Friday, October 11, 2013

Stupid Things NFL Teams Do When They Are Really Bad

Taking a break from public policy, politics, and other weighty matters today to throw cold water on NFL doings and widely accepted myths.

They pick a quarterback before anything else.

Why is this dumb?

It's a familiar sight.  A team plumbs the depths of horridness, winning one or two games.  Defense plays like 11 fence posts.  Offensive line blocks slightly less effectively than water vapor.  Starting wide receivers and backs wouldn't even be on some teams' rosters.

And they think now is the time to draft a top quarterback.

So let me get this straight.  You want to draft a quarterback, pay him scads of money, then put him back there to get beaten like an old rug for two years.  At that point, the fans are calling him a bust so you draft the next human sacrifice and send the old one to the glue factory (or to be the backup of some other terrible quarterback on a bad team.)

Yes I am looking at you Cleveland Browns.  And quit trying to hide behind your neighbor to the west, Oakland Raiders.

What should be done?

Build the team first.  Then get the quarterback.  For a few franchises this is counter-intuitive because HOLYCRAPTHATISTHEBESTQUARTERBACKEVERANDTHEREWILLNEVERBEANOTHERONESOPERFECTFORUS, at least until this one is dead and the next one gets drafted.  They also seem certain that great quarterbacks only appear in the top five selections, so if they get a shot at one there, they must take it.

Great football operations understand that talented quarterbacks are not creatures mostly of myth that only appear at rare multiple planetary convergences.  Every draft has at least a few that range from capable to good.  Many, given patience on the part of the team and themselves, can develop over time into decent contributors.

Almost no quarterbacks can survive years of pulverizing without some effect on physical well-being or mental state.

So start by building the offensive line.  A great offensive line has magical powers.  It can turn the average into good and the good into stupendous.  Some bad offenses happen to have great quarterbacks.  Currently Ben Rothliesburger, absent a murder conviction, will go to the Hall of Fame no matter what else happens in his career.  He has the same abilities as he had when the Steelers actually won games.  A lot of bad offenses have one great wide receiver, many of whom live in double coverage but still cry for the damn ball.

But all bad offenses share one characteristic.  They have bad offensive lines.  A bad offensive line is why the aforementioned Steelers quarterback will be riding a cart through Wal Mart in a decade.  He has almost zero chance to do great things because he has linebackers hanging off of his shoulders.

So build an offensive line.

Amazingly, if you build it, they will come.  Offensive players will want to play for your team.  Offensive line emphasis shows that a team has an actual serious intent to win, instead of simply shoving a top draft pick out there to sell tickets and die.

This leads neatly into the second stupid thing.

No balanced offense?  No title.

The National Football League holds onto cherished myths, one of which is that offenses heavily dependent upon passing are the "future."

But those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  That should be the NFL's motto.

Look at every Super Bowl winner in this century.  Almost all of them relied heavily on a balanced offense and strong defense.  Despite the fact that the NFL promotes rules that help the passing game (and, consequently, lead to more high speed collision injuries) titles are still won using the age old formula.

Evidence?  Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers.  When they ran the ball effectively, they dominated the post season.  Running the ball keeps your defense fresh and tires the opponents.  More importantly, it reduces the quarterback's exposure to risk.  Not many bad things happen to a quarterback when he hands off.  the offense also does not become overly dependent on a single guy to carry them.

A few quarterbacks can carry a team through a season passing all the time and be consistently successful.  It takes hard work and a lot of mental toughness.  Tom Brady and Peyton Manning can do that.  That's it.  It doesn't mean that a quarterback is not great if he runs a balanced offense.  Joe Montana quarterbacked a team that ran the ball effectively.  Shoot, they even gave the fullback the ball a few times per game!  Troy Aikman almost played second fiddle to his running back, but no one would say he was not one of the great ones of his era.

But think about Peyton Manning.  How many rings does he have?  Remember his one Super Bowl win?  It came when he was handing the ball off quite a bit to Edgerrin James.

How many rings does Tom Brady have since Corey Dillon left the Patriots, was cut, or retired, or whatever happened to him?  Zero.  He has had amazing season and playoff dominance, but then runs out of luck when a team gets pressure on him.  Brady will be interesting to watch this year because he operates an offense built out of duct tape, coat hangers, and second hand shoestrings.  And looks very human.  And tired.

Conversely, John Elway could not win the big one until lassoed into Mike Shanahan's system.  His zone blocking scheme used lightweight and brainy linemen.  It enabled Denver to put anyone it wanted at tailback and get a thousand yards out of them. Terrell Davis running over people shocked no one.  Olandis Gary gaining a thousand yards convinced some that the Shanahans dealt in some form of black magic.

