Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys and Third Level RPO/Packaged Play Reads

Dallas Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott had about as good of a preseason debut as any rookie could ask for: Prescott finished the game 10 of 12 for 139 yards and two touchdowns, including a perfect strike to receiver Terrance Williams down the sideline. But as impressive as that throw was, Prescott’s most impressive trait was his calm and poise: In an opening weekend when higher profile rookie QBs like Jared Goff and Carson Wentz looked at times shaky and off-kilter, Prescott looked like a vet. So while there’s no need to get the hype train rolling too fast — it was one preseason game, and Prescott was facing almost entirely backups and guys who likely won’t make the roster — it was a great start.

But, even if Prescott plays great, all he can do is solidify his spot as the backup QB behind Tony Romo, which is why the most interesting play to me was one that told me something about what the Cowboys will do even when Prescott’s not in there. Specifically, on Prescott’s first touchdown pass, a ten-yarder to Dez Bryant, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called a “third level” packaged play, also known as a run-pass option or RPO. Third level packaged plays are the newest (although not that new) step in the evolution of shotgun spread “read” concepts: When the shotgun spread first became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the defining plays were the zone read and read-option plays, in which the QB read a “first level” defender, i.e., a defensive lineman. The big innovation by the end of the 2000s and early 2010s were, first, built in screens, and later the earliest packaged plays/RPOs in which receivers ran slants, hitches and sticks and the QB would read a “second level” defender (i.e., a linebacker or nickel defensive back playing like a linebacker) to determine whether to hand off or throw.

In recent years a few teams — most notably Baylor, although there are others — began using packaged plays where the quarterback read a safety to determine whether to hand off or throw. This had two primary effects: (1) it is an excellent response to Quarters coverage, in which the safeties read the offense to determine whether to play the pass or the run, often outnumbering offenses in the run game as they are so difficult to account for; and (2) it transforms a read concept that was originally designed to move the chains by having the QB either hand off or throw a screen into a handoff or a touchdown.

Corey Coleman

Which brings me back to Dak Prescott’s play against the Rams. There was nothing that sophisticated about the concept: The Cowboys called an inside zone run play, in which they blocked all of the Rams’ frontal defenders, including the backside defensive end (i.e., no read option element), and tasked Prescott with reading the safety to the side of the single receiver, who just happened to be Dez Bryant. Now, I’m not sure if Bryant was only allowed to run a fade or had some sort of choice in what route he’d run (either choosing on the fly or via a pre-snap signal between receiver and QB), but teams often adjust the route by the single receiver to find the way to best attack the safety.

In any case, given that it was Dez Bryant singled up, all Prescott really needed to confirm was that the safety wouldn’t be able to help, something he was able to do quite quickly and likely even pre-snap. (A savvier safety might have aligned inside and then hurried back outside; Prescott did stare down Bryant a bit.) And with an extra safety stepping up for the run and a freak of nature 1-on-1 near the goal line, Prescott’s choice was simple:

Prescott

So while Prescott’s performance should give Cowboys’ fans hope for what they might see in the future, this play should give them some insight into what they might see this season: A cutting edge concept that, in the end, reduces to a winning formula: Run the ball behind that great offensive line with extra numbers, or throw it to #88. That makes sense to me.

Smart Notes — Harbaugh’s Coaches Clinic, Mouse Davis R&S Tapes, Twitter, Toenail Fungus

Clinic season. Springtime is when coaches get together and — to some extent against their own interests (though not entirely) — share information on the ins and outs of their schemes, personnel strategies and general program management. Sometimes this involves one staff visiting another, but the backbone are the clinics, where (typically) college and sometimes NFL coaches give presentations to (typically) high school and small school coaches. There’s an entire ecosystem around these, both as informal job fairs and also as increasingly corporatized events, but they remain tremendously valuable sources of information (even though coaches are more guarded in the age of the internet than they used to be) and an area where the culture of football coaching culture remains unique.

Just three guys talkin' ball

Just three guys talkin’ ball

While most of the name clinics are sponsored by coaches organizations or big companies such as Nike, many individual schools hold annual clinics, largely as a recruiting tool for the local high school coaches. Of course, anytime there’s a recruiting angle involved, you know Jim Harbaugh is going to up the ante, and his Michigan coaches clinic assembled a great roster of speakers — his brother John Harbaugh, Art Briles, Mike Martz, Teryl Austin, Dean Pees, etc. I wasn’t able to attend this year but fortunately another tradition in the coaching community involves the sharing of clinic notes. And, first, James Light picked up some interesting tidbits throughout, beginning with the joint panel with Jim and John Harbaugh and their father, longtime coach Jack Harbaugh (mgoblog has a full transcript of the panel here):

Jim Harbaugh – Coach Harbaugh talked about the type of coaches they’re looking for. Experts in their field. High character people that represent Michigan. Great motivators. Positive energy. Coach Harbaugh also talked about how to spot coaches that they don’t want. He doesn’t want people on his staff that “Coach like Costanza.” He talked about a Seinfeld episode where George reasoned that if you act frustrated and angry, everyone will assume you’re working harder. Doesn’t want coaches who are standoffish. Most times those coaches pretend to know everything because they’re afraid of getting exposed. Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know, but let’s work together to figure it out.

