New Grantland: Better with Age: How 37 year-old Peyton Manning (and his Broncos offense) got better than ever

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Even though the actual plays in Manning’s current Denver playbook are largely the same ones he used in Indianapolis, the emphasis has shifted this season. With the Colts, a large percentage of Manning’s throws went to “vertical stem” routes, where receivers ran straight down the field before breaking inside, outside, to the post, to the corner, or curling up. Those throws are still heavily present in Denver — and no one has thrown a prettier fade pass this season than Manning; the above record-breaker to Julius Thomas is just one example — but a big chunk of Manning’s completions this season came on routes designed to be thrown short. The goal on such plays is to throw short and let Denver’s receivers run long, particularly with the “Drag” or shallow cross series.

 

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New Grantland: Who’s Laughing Now? Breaking Down Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks’ Multiple Defense

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Coaching is a hard profession. It certainly has its rewards, as skyrocketing salaries for NFL and college head coaches illustrate, but failure is the norm. Being a coach means eventually getting fired, and making a career out of coaching at all is an accomplishment. Carroll, however, has done something especially rare, pushing through wrenching public failure to succeed beyond all expectations. A coach can’t do that without learning from past mistakes, and Carroll has certainly changed for the better.

Much of the credit goes to Carroll’s defense, which has been the foundation of his success and remains closely tied to the first lessons he learned as a very young coach. “To be successful on defense, you need to develop a philosophy,” Carroll said at a coaching clinic while still at USC. “If you don’t have a clear view of your philosophy, you will be floundering all over the place. If you win, it will be pure luck.”

Carroll’s Seahawks, who face the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, don’t win with luck. They win by physically dominating opponents and playing championship-level defense. They also win thanks to Carroll’s new spin on an old scheme.

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New Grantland: Goodbye to the BCS… But Careful What You Wish For

It’s now up over at Grantland:

The primary advantage of a playoff is certainty, and after years of endless BCS debate — which followed decades of debate under the earlier bowl systems — certainty has real allure. But in most sports that have playoffs, like the NFL or the NBA, the criteria for getting to the playoffs is basically objective. Most playoff spots are decided based on win/loss records, with certain mechanical tiebreakers in place and known in advance. It’s not that the playoff crowns the best or most deserving team — just ask the 10-6 New York Giants that knocked off the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. It’s that the loser has nothing to complain about: Everyone knows the rules.

Yet the new College Football Playoff lacks the very thing that makes playoffs in other sports so palatable, namely a semblance of objective certainty. While the defective BCS formula should have been interred long ago, it has been replaced by a Council of Platonic Guardians. The College Football Playoff selection committee will meet confidentially, then announce the identities of the playoff participants by edict. That’s not exactly what I’d call “settling it on the field.”

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New Grantland: Florida State’s “Most Improved Person”: Jimbo Fisher

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Winston piled up yards and touchdowns on his way to the Heisman Trophy, and his 190.06 passer rating is good for the second best single-season rating of all time, just shy of the mark Russell Wilson set in 2011. And it’s not as though Winston has run some watered-down attack; Manuel said this fall that learning the Buffalo Bills’ system was actually “easier to learn than the offense [he] had at Florida State,” as it required fewer adjustments based on defensive coverages. Fisher’s system, by contrast, puts a heavy burden on the quarterback to alter his reads depending on the defense’s coverage or alignment.

Earlier in Fisher’s career, he asked both his receivers and the quarterback to adjust routes based on the defense, but in recent years he’s simplified things — for everyone but the quarterback. “There are so many schemes and we all want to be gurus in football and think we created something,” Fisher said at the clinic. “I am just as guilty as everyone else, I promise.” Over the last few seasons Fisher reduced the number of plays while building options for his quarterbacks within each play. “Against Clemson [in 2012] we ran the same pass play nine times,” said Fisher. “We completed all nine of the passes, to five different receivers. I did not need a new play.”

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New Grantland: What Really Went Wrong with RG3 This Season?

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Griffin’s footwork not only hurt his reads, it hurt his accuracy. “Body position is absolutely critical,” Redskins quarterback coach Matt LaFleur recently told ESPN’s John Keim. “If you don’t have good body position, your balance is off and your accuracy will be off. It’s absolutely critical you get your body in correct position to make the correct throw.” LaFleur added that, for Griffin, this season has “been a constant work in progress.”

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New Grantland: The Architect: How Art Briles and his potent offense have taken Baylor from conference doormat to national title contender

It’s now up over at Grantland:

There’s no question, though, that it’s Briles’s offense — currently averaging more than 64 points and 713 yards per game — that is the engine of Baylor’s success and the source for all the optimism surrounding his program. When Baylor’s offense is rolling — when the aggressive plays, speedy weapons, and up-tempo pace work in unison — the offense is less about executing football plays and more about waging psychological warfare. Two weeks removed from Baylor’s 73-point, 872-yard thrashing of West Virginia, WVU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson described the loss as “unlike anything I’ve ever been associated with in my entire life. It was just catastrophic in a lot of ways to our psyche.” When Baylor scores 35 in a quarter, 50 in a half, or 70 in a game, it’s hard for the opposing team to recover mentally — not just in that game, but for the rest of their season. The fact that it’s Baylor — yesterday’s footstool — is not lost on anyone, either.

