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Can You Still Win In The NFL With A Defensive Minded Coach?

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Offenses have an advantage in today’s game

New York Jets v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The theorem for success in the NFL for decades was simply “Defense Wins Championships.”Scores of hard nosed coaches rode that mantra to NFL titles dating back to the days Hallas and Lambeau. The idea was if you can keep your opponent from scoring or even take the ball away with turnovers, it gives your team the greatest chance of victory. That idea is being challenged in the NFL today by highly creative offensive coaches who stress opposing defenses like never before and dictate game play to their advantage.

Offensive innovation in the NFL is not a new idea; Bill Walsh developed an entirely new offensive system which was termed the West Coast Offense. Walsh made the 49ers the team of the eighties and Joe Montana a HOFer with 4 Super Bowl rings. At least some piece of that scheme is in every playbook in the NFL today and helped spawn a whole slew of new head coaches who built their careers upon those ideas. At least 17 disciples of Bill Walsh became head coaches from Mike Holmgren to our own Bruce Coslet.

Kirk Ferentz (disciple of Bill Belichick) developed the zone blocking system used today. That scheme was refined under the tutelage of the great offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. Mike Shanahan used Gibbs’ expertise to make Terrell Davis a HOF’er and the Broncos a two-time Super Bowl champions. Most teams have some zone blocking schemes in the playbook, and offensive lineman are now categorized (in scouting circles) as either zone or power blocking linemen.

The difference today from yesteryear is that football has (in the last decade) developed into a 12 month sport. You have a 6 month season and with scheduled OTA’s and minicamps during the offseason; players are continually being taught the schemes being run. Many coaches now work diligently in the offseason to construct diabolical game plans that have never been seen before. Most players stay in great shape all year round because the competition to stay on a roster is palpable. Why is the competition so close? It is because many of the schemes being run in the NFL were developed in the college ranks.

Not long ago it used to take a rookie a few years (offense or defense) to learn how the game is played in the NFL as compared to college. Currently many of the rookies coming into the league are more versed in the concepts that NFL teams are using than the veterans because those systems are second nature to them; they know no other. Veterans have to (in some cases) unlearn basic schemes in order to learn the new spread concepts.

Defenses are also missing tackles at an alarming rate because of the reduction of padded practices. The new CBA allows for only 14 padded practices during the regular season of which 11 must be held the first 11 weeks of the season. This lack of contact has diminished the proficiency of tacklers allowing teams to break off huge gains that in past years would have been a negligible gain.

Add to that all the rules that prohibit the defense from being defensive.

1) The rule which prohibits contact with a receiver after five yards from scrimmage.

That rule has been around for a while. It still is called often on 3rd down. Sometimes it is called where it had no bearing on the play during a short pass in a third and very long (20 yards or more) situation, giving the offense a 1st down. Many times the receiver will make contact to get separation from a defender, but that is never called OPI unless it happens just before the ball arrives. You know that receiver coaches are teaching subtle techniques for receivers to get separation from a defender early in pass routes.

2) The new sack restriction rule

This rule has been a disaster for defenses (I wrote a FanPost about this before the season) with either a great sack being flagged or sacks not happening because the defensive player is trying to avoid a penalty; making him a 12 step late to disrupt the pass. Players (who are not highly paid) also might not want to incur a costly fine if the sack is deemed to be flagrant. This rule has cost teams games, and that is a shame.

This is in addition to the fact that you can’t make ANY contact with a QB’s helmet, hit him below the waistline or even push him down if he throws the ball.

3) Helmet to helmet rule

This really is a good rule for players to help them avoid injury. The fact still remains that defenses are still adjusting how they tackle in order not to get flagged or incur the fine (which are not cheap). Offensive players are now getting extra yards because a defender misses a tackle when (in years past) the defender would have “blown up” the receiver.

4) Other rules

You can’t grab (even for a second) a facemask even though a runner can stiff arm you right in the grill with no foul. You can’t grab inside the back of a jersey and pull down a runner (horse collar): you can’t do a peel back block on an interception or even hit a player behind the play.

