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The question is not whether Saquon Barkley is the best running back in this draft class. The question is whether any running back, even one as good as Barkley, warrants a top-five draft selection in the NFL in 2018.

12 Jul 2006

The Science of Pass Offense

by Mike Tanier

In the next four Minicamp articles, we're going to cover the passing game the only way Football Outsiders knows how: we're going deep, baby.

The depth is necessary because NFL passing attacks are complicated. It's often said that it takes three years to learn the West Coast offense. That means an undergrad can go from Intro to Calculus to Multi-Dimensional Topology in the time it takes a wide receiver to get from the front of Jon Gruden's playbook to the back.

When discussing passing plays and strategies, it's easy to lapse into incomprehensible coach-speak and "Red Right 22-Cross-In" gobbledygook. We don't want readers to drown in an ocean of jargon, but at the same time, it's important to use precise terminology at times. In the next few Minicamp essays, we'll assume that you know the difference between a split end and a flanker and can tell a post pattern from an out route. We'll use some play diagrams in place of a thousand words. And we'll use plain English whenever possible.

Consider this week's Minicamp an introductory course: a primer on the language and concepts of the passing game. Next week, we'll examine quick slant routes and principles of the West Coast offense. After that, we'll look at the spread offense. In the last installment, we'll run some bootlegs and a waggle or two. At the end, you'll have a deeper understanding and appreciation of football strategy, and you may pick up some pointers for your favorite video game.

Motion and Protection

Every successful passing play integrates three elements: the motion of the quarterback, the protection of the offensive line and any additional blockers, and the routes run by the eligible receivers.

When we think about pass offense, we are usually thinking about the routes. They're what we drew in the dirt when we were kids. When we select plays in video games, we focus on the receiver's patterns; the protection and quarterback's drop are rarely issues. In the Minicamp articles to come, pass patterns will get most of the attention. But no combination of pass routes can be successful unless it is designed in concert with a protection package and the quarterback's drop and progression of reads.

Let's take a moment to consider all of the things a quarterback might do between the snap of the ball and the release of the pass:

1) The quarterback might take a three, five, or seven-step drop.

2) He might roll to his left or right. There are various types of rollouts, including the bootleg (a rollout with minimal protection) and the sprint out (a fast, flat move towards the sidelines to close the gap between the passer and an intended receiver).

3) He might execute one or more play action fakes.

4) While reading the defense, he may purposely look to one direction to confuse and mislead defenders. This is often called "looking-off" a safety or linebacker.

There are other variables. Some screen passes are executed from a one-step drop. A quarterback in the shotgun has different options when dropping back. Some plays have designed pump fakes to freeze defenders. And while he's moving, the quarterback is constantly reading and diagnosing the defense. Many of these reads, like the passer's drop and motion, are pre-programmed.

There are also numerous variables in the design of the pass protection:

1) Individual linemen may be assigned to block certain defenders or to control certain gaps. Each lineman might be assigned the gap to his left or to his right. Or, guards and tackles might be required to pinch the gaps on their inside shoulder, with the center assisting one of the guards.

2) Linemen with an empty gap can double-team defenders, or they may be assigned to "fan" left or right to engage an outside pass rusher.

3) A running back or tight end (or both) could stay in to block. The extra blocker's assignment must match the roles of the linemen. For example, if each lineman is controlling the gap to his right, a running back might be responsible for any pass rusher outside of the left tackle's left shoulder.

4) Running backs and tight ends might have "check and release" duties: they block if they have to, then run short patterns if they're not busy with a pass rusher. These routes are sometimes called delay routes or leak routes.

5) On play-action passes, the offensive line must appear to run block. Any run-blocking assignment – pulling, trapping, double-teaming, and so on – can also be a play-action pass blocking duty. Play-action passes are designed to mimic specific runs, so if a guard pulls left on a counter play, he'll pull left on the pass that starts as a fake counter.

6) If the quarterback is taking a three-step drop, the linemen must take short sets and engage their defenders quickly. Longer quarterback drops mean deeper sets as linemen establish a pocket. On screen passes, linemen set quickly, engage their defenders, then slip into the flat to block for the intended receiver.

Blocking assignments are often changed or clarified at the line of scrimmage just before the snap, adding another layer of complexity to the pass protector's job.

So there's a lot to think about before first post pattern has been drawn on the chalkboard. The quarterback's motion and the blocking scheme are selected based upon the goal of the passing play. Passes designed for third-and-10 will have long drops by the passer, deep sets by the linemen, and no play action. Plays designed to get a running back open in the flat might include a rollout by the quarterback and extra protection by the tight end. The drop and protection schemes always match the pass patterns, and the patterns themselves are designed to work in concert to attack weak spots or get the ball into the hands of the offense's best weapons.

Pattern Trees

The basic pass patterns are usually organized into trees. Here's an example of a route tree. Here's a similar one with slightly different numbering. Here's one for tight ends. You get the idea.

All of the trees use the same basic numbering system; even-numbered routes are directed toward the middle of the field, while odd-numbered routes head for the sidelines. This is the standard numbering system that is introduced in Pop Warner ball and refined at each subsequent level through the NFL. While all of the basic trees are fundamentally similar, there are as many different passing trees as there are coaches at the prep, college, and pro levels.

