Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Defense and Rest Time

Do defenses really wear out over the course of a game? Do defenses benefit from long drives that give them more time to rest on the sideline? Guest columnist Ben Baldwin investigates.

05 Jun 2008

Walkthrough: Tree of Knowledge

The Football Outsiders Spelling Bee

Emcee: Our first contestant is 13-year-old Taruni Patel. Taruni hails from Fort Lee, Virginia, where she attends Dee Dee Ramone Junior High School. Taruni, your word is "Favre."

Taruni: Language of Origin?

Emcee: French Acadian.

Taruni: Use it in a sentence?

Emcee: Favre is contemplating a return to the NFL, as reported by ESPN Insider on March 16, 18, 23, 24, 28, April 3, 5, 6, and every other day since.

Taruni: (scribbling on hand) F-A-V-R-E. Favre.

Emcee: Great Job! Our next contestant, 12-year-old Jenny Moore, lives in a creepy separatist compound in the hills of Utah, where all of the cultists worship someone they call "The Great Farrar." Jenny, your word is "Debacled."

Jenny: "Debacled." Am I saying it correctly?

Emcee: Sure, why not.

Jenny: Use it in a sentence?

Emcee: If you want to take cheap shots at Emmitt Smith, say "debacled" a lot.

Jenny: D-E-B-A-C-L-E-D.

Emcee: Tremendous! Our final contestant, 13-year-old Robert Chang, attends Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows Elementary School, Theological Seminary, and Brewery in Pittsburgh. Robert, your word is "Numbnuts."

Robert: Numnah? The pad that goes under a saddle to cushion a pony's back?

Emcee: No, Numbnuts: a jerk, buffoon, or doofus who doesn't realize that he's the butt of everyone's joke.

Robert: Oh, that's a relief. C-H-A-D-J-O-H-N-S-O-N.

Emcee: Great work, Robert. Your prize is an internship as a Pro Football Prospectus copy editor. You won't get paid, but you get to correct Mike Tanier's spelling errors.

Robert: No thanks. I'll just follow Erin Andrews around instead.

Plant a Tree

A reader sent this along:

In [last month's] Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Gregg Easterbrook writes, "Many college wide receivers were never asked to execute more than the nine patterns of a standard nine-branch passing tree. In the pros, the tree is just the beginning of a passing offense." Can you guys take some time to explain this passing tree?

Sure can. First, you can find links to variations on the passing tree here and here.

You can see that one tree does have nine branches, and the other has nine branches and two offshoots. You will also notice that one comes from a flag football site and the other from a youth football site. This isn't advanced stuff. If you played receiver, quarterback, or defensive back in Pop Warner football, you probably learned the tree. If you didn't, you can pick up this terminology pretty quickly. Routes like the slant, in, and post are universal football fundamentals. When a college coach tells a freshman to run a post, he doesn't have to tell him which direction to run in.

Easterbrook is oversimplifying when he says that college receivers only know the tree, and that pro offenses go well beyond the tree. College and high-level prep passing offenses are more complex than that, and any Division I coach whose system is built solely on the basic tree wouldn't stay employed very long. For a better look at a college-style passing tree, check out this link from a cool site dedicated to USC Football.

The USC passing tree is a more authentic representation of what a college receiver is asked to learn and run. It contains pass routes specially designed for slot receivers, backs, and receivers aligned well outside the hashmarks. It contains zone, screen, and option routes. It differentiates between various kinds of "run fast and relatively straight" routes like the streak, rail, and fade.

The USC diagram doesn't include a few common routes (Figure 1). There's the shake route, usually run by a slot receiver or tight end. It looks like a zone play, where the receiver runs a short in-route and sits in a zone. But after stopping for a split second to attract zone defenders, the receiver continues across the middle. There's the bubble screen, a staple of spread option offenses. A screen is officially a "bubble" if the receiver moves away from the quarterback; if he moves toward him, it's a slip or tunnel screen. And then there's the wheel, a running back route that starts as a flat or bench route, but turns into a rail route once the back reaches the sidelines.

