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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The NFL Offense: What is it? Why does every team use it? And how does it differ from college?

I am frequently asked why I don't more often discuss NFL offenses. Haven't many of these college gurus been chewed up by the NFL? Didn't the NFL "prove" that the run & shoot can't work? Isn't the NFL football's highest level, and doesn't it therefore have the most money and resources, the best people, and shouldn't the result then be that NFL football is the most strategically interesting?

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.

Television's role

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.
I think all three of those ideas have some merit. The incest idea sounds a little odd, but then you remember that the vaunted "Wildcat" offense was brought to the NFL by David Lee, former quarterbacks coach at Arkansas.

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")

- Counter

- Power

- Lead draw (draw play with a lead back)

(2) Quick passes

- Hitch

- Fade/stop, fade with an out, and double slants

- Stick (more to come on this concept)

- Spacing

(3) Dropback passes (including play-action)

- Curl routes

- Smash

- Post/Dig, a.k.a. "NCAA Pass"

- Flood/sail

- Four verticals (trips and regular), also lots of deep comebacks off the four verticals to the outside guys (either by call or read)

- Levels

- 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.

(5) Screens

- 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


Dan said...

Nicely done. John Reed, author of numerous youth-oriented sports books as well as an excellent book on clock management in football, now has a book out (as well as a lengthy post at his website) concerning the desirability of having a contrarian offense -- and debunks many of the excuses used by pro (and convention-bound) college coaches not to explore unorthodox, forgotten, and new offensive approaches. After all, if you are a defensive coordinator, what do you prefer to scheme against: an offensive scheme you encounter often, or an offensive scheme you face once or twice per season?

Tyler said...

A thing to remember is that Cam Cameron, the Ravens coordinator, is a former college guy. He coached in the Big Ten for a number of years.

Unknown said...

I just stumbled upon your website a couple weeks ago and I'm glad I did. Been looking for a site like this for a long time and I've been reading pretty much everything on here.

Great article above, as a Patriots fan I was horrified to see the unveiling of the Wildcat. But I do think it's interesting that Bill Belichick spends time each offseason with various college coaches, most famously Urban Meyer. I think he's one coach that is always trying to stay on top of innovation, even if the Wildcat ran all over his team in September (but was snuffed out completely in the rematch).

Anonymous said...

I see the lack of running plays in the NFL to be part of a cycle. Since there are so few running plays DCs are able to tee off in their blitz packages because they know they are safe. If teams were a little more diverse in their running game then all the "exotic" blitz packages would be a lot more dangerous to run.

As for the wild cat I laughed my ass of when I saw the first replay. Dolphins line up in an unbalanced and the Patriots dont know what to do. Pop Warner kids know to shift but the team of the decade doesn't. End result 4 blockers on 3 defenders. Oh so funny.

Bruce Paine said...

Nice bit. I realize it is not entirely NFL centric, but I think you hit on some very good points about the NFL. You don't get to see much of the NFL. There is no substitute for going to an NFL game in terms of evaluating what is going on. TV lacks depth, field of view, and off ball focus. The closest substitute for being there is coaches film from the end zone elevated cam, and getting that is like trying to take a sandwich from Jon Ogden. Still, the development of a play or a consistent tendency is difficult to see from the sideline, TV shot. Things happen that you just don't get to see no matter how hard you try. When the Colts are out of town the rewind button on my DVR gets a Helluva workout and I still feel like I miss everything. And, Tyler, Cam Cameron may be a reasonable coordinator, but his tenure in the Big Ten was dubious at best and any success he has has to be cautiously evaluated. I mean no disrespect, but he had very little success in terms of wins and losses. His offenses were very standard option offense and not that exotic, their success was the product (and only the product) of a very dynamic quarterback by the name of Antwaan Randle El. Their biggest success were when things went to Hell and Randle El sorted things out himself. On another point, Mike is right, Belichick has his moments. Two years ago, I caught the Pats in Indy and I saw Manning doing his warm-up throws against a standard Cover 2. I thought, "What in the Hell is that? These guys are going to come out in a 3-4 mike blitz!" Sure enough, Belichick brought his defense out in a 4-3 with Roosevelt Colvin as a defensive end and Rod Harrison shadowing Dallas Clark as a rover will backer and they played Cover 2 all day. Colts knew what was coming and it still gave them fits. The NFL is a tough place to try to outsmart somebody.

