New Grantland: Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III: The Future Is Now — The stars are aligning for a generation of great NFL quarterbacks

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Ever since the rise of the T-formation and the modern notion of the quarterback as passer and team leader, young QBs have received varying amounts of training for the position. If his father was a coach — like Elway’s was — or if he happened to live in Granada Hills, California, he might learn the sophisticated skills necessary to continue developing. But if not, it was unlikely that he’d ever receive that sort of necessary coaching. The long history of quarterback draft busts has taught us that athletic ability alone does not make a quarterback. A great quarterback is instead one of sport’s oddest confections: He is the athlete whose success depends as much on his brain as on his body. One can’t help but wonder how many would-be great quarterbacks never had the chance to develop because no one taught them the intricacies of the position; like some football equivalent of Gray’s Elegy, who knows how many mute inglorious Mannings remain forever obscure to history.

In recent years, however, the situation has changed. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are harbingers of an approaching age of quarterbacks who are both better athletes and better trained at a young age than ever before. In a decade or so, the debates about a player like Tim Tebow — that NFL teams must choose between quarterbacks who are passers and quarterbacks who are athletes — will seem quaint and ridiculous. Nowadays, coaches at the lower levels put their best, smartest, most charismatic kids at quarterback and develop them. The new age we’re entering will be something of a Hunger Games for young quarterbacks: By the time they reach the NFL draft, they will be among the best, most talented, brightest, and best-trained candidates we’ve ever seen. Instead of asking ourselves what traits we prefer, we’ll be asking why we ever thought we had to choose.

Read the whole thing here.

“A very wise coach once told me, ‘If you really want play-action, you better pull a guard'” — Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III agree

The title is a quote from former Stanford and current San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, from the video clip below. And it’s absolutely true. While much is rightfully made about whether a quarterback does an effective job of selling a run fake on play-action, the reality is that the offensive line plays just as big of a role in convincing a defense that a play is a run. Indeed, the play-action pass is probably the best weapon offenses have, one far too often underutilized by modern spread offenses. As Bill Walsh once explained:

Let's go deep

The Play-Pass is the one fundamentally sound football play that does everything possible to contradict the basic principles of defense. I truly believe it is the single best tool available to take advantage of a disciplined defense. By using the play-pass as an integral pant of your offense you are trying to take advantage of a defensive team that is very anxious very intense and very fired-up to play football. The play-pass is one of the best ways to cool all of that emotion and intensity down because the object of the play-pass is to get the defensive team to commit to a fake run and then throw behind them. Once you get the defensive team distracted and disoriented, they begin to think about options and, therefore, are susceptible to the running game.

It is no surprise then that maybe the two best play-action teams in college football season were Stanford and Baylor, two teams that just so happened to produce the two best quarterbacks in college football, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. In reviewing the game film of both players, I couldn’t help but marvel at how many of their touchdown passes were well designed, well executed “shot plays” that, while impressive, pretty much just required both quarterbacks to throw the ball to wide open receivers. And a huge part of that was because both of their offenses involved heavy doses of play-action with pulling linemen.

Just think about what kind of effect that has on the defense. While both players were impressive in their play-action fakes — and someone like Peyton Manning is even more impressive — if you’re a linebacker or safety and you see a pulling guard, you basically can’t help but tell yourself: “It’s a run.” Especially since run plays that involve a pulling guard means one thing: “power,” in the lowercase sense of lots of bodies will be at the point of attack so the defense needs to match numbers as well. And in the case of both Stanford and Baylor it also means “power” in another sense: the “Power-O” play where the linemen block down and a backside guard pulls to lead. Stanford, being a more of a pro-style offense, runs the traditional Power-O numerous times every game. Baylor, being a spread team, typically used the vaunted “inverted veer” play, which is the spread offense’s read-based adaptation of the old Power-O. Regardless, for opponents of both, a pulling guard meant trouble for Stanford’s and Baylor’s opponents run defenses, which, through the use of play-action, in turn meant trouble for their pass defense. That Bill Walsh guy just might have been onto something.

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What is the proper stance for a wide receiver?

This topic comes up fairly frequently and — while coaches have many different views on this — I am pretty set in how I think a receiver stance should look. The two most important things in the stance are to (1) get off the line quickly and (2) be balanced enough to deal with press coverage. Some coaches try to use different stances to accomplish this but given how unpredictable defenses can be, I don’t think you can swap stances.

Always a good model

Much of getting off the line involves two factors related to the stance and feet — namely avoiding false steps (having to take an initial step that doesn’t get you anywhere) and being in position to burst off of the line. On the other hand, defeating press coverage is typically about the receiver having certain moves he is good at, threatening the defender with his release immediately, and using his hands.