The basic pattern tree tells only a fraction of the story. Trees only classify routes that begin with a straight downfield release. That leaves out shallow cross routes, V-routes, and scat routes. Double-move patterns, like the post-and-corner, aren't on the basic tree. The standard tree doesn't specify the receiver's release: some patterns are only effective if the receiver can get inside or outside his defender at the snap. And different coaches have different names and variations for the same route: one coach's "in" is another coach's "dig"; a five-yard slant in Tampa Bay might be a seven-yard slant in Denver.

When designing a play, a coach can assign several dozen responsibilities to each of his five eligible receivers, from blocking to running a fly pattern. He can align his receivers in dozens of pre-snap formations. Factor in the various drops and protection schemes, and there are billions of feasible passing plays, all of which are in Mike Martz's weekly gameplan.

Seriously, a playbook (and the human brain) can only hold so much information, and for every successful design, there are dozens of plays that aren't worth the chalk required to draw them. An NFL passing play is much more than five guys trying to get open while five others block. It's a carefully choreographed maneuver, designed to feint defenders out of position or place them in untenable situations. NFL plays must work against various defensive schemes and coverages, from deep zones to jailbreak blitzes. They must be complex enough to fool defenders but simple enough to implement in a few weeks of training camp. No wonder you can get a bachelor's degree in the time it takes to master an NFL offense.

Bunch Right, Flanker Scat

Enough of the general discussion; let's look at a play. Diagram 1 shows a typical pass play. In the weeks to come, you'll see some plays that are adapted from coaching manuals and other sources, but this particular play is a variation of one in the Eagles playbook of EA Sports' Madden '06 video game. We'll call it Bunch Right, Flanker Scat; its true nomenclature would be more complicated and would vary from team to team.

Take a moment to analyze the offensive personnel. There are three wide receivers, one tight end, and a running back on the field. The defense would respond to this personnel package by bringing a nickel cornerback or safety into the game. Next, notice the triangle of receivers to the right; this formation would commonly be called "Trips Right" or "Bunch Right." The bunched receivers are aligned very close to the right tackle, while the lone split end to the left is further from the formation and closer to the sideline. This is by design: any of the bunched receivers has the space to run a sideline-oriented pattern, while the left end is isolated in the open field.

Your attention is immediately drawn to that cluster of receivers, who are in great position to weave and cross each other's routes. The defense must also pay special attention to the cluster. It may come as a surprise, then, that the left split end is often the primary target on a play like this. He's usually in one-on-one coverage against a cornerback, with little help from the safeties and linebackers. He should have no trouble getting open on the five-yard slant pattern that is shown.

During his pre-snap read, the quarterback checks the coverage on the left split end and reads the defense to the right. The center checks the alignment of the defensive line, and both the center and quarterback read the blitz. This play is designed for the line to slide right, with each blocker responsible for the gap to his right (the line motion is omitted from the diagram for clarity's sake). The running back is responsible for any blitzing defenders on the outside shoulder of the left tackle. Even receivers have pre-snap reads: on this play, we'll say that the flanker (the receiver to the far right) will run the "hot" route if the defense blitzes to the right side. He'll read the defender who is facing the tight end: if that player blitzes, the flanker will run a three-step shallow cross, turn, and wait for the ball.

Let's assume that there's no need for a hot route. At the snap, the quarterback first reads the motion of any deep safeties, then turns his attention to the left side. If he sees the safeties sitting in deep zones and the left split end gets a clean release, then he'll hit that receiver as soon as he slants away from the cornerback. Gain of ten. Move the chains.

But that pass might not be available. The cornerback might get a great jam at the line. A deep safety may read the play and jump the route. A linebacker or even a defensive end could drop into coverage and take away the throwing lane. That's where timing and spacing become a factor. The receivers on the right side of the formation are running patterns that develop slowly. By the time the quarterback looks to his right, he knows what the defense is doing. And if a safety or linebacker is helping out on the left side, that leaves one less defender to help out against the trio to the right.

The secondary target on this play is the flanker on the far right. He is running a scat route. He starts out as if he is running a drag or shallow cross, angling across the middle of the field. He runs behind the tight end and right end, who are executing deeper routes. He doesn't sprint out at full speed; instead, he gears down his route so he can place his streaking teammates between himself and his defender. Timing is of the essence: if he moves too fast, he'll execute his route before the quarterback is ready to throw. Then, as he approaches the middle of the field, he cuts sharply to the sideline, revs up to full speed, and looks for the ball. A prep or college receiver might be told to push off his defender when he cuts. An NFL receiver might try that, but he risks an interference penalty.

Imagine trying to cover the flanker. You watch him start to cross the field, but as soon as you follow him you get tangled up with the tight end, the right end, and your teammates as they drop into coverage. Just as you clear that traffic jam, the flanker is going the other way. If you are playing a zone, you see him drift towards the middle of the field, so you drop back to cover the deep sideline. By the time he crosses in front of you, all you can do is tackle him for a ten-yard gain.

The third option on this play is the tight end, though the quarterback will probably make the decision to throw to the big guy during his pre-snap reads. A bunch formation like this one usually causes a safety to creep up to help cover the triplets. That often leaves the middle of the field poorly defended. If the quarterback reads man coverage with no safety help, he'll stare down the left end until any deep defenders start to cheat left, then he'll throw the 10-yard dig route to the tight end as soon as he cuts across the middle. Similarly, if the defense managed to take away both the left end and the flanker, the tight end is probably isolated against a linebacker or safety. That makes him an appealing target.