John Harbaugh – John went through a few of the staples of his coaching philosophy

  • Build it the way you believe in. Not what you think someone else wants. They’ll run you out either way.
  • Don’t do the job to keep the job. Do what you believe is right.
  • Coaches compete everyday. With each other (game plan) and against each other (practice)
  • Never stop learning, you can always get better. He talked about how he picked up some power run game ideas from one of the high school speakers, Akron Hoban (OH) Head Coach Tim Tyrrell.
  • It’s not about what you can’t do. Find what you can do. There is opportunity in everything and everywhere. He mentioned a free agent that they lost recently. Rather than dwelling on the loss, Coach Harbaugh said “We’ve got a different path now. Different opportunity. Maybe we can add another pass rusher now, or rebuild the OL to run some different schemes. Find a way.”
  • Football provides an opportunity that no other sport can. Everyone can be a part of the team and contribute in some type of meaningful way, scout team etc. Roster isn’t limited like basketball or baseball.

James Light also has good stuff from Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin (Austin: “We encourage good body language. Bad body language… fosters resent and divineness.” Light: “[Austin] use[d] specific plays from film as examples of bad body language to convey the point…. Coach Austin pointed out the reaction of Louis Delmas after the touchdown. That was the type of body language that they won’t tolerate…. It creates dissension within the team and shows weakness to the opponent.”) and new Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown:

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Farewell to Peyton Manning: Quarterback, Gamesman

Peyton Manning announced that he has played his last down of football, and it’s a sad day for any football fan, particularly this one. It’s also simply difficult to fathom a football season that doesn’t include him: His NFL career spanned an incredible eighteen seasons, which, when combined with his four seasons as a starter at Tennessee, means he’s been the starting QB of a major college or NFL team for the last twenty two years; it’s been a very long time since we’ve had football without Peyton Manning’s exploits to marvel at. (And, albeit in the pre-internet/recruiting services age, Manning was as high profile of a recruit out of high school as they come; here’s a long-form Sports Illustrated piece on him from 1993.)

peyton-manning12I’ve written extensively about Peyton Manning in the past, and there is much, much more to say, but for now just a few notes. Peter King has a nice retrospective on Manning’s influence on the quarterback position, something that can’t be underrated given that he, along with Tom Brady, bridged the QB position from the prior generation of greats — Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway — to now, a period when the game itself, but particularly the passing game, changed dramatically.

Much of Peyton’s legacy centers, quite rightfully, around his mental mastery of the position, particularly his audibles and adjustments at the line of scrimmage: The enduring image of Peyton Manning is less about him standing tall in the pocket, arm extended, with a beautiful spiral extending from his fingerprints, than it is of a frenetic Manning gesticulating wildly as he directs teammates and identifies at opponents, while shouts of “Omaha” cascade in the background. But one underrated aspect of his stewardship at the line was his gamemanship: Many of his signals and calls at the line were ploys to trap opponents.

In that 2002 game, Ismail told Manning the Jacksonville corner, Jason Craft, knew that when Manning made a shoveling motion at the line or called the world “Crane,” Ismail would run a short dig route. Later in the game, Manning gave Ismail “Crane!”

“Easiest double move I ever ran in my life. Touchdown,” Ismail recalled.

King doesn’t include a diagram but I know exactly the play he and Ismail were referring to, known as “Dig Pump” in the old Peyton Manning/Tom Moore nomenclature. The diagram below is from Manning’s old Colts playbook:

DigPump

Peyton was notorious for tricks like this I vividly remember him kicking off his remarkable 55 touchdown 2013 season versus the Ravens with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Julius Thomas on a fake receiver screen-and-go, which Manning rather cheekily set up by making the same call right before this snap that he had used earlier in the game to set up a real wide receiver screen pass. Manning, a stickler for fundamental technique, of course sold the fake screen during the play, but the real sales job came from getting inside the defenders’ heads.

touchdown

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New Feature: Football Strategy’s Tech-Fueled Future

I wrote a feature for Wired on what football strategy will look like in 50 years:

Over the last few months I’ve asked a number of coaches at a variety of levels what they thought football strategy would be like in 50 years. Given that, as a profession, coaches tend to be focused on immediate goals—the next practice, the next game, the next play—the response I received from one small college head coach was typical: “First, hell, I can’t predict how strategy will change next year, let alone in 50 years. Second, it doesn’t matter, because in 50 years I will be dead.” And the coaches who did proffer predictions tended to give ones that might hold true in the next four or five years—like an increased use of power formations and power runs, in the alternative, even further moves by offenses towards the wide open spread attacks—but that would either be long in the past by the time we reached 50 years or that, with such a long time horizon, would be mere blips along the way.