There is much to say about specific receiver techniques for releases themselves and obviously route-running itself, but the stance is the foundation for all of it.

For the stance itself, I don’t want it to be too much of a crouched sprinter stance, nor too upright and rigid. It should be a flexible, natural stance, recognizing that while the vast majority of time the most important thing for the receiver is to get vertical as quickly as possible, dealing with press man and taking other releases (either inside or outside) are integral parts of the repertoire and the stance should both lend themselves to those moves and not give anything away before the snap. Here are my coaching points for what I like.

  • Inside foot up, flat on the ground but weight slightly on the toes. 80% of weight on front foot, 20% on back foot.

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New Grantland Blog: Manning to Manningham – NFC Championship edition

It’s now up over at the Grantland blog:

Yet while Cruz was the most important receiver on the field for the Giants, Manning’s best throw of the day went to a guy who had but a single catch on the game: Mario Manningham, whose 17-yard touchdown reception tied the score at 17. The play — which came, dramatically enough on third-and-15 — was an old, old pass concept known as “anchor” or “Mills.” (“Anchor” refers to the concept more directly, with an underneath receiver hopefully “anchoring” a defender so the post route can get behind him; “Mills” is a name common in many coaching circles, as Steve Spurrier destroyed people with this concept back at Florida in the 1990s and he called it “Mills” after the receiver who ran it the best, Ernie Mills.

Read the whole thing.

Shredding Cover Two with a “Delayed Slant” from the Smash Concept

The old “smash” concept — with an inside receiver on a corner route behind a quick hitch by an outside receiver — remains one of the most versatile pass plays in football. It’s simple enough that any team, whether they are a run-first team or a passing team, an NFL team or a junior varsity team, can get great use out of it.

smash

Base concept

It is, of course, best against Cover Two: The purpose is to get a “high/low” vertical stretch on the cornerback.

I’ve also discussed ways to make the concept more useful: One is to use a backside “seam-read” or “divide” routeto threaten the deep safeties.

The other way to get more juice out of the concept is to have the outside receiver run something more like an option route than simply a quick hitch.

Against any coverage, his job is to push to five yards (against soft coverage, it’s a five step route — three big and two quick jab steps to throttle down) and turn his numbers back to the quarterback. And against zones, he just wants to find an open window in the zone coverage, whether it is outside the linebackers towards the sideline or just inside the first zone defender.

smasher

Finding the open window

Finally, against man coverage some teams like to have the outside receiver run a “whip” or “pivot” route, where they angle inside for five yards and then “whip” back to the sideline. If you are sprinting out to the concept, I like that, but the receiver has to make that read early and as a result he may give away the intention to the corner. And in any event, it’s not an easy throw from a straight dropback. But most of all, to me, the whole point of the smash is to hit the outside unless the defense overplays it, in which case you want to then work back inside. That’s why my favorite adjustment for the outside receiver in smash against man coverage is for him to simply turn it into a delayed slant route.

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New Grantland Blog: Drawing Up the National Championship and A.J. McCarron’s Smash Concept

It’s up over at the Grantland blog:

Many of those downfield completions came on the “smash” concept, which involves an inside receiver running a 10- to 12-yard corner route and an outside receiver simply stopping at five yards. It’s a high/low concept: One wide receiver is deep while another is underneath, so the quarterback can read that defensive back. If he comes up for the five-yard hitch on the outside, the quarterback throws it to the corner route; if the defensive back hangs back, he drops it off short to the outside wide receiver. It’s a very basic concept, but still a great one. Indeed, even Southern Cal quarterback Matt Barkley pointed this out on Twitter, noting that Alabama’s success came on “smash routes all day.”

smash

Read the whole thing.

The double smash pass concept with the runningback deep down the middle

One of the great all-time pass concepts is the “smash” concept, which I’ve previously discussed at length. In the concept, the outside receiver hitches up at five yards while an inside receiver runs a ten-to-twelve yard corner route over the top. This creates a “vertical stretch” on the corner, which is particularly potent against a two-deep Cover Two defense.

The smash is probably best installed with some kind of routes on the backside that attack the middle of the field, that way to keep the safety from overplaying the corner route. Many teams, however, teach the smash to both sides as a “mirrored” concept. This is good, but the problem can come when both safeties overplay the corner route.

But there is a counter. If a team’s safeties overplay the corner route on the smash, you hit them inside. You can have the outside receiver run a delay route back underneath and then upfield underneath the safety, but even better is simply to send someone unexpected into the vacated area: the runningback.

