In what is likely the best opening week of college football we've seen in years, we're treated to a series of neutral-site, out-of-conference matchups that could have a resounding impact on the entire college football season.
06 Jan 2010
by Mike Tanier
Football Outsiders productions ...
In conjunction with Mirimax, Fox Searchlight, Pixar, and Vivid ... presents ...
In a small New England town where nothing dangerous ever happens ...
Wes: Hey, let's cut across the middle of this football field.
Randy: I don't think we should.
Wes: You never want to do it. C'mon, it's safe. I must've done it 346 times in the last three years.
Something dangerous ...
Tom: (on cell phone from locker room): I think I am just going to hang in the pocket a little longer today.
Gisele (at home): Oh honey, I don't like it when you spend that much time there.
... is about to happen!
Randy: What's that noise? I hear footsteps.
Wes: Relax. It's just --AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!
Directed by Spike Jonez ...
Detective Belichick (examining an MRI of a knee): There's a serial killer out there somewhere, and he's targeting Patriots. You're only chance to survive is to go out and give 100 percent on every play.
Randy: Then just paint a bulls-eye on my chest right now!
Based on the confusing and grossly overrated horror film by Hideo Nakata ...
Gisele (crying): Tom, the baby keeps watching that creepy DVD and saying Drallop Dranreb. Who is she? Who is this Drallop trollop?
Tobey Maguire is Wes Welker.
Wes: He somehow injured me ... without even touching me!
Adrian Grenier is Tom Brady.
Tom: My knee is fine. I swear. (whispering) Doctor Nakagawa, prepare the robot knee.
Megan Fox is Juliana Edelman.
Juliana (in a Patriots halter top): This isn't a knock on Edelman's manhood. The producers just thought the film would be more marketable with a little extra T 'n' A.
And Mike Epps as ...
Wes (reeling in pain): Pollard!
Tom (firing rounds from his robot knee flamethrower): Pollard!
Juliana (looking obscenely hot, barely emoting): Pollard.
This film is not yet rated.
Close your eyes and picture the Eagles offense. After Sunday's game, you may have to use your imagination a bit. Anyway, what do you see?
You probably pictured DeSean Jackson running a deep route, with a double move, catching a bomb from Donovan McNabb. Maybe you pictured a screen to one of the backs, or the Eagles' latest innovation, the single-back dive by Leonard Weaver. Most likely, though, you pictured the bomb.
Let's do the same thing for the Packers, Patriots, Titans, and (to throw a bad offense in there) the Bears. Picture each team's offense for a moment.
For the Packers, you probably had Aaron Rodgers in shotgun, with a spread formation and a blocking back aligned behind the guard, throwing either a slant to Donald Driver or a deep pass up the sidelines to one of the other receivers. For the Patriots, you pictured Wes Welker running a short get-open route over the middle, right? You either had Chris Johnson taking a pitch or Vince Young and Johnson running their little counter option for the Titans. For the Bears, you had Greg Olsen running a 10-15 yard route from the slot, though you probably imagined that the pass was intercepted.
All of those teams have an "offensive identity." You've heard that phrase before, but it is usually used as a meaningless buzzword. If a team isn't scoring, an announcer may say they "lack identity," though they usually just lack personnel. But offensive identity is real. It's much more than a play, a formation, or a player. It's more like a philosophy.
Teams game plan for each opponent, but game plans aren't built from scratch. They are built from a set of principles that the offensive coach emphasizes from the moment he starts installing his offense. Norv Turner builds his offenses to be able to throw deep from I-formation type sets. Jon Gruden ran slants-and-flats from a hundred formations. Sean Payton, once you strip away the zillions of formations and packages, designs pass packages with multiple crossing routes; he likes to use traffic to get receivers open. These principles become, when everything clicks, the offensive identity. The identity is the type of play the team wants to be good at, no matter what defense it is facing. It's the type of play the team falls back on when things aren't going according to plan.
We know the offensive identities of most of this year's playoff teams. We've mentioned the Saints, Eagles, Patriots, Packers, and Chargers already. We've watched the Colts for a decade, so we all know what's coming. The Bengals are a power running team with one great receiver; they try to control the ball, overpower opponents, and wait for defensive mistakes. The Cardinals don't spread the field as much this year as last, and they run more than they used to, but they still build their game plans around isolating Larry Fitzgerald outside the hashmarks and getting Anquan Boldin open in space. The Vikings mix power-running with old-fashioned West Coast slants-and-flats principles. The Jets are trying to protect a rookie quarterback, but they still have a clear identity, with their six-linemen formations and Brad Smith options. Picture the Ravens, and you see the Joe Flacco play-action fake to Ray Rice (Flacco has to bend at the knees and waist to reach him), followed by the long, long bomb.
