Yes and no. There's several reasons why I devote less space here to what NFL teams do than for college teams. Far and away the most significant reason though, is that, somewhat counterintuitively, NFL offenses are surprisingly bland and homogenized. Not entirely, but as a rule of thumb, 80% of what NFL teams do on offense (or defense, really too) is extremely straightforward to the point where every team runs the same stuff. And the list is not that long. In an appendix at the bottom, I have cataloged basically the entire set. Most notably, the whole NFL's entire run game amounts to about four or five plays: the inside zone (also known as the "tight zone"), the outside zone (also known as the "stretch play" or the "wide zone"), power, counter, and some kind of draw, particularly the lead draw. No matter what cosmetic deceptions you see when you watch an NFL game (and remember, these cosmetics are supposed to be good enough to fool the opposing coaches who have studied film all week), you're seeing the same plays over, and over, and over again. There is some admitted monotony to this. Indeed, after today, having sketched out a great deal of this 80% of the NFL's offense, there won't be much need for me to come back to what a specific NFL teams do.
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.
Yet is of limited ongoing or generalizable significance. Let's say an NFL coach wants to run the counter trey, which is a run play where one lineman pulls and traps (i.e. blocks from the inside out), and another blocker (either lineman or tight-end) leads (i.e. goes up into the crease and looks to hit a linebacker). He might alter the assignments, or use a particular motion or shift or formation, because he wants the kick-out block to go against a certain guy and the lead against another. And, if successful, you, as spectator, probably won't notice what he did: the coach wasn't looking for a pancake block, just "success," which might be as simple as the blocker's getting in the way enough that the runner could get four yards. This "matchup" isn't always as dramatic as you might think. This does not demean its importance, but, from my perspective, does not always lend itself to lengthy, repeated examples.
Moreover, getting into this minutiae requires a great deal of digging and backstory. What have these teams done in the past? Who is injured this week? What is the history between the opposing coaches? I have discussed some of this type of thing before, for example, here. But again, this great complexity ironically flows from a rather bland and homogenous set. The NFL appears populated by eternal, diligent tinkerers rather than broad thinkers.
There's a final reason, however, that I don't routinely get into detail with NFL offenses: I'm not convinced the NFL wants anyone to. Whether a marketing decision or one to placate paranoid franchises --word is guys like Mangini are exceptionally controlling of the flow of info, including requiring people to burn and destroy film or handouts -- NFL films does not actually make this footage available, and most of what it shows are such extreme close-ups that it is impenetrable from a strategy perspective. Part of the theory is undoubtedly the desire to overcome the fact that it is marketing a sport where all the players wear masks, something the NBA and golf and most other sports don't have to deal with.
Unfortunately, the result is that it's impossible to get a sense of what is going on during a play: the quarterback releases the ball, the ball floats magically in the air, and the receiver appears like an apparition out of nowhere to catch it. And the practical questions remain. What coverage were they in? What route did the receiver run? What complementary routes did the other receiver run? Who rushed the quarterback? Who picked up those rushers? It's impossible to tell. Take the clip below of the 49ers's dramatic, waning minutes victory over the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.
There's a couple of times where you can get a sense of a route or two, but there's not one play where I could (a) diagram the play in its entirety, i.e. all the receivers, or (b) more importantly, tell you what exactly the defense was doing, particularly the secondary. On the big pass to Jerry Rice over the middle, it's clear he ran a dig route, but it's not clear why he was so open. And then the voice-over goes so far as to tell you the actual name of the game winning touchdown play, yet could you tell me what any of the receivers besides John Taylor did on the play? Wouldn't the coverage on Jerry Rice, who would up MVP of the game, have been relevant as to why Taylor was so open? (Both Bill Walsh and Joe Montana later diagrammed the play in their books; there was actually a problem with the playcall as meshing with the formation.)
Fine, that's NFL Films. But what about watching the game on television? Yes, you get some replays, but generally it is not much better. You're lucky if you see the linebackers. Homer Smith once gave advice to people who watch football on television: Don't watch the ball, watch the defense -- you'll never miss where the ball winds up going. Yet he admits that with modern angles this advice is often impracticable. Ironically, too, the NFL, with more money (and likely its intent to market personalities) affixes its camera angles tighter than do college broadcasts My sense is that many college games can only afford a couple of cameras, so they pick a couple that can get a flavor for more of the field. The NFL instead overdoes it.
