Walkthrough: Downs Off
by Mike Tanier
Every defensive tackle takes downs off.
There’s no such thing as a defensive tackle who operates at full power for every snap of every game. For that matter, there is no such thing as a human who goes full-bore for every moment of his or her working life.
While researching Clemson’s Brandon Thompson for Yahoo! Shutdown Corner, I noticed that many scouts said that he took downs off. Then, while crafting a report on Michigan State’s Jerel Worthy, I saw that several sources said that he took downs off. I grabbed the Pro Football Weekly draft preview magazine and started tallying the number of players who take downs off or have an "inconsistent motor" or who "run hot and cold." Worthy. Thompson. DaJohn Harris of USC. Penn State’s Devon Still. A bunch of other defensive tackles have "stamina that needs to be monitored."
I watched tape of the Outback Bowl: Michigan State against Georgia. The game went into triple overtime. Worthy wasn’t doing much at the end. He had been slamming into Georgia linemen all day: sometimes a double team, sometimes Cordy Glenn, who is a double team. Would I like a defensive tackle who is still fresh as a daisy after triple overtime? Sure. Does such a creature exist? Maybe on Krypton.
If you are going to tell me a defensive tackle takes downs off, tell me the downs so I can see for myself. Tell me "watch the second half of the Oregon game" or something. I need a little context, plus some evidence that you aren’t passing along fifth-hand information.
I am not even sure that I can spot a player taking downs off. Sometimes, the defensive tackle shuffling in the middle of the field, making no effort to rush the passer, is following instructions to clog the scrambling lane. Sometimes, the blocker just got the better of him. Sometimes, it’s the fourth quarter of a 37-13 loss. When watching tape and focusing on the line, it is easy to lose track of the quarter and score, so if Thompson looks gassed and unmotivated against North Carolina State, it helps to keep in mind that his team is getting their butt kicked. Again, there are players who are still spitting nails with 3:31 to play in a 37-13 loss, but not enough of them to build a team around.
In fact, if you watch a lot of tape, you will find that your eyes take downs off. This is especially true when evaluating interior linemen. "Hey, he’s blocked, he tried to rip, he failed, the play is to the outside. Hey, he got a quick release there, and stayed low, but the left guard took him wide. Hey, a slant, and he crossed the guard’s face well, but it was a rollout away from him. Zzzz, something something, huge guys slamming into huge guys, oh wait, I am supposed to be paying attention and evaluating this player!" If a tackle takes a down off while the scouts are hypnotized, does it still count as a down off?
Some defensive tackles are more competitive than others. Some are better conditioned than others. Nearly any of the ones that make it to the early rounds of the NFL draft have a) been the biggest dude on the field since Pop Warner days, and b) are expected to play about 70 snaps per game against everyone except Directional State in the season opener. If the guy is just getting dragged all over the field in the fourth quarter of a close game, it deserves a red flag. If we catch him going through the motions while getting blocked on the 12th play of a drive, or jogging in pursuit of a runner with twice his speed, that’s football.
While I am on my soapbox...
Please stop whispering about "character issues." If the guy has been arrested for marijuana possession three times, then say "Janoris Jenkins has been arrested for marijuana possession three times." If he led police on a drunken chase through a restaurant kitchen when he was a freshman, then say "Riley Reiff led police on a drunken chase through a restaurant kitchen when he was a freshman." If he comes across like a cocky kid who rolls his eyes during press conferences, then say "Chris Rainey comes across like a cocky kid who rolls his eyes during press conferences."
By using these clear, explicit statements, we allow you to draw your own conclusions. For Jenkins, you might say "Wow, that is somewhat disturbing." For Reiff, you might say "Sounds like just a campus caper gone wrong" or "Why a restaurant kitchen?" For Rainey, you might say "My, but we have an inflated sense of our own importance, don’t we Mr. Sports Journalist? Maybe his eye rolls have something to do with your inane, condescending questions." And if someone has real information that comes from a confidential source and cannot be directly stated, that information needs to be less vague than "character issues."
Of course, "character issues" are general and do not have to be substantiated or fact checked. That’s why they are so popular. The problem is, just as everyone takes plays off, everyone has character issues if you look hard enough.
Not every prospect has four bullet points each to place in "Pros and Cons" or "Positives and Negatives" or (my favorite, from an employer long ago) "Assets and Flaws" categories. This is not a beef with PFW, which dutifully broke down each prospect into four-to-six bullet points in their magazine. It is how many scouting reports are assembled, and it is how a lot of us train ourselves to think when we try to make each player’s profile look like a neat, balanced ledger.
Take Dontari Poe. His scouting report reminds me of the scene in Madagascar 2 when the ladies’ man hippo tries to woo Gloria, the Jada Pinkett Smith hippo. "You are large," he keeps saying. "Huge. Gigantic." That’s Poe. He is huge. And he is strong. He is also huge.