The running back is the fourth option on the play. By the time the quarterback checks his fourth option, it's time to get rid of the ball and settle for a short gain. After blocking to the left, the running back slips into the left flat and waits. With all of the action occurring on the right, the defense could easily forget about him. If he catches a short flat pass, the running back should gain a few yards before the cornerback corrals him.

What about the right split end, the guy running the deep fade route? He's probably not going to catch the ball, but he may have the most important job of anyone on this play. His fade is called a "clear" or "top" route. He must lift the lid of the defense, stretching the safety on the right side so he is in no position to jump the shorter patterns. The right end attacks his defender aggressively, going full speed as he releases to the outside and streaks up the field. He tries to get behind his defender (or flash through the short zones quickly) and attract the safety's attention. He turns 12-15 yards down the field and looks for a pass that will never arrive. Along the way, he causes traffic that slows down the guy who is covering the flanker.

If you are a safety sitting in a deep zone on this pattern, you see the flanker start to cross the field, you see a tight end working the middle, and you see a receiver running full tilt towards the end zone. Guess who you are going to cover? Your job is much easier if the right end goes through the motions and runs a lazy route: you keep your eye on him, but instead of chasing him, you also watch the quarterback and the other receivers. Chances are, you'll be able to jump in and break up a pass.

But if the coach in the press box notices that the safety isn't paying enough attention to that streaking end, he'll let the quarterback know. Next time he runs this play, the quarterback will pump fake on a short route, then uncork a bomb to the guy running what's usually a decoy route.

Precision and Harmony

Confused yet? We've only scratched the surface, describing one variation of one play. A real playbook would contain several look-alike plays, with one or more routes changed. It would also contain versions of this play from other formations. During the season, new wrinkles would be added: the scat route might become a drag route, the tight end might block instead of the running back, or pre-snap motion might empty the backfield to further baffle the defense.

No matter how much variation the coaches add to the plays, the fundamentals remain the same. Whether a team is running a short-passing offense, spreading the field with five wideouts, or building their pass attack off of play action and rollouts, all plays are built around the harmony of quarterback motion, protection, and pass patterns. All pass patterns are designed to use time and space effectively to hit the defense where it ain't. When everything is working perfectly, it can be beautiful to behold.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 12 Jul 2006

90 comments, Last at 22 Oct 2010, 10:17am by abv


by Alex (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 12:28pm


by Israel (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 1:00pm

Very nice, Mike.

by Bob P (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 1:12pm

TERRIFIC article...thanks, Mike!

by Ryan Harris (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 1:16pm

Is it realistic in the salary cap era that you are going to keep players long enough to learn a system and eventually excel in it? All of the recent news is about rookies and the majority that I have seen is rookies signing 4 year deals. So a player learns for 3, excels for 1 and leaves for a bigger payday and has to start learning again?

I believe a smart coach would dumb down an offense and let these guys play. After all they are not making the big bucks for their intellectual pedigrees, its their athletic ability, let em play.

I wonder how many delay of game penalties or misreads are a result of 80 syllable plays that confuse the players?

by Drew (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 1:20pm

Very good article. And it makes me feel like a regular genius for instantly knowing that the guy on the left would be the first option.

by sam_acw (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 1:42pm

It's great to have the options ranked like this. I've noticed over the years that I've started to play Madden a bit like this. It also makes it clearer why the best recievers are often split out on their own and why so many offenses don't feature all recievers equally (drop back, throw to steve smith, get covered with defenders or the Houston method - collect snap, run, die)

by Ima Pseudonym (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 1:49pm


I didn't see any pointers for Shinobi, though.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 2:10pm

*stands up and starts a slow-clap*

Re4: That's why you see so many guys labeled as "westcoast guys". Once a guy has a few years in a particular system it's alot easier for them to pick up on a variation of the same system. And dumbing down the playbook may sound like it'd help the offense, but the problem is that it probably helps the defense even more.

by thad (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 2:12pm

ok this is a stupid question,
is the split end always on the left or always on the weakside?

Great article.

by MikeT (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 2:15pm

Split End is actually on the line of scrimmage. The flanker is technically a "back", because he is a yard or two behind the line. The terms are kinda obsolete, because formations are so diverse these days.

by DGL (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 2:21pm

And in the play diagrammed in the article, the position denoted Tight End isn't actually an end, but a wing back. Because he's not on the line.

Not that it matters to anyone but the most pedantic.

by Peter (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 2:21pm

4: I think because claims of needing 3 years are exaggerations, and that players can also adjust much quicker than 3 years when moving to a new team. It's not as if we never see players succeed their rookie/sophomore season or their first season or two with a new team.

by Independent George (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 2:27pm

#6 - the difference is that in Madden, the flanker wouldn't slow down his route, such that he winds up running straight into the adjacent WR. This, in turn, knocks the receiver right into the TE's path, thereby blowing three routes in a single, smooth motion. Meanwhile, the RB would forget that they started from the left hash mark, so by the time the QB checks down to him, he's racing full speed towards the sideline and will be 2 yards out of bounds by when the ball arrives.