Why so simple?
That 80% of every NFL teams' offense consists of the same bunch of plays run over and over, combined with the inadequate broadcast techniques that robs the viewer of the ability to decipher the minute game-within-a-game adjustments that are going on, helps explain why it is not always worth it for me to discuss with great specificity what each NFL team does. But that still doesn't answer why NFL offenses are like this. (Defenses have the same issue of 80/20 blandness, though they will sometimes give incredibly exotic looks solely due to the freakish nature of some of the players. NFL cornerbacks can constantly play "press-bail" -- meaning they can show bump and run and yet be able to "bail" and play deep if necessary -- because they are so athletic, and I've seen guys like Ravens safety Ed Reed do miraculous things like line up directly on the line of scrimmage over a tight-end and then at the snap retreat and play deep half-field safety on the opposite side of the field. Other than the kind of stuff that you can only do if you've won the DNA lottery, NFL defenses all tend to be the same as well.)
Theories abound to explain the phenomena. Ones often trotted out: NFL coaches are closed minded; they don't understand the option/spread/wishbone/etc; the speed of the game is much greater than it is college; it's all some sort of conspiracy; and, finally, we have it all backwards, and this NFL-homogenity is actually somehow better, we're just missing it.
These can be dealt with in short order. The NFL has the most money and pressure at stake, and coaches have little job security. There is no reason for them to be so closed minded. And they certainly do understand the option. Many have coached at other levels before, and, though they might not be experts, it doesn't take long to explain how the option and the spread work and why they have been effective. The conspiracy stuff is bunk, and I think it can't be argued that the NFL is not homogeneous or monotonous, and, in theory at least, more diversity would be better, no? Most of the NFL offense defenders argue that the players make it worthwhile to do this, or the passing game is what makes it all necessary, or there is some hidden meaning we're all missing. (This argument is more common than might be initially guessed, and usually takes the following form: "The NFL is better because all that stuff is just a bunch of gimmicks," with "gimmick" being the derogative catch-all term for anything that breaks out of the 80% mold delineated in full below. As described below, one unfortunate plank of this argument is the reliance on the idea of "ideal" football.)
The speed argument is more difficult to discard, though I think for now we can ignore it. On the one hand, the idea that the defense is faster suddenly dooms all these schemes common to college seems bizarre considering that the offensive guys are (or should be?) faster too. Thus, relatively, there is no speed advantage. On the other hand, if NFL players are all both bigger and faster, then in practical terms the field itself has shrunk, even if the players are relatively the same. Yet on the other, other, hand, with more straight ahead speed and better quarterbacking, teams can better stretch the field vertically. On the whole, unless someone wants to do some real studies, I find this rather inconclusive.
There are three arguments that I think do help explain the NFL 80/20 blandness. Note however that not included in this list is the meme popular among the NFL itself (and those announcers!) that what they do is simply "better." The problem with this idea is that "better" begs too many questions: Better than what? Better how? Better as a professional offense with professional players, or better for high school players too? What is better considering that there is time to integrate any concept you want into your playbook? Isn't the "better" thing then just the more time and resources you have? So I leave this aside.
The three are:
- Coaching incest. The NFL fraternity is too incestuous, and thus they don't get out of their comfort zone enough and don't seriously engage with what is going on elsewhere.
- Lack of incentive to experiment.Related to above, but the idea is that, post free-agency, there is little reason for NFL coaches to "think outside the box," and when they do and fail, they will be ridiculed and fired. For example, Marv Levy famously went to the Wing-T offense with the Kansas City Chiefs in the late 70s and early 80s, and was promptly fired.)
- The quarterback obsession. The money and necessity involved with NFL quarterbacks has so come to dominate the thinking and strategy behind the sport that it hampers both experimentation but literally what they have time to do. If you ask an NFL coach what he spends his time on, or why they don't use more run plays, and he will likely tell you that they spend all their time on pass protection and protection schemes, and this cuts down on what else they can do.