In the example, you can see Oklahoma State call this against a two-deep shell run by Texas A&M. They had overplayed the corner routes, so the variation was simple: throw it deep down the middle to the back in the vacated area. Were Texas A&M to have shown a blitz the quarterback would have checked out of the play (as there were only five protectors), but so long as they got a base two-deep look, the play was there. You can see the result in the video below, after the jump.

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What impact will (or should) Tom Moore have on the New York Jets offense?

Jets coach Rex Ryan, more comfortable with a more experienced Mark Sanchez, has promised to open up the Jets offense to throw the ball more this season. And there was some (meager) evidence of this in the Jets first preseason game, as George Bretherton writes over at the NYT Fifth Down:

Even if you took Rex Ryan at his word when he said the ground-and-pound Jets were going to throw the ball more this season, there were plenty of reasons to believe it wasn’t going to start with last night’s preseason opener against Houston . . .

[But t]he most notable outcome from the Jets’ 20-16 loss to the Texans was the quick pace set by Sanchez (6 of 7, 43 yards), who came out firing in his one-quarter cameo.

The move to throwing the ball more is one possible change for the Jets. The other is shrouded in a bit more mystery: In the offseason, the Jets hired longtime Colts assistant and Peyton Manning mentor, Tom Moore. Everyone involved insists it was not a vote of no confidence for current Jets offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer. Moore is 72 and will often not travel with the team this season, and Schottenheimer is a good coordinator who has done good things with both the Jets offense as a whole but also Sanchez in particular.

I've seen your playbook, and it's too big.

But there is lots of room for improvement, and Moore could be a key to that. Although Schottenheimer is a good young offensive coordinator, he suffers to some extent from good young offensive coordinator disease, which is a specific strain of a larger disease that affects large portions of the NFL: his offense often suffers from needless complexity. As I’ve previously explained, NFL offenses are typically cut from the same cloth and seek to do essentially the same things: the inside and outside zone runs, along with the power play and some counters, while the passing gameinvolves the quick game, some dropback concepts, plenty of play-action and a sprinkling of screens.

All that is fine, and there is a necessary layer of “micro” complexity where coaches must tinker with pass protections, route structures, and personnel and formations to get both the “matchup” they want (an overused term, as what you really want is not a particular one-on-one matchup but a numbers advantage of three on two or two on one, whether it is blocking or a pass route combination). Contrast this with college systems where more of the focus is on “macro” complexity in that you might face a pro-style team one week, a spread offense the next and then a triple option team after that. But the problem for pro coaches is that they often fall into the trap of complexity for its own sake, thinking that they must give a new look to the defense while forgetting that every time you add something new you make it just as hard on your own players as you do on your opponents. This is a trap I often see with Brian Schottenheimer’s offense, which, while generally very effective, often results in too many mistakes and breakdowns — all blamed on the players not getting it — when all they are doing is trying the fifth different way to throw it to the flat or to run yet another new play that hits in the same defensive gap as four others the players are more comfortable with. (Indeed, Rex Ryan recently went off on his players for their mental mistakes in that first preseason game.)

This issue, however, is solvable, and Tom Moore long ago figured it out.
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NFL Team to Watch – Sam Bradford’s St. Louis Rams

When it comes to football as stimulating entertainment, not all teams are created equal. This is part of my pre-season series on Teams to Watch, which literally means to “watch their game,” not necessarily to “watch out for” (though it can mean that too)

The St. Louis Rams, who went 7-9 in 2010, were not a great team last season and are unlikely to be a great one this year. But there is reason for optimism. First, Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams’ second-year head coach, has been reshaping the defense in his image, and appears to be the steady hand on the wheel the team lacked under Scott Linehan. Second, the offensive line should improve and the backfield looks better and deeper than it is has been since Marshall Faulk manned it alone in his heyday: The great Steven Jackson returns, this time with some assistance from new additions Cadillac Williams and the quick Jerious Norwood. And, of course, Sam Bradford had a magnificent rookie season, where he undoubtedly showed that he is a future NFL great. Or did he? As Chase explains:

Sam Bradford’s rookie season has been incredibly overrated by nearly every football writer and talking head. . . The problem when it comes to evaluationg Bradford is that too many people are paying too much attention to the wrong stats. Bradford’s 2010 performance wasn’t very good, even for a rookie. Over the past 20 seasons, there have been 37 quarterbacks to throw at least 224 passes in their rookie season. According to the Net Yards per Attempt Index, which grades each quarterback by his average net yards per pass attempt adjusted for era, Bradford ranks just 22nd out of 37 quarterbacks. That puts him just behind Tony Banks and Trent Edwards, and right ahead of Joey Harrington and Matt Stafford. Bradford ranked 31st in NY/A last season, only topping Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen; he ranked just 29th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Does that scream superstar to you?

