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10 Sep 2009
by Mike Tanier
Lee Evans had concerns about the Bills offense.
Everyone who watched a Bills preseason game shared those concerns. The starting offense produced just three points and committed five turnovers in 15 possessions. The new no-huddle attack produced confusion and inconsistency, not up-tempo thrills. Evans, a five-year veteran and one of the team’s leaders, addressed his concerns to the coaching staff. He spoke to several coaches, including offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, seeking reassurance that the Bills were headed in the right direction.
A few days later, Schonert was fired. Head coach Dick Jauron handed the coordinator’s duties over to quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, whose only playcalling experience came in NFL Europe.
"It caught me way off guard," said Evans, who liked and respected Schonert. "It was definitely a surprise."
What do you know about Turk Schonert, Alex Van Pelt, and the Bills offense? More importantly -- since I’m the one who writes the articles -- what do I know? And how do I know it?
The information above comes almost exclusively from an article by Allen Wilson in the Buffalo News. I read it, summarized it, and passed it along. Without his work, I would know that Van Pelt replaced Schonert, but I wouldn’t know how Evans felt about it. Without Wilson, or someone else like him, I wouldn't know enough to talk or write interestingly or intelligently about the Bills offensive situation.
Which brings us back to an important question: What do I really know about the Bills situation specifically, or about the Richard Seymour trade, or any other football related event?
And, in the age of the Internet, what does it even mean to "know" something?
Dick Jauron claimed that he made the decision to fire Schonert quickly. He also said it was his decision, not a mandate by owner Ralph Wilson. "I called Mr. Wilson this morning when I decided this was the direction I wanted to go and informed him of my wish and he said it was my call and I made it," Jauron said.
Reporters who follow the Bills closely think Jauron is performing spin control. "I’m sure [the firing] was an edict from owner Ralph Wilson because this just isn’t Jauron’s style," wrote Sal Maiorana, who has covered the Bills for nearly two decades for the Rochester Eagle and Democrat.
Everyone agrees that Schonert's offense wasn’t getting the job done. The Bills finished 24th in the league in offensive DVOA last year, and they regressed late in the year, scoring a combined six points in their final three home games. The offseason acquisition of Terrell Owens -- who has been laid up with turf toe for most of the preseason -- looked like a quick fix for an offense that needed more broad-based improvement. Drastic changes on the offensive line made it even harder for the team to implement its new no-huddle offense. Rookie guards Eric Wood and Andy Levitre are smart, high-effort players who could develop into excellent blockers on the move. But both are adjusting to new positions (Levitre was a left tackle in college, Wood a center), and both needed a year to get stronger. With Owens sidelined and Levitre and Wood getting blown backward, Schonert’s offense never established any rhythm and often looked downright embarrassing.
When an angry reader sends a nasty email, he invariably suggests that I know nothing about football. That’s not true -- I know something about football. But how much?
There’s a lot of information in the last few paragraphs. It’s knowledge that falls into several categories:
Current Events Knowledge: Schonert was fired, Van Pelt will now call the Bills plays. Terrell Owens is injured. Jauron said in a press conference that he made a sudden decision.
Statistical Knowledge: The Bills finished 24th in DVOA and scored just six points in three late-season games.
Insider Knowledge: Evans was surprised by the firing. A veteran local sportswriter thinks that Wilson forced Jauron's hand.
Scouting Knowledge: The rookie guards, whose strengths are intelligence and blocking on the move, are getting pushed around in preseason games.
Player Background Knowledge: The rookie guards played other positions in college.
There are other types of knowledge underlying those paragraphs. There's historical knowledge, which helps us understand who Owens and Wilson are and their significance to the story. Other historical knowledge underpins the story: the Bills have gone through seven offensive coordinators in 10 years; Van Pelt is a former Bills backup who has been employed by the team almost continuously since 1995.
That’s a lot of knowledge. But how much of it was mine before I sat down to write? I knew the basic outline: the players, the coaches, the general state of the Bills offense, the implications of firing a coordinator 10 days before the season opener. My "walking around" knowledge allowed me to understand more about the story than, say, my wife ("Who is Turk Schonert?") my mother ("Who are the Bills?") or the hardcore Eagles fan at my lunch table who only follows the headlines for out-of-town teams ("Did Owens do something to get that Turk guy fired?")
Unfortunately, my walking around knowledge is insufficient to write a Walkthrough, or to discuss the firing on a radio show. I need additional knowledge:
If I needed more depth, I could consult Pro Football Talk, the Bills team website, or even a reputable fan blog. I could tape the Bills preseason games and re-watch them looking for specific problems or mistakes. I could even search news archives to learn more about Schonert's hiring last year or Van Pelt's playing career. But here’s the thing: so could you.