Fortunately, the defense is equally inept, so the QB still completes the pass to the split end for 12 yards, and the people rejoice.

by Slim (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 2:40pm

To be the dissenting voice here, are the majority of FO readers really this excited about this article? No offense to the author, for this was well written and is a nice introduction to some basic concepts, but is this truly new info for so many people? What level of football understanding does the 'average' casual football fan possess? How many of you have played football, and at what level? Is this sort of stuff not being taught? I'm a little incredulous because I believe the frequenters of this website to be relatively football savvy. However, there's a (Frankfurt) galaxy of difference between being able to spew out advanced statistics and truly understanding what is happening on the field.

by Adam (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 3:08pm

Re: 14 - I agree. Nothing new in this article. Pretty basic common sense stuff for the most part.

I suppose casual fans are expected to be dumb by this writer. Figures as most writers tend to think more of themselves than they probably should.

by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 3:18pm

Apparently "casual commenters" didn't read the sentence at the beginning of the article.

Consider this week’s Minicamp an introductory course: a primer on the language and concepts of the passing game.

by B (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 3:24pm

I was excited by this article. Well, maybe not excited, but I learned some things. Of course, the only football I've played was three on three touch football in a park, so a lot of the terminology is new to me.

by John (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 3:50pm

I currently play varsity football and I found this article to have some interesting insights, while I knew most of the things here, I learned a couple things that are more position specific. I look forward to the next three articles.

by David (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:07pm

article stated the obvious

by David (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:07pm

article stated the obvious

by Bright Blue Shorts (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:10pm

re:14 ... yes I am grateful for this article. Excited would be the wrong word, I never get that excited by any football articles, but this does add value for me.

I've been watching this game for over 20 years, I live in Britain so have never come close to playing the game. I've read many books/papers on football, perused many websites and generally count myself as knowledgeable about the game. I've seen passing trees before, and I suppose it's pretty obvious that the guy on the left is probably going to end up 1-to-1 and that the fly right pattern is trying to take a safety out of the play etc, etc. But it's a good article.

BBS :)

by Drew (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:11pm

Post 20 stated what post 19 stated.

by CJ (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:16pm

I think it's great. I finally know what my Dad is talking about when he says they had "flankers" back in his day.

by Jay B. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:31pm

Very much appreciated.

I'm far from a casual football fan, but I came to be a fan relatively late (mid-20s), and never played at any level beyond grade school gym class. I have absorbed a great deal since I've been watching, but still don't know all the terminology. I would probably benefit from an even more basic primer.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:43pm

I've never played organized football. The bulk of my knowledge about the X's & O's of the game is relatively shallow. I understand enough to know that the left split end in that example would be the first read and that the guy running the fade is probably just there to stretch the coverage. That much is obvious. It's the more detailed stuff that's interesting. Towards the beginning of the article it's described as an introductory course. I'm not sure about the rest of the people who seemed excited by this article, but as for myself, my excitement is more for the future articles than the present one.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:44pm

Sorry if this is a double post, the first one did seem to go through.

Re 14:

I've never played organized football. The bulk of my knowledge about the X's & O's of the game is relatively shallow. I understand enough to know that the left split end in that example would be the first read and that the guy running the fade is probably just there to stretch the coverage. That much is obvious. It's the more detailed stuff that's interesting. Towards the begining of the article it's described as an introductory course. I'm not sure about the rest of the people who seemed excited by this article, but as for myself, my excitement is more for the future articles than the present one.

by Theo (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:49pm

Re 14.
You just read the intro. Inro's don't go deep. I didn't learn much either, because I play football myself, but I see it's accurate, and that I applause.
It educates the guy that just knows football from the TV.

And I love the idea.
The critic FO gets is "you're just stat geeks, you don't know football"
Well, with articles like these, they show they DO care about the strategies in football.
All you can say to these articles is 'keep em coming'.

by ben (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:50pm

My knowledge of football strategy comes from playing Madden. I've never played organized football, so articles like this are awesome for me. Good work, Mike.

by MJB (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:50pm

RE: #14, #15, #19, and #20.

I remember when I had to write essays in college my professors always told me to write as if the person reading my work knew nothing about anything. Hence why it is not so outlandish that Mike Tanier wrote this article in such a manner.

Also, I played the OL in High School. So many times when I had to copy plays down into my playbook I would omit what the wide recievers were doing. Because what did it matter to me if they were running a 10 yard dig route, or a fly pattern if I didn't block the guy across from me.

Lastly, thanks Mike I liked the article.

by Bjorn (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 4:57pm

Well, I grew up as a hockey/soccer player, so there wasn't really much time for me to really absorb the intricacies of a pass play. Perhaps I could do so if the cameras on TV ever showed me more than just the QB looking down the field and dancing around.

Thanks for the article!

by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 5:22pm

I've never played organized football, and I became a fan relatively late (age 18). Everything I know about football I learned from:

1) Friends and family, none of whom ever played organized football
2) John Madden
3) Video Games
4) Football for Dummies
5) Websites like this one.

by thepeepshow (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 5:46pm

RE#14 and #15

I find it annoying how snobbish some of the people on this site are. The common football fan has never played organized football (like myself), and seeing how Football has the most rules, complicated schemes and variations, exactly how would you expect the average person to learn the differences and terminology of the game? Or would you prefer a football knowledge test before reading FO articles.