The second I think is underrated but important. Lost in the debate about who is more innovative, the NFL or college or high schools, is their institutional capacities. It doesn't surprise me that the most sophisticated zone blocking techniques or pass protection schemes -- or even five or seven-step drop pass patterns -- are usually developed in the NFL. The margins are quite thin there because the personnel is so good and every team has a salary cap. This stuff is their bread and butter, and they will constantly tinker with it.
But what incentive does an NFL team have to just say "screw it, I'm going to do something weird." Very little. Even the moribund Detroit Lions don't really have this need; the Miami Dolphins went from worst-to-playoffs, though with a little help by being different. Different helps but we're not talking about extremes.
In college or high school, however, you have teams that are completely downtrodden, as in winless in years downtrodden. There is no reason in these scenarios not to experiment. Of course, everyone knows that Rich Rodriguez's "zone read" offense was born at Glenville State where he said his entire goal was "just to get a first down." There are a lot of really bad Division I programs, but even more bad or obscure small colleges, and thousands more high schools. Indeed, for all the talk of the "Wildcat" as a "college thing," it really was a high school thing. Gus Malzahn ran some similar stuff while a high school coach, and insofar as Houston Nutt and others had their input the shotgun jet-sweep offense which the Wildcat is but one strand of is something that has exploded at high school level but hasn't really made its way to major college football. NFL coaches would do well to keep their eye on the lower levels to see what broad, new, general ideas spring forth. (A final X factor is the issue of practice time: Major D-1 colleges have just about the least practice time at any level, and high schools of course have to spend so much time teaching fundamentals that strategy is secondary. As a result there is what I call variation by hedgehog, meaning that you get variety by having a bunch of teams focus on one or two things they do really well, compared with the NFL where teams try to do a bit of everything.)
Finally, this third issue cannot be discounted. Bruce Arians, now offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers and former quarterback coach for the Indianapolis Colts, once did a bit on defeating the zone-blitz. His basic thought was about protecting the passer: the importance of planning for the zone-blitz and protecting the quarterback at all costs. Then, at the end he wrote: "P.S. If your quarterback doesn't make $48 million then don't forget the lead option."
Coming from an NFL guy, that's damn near heresy. Of course the quarterback he was referring to was Peyton Manning (though I haven't seen Roethlisberger run any option either), but here's the thought, expanded out. Yes, quarterbacks are incredibly important, and must be protected. You have to spend a lot of time focusing on this protection, getting it right, and calibrating your matchups on top of it all when you have freaks of nature as pass rushers. (I wrote a lengthy article about pass protection here.) That's fine, do what you have to do to protect those guys.
But what Arians hinted at is something a lot of coaches believe: instead of focusing all your energy on trying to scheme your way out of all that crazy, myriad blitzing from everywhere that causes you to drop everything week to week and focus solely on that to the detriment of the run game, then why not focus on what might deter that kind of blitzing in the first place? Like option, or certain spread sets, or other things that college teams do a pretty solid job of right now. Sometimes, rather than bang your head against the wall, there's a better way.
Now this gets into the question about letting some team hit your quarterback, and involves other questions beyond the scope of this article. No one thinks running the option with Manning or Brady is a good idea, and their passing skills are so good that it probably wouldn't be worth it anyway. But is great passing ability exclusive of great running ability? And if it is not, then does running the option significantly increase the risk of injury? How much worse can it be than David Carr being sacked countless times in a season, mostly by being hit from the blindside mid-throwing motion? I'd probably rather be hit while running the ball than like that.
The wildcat and beyond
This is where the wildcat stuff becomes intriguing. The theme for this offseason seems to be that every team is studying the wildcat or looking to install it. There's strategic reasons for this and there's practical ones.
The strategic reason is that the arithmetic doesn't lie: When you run the ball and your quarterback stands there just watching the play, his defensive counterpart can assault the runner. And even if his counterpart holds back, the runner's counterpart remains unblocked; you win games by getting the defense to commit two players to one of yours and thus gain an advantage. The wildcat -- as with the triple option or shotgun spread offense where the quarterback is a run threat -- does this. That's why I predicted back in September 2008 that the wildcat would not be "gone within a week" as several commentators so confidently explained. Indeed, it appears to be gaining momentum.