Brian Burke said...

Great post. Learned a lot. I agree with all your theories about why there is so little experimentation in the NFL. I think the biggest reason is the narrow difference in team talent levels.

College has lots of haves and have-nots. Two schools that come immediately to mind in innovation are Texas Tech and Navy. TT was never going to compete with Texas and Texas Tech for recruits, so they had to find a way to roll the dice and get lucky. If they could find the right mix of guys optimally suited for their system, they could pull it off.

Navy is competing against teams like Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Boston College with kids who got 1200 SATs and want to join the Marines rather than the NFL.

The NFL has no Tech or Navy. Even the Lions last year were probably closer in talent to the Steelers than Texas Tech was to Florida.

Brian Burke said...

I meant A&M.

Todd E. Jones said...

Good article Chris!

Aaron Nagler said...

Didn't Spurrier's failure put this whole thing to bed?

I jest. Sort of.

Unknown said...

I think that, in addition to incestuous coaching, a major factor is incestuous athletes. The athletes jump around or are traded from team to team at least as frequently as coaches, and so: 1) coaches need to protect their intellectual property because you don't know where some of your players could be playing next year, and
2) with a near-constant stream of players coming and going, coaches need to implement schemes that are 'plug and play' and accepting of moving players in and out at will.

Zac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zac said...

I also think that your article does not address the creativity found within the utilization of personnel groups, formations, motions, and shifts that the better offenses in the NFL use. I look at Mike Shannahan's offenses (not necessarily his ability to totally control every aspect of a team) and it is crazy the way he switches up from week to week. Although they only ran 2 run plays really, they can run them out of an infinate amount of formations. That's one thing that a lot of these college spread offenses are pretty weak at; they are so stagnant with their alignments. I look at the way the better NFL teams "evolve" their alignments from week to week, and it is something I find pretty interesting. I think at any level, you are well suited to be able to run less plays in more different ways. By using flexible terminology, you can reduce the amount of terms that your team uses, and still create infinite possibilities. That's the art of war. By aligning in new looks, you kind of neutralize what the defense is doing, and you can manipulate match ups (as you said). Also, you are putting the defense into situaitons they have not prepared for, where they are likely to miss assignments and defeat themselves. To me, this fluid element of the game is where a coach/coordinator should really be evaluated, regardless of the level/system he is coaching. If you are not providing your team with the "art of the advantage", your teams will always fight an uphill battle.

Will said...

Zac, some offenses are designed so that the same play can be run from a large number of formations. In the Air Raid, for example, receivers generally run the same route no matter where they line up, so the onus is on the coach to call formations and plays that go together, but it is not that impressive when a player knows what to do on every down: if the formation calls for him to align in the slot and the play calls for him to run a curl, he lines up in the slot and runs a curl. Not that amazing, though I agree that Shanahan deserves some credit as an innovator. On a similar note, the route numbering system Joe Gibbs helped popularize and a lot of teams use lets a coach call plays his team has never practiced but everyone should know what to do: he just calls the formation and the routes by number. So it looks very multiple to the defense and to the fan, but it's not that amazing if you know how it's done.

One thing that's interesting about the NFL being so uninteresting is that it's an example of convergent evolution. The West Coast offense of Walsh and his disciples used to be fairly different from the Don Coryell (the "actual West Coast"?) offense used by the Chargers and the coaches who learned from him - the West Coast was dedicated to two backs and one TE but used 6 man protection almost exclusively, making it structurally right-handed (unless used with Steve Young...) while Coryell's offense was built on the one-back formation so it was structurally balanced, with 5.5 players on each side of the ball. Over time, with copycatting and coaching incest, the two grew together, using the same pass routes and blocking schemes. You're still more likely to see H-backs and inverted wishbones from coaches descended from Coryell, and twin back sweeps and sprint draws from coaches descended from Walsh, but in today's NFL every team can do the same things every other team can do, as Chris pointed out.

Anonymous said...

I think this post comes close to capturing it with the "incentives" discussion, but doesn't quite get there. What's neglected is the biggest difference between college and the NFL: the NFL strives for, and often achieves, parity.

Unless you have a completely retarded team-- I'm looking at you, Detroit-- teams rise and fall on fairly predictable patterns of rebuilding years, rising years, and declining years. Some teams manage to remain elite for longer than they should, like the Montana/Young 49ers or the Bledsoe/Brady Pats, but it's undeniable that the "any given Sunday" rule applies more in the NFL than in college (the rare Appalachian State aside).