We want to elaborate, so we state the obvious. Poe can occupy double teams. He can beef up the run defense. Hey, help me out PFW! "Heavy hands. Two-gap ability." Yep, big and heavy. Teams want to draft him because he is giant and strong, not because he does anything unique on the field.
The same thing happened when I tried to write up Lavonte David, the Nebraska linebacker. David is good at a lot of things, and he made about three trillion tackles per year, so writing his "Positives" was easy. But as for his "negatives," David is a little small at 225 pounds. That’s it. He’s a 225-pound linebacker, so he won’t be that great when plugging gaps, or blitzing, or so on. Really good, really productive, kinda small. A six-word scouting report! No one gets paid to write those.
The great news about modern Internet draft-nikery is that more and more people are imbedding video into their scouting reports to illustrate points. And more video is available on YouTube than ever before. There’s a downside to these trends –- some people use an isolated video clip to make the wrong point, or misinterpret what they see, and too much of the video on YouTube consists of hip-hop highlight reels –- but we are coming a long way. It is time for all of us to step up our games, on this site and everywhere. Let’s deep-six the clichés and euphemisms. Let’s go easy on the molecular scouting ("he drops his elbows too far when reach blocking.") Let’s keep getting better at what we do, and let’s try to do it for every prospect we scout.
We cannot afford to take downs off.
The Ballad of Luck and Manning
The Oilers had not won a game in nearly 14 months.
The team was a perennial playoff participant in the late 1970s, with Bum Phillips as head coach, Earl Campbell as one of the game’s most exciting stars, and a tough defense led by the likes of linebacker Robert Brazille. But now it was the 1980s, Philips was gone, and nothing worked for head coach Ed Biles.
Before the 1982 season, Biles named Gifford Nielsen as his starting quarterback over the aging Ken Stabler. When the season started, he traded for Archie Manning to be a good mentor from the bench, a position Stabler had no interest in filling. In Week 2, just hours after Manning arrived, Nielsen helped the Oilers beat the Seahawks in typical Oilers fashion. Campbell rushed for 140 yards; Neilson went 17-of-27 for 131 yards and stayed out of the way.
Then, a player strike erased two months of the season. When the Oilers returned, the old Campbell-and-more-Campbell formula no longer worked. The banged-up Tyler Rose chugged along at 3.4 yards per carry. The Oilers defense, without veteran mainstays like Elvin Bethea and Curley Culp, could no longer stop the run like it once did. The Oilers finished the season with a seven-game losing streak.
Along the way, and not surprisingly, Manning replaced Nielsen. Poor Manning was in familiar territory: playing for a lousy team with suspect coaching. He could still be counted on to do things like this, however.
Biles never considered turning to the third quarterback on the depth chart: Oliver Luck.
Things went from bad to worse in 1983. Manning began the season as the starter, but he was clearly toast. After a four-interception game against the Steelers, Nielsen returned to the lineup. The Oilers kept losing.
Soon after the Steelers loss, Manning and tight end Dave Casper were traded to the Vikings for draft picks. "Actually, I was totally shocked," Manning said. "I had no idea a trade was in the works. I never expected it." Despite the shock, he handled the trade with typical Manning aplomb. "I'm not leaving with my head between my legs," Manning said. "I'm not going to take shots at anybody. I busted my tail to help the Oilers get out of their slump. I regret that I wasn't able to do it."
Biles was fired. Chuck Studley took over. The Oilers kept losing. They lost a pair of overtime games in October. Nielsen had been sacked 22 times in 175 pass attempts. He got hurt early in a 55-14 loss to the Bengals, and Studley finally handed the reins to Luck. Luck threw for 229 yards, but it was mostly garbage production in a game that was decided in the first quarter. Luck’s performance was overshadowed by Campbell’s postgame trade demands; Campbell was pulled from the blowout early, and he wasn’t happy about it.
Luck became the starter. He had been the third quarterback taken in the 1982 draft, after Jim McMahon and Art Schlichter. He was a legitimate prospect, but the Oilers preferred old quarterbacks: Manning, Stabler, and Nielsen, who spent four years on the bench before he got his chance to unseat Stabler. Luck was ready, but more importantly, so was Campbell, who settled down and remained with the team.
On November 13th, 1983, after over one full year, 17 losses, and a major work stoppage, Luck led the Oilers to victory. He was 18-of-26 for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Campbell added 28 carries and 107 yards.
"I suppose it's a Cinderella start," he said. "Hopefully, I won't turn into a pumpkin in a couple of games,"
But Luck quickly went the way of the gourd. He threw 13 interceptions in his late-season run as the Oilers starter. The team plucked Warren Moon out of the CFL and handed him the starting job in 1984. A Dallas Morning News article from the 1984 preseason describes the state of affairs in the Oilers locker room:
The man destined to be millionaire Warren Moon's backup quarterback for the Houston Oilers this year was a solitary figure in the post-game dressing room.