Some of these rules are good, but it still relates to the effectiveness of the defense as a whole. If you can’t impose your will on the offense (and they know it) you are not going to be as successful. The days of players like Lawrence Taylor with his famous quote, “Let’s go out there like a pack of crazed dogs,” is a thing of the past.

Now let’s look at the offensive side of the ball....

Head coaches like Andy Reid and Sean McVay are comparable to mad scientists who combine concepts from many coaches in constructing an offensive game plan that rivals any other in the history of the game. They are also some of the most dedicated coaches to devise an offense in football today. Like a Michelangelo working on their own Sistine Chapel; these coaches are detailed-oriented. They take their time, and they just love what they do (and it shows) so much that it is hard for them to stop.

Sean McVay was just 30 years old when he was hired as a head coach, which took guts by GM Les Snead to do, but it has paid off in spades. Remember he took over from Jeff Fisher who was one of the most respected coaches in the game. Fisher was a head coach for more than two decades, was on the competition committee and an NFL lifer. A personal friend of mine is a huge Rams fan (you should hear him crow now) and used to think he had one of the best coaches in the league. I used to tell him he was daffy and the game had long since pasted Fisher by; he now believes me.

Sean McVay took over a team that was #32 in offense in 2016 and a young QB who had a 54% completion rate a 63.6 QB rating with 5 TDs and 7 INTs. Even his star running back had only 885 rushing yards for the year and a grotesque 3.2 ave/ per rush. Other than adding Andrew Whitworth from the Bengals (which was a stroke of genius) he had pretty much the same team in 2017.

I need to add that Sean McVay is close to the age of his players (some are actually older than him) so he can relate to them better than many older coaches who only know how to shout cliches rather than connecting with them at their level. But that is not even the half of it with Sean McVay. He is a teacher, a person who knows how to get his ideas into the head of another human, which is sometimes hard to do. His ability to transform Jared Goff into a NFL upper echelon starter is miraculous. Make no mistake. Goff is in an offense with superior weapons and will be a commanding force when necessary.

Troy Aikman stated that he went and watched Jared Goff for the first time in 2016 he observed that Goff could not throw a spiral or complete a pass. He thought that the first pick was a bust but was willing to give him some time.

McVay instituted some offensive schemes that Goff was used to from his days at Cal. The spread type offense with an NFL flavor added was all Goff needed. The Rams went from #32 in offense in 2016 to #1 in 2017. Goff had a completion % of 62.1 with 28 TDs and 7 INTs. His QB rating flew up to 100.5. Todd Gurley ran for 1,305 yards (he rested in week 17) for a 4.7 yard ave. and 13 TDs. He also caught 64 passes for 788 yards and 6 TDs.

This year the Rams started slow with only 365 yards of offense (The Jets’ highest yardage total in a game this year is 362 yards) against the Raiders on the road in a hostile environment. They followed with 432 yards in Week 2 in a game they won 34-0, 521 yards in Week 3 against a quality San Diego team, and a 556 yard onslaught of a Vikings defense that ranked #1 in 2017.

Look at this play from Thursday night. It is great set up and execution

The Rams have “10” personnel on the field (4 WR and 1 RB) with 3 WRs to the right. When Goff initially looks to the right he draws the safety to that side to help in coverage. The receivers to the right are also crossing over one another to give even more illusion that a slant, fade or a seam is the #1 option.

Gurley is the #1 option against the linebacker Anthony Barr who is 6’ 5” and no match for the quicker, speedier player. He is running an option route in which the inside is the preferred route since the safety vacated the middle. If he crosses Barr’s face it would have made for a much easier throw. Instead Gurley chooses the outside which gives less chance of success but he blows by Barr. Goff makes a perfect pass into his waiting arms.

The way this Rams team is loaded, I don’t think any defense has a chance in this position against this offensive team unless it just gets lucky, has exceptional cover men, or the Rams make a mistake. Add to this arsenal the RPO (run pass option) plays, and it gives the offense so many options. Its ability to score comes down to execution and not the defense against them.