Which means that while each individual year may be a boom or bust, *over time*, EVERY NFL team is expected to be a playoff contender. Not just by their owners and fans, but also by the coaches and players. Certain NCAA programs will never compete outside of a Cinderella season-- and even then, the best Cinderella season usually won't end up with the team competing in the national championship given the lousy BCS/polling seeding rules. The Dolphins, however, can have a great season and make it to the Super Bowl; no number of upsets in any single season for Appalachian State can result in the same.

Which in practice means the NCAA can afford a "screw it, we're experimenting" mentality that the NFL system naturally combats: do it simple, do what's always been done, get the fundamentals right, free agent and lucky draft talent will push you over the top in time. Appalachian State can't recruit the same caliber of players that Florida State can, let alone trade players with them. The Dolphins or Lions, however, can turn their teams around (theoretically, at least) in a year or two with a draft or trades, and can achieve even greater success with a single "lucky streak" season.

(Ironically, while I'm as big a proponent as any of an NCAA playoff system [and I refuse to ever enjoy college football until there is one ;-) ], an unintended side effect of such a system may be to provide a disincentive to the offensive experimentation in the NCAA).

Finally, there's the most obvious difference between the NCAA and the NFL: even the best NCAA teams play *scads* of garbage teams that have no hope of competing, let alone winning, and we see blow outs as a result. Wow, what fun it is seeing 80% of the games in a typical NCAA weekend end up 50-21 as predictable as clockwork. The difference between the worst NFL team and the best NFL team, however, is nowhere near as great a disparity, especially on an individual performance level. NFL lineman are going to be a certain size, NFL wide receivers are going to run a certain speed, NFL quarterbacks are going to be able to throw a certain distance. NCAA teams don't have this kind of parity except at the highest level-- a level which includes, interestingly enough, roughly the same number of teams as are featured in the NFL.

Anyway. . . I hope we see more crazy stuff in the NFL. There's a lot of potential for breakout success in doing something "different" that other teams don't expect, and not just in the sense of the occasional trick play or two a game. Plus, it certainly does make the game more interesting.


Anonymous said...

The Detroit Lions. Nothing to lose?

Will said...

Dave, great comment. You'll notice that there was a lot less parity in the NFL before the salary cap, which is also the last time we saw the Run and Shoot at that level. Parity has given us homogeneity.

But... the Run and Shoot never really went away, it got assimilated into the "NFL offense." As Chris wrote, this is probably what will happen to the wildcat too.

Anonymous said...

One obvious difference between college and pro is that the field looks different -- the hash mark rows down the middle of the field are farther apart in college. Does that allow more variation in the offense by allowing more lateral movement in relation to the placement of the ball at the beginning of the play? Correlation is not causation, but like I said, it's an obvious difference.

Jon said...

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.

Maybe, maybe not. What if there is a scarcity of guys who are fast and can tackle? A scarcity that manifests itself, not at the NFL level where there is a need for 800 defenders from various birth years, but at the college level where there aree many more spots and only four years of recruits that can fill them.

Anonymous said...

the poster who commented on the hashmarks is correct. they need to divide the field into thirds and that would lead to more interesting ideas. the field needs to be widened by 5-10 yards as well.

Tyler said...


His success at the college level was not really the point. It's his background that matters. His time spent in college influences how he builds his offense hence furthering the "incest" idea.

Anonymous said...

It's not just the hash marks, rule differences such as one foot instead of two for in bounds, clock stoppages and how a player is down factor in as well. For example running the ball with a 1:30 left to go isn't as risky in college because of the clock stopping on a 1st down.

Dan Nolan said...


The Jets used to play around with some option stuff when they used Brad Smith as a QB in the Mangini years. In Mangini's second year they used him for an entire series against the Patriots in Foxboro. Leon Washington went for about 50 yards on a pitch early in the series, then Smith missed a few reads and ended up throwing a pick. Phil Simms was doing the color commentating that day and railed about how the failure of the series was proof that the option could never work in the NFL and how it is a college offense. Additionally, in the book Gang Green by Gerald Eskenazi who was a Jets beat writer for many years, he claims that Holtz attempted to install the split back veer with the Buckey brothers who he coached at NC State. Eskenazi predictably lambastes Holtz for his "college ideas" that would never work in the pros and certainly not in NYC.

