Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
02 Jan 2009
by Mike Tanier
The Walkthrough team got a crystal ball for Christmas. Some painful assembly, a few D-batteries, three calls to tech support, and the thing works like a charm. Here's a brief look at what to expect in the coming weeks.
Saturday, January 3 at 4:30 p.m.: The playoffs begin.
Saturday, January 3 at 4:35 p.m.: The Cardinals are eliminated.
Monday, January 5: Mike Tannenbaum admits that talks with Bill Cowher broke down because Tannenbaum will only share personnel decisions with a head coach more experienced than Cowher.
Tuesday, January 6: Brett Favre calls a press conference to announce that he will call a press conference in two weeks to announce when he will call the press conference regarding his potential retirement. This news dominates the news wires for three days.
Wednesday, January 7: Mike Martz replaces Turk Schonert as the Bills offensive coordinator. Martz assumes that the Bills are now a CFL team, so he devises a series of plays for second-and-long between the 50-yard lines. Trent Edwards' insurance premiums triple.
Friday, January 9: Steve Spagnuolo's cell phone cracks under the pressure and crawls into a closet to sulk.
Monday, January 12: Mike Tannenbaum admits that talks with Mike Shanahan broke down because Tannenbaum will only share personnel decisions with a head coach more experienced than Shanahan.
Tuesday, January 13: With the Eagles eliminated from the playoffs, Donovan McNabb makes an inflammatory statement. "It may be time for me to move on. The media here in Philly doesn't like me much." The local talk shows spends two weeks deconstructing the statement. "Why does this mealy-mouthed, hyper-sensitive, overrated choke artist think we don't like him?" they ask, without irony, ad nauseum.
Wednesday, January 14: Chad Pennington earns a Lifetime Comeback Player Achievement of the Year award.
Thursday, January 15: Jim Fassel buys three billboards in the greater Oakland area to announce his interest in the Raiders head coaching job. Al Davis interviews Jim Harbaugh.
Friday, January 16: Mike Tannenbaum admits that talks with Marty Schottenheimer broke down because Tannenbaum will only share personnel decisions with a head coach more experienced than Schottenheimer.
Monday, January 19: The NFL announces locations for future Pro Bowls: 2010, Miami; 2011, Keokuk; 2012, the Favre ranch so Brett won't have to travel to the game he still gets voted into despite double arm amputations.
Tuesday, January 20: Mike Singletary hires a parrot as the Niners offensive coordinator. The parrot interviewed for the Raiders job, but it could only say "run off tackle, run off tackle," not "throw deep, throw deep."
Wednesday, January 21: Mike Tannenbaum exhumes Vince Lombardi and argues with him about who should have final say in personnel matters.
Friday, January 22: Jim Fassel arrives at Raiders headquarters in a parrot suit.
Scott Pioli and Marty Schottenheimer are flying around the country, entertaining offers to resurrect down-and-out franchises. Bill Cowher met with the Jets but didn't like what he heard; soon, Mike Shanahan will hear the same pitch. Names like Eric DeCosta and Chris Polian keep popping up on the news wires as the Chiefs and Browns search for new top executives. Some of the names are familiar, some new. We learn the names, review the resumes, then scratch our heads about the men who will soon be among the most powerful people in the football universe.
The casual fan has no idea what an NFL general manager does. Listen to talk radio and you'll get the impression that the GM spends his days with his feet on his desk, chomping a cigar butt and barking out orders like Mister Spacely or J. Jonah Jameson. "Get the Patriots on the phone and offer a No. 1 pick for Matt Cassel! Offer our prima donna receiver eight mil, and tell him to like it or lump it! Tell the head coach he's fired, and get me Jim Schwartz on line two!"
Of course, it's not really like that. But even veteran sportswriters have only a cloudy idea of what the GM does. When the season ends (as it just did for 20 teams), we lump credit or blame on the GM for personnel decisions, then offer the kind of quick "smash or trash" appraisal best reserved for new songs on a Top 40 station. Jeff Ireland: Smash! Phil Savage: Trash! Ted Thompson switched categories in the course of one season. These executives don't go from smart to stupid in a few months, so there's obviously more to a GM's job than drafting the best players or making the right trades.
Aaron Schatz and I visited NFL Films a few weeks ago. We enjoyed our annual film session with Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell, but there was a third wise man in our midst this time. Charley Casserly was general manager of the Redskins from 1989-99 and the Texans from 2002-06. He now works for NFL Network, and he broke down film with Jaws and Cosell during our visit. Over lunch, Jaws and Cosell asked Casserly a few questions about the nuts and bolts of general management. Soon, we were treated to a symposium by Casserly on the life of an NFL executive: the schedule, the procedures, and all the things that happen far below the surface of the "Jets sign Favre" headlines.
