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06 Jan 2006

Too Deep Zone: The Big Jaworski

by Mike Tanier

Football paradise is tucked away in a nondescript corporate park in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. That's where NFL Films headquarters is located, and where some of the most innovative football programming is produced. It's the home of the NFL Network, and it's where one of our favorite shows -- NFL Matchup, featuring Ron Jaworski and Merril Hoge -- is developed each week.

Few outsiders ever venture to NFL Films. But last Tuesday, two Outsiders had an all-access pass to watch as Jaworski and the Matchup team studied film and pre-produced the show. Aaron Schatz and I spent a whole day watching tape and talking to the man many of us think is the most insightful commentator in the mainstream football media.

Football Film Central

Emmys, available in the NFL Films gift shop
for $5.99. They've got plenty.

The first things visitors see when they enter the NFL Films lobby are the Emmys: dozens of them, lined up in an enormous trophy case. Beyond the trophies, everything is football. The NFL Network plays constantly on high-def televisions throughout the complex. The walls are lined with artwork and framed newspaper headlines celebrating the game's past and present. Even the trays in the cafeteria are decorated with reprints of old football cards. The two-story facility houses offices, studios, and a massive film editing center.

Matchup is taped on Friday, but the show is developed in Ron Jaworski's second-floor office on Tuesday. His nameplate reads Ron Jaworski -- Kansas City Chiefs, but the office is filled with reminders of his Philadelphia football past (pictures with local legends Tug McGraw and Julius Erving) and present (a pennant for the AFL's Philadelphia Soul). The office contains several computer consoles and lots of chairs, but Jaws does most of his work in front of a large television equipped with a high-tech tape player.

Jaws is intense and animated on screen, but in person he's laid back. He watches game film with his feet up, rewinding the footage with a remote control and highlighting the action with a laser pointer. Producer Greg Cosell is at his side throughout the process; writers/editors Brett Mucklow, Nick Murphy, and Luke Hadden are on hand, along with Associate Producer Greg Smith, to serve as spotters and to take notes during what Cosell calls Jaworski's "stream of consciousness."

The Dude abides.

Merril Hoge is not present. He telecommutes from his home in West Virginia; there, he breaks down film and sends Cosell detailed notes about what he plans to cover. Cosell and Jaws have been reviewing notes and stats from the previous week's games to determine the Week 17 storylines for NFL Matchup. The success of the Cowboys' running game against the Panthers (and the Panthers' defensive problems) tops their priority list. Cosell finds the game film of the Cowboys offense and the official play-by-play of the game, and the study session begins.

The game film is spliced so that every Cowboys offensive play can be seen from two angles: sideline and end zone. (There are three tapes per game: each team on offense, and a third with all special teams plays.) Between each play, a shot of the scoreboard indicates the score, down and distance. The two angles allow Jaws, Cosell, and their crew to see everything: the formations, the blocking patterns, the pass routes, and the coverage schemes.

Jaws watches a play, rewinds, and watches again. As he breaks down the Cowboys offense, he sometimes scrutinizes mundane three-yard runs five or six times from each angle. His comments are funny, off the cuff, and sometimes a little blue; Matchup's gentle rapprochements ("he has to seal that edge more effectively") are far less gentle during the film breakdown.

Cosell screened the footage on Monday, and he also read the local Dallas and Carolina newspapers for insights into the game. The show's staff knows that Dan Morgan was hurt early in the game and that Julius Peppers said in postgame interviews that players blew assignments. Cosell and the spotters offer observations and insights as Jaws rewinds and replays. Aaron and I chime in once in a while. Sometimes, we even offer something useful.

Pictures Don't Lie

The behind-the-center camera angle and the rewind button lay football's intricacies bare. The chaos we see in the stands or on television is suddenly organized and orchestrated. After several replays, we can see double-teams and combo blocks, with linemen peeling off to hammer linebackers. Defenders peek into the backfield, overrun gaps, or drop into zones. Defensive slants and offensive traps are precise and choreographed. Every off-tackle run can be broken down into myriad components: adjustments, battles, defeats, mistakes.