This is a great article even for those who have an above average knowledge because he helps put the different pieces together in a very sensible manner. And I’m sure it will help the young guns with their Madden play. Personally, I don’t know a lot about the complexities of the West Coast offense, so I cant wait for the next installment.

by Alan Milnes (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 5:49pm

Great article - like many I am in the UK and never played the game, although I was an official for a few years - Umpire mainly so didn't get to look at too many pass routes :-)

by Alan Milnes (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 5:50pm

Is it realistic in the salary cap era that you are going to keep players long enough to learn a system and eventually excel in it?

That's why a team like the Eagles tries to identify the good players early and sign them to long term deals.


by Smeghead (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 6:23pm

My thoughts exactly, 32. Maybe we could just skip straight to the part where we measure our johnsons.

by Slim (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 6:26pm

Interesting feedback everyone. I am surprised that so many people who visit this website had never played football before or at least didn't have this level of understanding about the game (and very surprised at the number of fans in the UK). Though given that the NFL has millions of fans, it makes sense that only a small minority have had the opportunity to play the game. This speaks pretty highly of the product the NFL puts on the field, and their presentation of it.

by Slim (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 6:34pm

Part Two. My comment about 'spewing out statistics' was meant to mean: A lot of people who post on this site, and lots of other people (including those in the media) often make definitive statements about a player or team based on a couple of performances or a few statistics. Rarely is the 'why' of an explanation ever given. Point being, I'm going to remember to take the opinions I read with more than a couple of grains of salt, given that so many people are working without an advanced understanding of the game. However, to this end I applaud the efforts of FO in coming up with new statistics, and articles, that explain parts of the game that are not immediately clear.

by Nags (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 6:43pm

Well-written and well-thought article. The strategy mini-camps are always highly-informative and insightful as television does not always effectively show the intricacies of the sport. RE 14 and 15; this was an INTRODUCTORY piece. Obviously, not everyone can be as football savvy as you two to know what Zoom Red Right 484 H Shoot F 'V' Queen means. Some people get excited at the prospect of actually learning what the jargon represents on the field. Until then be patient until we get to your 'levels of expertise'.

by Sean D. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 6:44pm

Re: 4 Is it realistic in the salary cap era that you are going to keep players long enough to learn a system and eventually excel in it?

Also, some players go to teams after 3 years where the money is better and the terminology is similar, an example would be he whose name shall be spoken when he went from the 49ers WCO to the Eagles WCO. Or, some players just adjust quickly. I would think Keenan McCardell would be a good example a quick study. I would assume Big Ben is one as well. But, as also mentioned, some players stay awhile with the same team. I think that's probably why Centers don't switch teams often.

by Sean D. (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 6:58pm

Re 35.

But measuring Johnsons is fun. I think the Vikings have the biggest being that Marcus is a RT (320 lbs). Second is likely the Cowboys with Al (305). If you wanna do length then you gotta measue between Marcus, Teyo, and Chargers rookie Ben. The smallest (length and girth) Johnson is Derrick on the 49ers (5'10, 188). However, if you want a combined Johnson measure then the Bengals have that wrapped up with Chad, Rudi, Jeremi, and Landon (gotta be over 750 lbs combined).

by seamus (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 7:03pm


I think articles like this make this site such a pleasure. I agree, most fans of the game (and pretty much all women fans of the game) have never had a chance to play at a level where they run this complexity of offense. And only a couple shows on TV spend the time to break down a play and show really what makes it work. ("Look at this block!" doesn't count.) Also, the vast majority of videogamers don't have the time or energy to get too deep into the playbooks, so they can't really learn much from the games.

Personally, I'm grateful for this type of breakdown.

by Smeghead (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 7:34pm

By the way, another issue here is that the action in football is tremendously complex and the television angles basically stink for what's seeing down the field or getting pre-snap defensive alignments, and sometimes even offensive alignments. Roll in the speed of play and the complexity of what's going on and it's exponentially more difficult than in a sport like baseball or basketball for a casual/non-playing fan to understand what's going on.

(40: better involve Keyshawn pretty quick; he's about to blow up.)

Slim, I take your point. Isn't this to some extent expressive of the classic Moneyball issue, that of statistical modeling vs. expert subjectivity? I don't know if FO types would state it this baldly, but their work to some extent assumes that they can make an evaluation (not necessarily complete or definitive) of a team or player based on nothing but reported play-by-play statistics. If that assumption is correct, there's no want of credibility in making at least certain types of judgments without having any kind of playbook expertise at all or indeed without ever having seen the player in question. Beane's great heresy ...

by Smeghead (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 7:35pm

41 -- ha, I forgot everyone has video games now. i'm such a fogey.

by SlantNGo (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 10:21pm

Good article! I just started coaching 13 year-old QBs last year, and I would never introduce them to anything this complex, but this is about the level of complexity that I was taught at 16-18 years old.

What I found the hardest part to be is that damn O-line in front of you. Yeah, I was always glad they were there protecting my ass but it was tough to see over them (maybe that's why everyone wants 6'4" QBs these days). Those linebackers that you could track all over the place on 7-on-7s suddenly become invisible behind your massive wall.

by Nathan (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 11:12pm

Agreed with all the others who found nothing new in this article. Not to knock the article, would have been great when I was 13.