The one thing that made Sean McVay’s job a lot easier was the fact he had a player like Todd Gurley on the roster. You can do many things with an elite running back, The one thing you shouldn’t do is run him straight into the middle of the line every play. We call that the Jeff Fisher syndrome. He can catch the ball out of the backfield but also take an off tackle play to the house in an instant. The presence of Gurley makes linebackers hesitate to get into coverage on play fakes. Gurley is such an exceptional talent that a late step towards the hole could be death for a linebacker. You know the eye in the sky is watching this so if a linebacker cheats to get into coverage too quickly or stays too close to the line to guard against the run, it will be seen and taken advantage of by the offense.

Here McVay fakes the run to the right against a hybrid, man up zone coverage scheme. The flow is to the right, and Goff rolls back to the left. The right TE Tyler Higbee pulls to the left to help in protection. This should have been a key to the LB’s to get depth but they are ready to pursue Gurley and miss the key.

Xavier Rhodes is man to man with Brandin Cooks and Mackensie Alexander will float back in the shallow flat to take away underneath window. The problem is that without depth by the linebackers (caused by the fake to Gurley) the linebackers are in chase mode. What looks like a simple shallow cross route is really an “out and up” which is similar to a wheel route run by running backs.

Once Kupp gets past Barr (again) and is in the clear, the pass is an easy throw. Kupp doesn’t have great speed, but he is smart with great hands and understands how to get open and how to beat his man. In this offense, Kupp is as dangerous as Brandin Cooks who is a much better overall talent.

On this next play the Vikings figure out the misdirection as C.J. Ham goes in motion back towards the left, and Brandin Cooks comes across the formation and into the flat. Cooks is the initial read and is covered. Kupp is double covered with underneath and trail coverage. Goff is chased by two defenders and a throw away seems to be the best option, but he sends a perfect pass to a covered Kupp who doesn’t quit on the play. Remember this was the same guy who could barely throw a spiral in 2016.

Even on a play that the Vikings do a great job in coverage, the Rams score a TD. This was the #1 defensive unit in 2017 who had little turnover, and they were lit up for 556 yards of total offense. This is also while the Vikings offense was doing a great job of scoring themselves. If a team controls the ball, they can wear down a defense. In this case it was tit for tat, and each team that possessed the ball scored. The Rams just made a few more plays.

The key (and why this game is so influential) is that no matter the skill of the defense the offense will always have the advantage. There used to be a yin and a yang in football but the pendulum has swung towards the offense. You need an innovative offensive minded coach to keep up with the league.

The fascinating thing about coaches like Andy Reid or Sean McVay is that they are not just great offensive minds but also great teachers as well. This can’t be emphasized enough. Your team has to understand these concepts and be in the right place at the right time. It is a precision passing offense (Bill Walsh influence) that if executed perfectly is almost impossible to stop. To find astute minds who are also great teachers is stunning. The way Sean McVay has transformed the Rams and especially Jared Goff almost overnight is near miraculous.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a defensive minded head coach, as long as he allows the offense to thrive. Mike Tomlin is (not offensive or defensive) just a head coach who relates to players and has a moral authority on the team. He lets the coordinators (offensive and defensive) to have their way and that may be the best head coach to have. The only problem is it is not realistic; if either coordinator excels then they will be hired away (as a head coach) and you have to start over. Hopefully his protege can take over, but does he have the teaching skill to succeed? If the great offensive mind is your head coach you don’t run into that problem.

Tony Dungy was the inventor of the Tampa Two defense that held the Greatest Show on Turf to meager stats every time he played them. The problem was Dungy’s offensive game plan was rudimentary and easy to defend. When the Bucs fired Dungy and brought in a better offensive mind (Gruden) they won a Super Bowl the next year, all with Dungy’s players and defensive scheme. Dungy then went to Indy where he was told not to change the offense run by Tom Moore and Peyton Manning. He won the Super Bowl because no matter how great the defense he had, he needed the offensive prowess to win against great teams.

The question to you is:

Can a team win a Super Bowl with a defensive minded coach as your head coach; with all the preconceived notions about playing too close to the vest?