That brings us to the Cowboys. They have a secret identity.
What do you think of when you close your eyes and picture the Cowboys offense? A breathtaking Tony Romo highlight? That's freestyling, not an identity. Felix Jones in the Razorback formation (their Wildcat)? The Cowboys don't run that very often. You probably think of some Jason Witten crossing route, which is appropriate, as Witten is their leading receiver. But when you watch a Cowboys game, they don't seem to be scheming to get Witten open. They also don't seem to be featuring Jones or Marion Barber; in fact, for all their effectiveness, the running backs sometimes disappear from the game plan. Their top wide receiver is Miles Austin, but he isn't their go-to guy in the way Fitzgerald is for the Cardinals. In fact, he isn't on the field in most of their one-receiver sets; Roy Williams gets that honor, for some reason. When the Cowboys offense is playing poorly, as it did against many opponents early in the season, it almost looks like they are selecting their plays at random.
I watched footage of the Chargers game from Week 14, trying to determine what the Cowboys were trying to establish. As it turns out, the Cowboys do have a signature type of play that they run very well. Against the Chargers, it took them almost three quarters to find it. Now that they know what works best, NFC opponents have a real problem.
In their first drive of the game, the Cowboys drove 41 yards in 10 plays, running just three times for seven yards. Their second drive was a three-and-out, all passes. Their third drive consisted of 13 runs and one incomplete pass. It was the famous drive that ended with four straight handoffs to Barber from the 1-yard line, all fruitless. Still, the Cowboys drove 72 yards without a single passing yard, facing just one third down the entire drive before the final stand.
The next drive: incomplete pass, short run by Barber, incomplete pass, punt.
The next drive, at the start of the third quarter: incomplete pass, short run by Jones, incomplete pass, punt.
Do you see a trend? The Chargers have not had a good run defense this season, allowing 4.5 yards per rush entering Week 17. The Cowboys' most successful drive of the game was built entirely out of running plays. Yet they opened their next two drives passing the ball, switching to the run on second-and-10. The Cowboys averaged 3.7 yards per gain on second-and-long (6-10 yards) this season, so those runs all but guaranteed third-and-long. The Cowboys only trailed 10-3, so they weren't abandoning the run. They just mysteriously gave up on what was most successful for them in that 72-yard drive. This is an example of a team lacking "identity:" a run-first team like the Titans would have spent the next two drives slamming the ball down the Chargers throat, but the Cowboys looked like they wanted to do something else. What that was isn't clear, because they didn't do it.
|Figure 1: Cowboys Freeze Draw|
Jason Garrett finally figures things out with the Cowboys pinned at their own 1-yard line. Barber gains 10 yards on a simple "iso" run from the I-formation. Then, Garrett begins to rely on a play that I think defines what the Cowboys do best: the freeze draw.
Figure 1 shows the Cowboys in first-and-10 from their own 11-yard line. As you can see, they are in a power formation and personnel grouping: two tight ends, two backs. At the snap, Romo drops one step and looks to his left to receiver Roy Williams. The Cowboys linemen appear to set for short pass protection. This pass action freezes several defenders, who have blue halos in the diagram. None of those three defenders move to fill run gaps until Romo turns back to Felix Jones. By then, the frozen linebacker (Stephen Cooper) is already in trouble: Andre Gurode (65) has peeled off his brief combo block and is already in position to attack on the second level. Leonard Davis (70) turns his defender inside, while fullback Deon Anderson (38) attacks the other inside linebacker. Jones makes a fine cut into a wide hole, and the outside linebacker doesn't make contact until Jones is already five yards downfield.
Plays like these take advantage of the quality of the Cowboys running backs, the power blocking of interior linemen Gurode and Davis, and the threat of Romo's quick release on short timing routes. The Cowboys routinely win the battle right over the ball at the snap, and Romo is at his best in the short passing game when he sets and throws immediately.
|Figure 2: Witten Hot Route|
Just two plays later, Romo demonstrates his quick-read, quick-strike ability. The Cowboys start in an I-formation, but rookie tight end John Philips motions wide. The Chargers' response to the motion reveals that they were in man coverage with a deep safety. Witten and Romo both guess, correctly, that outside linebacker Shawne Merriman will rush the passer. That makes Witten the hot receiver: once Merriman slips past him, he turns for a short pass. Sure enough, his defender in man coverage is Cooper (54), who is in no position to stop such a quick throw. Witten gains nine easy yards.
