Draftday.dk Interview: Evolution of the NFL

In early July I did an interview with Danish NFL site draftday.dk. Excerpts were used in their series on the evolution of the NFL, focusing on topics like the passing game and read-option craze. People like Greg Cosell and Jason Cole were also interviewed. You can view the read-option article here. 

As always I had a lot more to say, so here is the full interview:

1. Many sources point to the 2003 AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and the Colts as the turning point that led to the “passing league”. The Patriots’ manhandling of Peyton Manning’s receivers led to the league instructing its officials to more strictly enforce the “chuck” rule or the “Ty Law rule”. Do you agree? How much of an impact did that game have on the league?

The events of January 18, 2004 unquestionably had a major impact on the NFL. Not only in the AFC game, but the NFC Championship between the Eagles and Panthers also showcased a lot of contact in the secondary, especially by the winning team. Carolina’s Ricky Manning Jr. etched his name in playoff lore by intercepting three of Donovan McNabb’s passes in a 14-3 upset.

Earlier in the day in the AFC game between the Colts and Patriots, the referees clearly swallowed their whistles. The game had seven combined penalties and they were all for false starts, delay of game and offside/encroachment. That means not a single penalty was called on anything that happened after the ball was snapped.

The most egregious part was the end of the game. Despite how badly they had played, the Colts were down 21-14 at their own 20 with 2:01 remaining and two timeouts. Football fans and the NFL’s media partners live for these moments. A game-tying touchdown drive to force overtime or even just a march into the red zone – these teams already played a classic regular-season game that year that ended with a goal-line stand – would have made this an instant classic.

Instead, on two consecutive plays Peyton Manning targeted tight end Marcus Pollard, who was first jammed at the line and grabbed by the jersey by linebacker Willie McGinest. He was then passed off to linebacker Roman Phifer, who continued the contact more than five yards down the field, which is illegal.

The second play came on a decisive 4th-and-10, and it was the same approach with McGinest getting a clear hold around Pollard’s neck before passing him off to Phifer, who made even more contact this time, including a subtle arm pull just before the ball arrived incomplete. No flags came and that clinched the win for New England.

POL

After the game the league quietly admitted referee Walt Coleman, infamous for the “Tuck Rule” call two years earlier, and his crew missed penalties on both plays. It was too late for the Colts, but their general manager Bill Polian had clout in the league and the competition committee listened to his complaints. While the “Ty Law Rule” is really just the “Mel Blount Rule” from 1978, it was a message to referees to call more illegal contact, which is defined as non-incidental contact more than five yards down the field.

Looking at the penalty data on Pro-Football-Reference, there were 51 illegal contact penalties in 2003. That number sky-rocketed to 123 in 2004 after the re-emphasis on the rule. Since then things have calmed down with an average of 78.5 illegal contact penalties per year (less than 70 the last three years), but you could see the immediate impact it had.

Manning threw 49 touchdown passes and set the passer rating record in 2004. Since then both records have been broken along with Dan Marino’s 1984 record of 5,084 passing yards. The league-wide passing numbers continue to increase in volume and efficiency with the 2012 season boasting a league-wide record 85.6 passer rating.

In fact, the eight seasons with the highest league passer rating have all come since 2004.

Now an influx of great quarterback talent and other rule changes for illegal hits on defenseless players have also played a big part, but the shift to a dominant passing league was really set in motion by the events on Championship Sunday over nine years ago.

2. Some believe that speed will be the most important new feature on NFL offenses in 2013 – you will see more up tempo, no huddle offenses (like Chip Kelly’s Oregon offense or Patriots’ offense in 2012). What’s your take on that?

I’m not buying that maximizing your offense’s play count is the right way to go about things. Ideally, I would want an offense capable of going on multiple touchdown drives in a game that take 6-8 minutes off the clock each. That means efficient runs and completions in the passing game. Bleed the clock as you build the lead, forcing the other team to force things and play one-dimensional offense.

Someone like Peyton Manning has used the no-huddle for years, but he will still often use most of the 40-second play clock to diagnose his matchups. That cat-and-mouse game is still an important part of football. The Dolphins used a surprisingly high amount of no-huddle with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill last year, yet it’s not like that prevented them from being one of the bottom-quarter offenses in the league. You still need to know what you’re doing out there.

There’s a lot of mystery about how Chip Kelly’s offense will operate in the NFL. I get the feeling it’s either going to be a great success or a failure that will make Steve Spurrier look like a good NFL coach.

My fear for the Eagles is that they will find themselves going three-and-out too often, which will wear out the defense. It’s a defense that has not been very good in recent years, so you could see a team that falls behind by a few scores in the first half with regularity.