I have very few sources at my disposal that you don’t have. Aaron can give me a hard-to-find stat if I need it. Journalists like Wilson or Maiorana are a little more likely to return my phone calls than yours. I have a library of old magazines, draft guides, and encyclopedias that I can consult. Those sources give me about a five percent advantage over, say, an ambitious blogger researching the same story. My "walking around knowledge" might earn me another five percent, though a hardcore Bills fan probably knows more about the team’s recent history than I do.
That’s what my expertise is riding upon: a 5-10 percent advantage over the next guy, the passionate football fan with a good Internet connection and an urge to learn more about the Turk Schonert firing. I am trying to hold your interest with that 5-10 percent advantage. I am trying to further my career using that 5-10 percent advantage.
There’s very little separating me from the next guy. I know that full well. Not too long ago, I was that next guy.
Jauron says that he wants the Bills offense to do "more attacking" under Van Pelt. That means the no-huddle is here to stay. "It's not like we're changing scheme. We may be changing focus, we may be changing emphasis but it's not like we're adding new things."
In an interview with a Buffalo television station after his firing, Schonert suggested that it was Jauron who took the teeth out of the Bills offense. "He wants a 'Pop Warner' offense," Schonert said in a phone interview with WIVB. "He limited me in formations, and limited me in plays. He's been on my back all offseason."
Schonert's personality may have been more of a problem than his playcalling. He earned a dictatorial, inflexible reputation, according to the anonymous sources who always surface after a coach is fired. Even while defending Schonert, Evans hinted that the former coach could be difficult. "He liked to do things his way," Evans said. "I learned a lot from him. But as many people as there is in this game sometimes you just don't rub some people the right way."
Schonert's relationship with Trent Edwards was very rocky, according to some sources. When Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News asked Edwards why he wasn’t throwing downfield more often, Edwards said that he was only following orders by checking down. "That's just the way I'm coached," he said. Sullivan believes that Edwards "was throwing Schonert under the bus (after checking down, naturally)."
Whatever the rationale, the Schonert firing looks like a preemptive strike by Jauron to save his own job. His teams have produced three straight 7-9 seasons. Football Outsiders projects them to win 5.3 games. Vegas is slightly more optimistic, setting the over-under at a predictable 7.5 wins. Jauron won’t survive another mediocre season. The Schonert firing doesn’t buy him much time, but it's a Hail Mary pass that could jumpstart the offense and stave off a slow start.
You know more about football than the typical "expert" knew 25 years ago.
Back in 1984, it was nearly impossible to watch more than three NFL games in a typical week: the early Sunday game, the late game, and the Monday Night game. Now, you can watch seven or eight without breaking a sweat: three Sunday games, the Monday Night game, and as many as four NFL Network Shortcut games.
In 1984, you watched the home team and a handful of the top national teams, like the Cowboys or Dolphins. A Philadelphia area fan could go two or three seasons with no opportunity at all to see, say, the Falcons: They rarely played the Eagles, were blacked out on CBS whenever the Eagles played, and made few appearances on national television. Now, it’s easy to keep track of a low-profile team on the other side of the country, and Matt Ryan’s family in the Delaware Valley can watch him all year for the price of a satellite dish or a trip to a sports bar.
In 1984, those of us with VCRs could record grainy, clunky game tape. Now, we can conveniently tape games in high-definition with the push of a DVR or Tivo button. With a satellite dish, we can tape two or more Sunday games while watching two others.
In 1984, we read the local paper for our news. We got plenty of information on the home team, a few insights about past or future opponents, and AP reports and capsules about the rest of the league. An ambitious fan might subscribe to The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, maybe a gambling service. Now, we search the Internet and get our information straight from the sources. If we need to know about the Bills, we read Buffalo News. If we want a national roundup, we have a hundred choices.
We got our stats from tiny, agate-type midweek lists and from the backs of magazines in 1984. Now, we get them from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Reference and NFL.com. Pregame shows were a half hour long in 1984. Their length has nearly quadrupled, and while their information content hasn't, they provide more knowledge than Phyllis George or Jimmy the Greek did.
You get the idea. You watch more football, read more about football, ingest more data and opinion about football than it was possible to absorb just 25 years ago. High level experts and analysts of that era could easily gain an edge over the common fan: they could get their hands on out-of-town papers or game tape, interview a player or telephone a colleague, go to the basement to search the stacks.
