Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sod it

So I got half way (and two hours) through writing a post, then read it back to myself and realised "this is pointless".

I was going to write an article about a post I'd seen on a coaching forum, where people basically ran down the NFL and said some of the stupidest and inane things you could possibly imagine about offenses in the NFL, while concurrently trying to profess that College football is somehow a superior art, but breaking down the forum posts in minute detail was serving to be a pain and not quite putting across what I want to say on the matter.

On that note I'm going to take a different tack and try to make the point that;

1) College football is predisposed to a greater degree of offensive variety,
2) That the variety in College football is somewhat over stated,
3) That NFL offense's are actually a lot more diverse than some people seem to realise,

Number one is answered simply; the Football Bowl Subdivision alone is host to 120 teams. That's nearly four times as many teams as the NFL, leaving open the likely hood that at least some of those teams will hire coaches with offensive or defensive systems that vary widely from those used elsewhere. That variation on one side of the ball often prompts an adjustment by a regular opponent, who in turn creates a "new" offense or defense to counter their oddball opponent while also finding a way to match up against more "regular" teams. The fact that college teams also have widely different personnel levels (quality wise) across the broad spectrum of their teams only makes it more likely that somewhere in there someone will run a contrary scheme to the "norm" to cover up weaknesses/expose strengths.

Number two is also relatively self explanatory. College football is often seen as the font of all things creative and diverse in football, whereas the NFL is seen as a "copy cat" or "grab bag" league. I have a hard time then understanding why so many teams in college have switched to "spread" offenses (for the purpose of this article, defined as being in the shotgun with three or more wide receivers) since the success of teams like Florida and others.

Why do we see so many Pistol offenses lately, which is the latest craze sweeping college football? How many of these unique and diverse teams run zone style runs? How many run the option, itself a play that is as old as the hills and can hardly be described as being particularly innovative? For a while the hype was all about the Zone read (a play the Broncos hammered last Sunday), but even that is just another type of option football.

I don't know everything about football (I'll die before that's ever possible) but I know enough to know that a lot of offenses (and defenses) in college football are running schemes that are very, very similar to one another and that the diversity and originality of schemes is being somewhat over stated by some.

Thirdly, the NFL.

It's a fairly common assumption - it would appear - among high school coaches to believe that every NFL team runs basically the same core group of plays and little else. Now certainly the proliferation of teams that run a lot of inside and outside zone runs might give you that impression, but NFL offenses are actually a lot more diverse than people believe.

I read one comment on the forum post mentioned at the start about how nobody in the NFL runs trap plays anymore. You know what I mean, like the trap plays that the Eagles and Patriots often run. Or the Wham play used by the 49ers that is effectively a form of trap.

The truth is there is only so many ways to run the football. With five down linemen and a tight end, that gives you seven "gaps" (nine if you must insist on calling very wide runs extra gaps) that you can run through and only so many players available to block through them, and only so many ways that you can get said players to the hole. Logically speaking of course.

Thus the amount of runs that a team could theoretically run is already capped. Add to that the fact that some runs have proven over the years to be more effective than others and you have your answer. I think sometimes people expect NFL coaches to be outlandish and try new things just for the sake of being different, or that somehow the pressure of losing your job is not sufficient reason for a coach to be a little more conservative and stick to what he knows best instead of implementing the latest Super High Speed Spread 'Em Out To Run Turbo No Huddle Ultra Screen Offense. TM.

Even then, there is actually a degree of individuality about NFL offense's, you just have to look for it. Take the Steelers for example.

The Steelers offense is based around the skills of Ben Roethlisberger. They run a lot of empty sets and sets with just one back for whom you can normally see Ben highlighting a man to check. They're counting on his ability to evade pressure, stay on his feet and run to make plays. The offense seldom runs short routes because it makes more sense to let the players get down field, even though that takes more time, due to Roethlisberger's movement skills.

Mike Martz runs a similar system in Chicago, though not due to any inherent evasion skills possessed by Jay Cutler, but more to do with this being how Martz has always run his schemes. Until this season, when it appears Lovie Smith has had a quiet word in his ear, Martz had been famous for trying to get the maximum number or receivers out into routes, with very little concern for pass protection. The fact that these routes are often deep plays and take a long time to develop helps explain why Jay Cutler got killed in the pocket so often.

But now the Bears offense is almost unrecognisable as being a Martz offense. They run the ball a lot more, using predominantly power style running plays with one or more pulling offensive linemen. They use the backs much more for pass protection, often using play action as well, while sending just two or three receivers down field in the hope that if they can keep Cutler upright long enough, he'll be able to hit one of those open guys.

Then we have teams like the Saints and Packers, who admittedly do run fairly similar offenses, that involve a combination of wide formations for passing and more compacted "I" formations for running and play action. Both offenses have plenty of decent receivers to get the ball to and run a lot of short and medium depth passing plays, preferring to pick people apart rather than just gash them with lots of long bombs, although the yards after catch of their receivers often turn 10 yard hooks into much bigger plays.