Hopefully some of the other ones pick up the pace, but for anyone who has been playing football video games their entire lives, I don't know how you can survive without knowing this stuff.

Here's a tip. Try to throw after the drop. The drops are listed on the play. Number corresponds. Important on slants and outs.

When you run the ball, don't use the turbo button, you'll run past your blockers.

Uhh.. it's all so obvious after so long. It's not to say that any of us are better, it's just... if you want to get good at something, you need to know all this stuff.

I hot route blockers. I call plays in NBA2k6. I may infact be marginally insane.

by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 11:37pm

I found this article to be good and somewhat informative despite playing 3 years HS football (WR, QB). The funny thing is even at the high school level there are teams whose basic strategy is 'lets hand it off to the 220 lbs. mauler and the 160 lbs. sprinter', there are sometimes just 3 or 4 passes a game depending on the team.
Not to mention that only a select few individuals (like Jaworski) actually have access to camera angles that actually show what the recievers are doing on a given play: the NFL really does a good job concealing some of the most interesting aspects of the game to the fans.

by Sean (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 11:52pm

Nice article, Mike. It provides a solid foundation for discussing how particular teams run their offenses and/or use their personnel.

by Ruben (not verified) :: Wed, 07/12/2006 - 11:54pm

Sean D. (#40) just might be my personal hero...

by thepeepshow (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 12:07am

Oh so much to say ...

RE: #37
Way to insult us and pat us on the back at the same time. I'll too will take your comments with a grain of salt, considering if you had such a great wealth of knoledge, you should be working somewhere as a Coordinator, and not pissing on other football fans for the ‘incompetence’.

RE: #45
'Uhh.. it’s all so obvious after so long. It’s not to say that any of us are better, it’s just… if you want to get good at something, you need to know all this stuff.'

Really? Your whole life? You mean good at video games … Well at least the chances are good you wont procreate.

by masocc (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 12:25am

Slim *clearly* has a firm grasp on the football concept of backpedaling ;)

by masocc (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 12:32am

Its the execution he lacks.

slashie: and 8, for you ladies (the lady? a lady? ANY lady?) reading this thread. Just right.

by Fnor (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 12:35am


by Fnor (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 12:36am

Okay, so apparently they put in an all-caps filter, because my last post totally just got eaten :(.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 1:46am

Re #37: Part Two. My comment about ’spewing out statistics’ was meant to mean: A lot of people who post on this site, and lots of other people (including those in the media) often make definitive statements about a player or team based on a couple of performances or a few statistics. Rarely is the ‘why’ of an explanation ever given. Point being, I’m going to remember to take the opinions I read with more than a couple of grains of salt, given that so many people are working without an advanced understanding of the game. However, to this end I applaud the efforts of FO in coming up with new statistics, and articles, that explain parts of the game that are not immediately clear.

Oh? Would you prefer insight provided by someone like Joe Theismann, who has an intimate knowledge of the game and still manages to be a complete idiot?

Re #53: I don't know, I think it's oddly hilarious as it is now.

by Steve Sandvik (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 4:09am

What you're missing, Slim, is that this is predominantly a site about applied football statistics. The person most qualified to evaluate the predictive value of applied statistics isn't a football expert, it's an actuary. So since it looks like know a lot more about football than you do about statistics, perhaps it's *us* who should be taking *you* with the grain of salt, hmm?

by James, London (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 7:58am

Another Brit who's never played and came to the NFL late.

I came, I read, I learned, and I'm looking forward to the next three. I'm also still laughing at #13's perfect description of MADDEN running this play.

by Scott de B. (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 10:06am

Here’s a tip. Try to throw after the drop. The drops are listed on the play. Number corresponds. Important on slants and outs.

I don't believe that NFL 2k5 numbers the reads.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 10:11am

Since everyone seems to be piling on Slim (which wasn’t the intention of my previous post(s)), I’d just like to say that I didn’t really find what he said all that reprehensible. He came off as pretentious and condescending, but with the way he’s backing off a bit I can’t really say that it was his intended tone. I almost take it as a compliment. As a community, we're so knowledgeable that it's just assumed that we know the intricacies of the game.

by mactbone (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 11:33am

I liked the article. I didn't play organized football for very long and Madden is clearly not the most accurate depiction of real football. Any play with a scat (never heard the term before) route is basically a throw away route. I knew you had to throw to the Split End on this play only because I know from Madden experience that the scat route would mess up the other routes and there would be too many players for anyone to get free on the right side. If I learned even one little thing then I'm glad I took the time to read this.

I wonder how many articles until FO decides to publish the special Strategy Minicamp series. I can already envision the total media dominance FO will become.

by Englishbob (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 1:28pm

Good article and those moaning its too simple I'm sure will find the next three more interesting. For me it was a great primer for the full course.
Seeing how there are so many Brits on this web-site, I am presumably not the only person who thinks post 58's name is fantastic. I keep imagining he must be a linesman with no. 79 and that name on his shirt. Sure "beats" having Mexico with no. 7 on your shirt.

by The_Rausch (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 1:59pm

The only thing that's "obvious" here is that some people don't know what "obvious" means.
I enjoyed this article and I learned things that I had always been curious about. I'm looking forward to the next installments.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 3:04pm

Smeghead, you're not of the video generation either? The last of the boomers, I must have missed it by a couple years (and natural inclination). Okay, regarding your earlier post, I got my ruler out. Is 20 milimeters impressive? Maybe 21....