Yet all agreed football strategy and tactics will change over the next fifty years, but the iterative give-and-take of offense versus defense means that predicting specific future strategies is almost impossible. Instead, the key is to look at what trends have and will continue to affect all technical trades, from medicine to engineering, as football coaching will continue to evolve in response to those same trends.

[…]

To date, so-called analytics or data based approaches—other than basic charting of tendencies—has had very little real world impact on strategy: coaches teach blocking, tackling and catching, draw up plays to beat coverages, and largely ignore external analyses. And, given that most of the strategic analytics currently produced is noise—a victim to garbage-in/garbage-out and naive models that don’t appreciate the game’s nuances—this is a rational response. But, over the next 50 years, tracking technology is likely to bridge this gap between coaches and data-crunchers which will lead to several innovations in how teams prepare their gameplans and even call plays.

Read the whole thing.

Alabama’s Lane Kiffin: Master Copycat

The hallmark of Joe Gibbs’s Washington teams of the 1980s and 1990s was the Counter Trey or Counter Gap play, which featured the backside guard and backside tackle (two members of the Hogs) pulling to lead the way for John Riggins and Washington’s other powerful backs. The play became synonymous with Gibbs and Washington, and many credit his success with it as the reason why it is so ubiquitous in football today.

Kiffin

You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song

But Gibbs didn’t think of the play on his own. “We stole it,” Gibbs told Sports Illustrated. “We saw some film on Nebraska, and Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative things with his line up front. We were watching it and thought, God, that’s good stuff. So we stole it.”

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this: You can’t patent a football play, and once it’s on film it’s there for the world to see — and for other coaches to copy. And arguably no coach over the last two seasons has been better at strategically “stealing” plays than Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Kiffin has a history of being flexible with offense, as while an assistant at Southern Cal under Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, Kiffin spent a lot of time at Tampa Bay’s facilities where his father was the defensive coordinator and Jon Gruden was the head coach, where he picked Gruden’s brain and studied hours of film on Gruden’s West Coast Offense. Many of those concepts eventually made their way into USC’s attack. And one of the reasons Nick Saban hired Kiffin was because he wanted someone who could bring a true pro-style approach to Alabama’s offense while also modernizing it, as Saban had seen first hand how quickly offensive football was changing. Kiffin has largely succeeded on both fronts.

But Alabama’s win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl was one of Kiffin’s best games, as he first loosened up Michigan State’s excellent defense with short passes, packaged plays and screens, before surgically dismantling it (while Alabama’s defense completely suffocated MSU’s offense). And several of the key plays for Alabama were ones Kiffin had borrowed from film study. From The Wall Street Journal:

[H]ere’s the most notable thing about those two Alabama plays: They weren’t actually Alabama’s.

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LSU Hires Dave Aranda as Defensive Coordinator

Aranda is an excellent hire for Les Miles and LSU. From LSU’s release:

Aranda1

I’m here to stop you

“This is a great hire for us,” Miles said. “Dave has an outstanding track record of producing some of the best defenses in college football. We’ve seen him up close and understand how difficult it is to have success against him.

“He’s everything that we were looking for in a defensive coordinator. He’s youthful with tremendous enthusiasm; our players are going to love him. He brings great defensive knowledge to our staff both as a technician and as a strategist…. Dave will bring different packages and an attacking style to the field,” Miles said. “Watching his defense play, they are tough to move the ball on and they are sticky in every situation. His defenses do a great job of getting off the field.

Given that he’s an up and comer there’s not an enormous amount of information out there on Aranda, but what there is — and the tremendous defenses he’s coached at Utah State and Wisconsin — indicates that he’s very good teacher and coach. I quoted him (very) briefly in The Art of Smart Football, and the below clip gives a bit of insight into some of his philosophy on rushing the passer.

Also the coaches I’ve met with seem to universally praise him, citing both some of the techniques he uses (often lining up his defensive tackles a yard or more off the ball to help with slanting), and his candor in taking full responsibility for Wisconsin’s blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game last season. (Here is an old powerpoint from Aranda on pass rush when he was a GA at Texas Tech.)

Aranda is also at the forefront of defending both read-option plays and has developed some interesting answers for packaged plays/run pass options in recent years.

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My Favorite Books of 2015

This is a list, in no particular order, of the books I read in 2015 which I consider my favorites. This does not mean these books came out in 2015; it only means I read them this calendar year. For a list of recommended football books/resources, see here.