Note how these plays complement each other. In the first, the short pass action sets up a draw play. In the second, motion out of the run-oriented I-formation sets up a quick rhythm pass. Most importantly, these plays gain 8-10 yards on early downs, keeping the Cowboys out of third-and-long, where Romo's weaknesses (an inability to read defenses and throw from the pocket on a deep drop) can hurt them.
The Cowboys continue to mix runs and passes on this drive. They run for a short first down, and later produce a big play when Romo hits Roy Williams on another hot read. On first-and-goal at the 9-yard line, the Cowboys again execute their freeze draw. Figure 3 shows them in a bunch formation to the right. Romo again turns and stares down Williams for a quick slant, and again several defenders freeze, including the inside linebackers. The Cowboys lineman do an excellent job setting to pass protect on this play, making the Chargers linemen fan out to rush the passer. Davis again catches and steers his defender, and Gurode once again gets into great position to flatten Cooper. Philips folds into the B-gap to block the other inside linebacker, while Austin (19) stalks the safety. It's another combination of great blocking and great design, and Barber takes the ball to the one yard line. A false start penalty later, the Cowboys score on a play action pass and quick throw.
|Figure 3: Cowboys Freeze Draw II|
The Cowboys had a clear identity on this drive. They used quick passes and power runs to set each other up, maximizing the strengths of their personnel. They can be very effective running out of power formations, and Romo's skills as a quick passer and ball handler allow them to threaten opponents with draw plays, even on running downs from running formations.
The freeze draw was a major part of the Cowboys game plan against the Eagles. The Cowboys used plays nearly identical the ones diagrammed three times in the first half alone. I would diagram them, but that would require watching the game film over and over again. I am just not up for that.
The draws themselves weren't very effective, gaining a total of six yards. But the Cowboys I-formation running game was excellent overall, and the Eagles blitz was beaten several times on short set-and-throw plays, the kind the complement the draw game very well.
The bad news for the Cowboys is that they don't get to face the Saints run defense unless they reach the conference title game. Despite what we saw Sunday, the Eagles have a solid run defense. If the Cowboys win, they face the Vikings, who have a very good run defense, though it isn't as good as many of us thought it would be.
Still, the Cowboys enter the playoffs as a hot team with a clear identity. They aren't the team that loses in December. They aren't the team whose quarterback just returned from a tequila tasting tour. They're the team that mixes quick passes with I-formation runs, many of them draw plays designed to freeze the defense. That ID proved good enough to get them in the door, and it could take them further.
After four months, you have to expect an outburst like that.
It hasn't been that hard to avoid you-know-who. I had plenty of opportunities to write about him for other outlets. And he snuck into Walkthrough a few times, like when I mentioned the Vikings three-drink press conference in late December without ever mentioning the participants.
Avoiding the most overexposed player on earth for an entire season taught me a lot. First, I learned how automatic some of my go-to jokes are. I must have come up with 20 Favre jokes over the course of the season, many of which weren't New York Times appropriate (I quickly repurposed those that were). Most of those jokes were more convenient than funny. I realized how easy it is to keep going back to the well, talking about the same dozen people instead of digging a little deeper. It turns out that David Garrard can sometimes be funny, too. That being said, I didn't over-learn the lesson, as this week's intro proves.
I also realized just how many stories go unreported. Football journalism consists of ten thousand people all writing and saying the same things about the same 20 people. Instead of Favre, I broke down Packers corner blitzes before their defense became one of the best in the league, and I looked at Chris Johnson's rushing splits before he started chasing 2,000. The "Say Something Nice" column I wrote in November came as a result of my effort to avoid the same-old stories, and being forced to write about Ryan Longwell and Percy Harvin was more liberating than restricting.
Of course, the Favre-atorium is lifted, because it makes no sense to avoid a playoff quarterback during the playoffs. I will still only mention him in the course of on-field and statistical breakdowns: no gratuitous King Brett jokes, no matter how badly I want to tell them.
The Farve moratorium was so successful, however, that I want to introduce something similar for the offseason. If only there was some player who is likely to be over-exposed and over-analyzed in March and April.
Are we thinking of the same guy?
Starting today, Walkthrough is a No Tim Tebow Zone. The former Florida quarterback will not be mentioned in this space at all. No jokes, no scouting reports, and no speculation.
This may be the only no-Tebow zone in the entire Internet. Come April, you'll be thanking me.
98 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2010, 5:39am by deep64blue