As the Cowboys execute their offense, the Matchup team watches guard Larry Allen manhandle Panthers defensive tackle Jordan Carstens on play after play. They watch the Panthers switch to defensive line slants to protect Carstens and fill gaps. We see overload blitzes as the Panthers attack Cowboys right tackle Rob Petitti, who doesn't have a prayer of stopping Julius Peppers. The Cowboys counter by putting Dan Campbell and Jason Witten on one side of the formation.

Jaws isn't scouting individual players or breaking down individual plays. He's looking for storylines. Cosell and Jaworski agree that the Cowboys are executing a very simple offense in an effort to protect Drew Bledsoe and wear down the Panthers defense. That plan becomes more effective after Morgan gets hurt. On Julius Jones' long second quarter run, we can see miscommunication among the Panthers defenders; fullback Lousaka Polite goes in motion, but no defender adjusts as Chris Draft (Morgan's backup) and other defenders point and argue just before the snap. Jaws orders that the play be marked as a possible Matchup entry.

In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys line up with two wide receivers to the left of the formation, two tight ends to the right. What's interesting is that the ball is aligned on the left hashmark: Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson are on the short side of the field, with little room to maneuver. Why didn't Cowboys coordinator Sean Payton flip the formation? The answer is simple: the two tight ends are on the right to protect Petitti. Sure enough, both stay in to block while Glenn runs an out 'n' up and Keyshawn a dig route. The routes are difficult to execute on the crowded left side of the formation, but a Panthers defender drops too deeply into his zone, and Drew Bledsoe rifles a perfect pass to Keyshawn.

That play is highlighted on the show the next weekend; it demonstrates the basic adjustments that teams make to cover their weaknesses, and it shows how committed the Cowboys are to protecting their strong-armed passer.

Thinking Fan's Television

NFL Matchup first aired on ESPN in 1984, during the network's CFL and women's volleyball era. Back then, it was Monday Night Matchup, hosted by Chris Berman. Allie Sherman, the Giants coach in the 1960s, provided the analysis, along with NFL Films head Steve Sabol. Zenith was the sponsor. The show used television tape back then; game film didn't arrive until 1994.

Jaworski came aboard in 1990, and with Jaws came the show's signature X's and O's style. The hosts have changed -- Chris Myers, Mark Malone, Suzy Kolber, and now Sal Palantonio -- along with the analysts, who included everyone from Phil Simms to Charles Mann until Merril Hoge joined the team in 1997. But most fans tune in to watch Jaworski break down film.

Cosell has seen the sports marketplace change during his years with the program. The Internet has changed fan expectations for a pregame show. "We have to give people something they can't get anyplace else," he says. Other football programs have resorted to gimmicks, from comedians to cute weatherbabes, as fans now reach for the mouse to get the information that Brent Musburger and Irv Cross once provided. But Matchup is the only place to find in-depth analysis of football tactics.

For Jaworski and Cosell, Matchup is clearly a labor of love. They don't have many positive things to say about other pregame shows, which are marred by an info-tainment mentality. Jaws dutifully does sideline reporting for ESPN, but he has turned down opportunities to do color commentary in the past (he is in the booth for some Eagles preseason games). He has also turned down some coaching jobs. Cosell produces other shows for NFL Films, including the Greatest Games series, and does some analysis for independent scouting services. But Matchup is their chance to really study the game and educate fans.

"Fans have access to results," Jaworski says, noting that talk radio callers assume that every bad play on the field results from a bad coaching decision. Matchup gives fans access to something else; serious fans enjoy thirty minutes of commentary that cuts through the cliches and explains the specifics of why plays and game plans succeed or fail.

From left: Aaron Schatz, Ron Jaworski, Mike Tanier, Greg Cosell.

Primitive Football

Smashmouth football ruled in Week 16. After watching the Cowboys film, the Matchup team switches to the Giants-Redskins game. Like the Cowboys, the Redskins like to run the ball and provide extra protection for their quarterback. Jaws will make a comment about the Giants defense for the show. "I think it's fair to say that the Giants play outstanding 'team' defense," Cosell offers after we watch the Redskins get stuffed several times. Jaws agrees. Cosell also takes note of Giants linebacker Nick Greisen, who makes several outstanding plays throughout the game.