Casserly wasn't speaking on the record, and I wasn't taking notes (I was eating panini) so I won't use any names or specifics. Even in general terms, the typical regular season week in the life of a general manager sounds fascinating and exhausting:
Monday: Players get injured on Sunday, and the general manager must work on Monday to restock the roster. Often, this process starts on Sunday, just minutes after a player is injured. It's not unusual for a team to sign a street free agent before the final gun on Sunday, assuming that the free agent is on the team's "ready list." More often, though, the coach and GM must discuss needs and available replacements, then the GM and his staff must contact free agents or schedule tryouts.
Once the GM and head coach meet to discuss roster shuffling, it's time for film sessions. Different teams handle Monday film study in different ways, but the GM is usually present for some of the sessions. Many GMs sit in on coaches' sessions, then watch game film independently and conduct their own player evaluations.
The GM and team owner also usually meet on Monday to discuss the current state of the franchise. With 31 other teams also making roster moves, the GM must work quickly to bring in available talent and to stay abreast of league news, making Monday the busiest office day of the week.
Tuesday: Most teams schedule workouts and tryouts on Tuesday. General managers often attend the tryouts, though some teams leave that responsibility to the pro scouts, head coach or even the coordinators. If the coaches are watching tryouts, they aren't reviewing tape or coaching, so the division of duties and responsibilities is tricky.
Teams hold workouts even if they aren't making any personnel changes that week. Each team must have a "ready" list of free agents who can be called upon to step right onto the roster to cover an injury. Regular workouts help the GM stay informed about who is available and in football shape. Players are often signed on the spot after Tuesday workouts, though most of these bottom-of-the-roster acquisitions bring little media fanfare.
Wednesday: Most general managers like to travel and scout college players in the middle of the week. Once the roster has been filled out and last Sunday's game has been dissected, there's little for a GM to do but watch his own team practice. Casserly said that constant communication with the head coach during the week can get redundant; he has his own job to do and needs the freedom to do it. Some general managers stay with the team and handle college scouting via tape and phone calls, but most hit the road for a day or two.
By traveling to colleges and monitoring practices, a GM can see how a prospect handles coaching and prepares for games. The GM can also talk to coaches, strength coordinators, and other assistants to learn more about the prospect. It's the kind of inside information you cannot get on the phone: Thirty minutes on the practice field can yield several candid discussions that would take hours to organize by voicemail.
Thursday: If the GM is still on the road, communication and delegation of responsibility is crucial. He must have a staff in place that can handle minor issues and inform him of major ones. The team's scouting directors -- college and pro -- must be able to do their jobs efficiently without constant oversight. In short, everybody has to be following the same game plan.
Scouting is a complex procedure that involves a great deal of logistical planning. Scouts must be assigned to schools and regions, and their visits must be scheduled so that they don't step on each other's toes and their meetings to major schools/prospects are properly spaced. Casserly liked his scouts to use one-page scouting reports that were typically due on a weekly basis. Each scouting report ranks the prospect on five key traits, selected by the coaching staff for each position. Different coaches have different desired traits -- one staff might emphasize wide receiver blocking, another might single out a tackle's quickness on the second level -- so it's important that scouts know what the coaches want. It's also important for coaches to understand what's available: the defensive line coach may only want 280-plus-pound linemen with 4.6 speed, so the scouting department may have to offer the reality check that no such player will ever be available in the second round.
Usually, the director of college scouting and his staff handles the day-to-day scheduling and report processing for scouts. The GM must make sure that the process is running smoothly, and that there is no disconnect between the scouting department and the coaching staff. He often handles all of this management while on the road, which is why delegation and communication are so important. If different departments are pursuing different goals, the team won't be able to fill future needs, and the stage is set for a draft day disaster.
Friday: The GM rejoins the team, whether at headquarters or on the road. It's time for the coach and GM to review the week's events. Is such 'n' such healthy enough for Sunday? Did the guy we signed on Tuesday have a good practice week? The GM usually meets with the coordinators informally on Friday to discuss the general game plan. Once he's met with the staff, the GM can get caught up with the scouting directors and handle other business.