This was a great article. One of the keys to any relationship--and like it or not, we are all having one right now--is common vocabulary. If you don't know what your coworker or wife is saying, what good is talking? You might as well speak Swahili.

In this vein, bringing us all to some semi-equal plane regarding terminology, tactics, etc is very helpful. It might bore some, but it helps the other 95% get even more out of the rest of the articles. Bravo, Mike.

Of course, it teaches us just enough to be dangerous and get even more ticked off by no-nothing announcers, as if we needed help in that regard.

by admin :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 3:50pm

Settle down now. This article is for some people. Other people may like other articles more. We try to serve all. Now play nice in the sandbox, kids.

by geoff (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 4:17pm

All of the trees use the same basic numbering system; even-numbered routes are directed toward the middle of the field, while odd-numbered routes head for the sidelines.

The second passing tree you link to has this backwards, and the third gave me a 404 error.

That said, this is exactly the kind of inforamtion that I've been missing all these years. More please.

by Englishbob (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 6:08pm

This website seems to become more valuable to me week by week.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Thu, 07/13/2006 - 6:37pm

Re 60:

You wanna hear the funny part, I'm from New Jersey. The name actually comes from my high school physics group. Somehow all four of the jackasses in the class (myself included) ended up in the same group. We just thought it was funny hearing our teacher say 'wanker' (especially since he sounded distrubingly like Jeff Goldblum). And 79 was the year I was born.

by Joe Blow (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 1:12am

A scat route and a fart button on the left. Good article, but now I gotta go.

by Ray (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 3:17am

I never played organized ball, and although I've watched football for 15 years and have played a bit of the video games I still learned quite a bit from this article. We've all got to start somewhere, and there's PLENTY of us that need some part of the basics. The only reason anything here is 'obvious' to anyone is because they've seen it before.

by Kevo (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 5:22am

Am I the only one who found the smug comments hilarious?

Great article, Mike. As soon as I was done, I found that #1 had posted my thoughts exactly.

And if it's not because the article was well-written or insightful, it's because wow, football is such a great sport.

by Stephen (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 10:08am

Been following the game since Channel 4 in the UK started showing games back in '83 but pre-internet it was hard to access this kind of analysis so it's much appreciated. The passing trees brought back memories of touch football games in the street as a teenager, though they don't seem to deal with practical issues like how you get round parked cars and real trees! :)

by Duane (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 12:34pm

I consider myself a self-taught more-than-casual fan, having watched NFL football for about 30 years. I haven't played organized football since sixth grade flag on Saturday mornings. Two of my sons, however, had some skills, one of them playing semi-pro until he ruptured a quad. The reason I am self-taught is that I was too often on the receiving end of "You don't know THAT?" responses to my inquiries about the intricacies of the game by people, including my sons, who believe their intimate understanding is universal and the strategies and philosophies are "obvious" to everyone. If you have intimate knowledge of the game of football then this first installment, and perhaps the rest, are not for you. If you're like me and understand most of what you see during a game then you probably picked up a tidbit or two, just like me. If you are a new fan (C'mon in, have a seat) then this, and all the Strategy Minicamps, are an excellent way to accelerate your learning and enjoyment of the sport all of us here love.

by Bright Blue Shorts (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 3:25pm

Re:66 (Wanker79) ... so do the general US population know what this means?

Reminds me of when an Australian friend and I met up in Boston and went for a tour of Fenway Park. About halfway around they were telling us about the supporters known as "Fenway Fannies" and we just dissolved into hysterics. Just like when you call "bum bags", "fanny packs" ...

That said some in Britain will ask a colleague or friend "Have you got a fag?" when they want to borrow a cigarette.

And finally it was rather unpopular when one of the managers at my company was heard to refer to Americans as "septics" which comes under the joy of Cockney rhyming slang.

BBS :)

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 8:09pm

Great article, Mike. Even though I, much like everyone else here, know everything there is to know about everything related to football, I thought it was pretty good. I just hope the next one is good enough for anyone who's actually ever watched a game, and isn't so totally obvious. By the way, everything I know about football I learned from Tecmo Bowl, so why are there 11 offensive players on the play? Why not just hand it to Bo Jackson every time, or run the undefendable Bavaro hook?

"Also, I played the OL in High School. So many times when I had to copy plays down into my playbook I would omit what the wide recievers were doing. Because what did it matter to me if they were running a 10 yard dig route, or a fly pattern if I didn’t block the guy across from me."

Ah, saw this referenced in the World Cup thread, had to come respond. I also played O line some, and from this statement I must assume one of two things. Either a) your high school team ran the ball about 95% of the time, or b) your offensive line coach was thoroughly incompetent. How in the world can you be a good offensive lineman for a passing attack without knowing what the receivers will do?

Something that's hidden with the regular TV camera angle, but becomes incredibly clear with the "Madden" angle shown on ABC/ESPN replays, is the importance of passing lanes. You're right, at the absolute minimum, you have to block the guy in front of you (or coming from the side, or whatever). But what if the reciever is running a dig, and the guy you're blocking is directly between where the QB and WR will be? If you leave him there, then either the QB won't be able to see the WR, or he won't be able to see the safety or LB closing on him, or he'll have to float his throw over him, taking longer to get there and just begging for an interception. It's good to be in his way and keep him from the QB; it's much, much better to keep him from the QB while simultaneously getting him out of the way of the pass. Knowing things like where the receivers will be help you know which way to block, whether you should cut, etc.

by emcee fleshy (atl/sd) (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 3:04am

I'd pay practically anything just to get the uncut full-field view of NFL games.