Running the fast pace may help them come back, but I just do not view Michael Vick as a quarterback capable of making this offense work. Maybe if Kelly can last long enough to find his next quarterback, we will get to see more of his college genius at work. Oregon’s offense was heavy on the run, though this is the most pass-happy era in NFL history. Teams passed on 57.7 percent of plays last year, which is the highest ratio ever.

The innovation I like is shortening the play calls down to one word if possible. I never understood why someone like coach/broadcaster Jon Gruden took such pride in memorizing these plays that are 10 or more words in length. That’s not being efficient and it makes it harder on the players to memorize a large volume of plays.

If you can get the play out quicker, you can run the no-huddle with a faster pace. But faster does not guarantee better results.

3. If yes, why is speed in the offensive system more important than ever?

See above.

4. Last year the read-option was the hit of the NFL. How do you expect this offense to evolve in 2013 around the NFL?

I expect we will see more teams experiment with it. It helps to have the really mobile quarterback, but quarterbacks like Andy Dalton, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Jake Locker and Ryan Tannehill are mobile enough to run it too. The current crop of quarterbacks may be the fastest and most athletic in NFL history.

Like the Wildcat, I wouldn’t be surprised if some teams put in a package for the read-option just to make the opponent spend some time preparing for it. That may be with a different player under center, such as Denard Robinson in Jacksonville or Joe Webb in Minnesota. I would say Tim Tebow in New England, but let’s not go down that road. He is very predictable in keeping the ball on those plays as he’s already run this style of offense with the 2011 Broncos.

Developing more passing options out of it could make the play-action passing game even more deadly than it already is around the league. I don’t think teams ideally want to see their high-priced quarterback running by design too often. It’s still a game that is about throwing the ball.

5. Some say that the read-option will “fade” out of the NFL like the Wildcat – and some critics are not sure of the longevity of the offense. What’s your reaction to that prophecy?

I think it makes a bigger impact than the Wildcat, but I don’t see it ever being a major part of any successful NFL team.

One of the biggest myths of the 2012 season is just how often teams used it. ESPN’s Mike Sando did a great article on it showing that only 457 plays used the read-option last year. That’s 1.4 percent of all NFL plays.

No team used it more than Carolina’s 147 plays, but even that was only 14.9 percent of the Panthers’ total offense. Seattle with Russell Wilson gets lumped into the teams “heavily” using it, but the Seahawks’ play count was just 55. Beyond the quarterback keeping the ball, star running backs like Frank Gore (16 carries) and Marshawn Lynch (25 carries) rarely ran the ball on the option plays as well.

It’s never going to be as widespread as something like the shotgun, for example.

When news came out recently that Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers didn’t prepare for it against Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers in the playoffs, he had the numbers to support that decision. Before that game, Kaepernick had 12 runs all season on the read-option. He used it seven times that night for 99 yards and a touchdown. It was just not something the 49ers did often, yet they hurt the Packers with it in that one game.

However, defenses adjusted quickly. In the ensuing playoff games against Atlanta and Baltimore, Kaepernick had three designed runs for 10 yards. Only one of those plays came on the zone-read option. It gained three yards.

This is an offensive strategy that will have to evolve to sustain as every team’s defensive staff has likely studied all of those 457 plays this offseason. It really wouldn’t take that long to break them down.

An athletic defense that stays disciplined has a great shot of limiting this style of offense, which frankly is getting too much credit as a 2012 innovation. It’s not that new. In doing various research this offseason, I have seen the 2010 Eagles use it with Michael Vick. Backup quarterback Troy Smith used it for the 2009 Ravens. Even Matt Cassel (Kansas City) has used it before.

The forgotten team that really stands out to me is the 2006 Atlanta Falcons. They opened the season using the zone-read option and rushed for 558 yards in a 2-0 start. They finished the season with 2,939 rushing yards. Vick rushed for 1,039 yards by himself, which is a quarterback record.

However, many forget about this team because it was still not that successful of an offense, ranking 21st in points per drive. The Falcons finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. We never found out if they could expand upon this offense as Vick’s Atlanta career ended when his involvement in dog fighting was brought to light.

What really made the zone-read option so popular last season is that very young quarterbacks like Kaepernick, Wilson and most importantly Robert Griffin III were leading teams to the postseason by having historic success offensively.

Though as the numbers show, most of their success came without the zone-read option. For these players to continue their ascent in the NFL, it will rest on their progression at throwing the ball.

Should those teams have less success this season, regardless of how they actually perform on read-option plays, you can bet the game will quickly turn a cold shoulder to it as just another short-lived gimmick.

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