Saturday: Casserly stressed time management as a crucial part of a general manager's job. There's nothing worse for a GM than to spend a day in a hotel room when he should be in his office or at a college campus. Depending on the location, a good GM can attend two or three major college football games on Saturday and still be back with his team by Sunday. Sometimes, that means catching a Friday afternoon flight, but most NFL cities are within driving distance of several major colleges. From Washington, D.C., for example, Casserly was able to drive to University of Maryland or University of Virginia with little difficulty, and both Virginia Tech and the Meadowlands, among other venues, were within striking distance. In December, the GM can travel to bowl games or use Saturdays for additional film work.
Sunday: Game day. The process starts all over again: The team wins or loses, players get hurt, and the roster needs restocking.
While listening to Casserly, several big ideas struck me.
1) An NFL general manager is just like a high-level executive in any business. He's a chief of staff who must spend a huge portion of his time doing non-glamorous tasks like supervising his subordinates and processing data. First-round picks and major trades are just the tiny tip of a vast procedural iceberg.
2) It's easy for a team to lose its way. When a coaching staff and front office have been in place for a few years, everybody knows everybody else's needs and responsibilities. When a team keeps changing coaches or shuffling executives, it can lead to miscommunication and breakdowns. The Dolphins spent most of this decade trying to merge last year's front office to next year's coaching staff. The results: squandered draft picks, quarterback-of-the-month free agent signings, and other evidence that the scouts didn't know what the coaches wanted, or vice versa. Bill Parcells brought in Jeff Ireland and a new top-down management system, and the improvement was so sudden that it was nearly historic.
At the same time, it's possible that a well-oiled front office can atrophy, with everyone so entrenched in their roles that they cannot change. That may be what happened in Denver: The Broncos have changed some pieces in the front office over the years, but Mike Shanahan called nearly all of the shots, and his system reached the point of diminishing returns about three years ago. The Eagles may have reached that point: The scouts and Tom Heckert know what Andy Reid wants, Reid knows what his execs can give him, and everyone has forgotten how to question or adjust the system. It's easy to see how a team like the Colts becomes more Colts-like every year under Bill Polian and Tony Dungy, with scouts churning out lists of affordable linebackers and coaches filling their Santa lists with top-shelf receivers and linemen who can pass protect on the fly. The Broncos, Eagles and Colts have been successful, and the alternative is far worse, but all teams need a shake-up once in a while.
3) This NFL stuff really is complicated. Aaron and I asked very few questions during Casserly's informal lecture. Jaws and Cosell asked the questions, and it was exciting to be part of a collegial environment where everyone wanted to learn more about football. But if Jaws and Cosell needed more information on the day-to-day life of a general manager, then it's clear that most of us are completely clueless. The television commentators know nothing. The talk radio hosts know nothing (surprise). I just told you everything I know, and it is all second-hand from Casserly; if I spoke to Polian or Ozzie Newsome, I would probably get a whole different story.
The minutiae of the NFL can be awe-inspiring. The general manager, flying to college campuses to talk to strength coaches about a player's work ethic. The scouts, carefully grading cornerbacks on their footwork and hip placement. The coordinators, watching one play 50 times in search of breakdowns and improvements. The team signs Matt Ryan and we cheer, or they sign Ryan Leaf and we scoff and accuse everyone of incompetence. But there's so much going on in those offices and film rooms that even the most respected experts need to educate one another.
So when a Schottenheimer or Pioli is hired, we may think immediately about his track record, his boom-and-bust personnel moves, and other products of that exec's last stop. We really should be thinking about the process: The new hire's skills as a communicator, delegator, and time manager. We have no way of measuring these attributes, of course, but these invisible skills will determine what makes or breaks teams like the Browns and Chiefs.
The Eagles don't play against opponents. They play against themselves. When the Eagles are playing well, particularly on offense, the opponent is almost irrelevant. When the are playing poorly, its usually because of their own dumb mistakes -- short yardage futility, an unwillingness to even pretend to run the ball -- not because the opponent played exceptionally or used some clever scheme to stop them.
I used to think that this was just an Eagles fan's perspective. But after watching the Eagles beat the Giants, get swept by the Redskins, tie the Bengals, and perform other feats of bipolarity this season, I'm convinced that it makes more sense to analyze Eagles Success vs. Eagles Mistakes than to really look at matchups.
The Vikings enter the playoffs with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback and an offense built around I-formation running with Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. The Eagles defense, which is as consistent as the offense is frustrating, will have no trouble limiting the Vikings to 17 points or less. It's up to the Eagles offense to play the way it did in the last five weeks (minus the Redskins game). With Brian Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter, and Kevin Curtis all healthy, the Eagles have the weapons to drop 31 points on Sunday. The meeting between Brad Childress and former mentor Andy Reid should be a mismatch, unless the erratic Donovan McNabb shows up, or DeSean Jackson drops three passes, or the third-and-1 hitch pass to a tight end returns to the playbook.