Mistakes were rare but calamitous for the Giants defense against the Redskins. We review Santana Moss' second quarter touchdown several times. Free safety Brent Alexander steps up to cover a tight end when it seems obvious that he should be helping Will Allen against Moss. Cosell is curious if Curtis Deloatch made a mistake; after the touchdown, he appears to be pointing and discussing something with Allen in the endzone. After a dozen replays, it's clear that Deloatch was responsible for Clinton Portis, then turned and hustled when he saw that Allen was beaten. Jaws wonders about Alexander's responsibilities on the play; before lunch, he leaves a message with Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis to see if the coach is willing to talk about what happened. This is the kind of play where coaches film is necessary. On television, it looks like Will Allen is at fault, but the all-22 film shows that blame is a bit more complex.

The Moss touchdown won't be featured on NFL Matchup because it's not indicative of what the Giants normally do. Instead, Jaws focuses on the play in which Mark Brunell was injured. The Giants blitz with two linebackers, but when the Redskins counter with max protection, two more defenders attack Brunell. Nose tackle Fred Robbins can be seen crossing his blocker's face, forcing a double team. Alexander, blitzing because of the extra protection, attacks Portis' left shoulder. Another linebacker attacks the guard's right shoulder, creating a big lane for Greisen that leads right to Brunell. It's a perfect example of Cosell's team defense concept: Robbins and Alexander sacrifice themselves for Greisen, and everyone stays in his lane.

The Redskins offense is followed by the Bucs offense as the day-long session rolls on. Again, power running is the theme. The Bucs use two or three tight ends on every play. Jaws is impressed by the fact that Jon Gruden, a pass-oriented coach, has embraced "primitive" offense out of necessity. He's also impressed by Cadillac Williams, and by Chris Simms, who Jaws says "has matured more in every game." And while it's clear that neither Tampa tackle is effective as a pass blocker, he notes that the Bucs line is effective when blocking straight ahead and double-teaming defenders.

At one point, Michael Pittman takes a handoff on third-and-2, but gains just one yard. Rewinding the tape, Jaws shows us a clear space on the outside; one move to the right, and Pittman could have broken free for a huge gain. "He might still be running right now," says Jaws, "and those little things in a game make the difference."

It's also interesting to see that Joe Gibbs and Jon Gruden, even when playing power football, get creative with formations. Washington runs one play that starts as a four-man I-formation before Chris Cooley motions out, leaving the usual QB-FB-HB setup. Tampa Bay runs a play with an inverted wishbone that has Joey Galloway at the halfback position.

Stats and Scouting

While watching the Bucs footage, Jaws asks a spotter to find out how many times Cadillac rushed for four or more yards. The answer confirms that the Bucs are efficiently overwhelming the Falcons offense. The "four or more yards" figure is similar to Football Outsiders' Success Rate stat, and it shows that the Matchup team often uses statistics in conjunction with film study.

Jaws and Cosell are skeptical about the way statistics are usually used in football commentary. They are as frustrated as any FO reader when they hear the old standard that "the team is 15-0 when such-'n'-such gains 100 yards." They agree in principle with many of FO's statistical discoveries, like the fact that total fumbles are a more relevant stat for an offense or player than fumbles lost.

After watching the Tampa offense, Jaws and the crew begin to break down the Tampa defense. During the changeover, Aaron and I discuss some new statistics for the site and/or Pro Football Prospectus 2006. One basic plan involves separating defensive tackles into tackles against the run and the pass, allowing readers to determine whether a cornerback like Ronde Barber is stepping up in run support or bringing down receivers after catches.