The chess match is the best part of football. Sadly, "story-lines" sell more trucks and beer.

by Aaron Brooks (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 12:36pm

I found the article very informative. I thought all I had to do was throw the ball and Joe Horn would catch it.

by Bill (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 9:05pm

Aaron, you may want to look forward to the next installment of the Minicamp series, where passing trees are covered - including the special Saints version, where there's an extra route eight yards behind the line of scrimmage heading towards the sideline.

by Frank (not verified) :: Wed, 07/19/2006 - 12:01pm

re 75: LOL

by Jake O\'Hara (not verified) :: Fri, 07/21/2006 - 10:13pm

It seems like a lot of people are getting upset at what Slim wrote, but I was thinking the same thing. It's a good article for a beginner, but anyone who's played any organized football knows this stuff. I guess I thought that people who say they are really into football would have more actual experience with it.
So, are most of you guys the kids that were too scared to actually play the game? If so, why are you so into football? Just curious, because I figured most people who would post on this site at least played in high school.

by Sean (not verified) :: Sun, 07/23/2006 - 12:28am

If you live in a city/if you go to a small school, the odds are quite good that you don't have a high school football team. I know my high school didn't. In any event, people certainly don't have to validate or justify their interest in the sport in any way.

Besides, I've been covering high school football for a few years now, and the primary lesson to be learned from it is that you can tear out 95% of the playbook, because the players aren't good enough to execute it, particularly on the offensive line. High school football is a long, long way from a coherent representation of the sport.

by Jake O\\\'Hara (not verified) :: Sun, 07/23/2006 - 3:16am

re 79: What do you consider a "coherent" representation of the sport? I played in college (division 2), and coached high school ball, is that good enough for you? All I am saying is I thought people who say they are so into football, would actually know something about the game, or would have played it. If they didnt play it , why are they so into they game? To me, it seems kind of wierd that a bunch of people who apparently never played football in their lives would spend alot of time thinking about it.
Guess I thought people on here actually knew what was going on.

by Nick (not verified) :: Sun, 07/23/2006 - 8:40pm

Re: 80

I listen to a lot of music but I can't play an instrument, does that mean I shouldn't be allowed to?
You must have read several of the responses are from UK people who will be hard pressed to play any sort of organised football. I tried to organise a game once at school and you should try and tell a load of rugby players that the play stops after the guy is tackled.
Anyway just relax, we all must be into the game because we're on this site. It doesn't matter why or for how long.

by BrianM8614 (not verified) :: Mon, 07/24/2006 - 6:17pm

A long time ago I played WR in HS and Division II. I like this article because it highlights the importance of everyone knowing where they need to go and why. For example, if the WR on the right doesn't threaten the corner and/or safety and dogs his route, everything breaks down. It's also critical for receivers, on certain plays (man coverage, i.e.) to work close to a defender; as opposed keeping space as when he reads zone coverage. It's also important to know when your route (break) should be across his face (in front of the defender). This is important if your route is intended to influence the DB. As to #9, the split end is always opposite the tight end, so he is always a weakside receiver. That said, the flanker and/or a back/receiver can go weakside with the split end. This would create twins or trips to the weakside. As stated the SE must always "cover" the OT (be on the line of scrimmage) or you will be penalized for not having 7 on the LOS. Very good article.

by Vern (not verified) :: Tue, 07/25/2006 - 10:59pm

Either you all had very small/terrible high schools or I'm missing something. I played football pretty much every chance I could - in the street with maybe five or six others total. But none of us were ever good enough to even waste our time trying out for the HS team - those guys were huge, fast, or both. Anyway, any play that had more than 3 or 4 people on one side of the muddy vacant lot would just never come up.

And of course, 30 years wasted in front of NFL pre-game shows never taught me a thing about football. Even most of the books are about the "human drama of competition" or some such crap.

So, yes there are some obvious things in the play design like clear out routes, hot reads, isolation and so on. But the interaction between these roles and responsibilities is what none of us "football mutts" who never played in organized leagues missed. For example, if you ran into each other you just blamed the other guy, whereas here, it's the flanker's job to slow down and control his timing. That's the real meat here. When you see a busted play, it's too hard to know who really busted it without seeing some of this.

by Pit Pat! (not verified) :: Wed, 08/16/2006 - 3:10pm

Just another "thank you" to FO for a great series. Count me as one of the football nuts who never played organized football. Some of us are born with football hearts inside chess club bodies.

And although I've learned quite a bit from watching the game on TV, football is too complex for the "analysis" we get from color commentators. It's often too facile to be helpful, or wrapped in too much jargon to be understood.

by Hans Steingier (not verified) :: Wed, 01/24/2007 - 10:51am

I've read a lot of comments above relating to the fact that much of the information in this article was simply restating obvious information. The simple fact is that many NFL fans, did not play organized football and find the anaylsis presented here as new information, which is how the article was framed. I just wanted to leave a word of thanks to the authors for presenting the information in a clear and concise manner. Great series.

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