The Eagles are good enough to beat any team in the NFL. They are also bad enough to lose to (or at least tie) anyone. I believe the good Eagles will show up on Sunday, but I won't make any promises after that.
Don't let the Chargers' record fool you. They may be 8-8, and they may have needed a four-game winning streak to win one of the ugliest divisions in football, but they aren't bad. They're eighth in DVOA, and their offense ranks third, one spot above the Colts.
The Chargers improved late in the season, not because everyone got healthy, but because everyone just got used to limping around the field. LaDainian Tomlinson is still battling groin injuries, but he has gained more than 90 yards in three of his last four games. Antonio Gates has also been hobbled all season, but he has caught 14 passes in the final three games. Chris Chambers missed a few midseason games and was ineffective in others, but his return has beefed up the passing game. Defensively, the Chargers are still nothing special, but they can win a shootout against anybody.
The Chargers' 23-20 loss to Indy in November wasn't a shootout, but it was a tight game decided by a 51-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal. Expect more offense on Saturday, but the results should be the same: a tight game and a Colts win. Take the Colts, and if the over-under stays near 51, take the over.
We linked to this in the "FO Goes Mainstream" category, but if you didn't see it there, click here to check out animated versions of my play diagrams in the New York Times. I worked up diagrams and explanations for every playoff team, so you'll get to see the Giants, Titans, Panthers, and Steelers plays next week.
You may remember that Bill Barnwell and I made a bet about Reggie Bush early in the season. Not to go into particulars, but Bill won, which means I have to host a Pro Bowl live blog. What? You say you have no interest in a Pro Bowl live blog? Well, what about a Season's End Extravaganza? Join me here at FO during the Pro Bowl, and we'll talk draft, free agency, and other topics while barely paying attention to the game.
Finally, there's now a Facebook group called Walkthrough Readers. I'll be using the group to provide updates, maybe post a few "outtakes," or even talk a little non-football. If you are on Facebook, look us up and join the party.
The Ravens and Falcons reached the playoffs with rookie quarterbacks and rookie coaches. Both teams have a good chance to reach the second round, so we'll talk about the rookie coaches another time. This week, we'll focus on Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan.
You know the basics: Both have played well, neither "looks like a rookie" when playing at his best. They both helped turn around last-place teams in good divisions, shattering the theory that a team with a rookie quarterback must plunge immediately into a rebuilding phase. While Flacco and Ryan have earned their share of adulation, offensive coordinators Cam Cameron (Ravens) and Mike Mularkey (Falcons) deserve much of the credit for their success. Some coaches throw inexperienced quarterbacks into the fray, demand that they learn the whole offense immediately, then search for alternate plans as soon as the rookie is overwhelmed (for evidence, see most of the Brian Billick era in Baltimore). Cameron and Mularkey, in conjunction with their head coaches, made the adjustments necessary for a team to be successful with a young quarterback.
Here's a simple blueprint for offensive success despite inexperience at quarterback:
1) Run the football. It seems simple enough, but some teams forget that the newbie probably isn't ready to pass 45 times per game. The Ravens and Falcons run on first-and-10 more than two-thirds of the time and on second-and-long about half the time. Neither is afraid to run or throw a short pass on third-and-long; sometimes it's better to give the defense a chance to go to work than to put too much pressure on the rookie.
2) Increase your protection: Rookie quarterbacks, even great ones, aren't going to read a defense and expertly find the fifth option on a pass. Given the choice between more reads and more blockers, Mularkey and Cameron generally choose extra blockers. Our game charting numbers aren't complete yet, but I am sure that the Ravens and Falcons are among the league leaders in six- and seven-man protection schemes. The Ravens may be the only team in the NFL that uses eight-man protection more than once or twice per game.
|Figure 1: Falcons 70 Protection|
The Falcons like to use max protection schemes while rolling the pocket. Figure 1 shows a typical 70 (seven man) protection package. The offensive line rolls to the left while backs Michael Turner and Ovie Mughelli block to the right. The center can double-team the nose tackle, but he's also responsible for any defender blitzing the A-gap. As shown, one of the backs can leak into the flat if there is no threat on the right side. Ryan shuffles right in this protection scheme, and his reads (there may only be two) are both on the right side.