Cornerbacks with Most Run Plays, 2005
Player Team Run
R.Barber TB 48 63%
R.Hill OAK 42 62%
N.Clements BUF 33 36%
D.Robinson HOU 32 53%
T.McGee BUF 32 41%
S.Spencer SF 31 42%

The suggestion grabs Jaworski's attention. "You can do that?" he asks. He thinks it would be a great analytical tool; too often, he says, a defensive back with high tackle totals is called a "great tackler" when he's really a guy who cannot cover his receivers. We make plans to send the breakdowns to Jaws and Cosell, then watch as Barber makes several plays in run support.

Watching Michael

The Week 17 NFL Matchup has taken shape by the time Jaws starts reviewing the Bucs defense and Falcons offense. His three segments are being written and edited. Luke Hadden -- a former inside linebacker and team captain at the University of Pennsylvania -- sits at a computer console splicing footage and adding graphics. Jaws is watching the Tampa defense so he can add a comment to Hoge's film analysis, but he's also doing us a favor by devoting some extra attention to a player named Michael Vick.

Jaworski isn't impressed with Vick's development. He shows us why on Vick's very first pass. It's a quick toss into the flat to Warrick Dunn, a throw that anyone can execute. But Vick makes a mistake on the play: instead of dropping straight back, he shuffles a foot or two to his left. Left tackle Kevin Shaffer is grappling with Simeon Rice and trying to form a pocket, but Vick's bad drop leads him straight into Rice's path. Vick gets the pass off and gains a few yards, but he made the play more difficult because of a mechanical flaw.

Jaworski and Cosell scoff at the notion that Vick is in the wrong offensive system. "The problem isn't that Atlanta's offense is founded on timing and rhythm," says Cosell. "Every passing game is founded on timing and rhythm." They watch as the Falcons call several designed bootlegs for Vick. "I have no problem with that," Jaworski says of the plays that exploit Vick's speed. We also see several rollouts; on one occasion, Cosell notes that Vick is "too flat" when rolling out, making it easy for defenders to spy him while remaining in zones. And he looks to run too quickly; on one play, Alge Crumpler is open in the middle but Vick has already pulled the ball down and gone into what Cosell calls "action figure mode."

Putting the show together.

Jaws and Cosell note that Michael Jenkins and Roddy White don't always run great routes, but they are not the problem either. Vick's inconsistency is clearly the result of bad mechanics. He plays well against the Bucs, and Jaworski demonstrates several well-executed throws. But there are frequent lapses, and it's clear that Vick sometimes switches into scramble mode when he isn't in any great danger. Worst of all, we watch as Vick ends a run by landing on the grass knee-and-helmet first instead of sliding. The Falcons franchise risks injury even when he's not hit by a defender.

"Great mechanics have to be second nature," Cosell explains, recounting a story of how Joe Montana would still work on his drops and footwork when he was playing for the Chiefs. The three most fundamentally sound quarterbacks in the league, according to Jaworski, are Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Carson Palmer (not necessarily in that order). The fear for a player like Vick, Cosell explains, is that an injury will take away his elite athleticism before he figures out what he has to do to be a great quarterback.

Knowing What We Don't Know

The film session breaks at 5 p.m. Aaron and I retreat to Ponzio's in Brooklawn for dinner. We haven't just learned about how NFL Matchup is produced, nor have we simply scooped up tidbits about NFC playoff teams to ladle into Fox Rundown or New York Sun game previews. We've followed along as two football lifers scrutinized game film at the highest level. It was educational the way getting tossed into the deep end of the pool is educational. We both know more, and we know that we don't know much more.

And both Cosell and Jaws caution us that for all of their expertise, they only watch a small percentage of the available game film. NFL coaches analyze opponents by watching five or six weeks of film. Their assistants edit the tape so that coordinators can watch every first-and-10, every third-and-1, every shotgun play. We focused on players like Carstens or Greisen for a few plays; an NFL assistant or senior scout would watch every snap. The amount of information is staggering and humbling.

But we feel vindicated that we are on the right track. Football Outsiders and NFL Matchup are two sides of the same coin. Jaws, Hoge, and Cosell go deep into the film. We go deep into the numbers. But both of us offer "something you can't get anywhere else," a view of the game that makes us appreciate it that much more.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 06 Jan 2006

74 comments, Last at 15 Feb 2011, 4:03pm by KADIN