Luck deserved better, because he came within 14 yards of rescuing the Oilers in a 31-24 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
While sportswriters and television cameras were surrounding Moon, a few lockers away, Luck toweled himself from a shower all alone.
The Oilers went on to another ugly 3-13 season, but Moon went on to the Hall of Fame. Luck hung around as Moon’s backup for a few years and eventually wound up on the board governors at his alma mater, West Virginia. He was destined for the tiniest of historic NFL footnotes when his son was born on September 12, 1989.
Andrew Luck is destined for greater glory than his father, yet their careers will start in an eerily similar way: both must replaced a discarded Manning on a once-great team in the throes of misfortune.
There is probably some cosmic significance to the Manning-Luck connection, or at least much more drama can be made of it. It would have been fun to see the sons share a roster, as the fathers briefly did. But really, this is just a bunch of strange stuff that happened. Just as Peyton (and Eli) have surpassed Archie, so it will come to pass that Andrew will outperform Oliver in a way that will make papa proud.
In this case, however, it will probably happen by late October.
Atlanta Falcons Top Five Running Backs
1. William Andrews
The fullback version of Billy Sims. Andrews had five outstanding years as a brutal power runner who could also catch the ball out of the backfield. He then completely blew out his knee.
Early in his career, Andrews shared the backfield with Lynn Cain, who was more of a traditional halfback. In 1983, the Falcons hired Dan Henning off the Redskins staff, and they switched to a Redskins-style one-back offense. Andrews played the John Riggins role, but his 1983 numbers –- 1,567 yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 59 catches for 609 yards -– blew away anything Riggo ever did in the same system. Riggo had the Hogs in front of him, but Andrews could not complain about an offensive line that included several near-Hall of Famers, including tackle Mike Kenn and center Jeff van Note. Two more healthy seasons in that offense and Andrews might have been a Hall of Famer.
2. Gerald Riggs
Andrews’ successor, and the guy who racked up some of the yards Anderson would have earned if healthy. Riggs rushed for 1,719 yards in 1985. He had two other 1,000 yard seasons, and would have had a third if not for the 1987 strike. He was a great player trapped on a team strangely convinced that David Archer was an NFL quarterback.
Anderson had four 1,000 yard seasons, but three of them were skin-of-the-teeth 1,000-yard seasons that did not impress DVOA. Anderson finished 32nd in DVOA in 1997 and 35th in 2000, two years in which his yards-per-attempt were in the middle threes. Our metrics are kinder toward 1996 (eighth overall), and he finished second to Terrell Davis in his monster 1998 season.
Anderson was a good back, but his stat line strikes me as a cosmic make-up for Hard Luck Hampton. Anderson was the guy who would rush for 152 yards in the final week of the season to crack 1,000. One year, he had exactly 1,000 yards entering the final game. A Falcons running back of the past would have lost three yards on his first carry and sprained an ankle, but Anderson grinded out 55 more yards, in a loss, for a team that finished 3-13.
4. Warrick Dunn
Dunn is a tricky player to place. He gained more rushing yards than Anderson, and finished just five yards behind Andrews on the Falcons list. (Riggs is the all-time leader). Everyone liked him, and he appeared to be the guy who really made things click for the early Michael Vick teams.
Dunn had a great 2005 season, finishing fourth in DVOA with 1,416 rushing yards, but his other big years were similar to Anderson’s best seasons, even though he was a different type of runner. After 2002, his role in the passing game was curtailed, so he was not ringing up that much value as a receiver. Anderson’s mammoth season drove the Falcons to the Super Bowl, so he gets the nod. Dunn will be at or near the top of another list very soon.
5. Dave Hampton
One of my favorite stories: a guy who twice came within five yards of a 1,000-yard season before finally clearing the hurdle. Here’s me telling the story five years ago. Back then, Pro Football Reference did not yet have the boxscores from 1970s games, which is why I so breathlessly report all of his game-by-game logs: that was hard-to-find info at the time!
The essay in the link ends with a list from the 2007 Pro Football Prospectus of the best running back seasons in Falcons history. Andrews totally tears up the list.
Michael Turner is ready to pass Hampton, and probably Dunn and Anderson. The big misgiving with Turner is that he had zero receiving value until this season; we get used to penciling in about 20-25 catches for featured backs, and we forget that for Turner that must be scaled back to 5-10. That has a real impact on total yards, so Turner’s 1,300-yard seasons don’t quite add up with Dunn’s 1,100-yard seasons. And it has an impact on the field as well: the Falcons are more dependent on their change-up backs then most teams, and when that change-up back was the forever-injured Jerious Norwood, that was a problem. Even Hampton had some receiving value. That said, Turner is number six with a bullet, and he will be climbing fast.
Cannonball Butler was the ultimate Norm Van Brocklin player: a fullback who averaged 3.2 yards per carry in one of his signature seasons. He deserves honorable mention for being named Cannonball Butler.