The Falcons used a variation on this protection scheme in Week 17 against the Rams. Figure 2 shows both backs blocking to the right while most of the offensive line rolls left. Left guard Justin Blaylock, who is uncovered on the offensive line, pulls to the right to add additional protection on that side. Typically, Blaylock would be responsible for any wide blitzers, while Mughelli (as shown) or Turner reads the interior gaps for blitzers. Turner, slipping into the flat, provides a safety valve for Ryan.
|Figure 2: Falcons Protection with Pulling Guard|
Rolling the pocket and using additional blockers limits the offense, but when a rookie is calling the signals, it's better to be limited and well-executed than complicated and confusing.
3) Run some low-risk junk: The Wildcat is often thought of as the Dolphins' property, and they use it more than any other team. But the Ravens and Falcons also used direct snap plays for the same reasons the Dolphins used it: They needed a low-risk wrinkle to diversify their offense. The occasional direct snap to Jerious Norwood gave defenses one more worry while taking some heat off Ryan. The Ravens used Flacco-Troy Smith trick plays to give Smith some snaps (shutting up a few high-profile defenders was an added bonus) while taking advantage of the athleticism of both quarterbacks.
When they aren't using two quarterbacks or snapping directly to a running back, the Ravens and Falcons can be found tinkering with unbalanced lines (a Ravens staple) or a full house backfield. It's important to note these are not risky strategies. When we think of trick plays, we usually think of reverses, halfback passes, and fake punts: Plays that could easily result in a turnover or ten-yard loss. A direct snap is no more risky than an off-tackle run, but it can force the defense to prepare for a different package or adjust quickly to a new formation. The more time the defense spends worrying about the Wildcat or imbalanced line, the less time it can spend devising blitzes or disguising coverages.
4) Limit the decisions. The Falcons started last week's victory over the Rams with a handoff from a full-house backfield. Then, they ran a play-action screen from the shotgun. They followed that with a smoke screen to Roddy White. Then came a quick out to Michael Jenkins and an incomplete pass on a rollout/waggle. The drive ended with a field goal, but the sequence was fascinating because Ryan got the ball into the hands of his best playmakers -- Norwood, White, Jenkins -- without having to throw more than 10 yards downfield or make any complex reads.
The Ravens do things differently. Flacco usually uncorks four or five deep bombs per game. He also completes several comeback and out routes to Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton. It's not a high-percentage system, but Cameron's outs-and-bombs formula does make maximum use of Flacco's arm strength, and it limits the number of reads the rookie has to make.
Mix easy-to-read passes with a good running game, extra protection, and a dash of trickery, and you have an offense that a (good) rookie can ride all the way to the playoffs. It's that simple. The Steelers used the same formula when Ben Roethlisberger was a novice -- remember all of the crazy Hines Ward/Antwaan Randle El plays they used to run? -- and some team will use the same approach to protect Sam Bradford or Matt Stafford next year. If it doesn't take them to the playoffs, it should at least prevent them from boring their fans or giving the youngster shellshock.
Falcons at Cardinals: Will Leitch calls the Cardinals a "buzzsaw," and for a few weeks in midseason that designation wasn't drenched in irony. That changed by mid-November. In their losses to the Eagles, Vikings, and Patriots, the Cardinals looked like one of those Fisher Price buzzsaws that couldn't cut through a wet paper towel. Most experts are approaching this year's playoffs with an "anyone could win" attitude, but the Cardinals aren't classified as "anyone." They showed some offensive life against the Seahawks last week, but there's a big difference between scoring 34 points against a last-legs team and stepping up in the playoffs. The Falcons will win, with John Abraham picking up at least two sacks and Michael Turner deflating the football in the second half. Sorry, Leitch and Cardinals fans everywhere: This lame little playoff run is all you are going to get.
Ravens at Dolphins: It's a battle of surprise teams, a duel between two of the league's most prolific offensive junkmeisters. It's a potential revenge game for Cam Cameron, the failed Dolphins coach who found success as the Ravens offensive coordinator. It's a battle between a cannon-armed rookie and a heady veteran whose arm isn't quite as limp as we thought it was last year. It's the Dolphins' first playoff game since losing to the Ravens 20-3 in 2001, which was about an epoch ago (Jay Fiedler led the Dolphins in passing and rushing that day; Elvis Grbac and Terry Allen formed the Ravens' backfield tandem).
This is a game filled with storylines, but it will ultimately be decided by defense. The Ravens have a great defense, good enough to stop the Wildcat (as pointed out by Doug Farrar) and keep Chad Pennington from picking his way down the field. The Dolphins defense is above average, but they can be run against, and the Ravens will pound away with their three-headed backfield. Like Vegas, I am going four-for-four on road teams, taking the Ravens in a low-scoring game.
27 comments, Last at 05 Jan 2009, 12:11pm by deep64blue