Figure 1: Partial Passing Tree

There are other routes, and myriad variations on the routes in the diagrams. You'd better believe that college receivers know a whole bunch of them. But Easterbrook has a different point to make: "In college, a star receiver can ad lib or carelessly 'round off' his routes and still get the pass, because most defenders are not pro-caliber players ... Many college offenses do not require wide receivers to make sight adjustments, changing their routes based on pre-snap keys. All pro offenses require this."

Easterbrook's first point is absolutely true. Top athletes can get away with sloppy routes in college, in part because they are much better than their defenders, in part because spread offenses create lots of open space for receivers to noodle around in. Easterbrook's second point is more a matter of degree. Sight adjustments and option routes are now very common in lower levels of competition; I am guessing that every college play book has a few plays that require receivers to read the coverage. But the reads are more primitive at lower levels. A high school receiver might be coached to run one route against man coverage and a different one against zone, or one against press coverage (take him deep) and one against soft coverage (hitch in front of him). In the NFL, a receiver may be asked to read three or four defenders before and at the snap: his cornerback, the deep safety, the linebacker to his side, and so on. A college receiver's duties lie somewhere in between. It's also true that while the rank-and-file receivers are making sight adjustments and running option routes, the superstars may be running simplified patterns to take advantage of athletic mismatches. The superstars gets the NFL notice, the grunts get an education (hopefully).

Easterbrook's overall point is that the most talented receivers often come to the NFL unprepared, and that many of them lack the work habits needed to adjust. That's very true, and it's easy to name draft busts that prove Easterbrook's point. While even the Trojans tree seems like a manageable mental load, remember that a "slant" isn't just one route that is run a certain way. It is the general form of a route that can be run many ways.

Figure 2: Four Slant Routes

Figure 2 shows the same slant run four different ways. In the top left, the receiver works inside of a press cornerback, releasing to his inside hip. He then snaps the route off at a sharp 60-degree angle. This receiver is trying to run away from man coverage. In the top right, the receiver runs straight at the cornerback. This will work if the receiver has a size advantage, or if the press cornerback isn't planning to jam him. It also disguises the slant, allowing the receiver to feint to the outside to create space. In the bottom left, the cornerback is shaded toward the sidelines, an indicator of 2-deep zone coverage. The receiver runs straight out but snaps off the route at 45 degrees so he doesn't run into the linebacker's zone. In the bottom right, the defense appears to be in a Cover-3 or Cover-4, with the cornerback deep and a nickelback lurking in an underneath zone. Here, the receiver releases slightly to his right to attack the cornerback and run through the nickelback's zone. Again, he slants at a 45-degree angle to work inside his cornerback without drifting into another zone.

Rookie receivers have to learn multiple variations on each pattern, plus option routes and other reads, all the while learning new terminology, two or three different positions on the field, special teams techniques, and so on. As Easterbrook notes, many of them spent their college careers blowing by defenders whether they ran the route properly or not. NFL personnel gurus work hard to figure out who has the athleticism, knowledge, and mental makeup to be great. It's an inexact science. Most college receivers know much more than the passing tree. Not all of them are ready to master the NFL forest.

Self Promotion

A few weeks ago, I spent an evening at NFL Films headquarters being interviewed for the NFL's Top 10 program. It was a whirlwind session. The director peppered me with questions, and I gave the most detailed, insightful, and funny answers I could. Lucky for me, they sent the questions in advance, so I had some material prepared!

My NFL's Top 10 debut takes place on June 10. The subject is Top 10 Quarterback Controversies. I don't know how many of my soundbytes they used, but I gave the creators some good remarks about Rob Johnson vs. Doug Flutie, Jeff Hostetler vs. Phil Simms, plus a few other well known passer duels. I should appear on a handful of other upcoming shows, including Top 10 Tight Ends and Top 10 Football Families.

Enjoy the show. Learn why I am often called "The Most Handsome Football Outsider," and marvel at how homely the rest of the guys must be.