I am a bit more hopeful, and that is why I’ll be catching Rams games this fall. Specifically, although I agree that Bradford’s rookie season should not be exalted as one of the all-time greats, I am willing to go beyond the stats in this case and apply some of that good ol’ fashioned “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” type of analysis. And what I saw was a smart young quarterback on a bad-to-mediocre team with a horrendous supporting cast, who managed to get himself through a lot of ballgames by taking the conservative option, dumping it off, and picking spots to throw downfield. I saw a quarterback who didn’t fall on his face, but, along with developing those downfield weapons, will have to learn to push the ball downfield. Most telling in this regard was St. Louis’s most important game, against Seattle late in the season. Had the Rams won that game, they would have been in the playoffs, but Bradford struggled against Pete Carroll’s blitz schemes, managing only roughly four yards per pass attempt and an interception. But I saw a guy who, with another year of maturity and a better supporting cast, could develop into a good NFL starter (with the added benefit of a generally weak division).

Moreover, the statistics are not all bad. Bradford’s 5.4 Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt (Pro Football Reference’s vaunted quarterback stat), although not great, was better than the rookie number for another highly touted rookie: Peyton Manning only had a 5.2 AY/A in 1998, his rookie season. My point is not that Bradford was 0.2 better than Manning, but instead simply that with young quarterbacks it’s a guessing game. Remember too that Bradford was coming off a college season where he barely registered any snaps due to injuries, and logic indicates that he’s at least on the right direction.

But the point is well taken: Bradford will not be Tom Brady this season, and his progress will be as dependent on his supporting cast as it will be on himself. Most specifically, Bradford needs his receiving corps to step up and improve. The only sure thing returning is former undrafted received Danny Amendola, referred to as a Welker clone for many reasons, some more obvious than others, but not least of all because they both were slot receivers at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. Amendola will roam the undercoverage, but from there it’s anyone’s guess: rookies Austin Pettis and Greg Salas look promising but are unknowns, Donnie Avery returns from injury, veterans Mike Sims-Walker, Danario Alexander, and Brandon Gibson have done some good things; no one really knows. Yet it’s not necessary in modern football to have two great gamebreakers outside, like Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, to have an effective passing attack. And no one knows this better than new Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

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Follow-pivot pass concept

Good stuff from Coach Hoover’s site:

I first learned this play while studying the Meyer/Mullen Florida Gator Offense. I remember sitting at their first Spring Clinic, listening to Dan Mullen talk. Mullen explained that their offense mainly used five passing concepts: All-Go [Ed.: See also this article.], Smash, Houston (maybe another article in the future), H-Option, and Follow-Pivot.

[Ed. Note: Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen got this play (among others) from Joe Tiller at Purdue. Check out pages 131 to 133 (in PDF page numbers, not playbook page numbers, of the 1999 (Drew Brees) Purdue playbook.]

After studying the Follow-Pivot concept, I realized that it was very similar to the NCAA pass (Post-Dig-Drag). However, because of the distribution of routes, this concept is better suited to beat Quarters coverage. . . .

Conceptually, the play creates a High-Low on the Free Safety, as well as [a] Middle-Triangle [read] off the two weak-side Linebackers (or weak-side and middle LBs). I always put the Post to the boundary, and have the Follow route coming from the field. I do this because teams will almost always rotate their coverage to the field (which would disrupt my Triangle) or because we see a lot of Quarters with the Strong Safety inside my #2 receiver to the field (which makes it difficult for that receiver to run the Post). I must create a situation where I can isolate the Free Safety for my High-Low read, and my Post and Follow routes can win.

pivot

The two receivers closest to the ball will run Pivot routes if displaced or Check-down/Breakout routes from the backfield. Their purpose is to attract the two LBs closest to the Post, or replace those LBs if they disappear in coverage or become pass rushers. Those two LBs are also the players that we are trying to occupy get the Follow route open. A coaching point that we teach to the Pivot & Check-down routes is to have them sit and replace the LB they are aiming for if he rushes the QB or drops into coverage. They will only work outside if they are covered, as this will open up a huge throwing lane over the middle for the Follow route. Finally, the outside receiver to the field runs a Curl, and is there should the QB have to scramble that way.

Check out the video cutup and read the whole thing. This is a good complement to the shallow cross concept I recently described.