121

  • Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull. Half management how-to and half corporate history (with a healthy dose of Steve Jobs anecdotes), this remarkable little book about the origins and rise of Pixar films surprised me with not only how engaging the writing was but also how enjoyable it was to read. And the appendix on “Thoughts for managing a creative culture” is alone worth the purchase price. If you loathe anything that smells like a management book then I suppose you should avoid this one too, but I generally don’t like management books and this one is unlike any that I’ve previously read.
  • The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph J. Ellis. One of the surprisingly poorly understood facts about our national history is that while the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the United States Constitution did not come into force until 1789 (and was not ratified by all thirteen states until 1790), and prior to 1789 the United States operated under the Articles of Confederation, which merely established “a firm league” among the several states; the Articles were more like a treaty than a constitution. In the view of many — particularly John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington — the Articles created an unworkable and untenable framework for the young country, and the solution was one that consolidated federal power in the system we have now, featuring executive, legislative and judicial branches. Ellis’s book does an excellent job placing these historical figures and their debates in the context of the times, providing insights on the tactics and compromises that ultimately resulted in the Constitution we currently (subject to several amendments) have today.
  • Collected Essays, by James Baldwin. For myriad reasons Baldwin’s work is as relevant as ever, and this is an excellent introduction into his writing and a reminder of what a beautiful stylist Baldwin can be, as his prose often vibrates with life. But of course it’s also the substance; essays like “Faulkner and Desegregation” are just devastating.
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Smart Notes — Christian McCaffrey’s Halfback Option, Holgorsen’s Power Football, Belichick on Marv Levy, Emory & Henry Formation

McCaffrey’s Y-Stick, Halfback Option

Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey narrowly missed out on the Heisman trophy in one of the most competitive races in recent years, as McCaffrey, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Alabama’s Derrick Henry each had remarkable seasons, with Henry taking home the trophy. But McCaffrey might be the most intriguing one of the bunch as he has tremendous skills but I’m still wrapping my mind around how he projects to the NFL, as while he weighs only around 205 pounds (by contrast, Rams rookie Todd Gurley is 225 pounds), he has preternatural agility and quickness, yet has thrived in Stanford’s bruising, power based system while rushing for 1,847 yards. But what makes McCaffrey truly special to me are his special skills as a receiver.

christian

Of course, McCaffrey has the pedigree of an outstanding “space player“: McCaffrey’s father was Ed McCaffrey, a thirteen year NFL veteran wide receiver (who could really ball); his grandfather, Dave Sime, was “ranked one of the fastest humans of all time“, won an Olympic silver medal in the 100 meter dash and at one point held the world record in the 100 meter dash; and his mother, Lisa, was a soccer player at Stanford who once (jokingly?) told Sports Illustrated, “That’s why Ed and I got together — so we could breed fast white guys.”

But it’s not just that McCaffrey is great in the open field, a fact evidenced by his insane 3,469 all purpose yards, which broke the record set by none other than Barry Sanders. McCaffrey also has a tremendous feel for the passing game and for running routes, as evidenced by how often Stanford used him in their “HBO” or “half-back option” schemes.

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Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015

I’ve always been floored by the quality of the feedback and discussion from Smart Football readers, so it’s always fascinating to see which books are most popular among readers. The following is a breakdown of the books purchased over the last year by Smart Football readers. If you’d like to see a list of recommended coaching resources, see here.

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015

2015 Chart 1

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015 (excluding The Art of Smart Football and The Essential Smart Football)

2015 Chart 2

Below is a list of the books with links. Note that I simply included the top books and did not include a separate “other” category.

Smart Notes – Defending Packaged Plays, Baylor’s Lazy Offense, Buck Sweep, Murder

Defending Packaged Plays.

Packaged plays are among the most deadly tools in the modern offense’s arsenal. These plays, sometimes also referred to as run-pass options, combine different types of plays into one while giving the QB the option to choose; they are a type of read-option that don’t require the QB to run the ball at all. They started years ago with combining inside runs with a built-in bubble screen, but they have grown and expanded over recent years and now frequently feature running plays — complete with the offensive line blocking for the run — with downfield passing routes designed to be open if the defense plays the run, which in turn keeps them honest and thus opens up the run.

This is why just about every team in college football now uses these plays, with teams as diverse as Baylor and Alabama alike profiting from them, and in the NFL the Steelers, Patriots, Eagles, Packers and many others have been using packaged plays repeatedly. And when they work, they are awful pretty.

run slant

Yet, like anything else new, defenses are getting better at defending packaged plays. Their purpose is to isolate a defender who is responsible for both the run and the pass, such as a safety or a linebacker, to put him in conflict, and to make him wrong. But if the defense simplifies itself and defines who is doing what — in other words, playing man-to-man coverage in the secondary while committing everyone else to the run — then there is no conflict and hence no read, and the defense should have numbers to defend the run. This is a sound response, and the rise of packaged plays is one reason defenses are playing more and more man coverage.

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