Now and Venn

I have enjoyed some success by creating strange little diagrams that are incomprehensible to most people but loved by a select few. I never thought I'd find a kindred spirit on the Internet until I stumbled onto Indexed, Jessica Hagy's blog of unusual math- and graph-related humor.

Hagy takes the kind of mundane charts that make PowerPoint presentations so awful -- Venn Diagrams, X-Y correlation plots -- and turns them into funny representations of "the random oddities of life." She released a book this year (Indexed, available everywhere), and while her work may be an acquired taste, so are pea-green diagrams of little circles running post patterns against triangular defenders. Hence the following question-and-answer session:

FO: You draw all of your graphs on index cards. Is there any one brand of index card that is funnier than the others, like Mead or 3M? Or are they all equally mirthful?

Hagy: I get my index card at Staples, and only use Staples brand cards because I am cheap and there's a Staples about a mile from my house. No one from Staples has paid me to say those wonderful things about their generic products. Yet. But if you intend to use index cars in an OCD way like I do, the expensive kind turn yellow with time, so go cheap for posterity.

FO: Do you watch football? If so, have you ever noticed the similarities between the football field and an index card?

Hagy: My parents are from Pittsburgh, and I grew up in Browns country before Art Modell (evil) moved the team to Baltimore. My husband went to Ohio State, and so now I have to say I'm a Steelers fan by birth and a Buckeye fan by marriage.

I root for the underdog every time though, because I like to cheer against probabilities. Math can't account for human emotion. That explains the unpredictability of both stock markets and sports and, well, most of written history.

The football field and the index card are both ubiquitous, quadrilateral and two-dimensional. They're silly in the grand scheme of things, but they hold a lot of promise to the people who pay attention to them.

FO: At book events, do people bring you index cards and ask you to critique them? If so, what's your standard "easy letdown"?

Hagy: I get a ton of 'submissions' via e-mail of drawings on everything from white boards to actual human flesh (eek!). I try to reply with encouragement, but if something really creeps me out, I just don't say anything. It is really fantastic when I get a good one, though. That tells me I'm doing something right, and something helpful and creativity-triggering to folks out there.

At book events, people tend to be huggers, rather than handshakers, because they have this sense of friendship with me via the blog. That's pretty cool. Just don't hang too long, OK, people?

FO: Have Venn's heirs ever tried to sue you for profiting from his diagrams?

Hagy: Nope. I think Venn had only one son (a singular subset), and his people have left me alone. If Branko Grünbaum ever e-mailed me, I'd be over the moon and totally into whatever he could teach me.

FO: Have you ever come up with a card that you thought was too obscure?

Hagy: I thought my Vonnegut obituary card would be hyper-obscure, but it turned out to be one that a lot of people related to and appreciated. The Internet is big enough that nothing is TOO obscure. Seriously, I draw math jokes. I am the evil queen of the obscure.

Jessica was kind enough to create a Venn Diagram exclusively for Football Outsiders. Branko Grunbaum would be proud, I think. And for the record, there are no "huggers" at Pro Football Prospectus book signings. At least not in Philly.

Figure 3: Jessica Hagy's Football Venn Diagram

A Stillness at Prospectusville

Aaron sounded the "All Clear" late in the afternoon on May 28. Pro Football Prospectus 2008 was finished. All of us crawled from our bunkers, rubbing our eyes as we re-adjusted to daylight. PFP Season is a siege, a marathon, an exhausting cycle of research, writing, and revision that swallows whole weeks and months.

PFP Season begins in January, when the bad teams hire new coaches and our staff begins compiling stats and notes. It heats up at the start of free agency, when Aaron calculates the first tentative projections and the early signing flurry dictates the offseason storylines for several teams. By the end of the draft, every PFP writer is in the trenches, churning our player comments, essays, and research articles, all the while writing for Football Outsiders and other outlets while keeping an eye on our day jobs (most of us still have them).