The second reason is practical. The colleges the NFL drafts from are producing these kinds of multi-skilled players, and NFL teams ought to be able to employ some of them in these schemes without having to risk their $48 million quarterbacks as the bait. E.g., Pat White. That's why this concept has potential for growth, and NFL coaches seem to embrace it now. (How bizarre though that they seem to be embracing this one rather specific branch off what is a much wider and older tree of single-wing/spread/option football. Maybe its apparent newness allows them plausible deniability about having ignored what has been put to good use for decades.)
I will have a future post delineating how I think the wildcat will be used and expanded upon this fall. Unfortunately, I don't see the storyline being quite so rosy as the NFL finally breaking down and going all out with Eric Crouch types at quarterback. I can safely predict that some of the teams that are discussing their wildcat will be completely inept with it: they will do things like going five-wide with their quarterback split out, their runningback or wideout alone in the backfield, call for no motion or faking, and then expect him to plunge into the line for some kind of great effect. That team, its coaches and its fans, will declare the Wildcat a bust. Some other team, maybe the Dolphins again, will expand the package and see success with it. But then what? The worst case -- though possibly the most likely -- will be this:
The offense will fade from prominence, and will be relegated to NFL Films productions about the "WACKY WILDCAT" days of yore, where they will show somebody running free downfield while they speed up the footage and play Benny Hill music. Then they will show a clip of someone stuffing a particular play, and the voice-over will announce that the Wildcat, like all other gimmicks, was figured out and defeated. The NFL types will nevertheless congratulate themselves for having discovered it in the first place. Someone will be called on air to talk about how it was a travesty of the game, in some bizarre platonic ideal sense.
But there is a slight counter narrative. One is that the wildcat, as some kind of hype-machine and maybe even explicit look will die down, but the concepts will infiltrate the NFL and it will finally, and slowly, co-opt ideas that have been successful in every level of football elsewhere. Some will still deride the flashes as gimmicky, but seeing as that most didn't understand it to begin with, most probably won't even notice. Take a look at the clip below: the Ravens, using Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith ran the zone-read, and the highlight guys began a small war on what to call it. (Smith also takes a rather bizarre inside angle with his run.)
Time will tell where all this goes. For now, however, I expect the NFL Offense to remain as indicated, with just a flew flashes of the wildcat and other similar elements. But maybe with more, and cheaper, players who can execute these schemes the NFL will be forced to adapt them to its own ends. And maybe that will even help protect its quarterbacks.
APPENDIX - The NFL Offense
Formations may differ, as will motions and a few little quirks, but basically this is what every single NFL team does. They might have a wrinkle or two per week; they might adjust the formations so they get their Pro-Bowl receiver running the route they want; they might run each play from everything from a three tight-end set to a spread formation; but it is all there. It is a partial sketch below. There are some I have diagrams, and with others I have links to old articles either instead of or to supplement the diagrams.
(1) Run game
- Inside Zone, a.k.a. "tight zone"
- Outside zone, a.k.a. "wide zone" or "stretch" (either regular blocking (shown below, diagram courtesy of Trojan Football Analysis) or "pin and pull")
- Lead draw (draw play with a lead back)
(2) Quick passes
- Fade/stop, fade with an out, and double slants
- Stick (more to come on this concept)
(3) Dropback passes (including play-action)
- Curl routes
- Post/Dig, a.k.a. "NCAA Pass"
- Four verticals (trips and regular), also lots of deep comebacks off the four verticals to the outside guys (either by call or read)
- Three-verticals (either with corner routes or go routes)
- "Mills," a.k.a. Cover 4 beater
- Shallow series (for more on the drag and drive series, see here, and for a comprehensive look at the shallow stuff Mike Martz ran with the Rams, see here)
- Seam and square-in/other downfield passes like double-post
(4) Movement passes
- Bootleg. Everybody runs the same bootleg passes, one with the fullback faking the counter and running to the opposite flat, and the other the basic one with one guy to the flat after a count as a blocker and another dragging behind him.
- Slow screen to RB and TE. Also will use double-screens or read-screens with the slow screen combined with either a sail or drag type route