Those advantages barely exist anymore. You can watch a press conference or download the transcript. You can read the out-of-town blogs. The marginal knowledge that separates the extremely passionate fan -- and that’s what you are if you are still reading at this point -- from the professional football analyst has grown very small, and it’s shrinking constantly.
That’s why you find your local columnist frustrating, the television color commentator unlistenable: you know too much, and they probably haven’t changed with the times.
That's one reason why newspapers are scrambling to stay in business. The marginal knowledge gap doesn't just exist in sports, but in current events, entertainment, and other fields as well. Your local paper is still learning how to compete with CNN.com or with pundit-like bloggers of all philosophies when covering national news, with TMZ.com and fanboy sites for entertainment news. It’s a scary fact that some newspapers just won't be able to compete, and many have folded or cut to the quick.
It's a reason Football Outsiders stays in business and people like me get writing opportunities. Our databases are a source of extra knowledge, information you cannot get anywhere else. You may read the Buffalo News before I do, you may research Schonert’s career on your own and acquire more information than I have time to provide. But I know that the Bills went 0-for-15 on third-and-10 situations last year, and while you also have access to that information (page 29 of FOA) I had it before you did, which could have made a big difference if Schonert was fired in July.
The realization that marginal knowledge is always shrinking forces conscientious, dedicated football analysts -- and yes, I consider myself conscientious and dedicated -- to keep learning more about the game. For me, that means studying more game tape, because strategy and play diagrams have become my niche. For Football Outsiders, that means more research and more stat compilation. We can stay relevant, interesting, and in-demand by introducing new stats and methods like the FEI, Speed Scores, Receiving Plus-Minus, and by freeze framing plays and counting empty-backfield plays so no one else has to. If we stop evolving and adapting, someone will pass us by, individually or as an organization.
Anyone can write an article about Turk Schonert. Anyone can compile quotes, cite stats, add a little spin. Heck, anyone can transfer play-by-play onto some spreadsheets, type in a few formulas, and create some DVOA-like stats. We survive by surfing a tiny whitecap of knowledge, by working harder and harder to know a little more and to impart that knowledge in an entertaining way.
It's daunting. It's stressful. And I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm in this business to learn more and to pass along what I’m learning, not to string together second-hand facts.
The Bills may not have the personnel to be successful in a no-huddle offense, regardless of who is coordinating it. Edwards is not the issue: He is smart enough to make the on-the-line adjustments necessary to run the scheme. The rookie linemen are a bigger problem. Protection adjustments must me made quickly at the line of scrimmage in a no-huddle, and with two rookies and a journeyman center Geoff Hangartner on the interior line, there are going to be some blown assignments, which will lead to disastrous sacks, turnovers, and possibly injuries.
But the biggest problems are at running back and tight end. Marshawn Lynch is not a prototypical no-huddle running back in the Thurman Thomas mold. He caught 47 passes last year, but he averaged just 6.4 yards per catch for a DVOA of -12.5%. He's not a threat as a slot receiver. Fred Jackson (receiving DVOA of 12.4%) is a more credible threat as a slot or flex receiver, but he has only been used sparingly in these roles. Of the Bills tight ends, only rookie Shaun Nelson is a true seam threat as a flex receiver, and Nelson isn’t ready for an every-down role. Fullback Corey McIntyre is a 260-pound blocking specialist with little versatility.
The no-huddle is most effective when it is used to force the defense into mismatches by varying formations and putting individual defenders in untenable positions. The Bills cannot really do that. Opposing defenses aren’t worried about a linebacker covering Lynch in the slot or a strong safety covering tight end Derek Schouman up the seam. The Bills cannot convert easily from power to spread to empty formations with the personnel they have. In the preseason, Schonert deployed lots of three-wideout, single back formations that put little pressure on defenses to adjust. Those formations can be effective when Peyton Manning is the quarterback and Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, and Dallas Clark are running patterns. When Edwards is behind an inexperienced line looking for Lee Evans and Derek Schouman to get open, those vanilla formations hinder much more than they help. Instead of firing Schonert, Jauron should have seriously considered scrapping the no huddle, giving his coordinators more opportunities to vary personnel groupings and formations, while giving his young lineman a chance to process their assignments in the huddle.
That’s my football knowledge, acquired over years of study and research, augmented by sources we all share. Now, my knowledge is yours. Use it, build on it, and add to it, and I may borrow it back someday. Credit me when you reference me, and I'll return the favor. And if you want to be a person who trades in football knowledge, who packages it or spins it, publishes it or popularizes it, then make sure you also find a way to produce it. Stories and headlines are temporary and fleeting. Knowledge, even about something as trivial as football, is precious.
62 comments, Last at 16 Sep 2009, 1:23pm by Bruce G.