The work swallows nights, then weekends, then whole weeks. I covered the Dolphins this year (among other teams). When Bill Parcells became team president, I thought the job would be a snap. I spent January studying his coaching staff and sorting through the rubble of last season. I studied the team's front office structure and draft tendencies for the past decade (not a pretty picture). By March, I was analyzing the comings and goings: Zach Thomas out, Josh McCown in, Jason Taylor in limbo. In April, while Parcells engaged his pre-draft smokescreen, I wrote rough outlines for the team essay and player comments for guys like Ronnie Brown.

The rough draft of the team essay was due days before the draft (don't ask how that works). I was lucky that Parcells had settled on Jake Long, but a two- to three-way quarterback controversy loomed, and Taylor was still in limbo. Draft day brought a flurry of unexpected moves: Chad Henne and Anthony Fasano in, Lorenzo Booker out. My rough draft came back with both minor and major revisions needed: I made my usual Dolphins-Yardbirds error (oh yeah, John Beck), but there were structure problems and conceptual errors that needed a rewrite. I had player comments to fix and unit comments to write. Deadlines were just days away. Taylor was still in limbo.

Every other writer was in the same boat. By last week, the team essays were in the can, the last of the player comments were edited. Over Memorial Day Weekend, we were down to a lengthy punch list of unfinished work and a ticking clock. Each day I woke, wrote, revised, swam with the kids for two hours, ate a hamburger, wrote, collated, tucked the boys in, wrote, and slept. The other writers had the same experience. Some didn't get to swim or tuck.

Then Aaron sounded the All Clear. I drank a glass of George T. Stagg on the rocks to celebrate. There's still some editing to be done, but everything else is complete. It's time to catch our breath, spend some time with the family. Come July, I'll get a package in the mail from Amazon, pre-ordered through the link on the main page. (Yes, I get a complimentary copy, but I buy a few others to give as gifts). I'll read the whole thing, even the parts I wrote, remembering the siege, the long nights, the fifth drafts. And I will be proud, because the end result is always worth the sacrifice.

Pro Football Prospectus is a labor of love, but the month of May was pure labor. Excuse me while I catch 40 winks. Maybe when I wake up, the Taylor situation will be settled.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 05 Jun 2008

33 comments, Last at 24 Jun 2008, 11:12am by Chris


by Aaron (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 2:36pm

Extremely good. If I could draw a Venn diagram with text it would show this post being in the overlap between informative and entertaining.

by Cyrus (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 2:45pm

Enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

by LonelyWRs (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 2:56pm

Why is this limited to wideouts? Quarterbacks with "rocket arms" or, worse yet, scrambling success destroy franchises for years at a time. Giant linemen who can maul smaller college players get exposed. Running backs with 4.3 40s run around in circles behind the line of scrimmage for a gain of .3 yards. Safeties who hit like freight trains are revealed to cover like sieves. At the college level, a player can rely on their strengths to hide their weaknesses. At the NFL level, they must be complete, both mentally and physically.

Why pick on the receivers?

by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 3:11pm

What a lovely read. The interesting thing about the passing tree is it served as quite the rorschach test for my football knowledge: it confirmed that I know a good deal about the basics, more, percentage-wise, than I realized, based on this little vector. But it also confirmed there were things not just that I didn't know, but that I "Rumsfelded" -- didn't know I didn't know.

About the comments over several articles, about how difficult it was to put together PFP2008, and how little developments since it was finalized can already make a difference in the accuracy, why does it have to be finalized so early? I imagine for the printing, etc., and I understand that. But it seems like it had to be finalized a good deal earlier than normal, is that the case? If so, why?

by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 3:14pm

3 -- I suppose he was just asked to evaluate the accuracy of Easterbrook's comment. The QBs and everyone else are fallible to it, sure. It's worth mentioning, but there's only so much room. This is Too Deep Zone, afterall, and not Gloss Over Global Factors in Personnel Scouting Digest.

by peachy (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 3:21pm

You may need something like 400 winks if you hope to out sleep the Jason Taylor two step.

by Quentin (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 5:48pm


Yeah, I felt much the same way. I seem to have a pretty good mastery of a lot of the different coverages and routes, but I had no idea of the variations on the slant and why you'd run them. Most of what I know I got from Madden, TDZ, and the FO's excellent Strategy Minicamps (link in my name). I'm not exactly ready to step in and take over a team, but what I've learned in just two years blows away the average fan.

by James, London (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 5:55pm

"Emcee: No, Numbnuts: a jerk, buffoon, or doofus who doesn’t realize that he’s the butt of everyone’s joke.

