, espeically prior to the current incarnation of NCAA football, was run similarly. The best players went to the biggest programs (Notre Dame, Michigan, Texas, etc.) and the smaller schools mostly fell by the wayside. That was until coaches started to realize that it was possible to beat these teams if you were smarter than them. Chris Brown addresses the issue:

But what of all those stories of Jon Gruden or Andy Reid getting only 45 minutes of sleep a night (and of course sleeping in their offices), and all the film study, 500 page NFL playbooks, and lengthy gameplans buttressed by exhaustive statistical analyses. This is the other 20%, which often is interesting. But it is interesting in a very specific way -- within the framework of the basic, repetitive concepts that compose the other 80%. NFL coaches are understandably obsessed with "matchups," a word favored by every football talking head. The coaches spend an incredible amount of time focused on how to get this receiver to go against that safety, this blitzing linebacker against that tight-end, or this pulling tackle against that defensive end. It's an evolving, repetitive, circular, intensive battle.

The spread offense, predominantly seen in college football, was created organically from football. It was a strategy designed to do exactly what NFL coaches are looking for: Matchups. Rich Rodriguez often says that one of his main goals is to get his players into space, 1-on-1 with defenders. If you recruit the right kinds of players (fast, shifty players designed to beat 1-on-1 assignments), isn't this the matchup that NFL coaches are interested in?

Brown goes on to explain that NFL coaches have no real incentive to try out new styles. Why would they risk their job on something that hasn't been tested extensively at that level and may, as Rodriguez has shown through his career, be disasterous until you get the right personnel? This makes sense. But one has to wonder why bottom of the barrel teams, like the Lions and Raiders, don't attempt the spread offense in an attempt to get out of the rut they're currently in.


What's most interesting about the spread and its application to the NFL is that in the brief moments that we do see, it's wildly successful. Take for example the Patriots, who Chris Brown also addresses:

It is no secret that the Patriots run the closest thing the N.F.L. has to a true spread offense, without the quarterback running game. New England regularly lines up with three, four or five wide receivers, and Brady practically lives in the shotgun. When teams try the ol’ trusty response of “get after the quarterback,” the Patriots bombard them — or, more accurately, fire at them with a barrage of bullets — with quick, lateral passes and quick screens to receivers, and draws and traps to deter the fast-rushing defensive linemen. The rest of the time Brady is essentially back there slinging it, and, with Moss commanding attention on the outside, Welker has lots of opportunities to make hash of opposing defenses.

The Patriots' success obviously can't be replicted everywhere because of the talent that the Pats have, their coaching, and Tom Brady's incredible accuracy. But what's more intriguing for me, is the two minute drill that teams run. A perfect example was the Tennessee/Steelers game that opened the 2009 NFL season. It was mostly a tepid, dull affair until the last three minutes of each half when, in an effort to put some points on the board before the half ends, each team spread the field and started the throwing the ball. Effectively.


It is not necessarily, then, the zone-read option that has become so widespread in the NCAA that NFL offenses should adopt. Rather, it's a little closer to Texas Tech's Air Raid offense that seems to be particularly effective--ironic then that Graham Harrell, TT's vaunted, record-setting QB went completely undrafted. This shift is not something that can happen quickly or easily. It is a top-to-bottom shift for whatever program first adopts the spread in full, a la the Patriots. (Sidenote: What happens to the Patriots when Brady eventually retires? An obvious question and one that seems not to offer any insight, but their success is almost wholly predicated on their system and not necessarily their QB. Do they continue their NFL-spread without Brady? Is it ever effective again?)

It's pretty obvious the side of the argument that I'm on. The wildcat is fine, but it's not enough. Maybe Tim Tebow's entrance into the NFL will be enough to have a team finally committ to some of these schemes, but that's unlikely as most are already talking about him coming into the league as a wildcat player or fullback.


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