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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Smart Notes - 9/23/08

1. Eli Manning: Game manager? Sportscenter and all the highlights showed Eli's impressive long pass on 3rd and 10 in overtime against the Bengals. But what impressed me was that immediately after that pass -- where the receiver had to toe the sideline to stay inbounds and the referee called it a catch -- Eli did not miss a beat: he hustled his teammates to the line to quickly run and play and avoid review of the play. This is Eli growing in his self-awareness. And the Giants got the play off without any review of the catch.

2. The rise of the terrible spread team. I forecast this day some time ago, but this year's college football season has wowed me with the number of just awful spread teams. Now, there's some good ones: Florida has great talent, and just about every top team has some kind of "spread" element to their gameplan. But there's a ton of just awful spread teams. This topic deserves a much more in depth treatment, but the basic gist is what I forecast a few years ago: the offense just isn't an equalizer anymore, but instead more of an amplifier. If you have great athletes you can isolate them in space, but if you don't then you're just giving them one-on-one matchups they can't win and asking your quarterback to play perfect or you can't win.

But the biggest reason is simply that everybody is doing it and there's just not much novelty to it. And it's not like you can fool a defense with some dizzying array of spread formations when each guy on defense played against spread teams for four years in high school and every week in college. That said, this also makes the cries from these teams and their coaches that there's a "steep learning curve" with their spread offense ring rather hollow. How much different is it to tell guys to line up differently and read the defensive end on the zone-read? There's lots of teams who successfully do that who use it only sparingly; it's unconvincing when teams that rely heavily on the zone-read and zone options claim that they need more time to teach it.

3. Wildcat, meet the Patriots. There's plenty of buzz going around about the Patriots losing big to the Dolphins. And there's lots of buzz that the Dolphins used a funky formation to do it. This buzz isn't all positive, as for some reason NFL guys (announcers, everybody) can only act derisively when they see something that strikes them as a "college formation" or part a "college offense." (Nevermind that Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense began as a "college offense" at Stanford.) I generally take the view that the NFL guys actually are right when they say their game is more complex and intricate than the college game, largely because they have near infinite resources and time to devote to those things. (And most every NFL game is a close one.) But it's like these NFL guys failed to see a single college game over the past three years.

If they had, they might have realized that what the Dolphins did against the Patriots was employ the "Wildcat" formation, made famous by Arkansas which used it with Darren McFadden running the show. The basis for the set is a single quarterback -- actually the running back -- and another running back who goes in motion to either run or fake a jet sweep. The other reason it is unforgiveable that these commentators can't figure this out is that this is not a bolt out of the blue: The quarterbacks coach for the Dolphins is David Lee, who was the offensive coordinator for the Arkansas Razorbacks last season under Houston Nutt. Indeed, I will let him explain the Wildcat series, in a video the Patriots obviously had not seen:

Now, the common wisdom among these NFL guys now is that this was a one-week fad, if the Dolphins even try to use it next week it will be snuffed out because coaches around the league have analyzed this, diagnosed it, and will annihilate it if Miami ever tries to use it again. Maybe so. But I wouldn't be on it. Of course this is not an every down thing (unless Ronnie Brown starts throwing twenty passes a game), but the reason this worked -- unlike some other NFL experiments with the zone-read or other gun styles -- is that this is an actual series rather than just a play or two. That's obviously the case because, as Lee explains in the video, it hinges on being a series rather than just a "good play." And the fact that it is a series makes it a self-contained offense in itself, as the series anticipates a defense's adjustments. Maybe it won't work, but I'd be surprised if it is as useless as these talking heads seem to think it will be. Just ask the Pats.


Adam J said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the fact (one you've pointed out often, even) that this formation forces a defense to play 11-on-11 on an obvious run play, rather than the usual natural 11-on-10 advantage.

Between that and the lack of reads on unblocked defenders, I think the notion that the "Wildcat" is a trick-play, one-down fad will remain where it belongs--outside the mindset of any decent NFL defensive coordinator.

Tom said...

In regards to #2, could you please do a write up on how horrible Clemson's spread offense is? The tunnel screen special... the Tommy Bowden Fun 'N Punt Offense... Please?

Mr.Murder said...

Oakland doesn't use it enough. McFadden is getting good yards with it and they only toy with it.

Sporano did it right- run it until they stop it, or until your scoreboard breaks.

Anonymous said...