I once sat in on a lecture given by Mike Pettine who was at that time a "defensive quality control assistant" for the Ravens and is now the Jets DC. Pettine gained some fame for his role on a MTV show when he was a high school coach in Pennsylvania. Anyway, during his talk he said numerous times that the biggest difference between preparing the defense in HS vs the pros is that in HS it is much more difficult. Why? Less time, more variation. You will face Triple, Run and shoot, Wing T, Power I, etc from week to week, whereas in the NFL, "everyone is pretty much doing the same thing." Furthermore, to amplify your point about matchups, the main thing the defensive staff in Baltimore was doing was making sure that 52 stayed clean.

Anyway, great post as always!

MTR said...

How much of it is just that there are 32 NFL teams against ~100 college teams and even more High Schools? More coaches to experiment, more teams with odd talent mixes, more opportunities to be strange.

Ken said...

Very nice post. I'm going to re-read it in detail.

I have a vague recollection that the Patriots were messing with the wishbone with Jim Plunkett and just about got him killed. Anyone else remember that, or is my memory faulty?

The other thought I have relates to your "DNA lottery" comment. It's only been the last couple of years that I've seen a few NFL teams pull both guards and run the Green Bay sweep (or something like it). It used to be a lot more common, until defensive players became fast enough to go sideline to sideline and you couldn't get a man advantage at the point of attack with slower, less athletic offensive linemen.

I miss the Run and Shoot...such as it was in the NFL, anyhow. I've got Tiger Ellison's Run and Shoot Football: Offense of the Future on my bookshelf, given me by one of the sons of my old line coach...that is the real Run and Shoot. My last year of football (1976) I played bantams (freshmen/sophomores, 140-lb. weight limit), and we ran it (motion right, Walkaway Fancy right on two, heh heh).

Anonymous said...

What about injury reduction/prevention? New schemes mean new risks. As a coach it's possible you might hit on some serious success trying something new only to find that it doesn't work so well once a few of your key players are left on the sidelines.

Know unknowns vs. unknown unknowns and all that.

Ken said...

An additional thought: I think the author is absolutely right about the NFL not wanting people to dig into offense too deeply.

That's a change from the old days, too. The league used to be a lot more open in the '60s and early '70s about explaining formations and nomenclature and whatnot to casual fans (I remember some pretty good kid-oriented stuff). Plus, if you ever read Jerry Kramer's Instant Replay, he gives the reader a lot of the basics of Green Bay's offense at the time: formation calls, why plays have the names they have, how Starr would audible (pre-snap calls were single and double-digit numbers, like "3! 88!"; if the single-digit number was the same as the snap count, it was an audible).

Stan said...


There are some other points that need to be made -- the NFL, unlike HS and college, isn't about just being happy making the playoffs. With American pro sports, it's first or nothing. And the coaching consensus is that winning the Super Bowl requires a great passing QB. There aren't many exceptions. So they aren't interested in stopgap measures which might help a bad team pick up more wins, but may not lead to a legit Super Bowl contender.

I've always felt that a losing team with a mediocre QB would be far wiser to pick up 3 journeymen QBs rather than try to hit the lottery with an expensive draft pick. The money would be better spent on the O line and defense.

Look at the Titans in 2003. They had an awesome pass protecting O line and a very good defense. Billy Volek and Neil O'Donnell (with three days practice after spending the season retired) both played better than McNair. But the Titans had all their money wrapped up in McNair and Eddie George, so they let their best tackle go in free agency as well as their best defenders over the next few years.

All that money in a RB was just stupid, but the money in the QB was likely due to the feeling that mediocre QBs cannot win a SB. I don't necessarily agree with that consensus, but if they do and they aren't aiming for anything but a title ....

By the way, off topic, but you might be interested in this stats view of randomness in sports

Stan said...

Also, I don't think you can discount the speed of the defense excuse. There is a reason that Reggie Bush, Rocket Ismail, Dante Hall, Desmond Howard types are far less effective in the NFL. The field is smaller because of defensive speed.

It's tougher to hit home runs. Offenses are loathe to try things that result in a drive-killing loss because the homerun potential isn't there. It's tougher to get to the corner. Much of the innovative stuff has more lateral run threats.