Then we have the Texans, who as I've pointed out before are running a lot of two back, two tight end, formations, or single tight end formations but with one of the receivers brought in close to the formation. It's almost like they're spending half their time in goal line type setups and having a lot of success as a result, running plenty of zone rushing plays and the subsequent play action that builds off of that.

Then you have the Dolphins, who under previous offensive coordinator Dan Henning ran a lot of two back, split back formations, were quite run heavy with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, but have now reverted to a somewhat more open and "spread" style of play, emphasising the pass more than the run and largely dumping the wildcat look that had served them usefully before.

Then we have the Patriots who, to the best of my knowledge, still run a similar scheme to the one they did around the time of their last Super Bowl appearance. If this is indeed the case then it's common for them to split their pass plays up into separate combinations, with two receivers on one side running one route combo, while the two on the other side will run a different combo, allowing the Patriots to build in a degree of risk mitigation by having a combo to beat cover 2 and a combo to beat cover 3 (for example) built into the same play.

The Colts, from what I've seen, do the same. With Manning at least! Well, almost the same. I've seen an old Colts playbook/game plan from the early 2000's where it appeared that the field was split in half, with two receivers and a single back running a combo play to one side, while the flanker on the opposite side had his route "tagged", that is to say that he was told to run a specific route, with the man inside of him running a pre-set route designed to compliment whatever the outside receiver was doing. The system sounds similar to the one described for the Patriots, but from what I've seen the Colts system is slightly more flexible (and thus complicated). The Colts also use a lot of screens in lieu of a strong running game.

And if the Bears are becoming famous for running outside the tackles then the Falcons must be famous for running inside them. The Falcons offense often features Michael Turner attacking the linebackers up the middle, not least because on Play-action this makes the linebackers hesitate before dropping back, creating extra breathing room over the middle for tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Meawhile in Baltimore the Ravens are making much more use of two tight end sets now to facilitate the use of their two young tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. In addition they same more keen now to throw the ball deep, trying to use the speed of Torrey Smith (when he actually catches the ball).

The Cardinals? Well they have no offense... ba doom tish! Back in the Kurt Warner days the Cardinals used to play things quite sneaky, sending multiple receivers down field, but often having Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin to run a 5 yard drag route underneath to exploit the space created. They also heavily leaned on screen passes to Boldin, especially down in the red zone.

Talking of screen passes, this used to be a speciality of Andy Reid when he had Brian Westbrook, but now not so much. He's also started to drift away somewhat from his heavy use of trap runs up the middle, but still finds time to sneak a few in. The introduction of Michael Vick has made the most influential change on Reid's offense, with a switch away from heavier protections that supported down field passes to the likes of DeSean Jackson, and now leans a little more towards multi receiver, "spread" type sets, permitting Vick more opportunities to run up the vacated space in the middle.

The Panthers have also done the same with Cam Newton, shifting away from an offense that used to sit often in the "I" formation and run a lot with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, to operating more out of the gun which is more familiar to Newton, and again using more of a "spread" look to give him more room for running up the middle.

We'll stop there, but this tour could continue around basically the entire NFL. As generic as the teams might sometimes look, as they steal ideas and plays from one another, just keep in mind that all is not what it seems. Lots of teams have different approaches, even if the subtleties of those approaches is not easy to discern at first.


Teoita said...

There was a post about NFL offenses a good while ago on smartfootball which said the opposite: NFL offense at the end of the day run the same plays more or less.

Zone runs with conters and powrs, and the odd draw/trap, and very similar pass routes.

The differences you point out in my opinion have more to do with the offensive coordinators calling plays that are suited for their player's skills: Peyton Manning can read defenses amazingly, so he can check to all sorts of split field pass combos at the line; Ben Roethlisberger can extend plays a lot so he has fewer checkdowns and more deep routes, etc.

At the end of the day i feel like what differentiates offenses in the NFL is the players more than the plays: a team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker throws a lot, one with Jonathan Stewart and Deangelo Williams runs a lot (in theory, lol).

Chris said...

And a team with Adrian Peterson throws a lot... ;)

Really I think everyone is limited to a degree. There's only so many routes that you can run before you have to start going off the charts and designing routes specifically for your offense.

Even a lot of the plays run in College are just combinations of existing and well known routes as opposed to purely unique and original combinations.

But I do think the NFL should get some credit for the variety. It is there and even NFL coaches work to create new schemes and new ideas where they can, or where it is beneficial for them.

I just push back somewhat against the idea that it's the job of NFL offenses to be varied for varieties sake. The teams hire the coaches to win games, not experiment.

And I do think the oft used adage that NFL teams only run zone, counter and power is not quite as true as some think. I would also point out that other than option football, College teams aren't exactly filling the list out with additional plays.