The "Wildcat" (or WildHog) or whatever you want to call it, is not a fad or a trick play. It is just an updated Single Wing attack from the old leather-helmet days, when the football was more round (and not as passable). It puts the football in the hands of the best athlete on the team, and everyone else is a blocker. It is not some goofy A-11 or "exotic" Run and Shoot offense. Because it's older than most commentators, analysts, and coaches, it may seem new but its actually about 70-80 years old.

Beauford Bixel said...

Be that as it may, anon, it's still a unique package that the NFL hasn't seen...well...ever? For a long time, at any rate.

The NFL is, to me, full of self-proclaimed geniuses who love to scoff at the college game. "Why - such juvenile shenanigans could never fly in this league! Not with defenses being called by GENIUSES!"

It's fun to see the media squirm at the notion that a college offense could impact the NFL - nevermind the run n' shoot or the west coast offense's college births.

When it's all said and done, however, I expect that the wildcat package won't be used too often. Now that the Phins have let the cat out of the bag (get it? I'm awesome) every opponent is going to know what to expect,and if they force Brown to throw it's only a matter of time before he throws a crippling interception.

Trey said...

On bad spread teams -- could it also be poor coaching and play calling by coaches who have no background in the offense but have suddenly adopted the latest fad?

Just because Rich Rodriguez could throw up 300 YPG rushing at 6 yards a pop, and Leach can put up 450 YPG passing, doesn't mean J-random coach can just adopt the same formation and do the same thing.

On a different but related note, I'm looking forward to you hopefully revisiting Paul Johnson's offense later in the season. PJ was my favorite possible GT candidate, but even I am shocked at the 6.5 YPC and 307 YPG rushing GT is putting up so far -- with a very young team that isn't even that good at the offense yet.

Tom said...

I'm not shocked at all by Paul Johnson. I wanted him to be Clemson's coach back when Tammy was threatening to go to Arkansas (well actually for the past 3 years but especially during that whole fiasco.) I even started a blog about it:

The Triple Option, when properly executed, is indefensible. I don't care that the defenses are faster, I Don't care that the talent level in college football is higher, it is still the perfect play. Paul Johnson is demonstrating this. When he gets his own recruits in at GT, it's going to be ridiculous.

Trey said...

Uttles, I've read your TFPJ blog and agree with it in general.

I love the triple option as well. But I think PJ's success with it goes back to the success of Rodriguez's WVU spread offense: it's not just the scheme that is so good, but this particular coach running his scheme.

Tom said...

Trey, agreed. You have to have the right coach to run the offense. I think Johnson is a rising star.

Anonymous said...

Question about the wild hog and similar situations where the QB flexes out to WR.

Having a discussion about why the defense doesn't just come up and smack the QB as hard as they can while he is a blocker.

My thought on this is that anything beyond a jam would likely be considered unnecessary roughness. You don't see WRs lit up by defenders this way, I presume because it isn't legal to do so.

Can anyone explain with certitude whether I am right or whether you could do anything you wanted to the QB flexed out like that?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out that one play about Eli Manning. That Super Bowl win did much for him as a player and leader. He probably believed he could win a Super Bowl but until you actually do it's hard to be one hundred percent certain of yourself.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe it won't work, but I'd be surprised if it is as useless as these talking heads seem to think it will be. Just ask the Pats."

Very prescient Chris. Now you can "Just ask the Chargers".

As a Chargers fan it was very painful to see how seemingly helpless our D was during the Wildcat plays.

Zennie said...

Great post Chris! To update, the Dolphins have not abandoned the series and it continues to pay dividends.

What's interesting to me is that College Football is now ahead of pro-football in scheme creativity and innovation. Now, the only advantage the NFL has is the increased time to perfect a system.

Pap said...

I know this is an older post, but after re-reading it and looking at the comments, I have a question for everyone...
Zennie said:
What's interesting to me is that College Football is now ahead of pro-football in scheme creativity and innovation. Now, the only advantage the NFL has is the increased time to perfect a system.

When is the last time that a scheme went from the NFL into College? Doesn't it always go the other way? Why is that? I would argue that the NFL used to be revolutionary, but once the money for the coaches and players became so inflated, they couldn't try anything revolutionary. When they were actually coaching players and not rich superstars, I think they could float ideas and something "new" without getting killed by the media, fans, and players. Also, if it didn't work, they are sure to be fired in a hurry.

TANGENT:It is no surprise that the Titans and Steelers are two of the most fundamentally sound teams. They have had the least coaching turnover over the past decade. Now I know that Cowher left Pittsburgh, but he was replaced by someone who was there with him.