Aaron Nagler said...

Stan - that second comment hits the nail square on the head.

Anonymous said...

"Look at the Titans in 2003. They had an awesome pass protecting O line and a very good defense. Billy Volek and Neil O'Donnell (with three days practice after spending the season retired) both played better than McNair."

Is this a joke? I really hope you don't think that just because their completion percentage and QB rating were marginally better (in one game) each that they played better. Talk about small sample size...

Anonymous said...

No joke. This is based on living in Tenn, watching McNair's entire career and noting how limited he was as a QB. I can't recall ever seeing him hit a hot read. He was below average throwing deep routes on time into the tight spaces that constitue "open" in the NFL. Even in 2003, Jeff Fisher noted that McNair still needed to get a lot better at reading defenses and coverages.

McNair always relied on his legs and his strength to buy time and take care of unblocked blitzers. He bought time until he found a wide open receiver (often his TE hooked up in a seam or open because of the run threat when he scrambled) or he could run. He relied on it in college and never made the adjustment to the mental side of the game. But scramblers/running QBs get hit a lot more often and he took a lot of punishment leading to injuries.

The guy was incredibly tough and played with pain, but without his legs to buy time he was a mediocre passer at best.


Will said...

Stan, I'll believe that you've watched more Titans games than I have, but I have a hard time believing McNair was mediocre at best. He put up one of the most statistically ridiculous seasons in football history his senior year of college - accounting for 530 yards per game and 53 TDs. Yes, he did it against 1-AA defenses (and probably with a lot of help from Alcorn's poor defense too), but he also did it with Alcorn's receivers and offensive line.

Was he the best QB in the NFL? Maybe not, despite a co-MVP award. But mediocre is a bold word.

Jon E said...

Nice post, Chris. I think the read option will have more of a place in the pros with the likes of Tim Tebow coming in and with the talent already in place (VY, Troy Smith, Mike Vick might even make a showing).

I don't think it can be ignored. Urban Meyer has said over and over that 2 offenses give defensive coaches the most trouble: the spread and the option. I think those are two relatively easy systems to hang your hat on.

The NFL is far better at matching up than the colege game, though. The spread would probably provide only marginal benefit for the majority of teams, especially as defenses adapt.

The option is a much tougher sell. The matchup problem is the key here. In college, it is more feasible to sell out the passing game in favor of commiting to the run. In the NFL, the pass is what wins games statistically. And finding personnel who excel as NFL talent in both areas is super rare. Passing defense is premium in the NFL, for one. The West Coast foundation of timing routes is the proven method of winning.

That is not to say you can throw out the book on this other stuff. It is simply unproven. I'd like to see more of it in a system form. It just won't work without that level of commitment.

BourbonCat said...

Outstanding article. Hinton wrote a great post over on Dr. Saturday on your point about the inadequacies of current camerawork.

Indivision said...

Great article.

I disagree with the forecast that the Wildcat will most likely end up in the whacky list for two reasons.

One, because I believe it's effectiveness is established and will always be useful under the right circumstances. Some whacky ideas have antidotes where known adjustments greatly diminish the advantages. To my observation, the adjustments against a quality spread to run do not render it less effective than defending more "traditional pro" style offenses. Therefore, the spread to run is a legitimate option that offers an alternative way to make use of the players a team has. With the right players, it can be quite effective.

Two, because getting the ball to play-makers in space is great for highlights. The spread option is fun to watch. It allows athletes to do more overtly athletic things on camera. It's only going to take one effective spread option athlete to create a franchise sensation.

I could be wrong. However, in any event, my interest in NFL football is a lot higher this year because of this experimentation. I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out with the Dolphins and Pat White.

Indivision said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


McNair played in the SWAC, the worst of the I-AA leagues. If you'd ever seen highlights, you'd be ashamed to cite his college stats to support any claim about his professional ability. He often bought time until he got a wide open receiver because of his ability to scramble away from 5-10, 350 lb fatties (holding their pants up as they chugged after him). That hardly makes him a great pro.


Mr.Murder said...

Pro teams can shape routes and play physically with corners, that is what shortens the field. Most college wideouts get a free clean release off the ball so their speed creates great separation

Marrdro said...

Found this site tonight while surfing the web for articles to read on coach Walsh.

By far one of the most informative NFL sites I have ever come across.

Great job.