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New Grantland: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Sid Gillman, and the Mysterious Art of Quarterbacking

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No position is more scrutinized — How tall is he? How far can he throw? Who is he dating? — and nowhere in football is greatness valued or debated more, but exactly how young, promising quarterbacks become Tom Brady and Peyton Manning remains something of a mystery. The results are apparent, but most are unversed in the actual process. Manning, Brady, and Rodgers are great because they’ve taken the raw materials of the position — an understanding of defenses, of why receivers get open and how to find them — and transformed them into muscle memory they can use to fluidly perform, every time. Greatness isn’t something quarterbacks stumble upon. It’s something that becomes ingrained into their very constitution.

[...]

Now, let’s say the quarterback’s first read isn’t open. How does he know when to move to the next receiver? The idea of finding a secondary receiver leaves some quarterbacks looking like they just lost their wallet. For others, like Brady or Manning, it looks easy, and it’s because it’s not only their brains telling them when to look.

“His feet are telling him when to move to no. 2 and no. 3,” current San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh said to a room full of quarterback coaches back when he was coaching at the University of San Diego. “One-two-three-four-five-plant — throw it. If it’s not there, first hitch is to the [second read], and then the second hitch is to [third read].”

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New Grantland: Packaged Plays and the New Option Football

It’s now up over at Grantland:

There have been two major reasons behind this expansion [of packaged plays]. First, they work in perfect harmony with the up-tempo no-huddle offenses that have swept through college football and will seemingly be ever-present in the NFL this fall. But rather than ask a bunch of young quarterbacks to get all Peyton Manning with audibles and gestures at the line, these plays build the options right in and let the quarterback make a decision on the fly. In short, these plays use the mental part of the read-option — allowing a quarterback to read a defensive player to ensure that the defense is always wrong — without putting him at risk. As long as the quarterback can make smart, quick decisions, these plays should work as well with Joe Flacco as they do with RG3.

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New Grantland: Adrian Peterson and the Lead Draw: The Vikings’ Throwback Play for Their Throwback Runner

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The lead draw has a storied history. Dating at least as far back as the Johnny Unitas–led Baltimore Colts, the play had maybe its greatest renaissance when run by Emmitt Smith for the Dallas Cowboys. To this day, Smith — not commonly known for his rhetorical flourishes — waxes philosophical whenever asked about the play, as he details the subtle ways he played off the blocks of his massive offensive line and fullback Daryl Johnston to wear down, and then break, defenses. The play epitomized the running game of the great 1990s Cowboys teams. Defenses knew it was coming and still couldn’t stop it.

The lead draw works very much the way its name implies: At the snap, the offensive line and quarterback step away from the line just as they would on a pass play, in an effort to make the defense think they are trying to throw the ball — a “draw.” Meanwhile, “lead” refers to the block of the fullback or H-back, who initially looks like a pass blocker before leading the way for the runner. In short, the lead draw combines deception with power, which is also an apt description for Peterson’s running style. One of the best examples of Peterson running the lead draw came in the second quarter against St. Louis last fall.

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New Grantland: How Will NFL Teams Defend the Read-Option?

It’s now up over at Grantland:

That second player doesn’t even have to be a linebacker. Alabama, which has won three national championships in four years and boasts the best defense in college football, constantly varies the defenders assigned to the quarterback. When Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart gives a “force” call, he explains, that leads to a gap replacement with the defensive end. “The quarterback sees the crashing end and pulls the ball,” Smart says. “We roll the free safety down to the line of scrimmage and he has the quarterback.” And all this varies based on the opponent. “If the quarterback is a better runner, we make him give to the tailback,” said Smart. “If the tailback is the better runner, we give the force call, and the defensive end crashes inside and makes the quarterback pull the ball.”

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Not all the problems with defending these plays last season were tactical. NFL defenders not used to the read-option frequently lacked the mastery of the subtle techniques that made them All-Pros against traditional attacks. Backside defenders — usually the very player the quarterback is reading — have an especially difficult job. “The defensive end gets the shaft because he has to play two aspects: the dive, the bend of the dive to the inside out to the QB,” says Aranda, the Wisconsin defensive coordinator. This fundamental problem is also why the old just-hit-the-quarterback tactic is not optimal, at least as an every-down strategy. If the defensive end or linebacker gets upfield too quickly, that means he is not squeezing the cutback and may be opening up a huge lane for the quarterback.

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