Why Do We Have Spring Practice?

Football is a fall sport. As the summer cools, the air itself seems to change. And, to me, that fall air always smells like football. The games are then played for the next few months until, bleeding through the winter holidays, the championships are played and the final tallies are taken on another season gone by. Still in winter, coaches, players and fans all turn their eyes back to the hope of a new season, the next game: the fall.

Just a few more months...

Except that there’s actually some odd little mini-training long before the real one: spring practice. Colleges all have it — it’s considered a must, an outbreak of actual football bracketed by long, grueling months of winter conditioning — and even most high schools now have it. Urban Meyer, speaking to high school coaches, lamented that Ohio doesn’t allow spring practice for high schoolers and vowed to do his part to change that. Indeed, the importance of spring practice is questioned by almost no one, and it’s obvious to see why: In a world of time limitations on practices, anypractice — whenever it is — is good practice. But why is it for one little block in the spring?

In the NFL, the summer months are taken up with “mini-camps” and “OTAs” (“organized team activities”), where the basics in terms of schematics are installed and technique is addressed in relative leisure, before the intense sprint of fall camp and the season begin. Some of that timing is because, with free agency and the NFL draft, teams often aren’t quite sure what their rosters will look like until around the summer, but that’s not altogether different than in college. True freshman are increasingly important to the success of even top flight college teams, and they tend to arrive on campus around June. It may have something to do with the idea that most universities break their academic calendar years into semesters, but (a) players “work on football” in the form of conditioning year round and (b) almost all of them spend the summer term on campus as well. You don’t hear about too many star college players who spend the summer before their senior years at an internship with Proctor & Gamble or studying abroad in Barcelona. And in high school there are definitely oversight issues with allowing practices in the summer, but fall camp itself begins before the fall school year begins and presumably most of the high school kids stay local.

So there is something odd and maybe even anachronistic about “spring practice.” Obviously, no coach is ever going to vote against less practice, but why spring? And, given that it is in the spring, how important is it to player development?

In 1971, Texas sports information director Jones Ramsey famously said: “There are only two sports in Texas: football and spring football.” And it’s clear that this phenomenon has spread across the country, as fans pack in to see their team’s spring game — filling the stadium to watch practice — encouraged by hope. Spring practice is disconnected enough from both the prior season and the following one to exist only in a world of optimism: Everything is possible.

(more…)

Can inexperienced quarterbacks succeed in the playoffs? The Houston Texans and the T.J. Yates experiment

The Houston Texans are currently having the finest season in their nine-year existence. With an 8-3 record, Houston is almost certainly going to make the playoffs. But after losing quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart in consecutive games, the Texans are down to their third string quarterback.

Doing a lot of this

That man is T.J. Yates, a rookie quarterback out of North Carolina. Yates did manage to torch LSU for over 400 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, one of three 400-yard performances by Yates in his senior season. But you can’t fault Texans fans if they’re a little concerned.

Houston signed Jake Delhomme this week, but he’s expected to serve as the primary backup and mentor. If the Texans go with Yates for the final five games of the season, will he be the most inexperienced quarterback to ever start a game in the playoffs?

Hardly. There have been 13 quarterbacks to start a playoff game with five or fewer career regular season starts. In fact, he’d only be the third rookie quarterback with to be inserted into his team’s lineup for the last five games of the season and then start in the playoffs. Perhaps more surprisingly, there have been five times since 1960 when a quarterback made only one regular season start in his entire career before being called on to start a playoff game. Going chronologically:

Tom Matte, 1965 vs. the Green Bay Packers

In 1965, the NFL was a 14-team league with two divisions. The playoffs were simple: the two division winners would play in the last championship game before the start of the Super Bowl era. Under Johnny Unitas, the Colts raced out to 7-1 record, with the only loss coming at Lambeau Field by a score of 20-17 in week two. Unitas missed the Colts’ ninth game with a back injury, but backup Gary Cuozzo (more on his reputation as the best backup quarterback in football here) led the Colts to victory and threw for five touchdowns in his absence. Unitas returned the next week and helped the Colts pick up another victory and one tie. By then, the 9-1-1 Colts held a 1.5 game lead on the 8-3 Packers with only three games left to play. But against the Bears, Stan Jones and Earl Leggett tore Unitas’ knee in a classic high-low hit that ended his season. The Colts offense was helpless against Chicago, losing the game 13-0.

(more…)

What were the seminal offenses/defenses of each decade?

Inspired by this post, remember the definition of “seminal” when answering. Think of it (as it was in the original post) as The Great Gatsby was to books in the 1920s as X was to offensive/defensive schemes in Y.

Here are my picks. Add your own:

1900s – 1910s: Single-wing.

1920s: Notre Dame Box.

1930s: I’d like to choose the TCU/Dutch Meyer/Sammy Baugh spread offense but I’m not sure this counts as seminal. I leave this one for the readers.

1940s: T formation.

1950s: “Pro-style” offensive schemes of Paul Brown (Cleveland Browns), Weeb Ewbank (Baltimore Colts), and Vince Lombardi (Packers), and the 4-3 defense developed by, among others, Tom Landry as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. Almost everything in the current NFL is merely a footnote to the 1950s.

1960s: Veer.

1970s: Wishbone.

1980s: West Coast Offense and Zone Blitzes.

1990s: Zone blocking and multiple-eight man front defenses.

2000s: Run-first spread offense and, to a lesser extent (though incredibly important on the lower levels), the Airraid.