Robert: Oh, that’s a relief. C-H-A-D-J-O-H-N-S-O-N."

Brilliant. Just brilliant. And while I won't see it over here, I hope the TV stuff goes well.

by Tom (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 6:06pm

Re 8:

nfl.com/video has all the top 10 videos available. Just pick the NFL network tab, then NFL top ten on the list on the left side.

by Reinhard (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 6:10pm

RE: 4 slants

In the end there are many many variations of the slant route. You have to use common sense (or coaching if you don't have it) to adjust to many variables that come up in a game: the defender you're facing, his technique and responsibility, the previous route you ran, which read you are on the play... etc etc. So during practice you can try to cover many common situations and make everything second nature.

by Paul (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 6:13pm

As a huge fan of Indexed myself, I really enjoyed the Jessica Hagy interview. Thanks!

...but you messed up her name in the Figure 3 caption.

by Reinhard (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 6:16pm

coincidentally, Chad Johnson is a player who is very intelligent in this way, and has great route running knowledge. He understands that the quarterback will look for him at a certain time at a certain place, and that he has to be open at that spot at that time. The route can be ran however

by Tom (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 6:23pm

And to add onto my last comment, if you click on playbook, the anatomy of a play series is really good. Kind of like Mike Tanier in video, not always quite as in depth though.

by James, London (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 6:31pm


Thanks Tom. I'll check that out.

by PhillyCWC (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 9:12pm

Have already set the TiVo for the Top 10 list on June 10.

Awesome article as usual! Thanks!

by Harris (not verified) :: Thu, 06/05/2008 - 10:33pm

I assume "Philadelphia vs. Donovan McNabb" appears somewhere on that Top 10 List.

by glengarry (not verified) :: Fri, 06/06/2008 - 12:02am

GOD, is the George T. Stagg ever good. I don't know where you are, but it is getting extremely hard to source in north Florida... most stores here are limited to ordering three bottles every three months. I may not have it for me birthday. God's own drink. If you're looking for a cheaper alternative, consider Corner Creek. Still hard to find but doesn't cost a fortune...

by hazardgrl (not verified) :: Fri, 06/06/2008 - 12:44am

4--Regarding the book being finalized so early, it's actually really really late for a book. I'm a compositor (the step before printing), and I usually see a book 4-6 months minimum before it is published, and sometimes up to a year or more. This book is clearly on a super super rush schedule, and it's a complicated layout as well. The authors aren't the only ones working very late nights to get a book like this out. As much as I love this book I'm really glad I don't work for their publisher at the moment.

by DP (not verified) :: Fri, 06/06/2008 - 12:48am

I made my usual Dolphins-Yardbirds error (oh yeah, John Beck)

There is never any shame in writing the name of the greatest electric guitarist of them all.

by Bill Barnwell :: Fri, 06/06/2008 - 2:00am

There's a very limited window for actually finalizing content for the book. The book needs to be done late enough in order to have everything from the draft accounted for (remember, that affects everything from projections to essays to player comments to layout), but also be finished in time for it to be out for fantasy draft season.

by JMM (not verified) :: Fri, 06/06/2008 - 7:52am

With all the difficulties which seem to be a part of publishing a book and keeping it timely, I would have thought you would have a web si.... Oh, never mind.

by Jimmy (not verified) :: Fri, 06/06/2008 - 11:28am

Great article.

However I really hope that 'the Beckhams' are never referred to on this website again. Or anywhere other than this website. They have to be some of the most annoying people on this planet, yet strangely ubiquitous.

by Herm? (not verified) :: Fri, 06/06/2008 - 1:52pm

Re: 22
As deplorable as the Beckhams are, their mention in that comic when contrasted with the Mannings is a brilliant layer. Very very funny to me. And I don't even like math. Or index cards.

by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Fri, 06/06/2008 - 2:07pm

Thanks for the info on book publishing endeavors.

by Mike Tanier :: Fri, 06/06/2008 - 2:08pm

Some serious bourbon fan in my area ordered a huge batch of Stagg at the local liquor store. I go in to buy some Makers and -- pow -- a whole bunch of bottles of Stagg. I put out an APB to the local afficianados, dropped serious cash on a bunch of bottles for myself, and now use it for special occasions. It's pretty strong, so it's not something I can enjoy on a deadline.

Oh, and I made sure the guy who ordered it got his share before I called in the locusts to descend on the store.

by jmarv (not verified) :: Fri, 06/06/2008 - 3:18pm

That USC football site that is linked to is really fantastic... I spent about a half hour there before I remembered I was in the middle of reading this article.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 06/06/2008 - 4:59pm

#23 Herm?

or Mannings!

#3 In my experience, this can crossover to athletes at most positions in almost every sport. My favorite comparison is that the guys with phenomenal natural talent rarely make the best coaches/teachers because they never really had to "learn" the stuff, but the guys who had to figure it out, and work work work, are better able to convey that learning process. Probably holds for musicians, academics... many walks of life.

by lobolafcadio (not verified) :: Mon, 06/09/2008 - 7:38am

I would have think this Johnson familly of Cincinnati had a lot of players too, and I would have put it with their Jones (rugby) familly from Wales...

by Tyler (not verified) :: Mon, 06/09/2008 - 8:35pm


I agree. I know all of the basics of coverages, but reading that USC site was fascinating. Putting it all together is something I'm still learning a lot about. I spent about 15 minutes reading the site before I came back here. I just finished this article and now I'm on my way back to the USC site for more.

by Jerry (not verified) :: Thu, 06/12/2008 - 9:58pm

Linked on my name: Receiver Bill Howton discusses changes in the passing game in "Best Plays of 1963."

by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Sun, 06/15/2008 - 12:44pm

A better soccer comparison for the Mannings might be the Redknapp-Lampard clan (or Gudjohnsen pere-et-fils if you're Icelandic). The real killer, though, will be when young Maxim Gullit is of age. His father is current LA Galaxy coach and two time world footballer of the year Ruud Gullit; his maternal grandfather is Johan Cruyff, who many regard as one of the five greatest players of all time. That kid has pedigree.

by Chris (not verified) :: Tue, 06/24/2008 - 10:40am

You would be amazed with the knowledge even a college OC has. I went to college thinking I knew everything about football, but our 2nd OC ( not even at a great program) blew my mind away. Think USC website times 10. I thought I knew everything but realized I knew little to nothing about "real" football ( even our first OC didn't know it).

I can't imagine what goes through the head of a Gruden, Martz, Shannihan or Norm Chao.

by Chris (not verified) :: Tue, 06/24/2008 - 11:12am

The thing the USC fan alludes to is that receivers have to know all of that and more. They have to be able to read coverages and exploit them. You can't just be a speedster, but you have to be intelligent as well.

He doesn't get to into pass protection but he started talking in seconds. There is nothing that annoys me more than seeing David Carr, Mike Vick or any other shoddy QB consistantly hold onto the ball for 4-6 seconds, get sacked, and then fans blame a "poor offensive line". If the QB can't get rid of the ball in time, it is his fault. If he can't check down and audible into hot routes, it is his fault.

I can tell you for a fact these coaches are always stressing High/Low-ing defenders in practice ( making sure QB's get a good feel for it), going over identifying coverages on the blackboard, and talking about your "landmarks".

Every zone defense has it's holes. A football game is more like a chess match and there is a way to defeat every defense. If everybody is smart and on the same page ( Colts/Pats etc.) it is a lot easier to do.