So do your quarterback a favor.  After you get a good line in place, bring in about four guys who can get some yardage consistently.  And don't be like the teams who . . .

Avoid giving the ball to the fullback based on some warped principle

This is really a thing.  When Andy Reid had nearly finished serving his time in Philadelphia (of course Philly fans thought they served time with Andy Reid) one constantly saw a bizarre sight.  Fullback Owen Schmitt, a 240 lb freak of nature who could run almost a 4.5 in the 40 would run short pass routes.  About every third game, Michael Vick tossed it to him and he rumbled for 16 yards.  Then wait another three games.  Defenses knew he'd rarely get the ball so they never covered him.  Reid evidently preferred that Vick throw it 50 yards downfield into double coverage.  Because we wanna be aggressive!

No, no, no!!!  NFL coaches seem to think that putting the ball into the hands of guys who usually block means that they eschew a chance to get more yardage somewhere else.  Which means that the defensive coordinator says "Whew, that's one less guy I have to account for!"

So for all that is decent and right, let the fullback have the ball!  At least once or twice.  And not just on third and 1 when 11 guys are within five yards of him.  Imagine, just imagine the shock IF THE FULLBACK GOT THE BALL ON FIRST, DARE I SAY FIRST DOWN???  Broadcasters would scream themselves senseless.  Defensive coordinators would fall over in shock.  Fantasy players would be apoplectic!

But best of all, you force the defense to account for one more guy who might get the ball and run with it.

Fullbacks used to get four or five carries per game.  Tom Rathman actually gained a few hundred yards a year in the 49ers glory days.  Dallas' Darryl "Moose" Johnston sent Cowboys fans into shrill delight.  Defenses in the 1990s stopped expecting the fullback to get carries, so Moose averaged about seven per.

If we give the ball to the fullback to fool the defense, surely we need a running quarterback.  They are the wave of the future, right?

No, running quarterbacks are not the wave of the future

There's nothing wrong with running quarterbacks.  But seriously, every generation acts like they discovered the running quarterback first.  That all who came before were just sticks in the mud who had boring old pro style guys.

Stupid teams want to go for the latest fad.  They usually end up doing what the fad was last year just in time for good defenses to adjust to it.

But just like the present generation forgot the "Run n' shoot" and "Fun n' gun" offenses of prior years, the present generation has no idea that running quarterbacks are nothing new.

All quarterbacks used to do was either hand off or run!  Just like the best home run hitters in World War I usually jacked out about 10 per season, quarterbacks used to not pass all that often.  And so, needing to contribute something, they often ran the ball.

By the 1950s and 60s, quarterbacks grew steadily more immobile, either handing off or throwing farther and farther downfield.  A fast quarterback became an anomaly.  When forced to, a quarterback running the ball looked awkward and unnatural, like wearing a clown suit in your wedding.

Some, however, ran and ran well.  Roger Staubach in the 1960s and 70s.  Randall Cunningham in the 1980s.  Steve Young and John Elway in the 1990s.  All of these guys ran well.  And, of course, their arrival heralded the new era of the "mobile quarterback."  Meaning that those old fuddy duddy quarterbacks who could not run ten feet in twenty minutes were doomed to irrelevance.  Or golf.

The best pro style quarterbacks save their teams a lot of grief because the quarterback tries to get rid of the ball in under three seconds.  Most offensive linemen can stay in a guy's way for three seconds.  Because they can't get anywhere else very fast, they stay in the pocket, deliver the ball accurately, and don't get clobbered all the time.

A great running quarterback is as rare as the guy who can throw fifty times per game, every game, and still win all of the time.  Attrition wears these guys down.  They play through a lot of pain because they are the quarterback.  Many cannot endure the constant beating they take.

Most adjust, except for Michael Vick who seems perfectly content to spend the rest of his career running through a brick wall and only playing 9 games a season.  The key is to rely less on athleticism and more on judgment.  The aforementioned Steve Young and John Elway transformed from great runners/good passers into great passers/good runners.

Of the current crop, Robert Griffin III should really look the hardest at the career track of Young.  Like Young, he entered the NFL as a great runner who could pass accurately.  Young carefully transformed his game and managed to survive in the league several years because he only broke out his runs when he had to.  The rest of the time he deconstructed defenses with his arm.  Griffin is very reminiscent of Steve Young in physical abilities and intangibles.  Which reminds me . . .

Stop only comparing black quarterbacks to other black quarterbacks

Honestly, that really is racist.  And ridiculous.  Many moons ago, as Byron Leftwich prepared for the NFL draft, Mel Kiper compared him to Daunte Culpeper.  They were both gigantic, had strong arms, and happened to be black.  The difference?  Culpeper ran like a fullback.  Trucking people was part of his game.

 Byron Leftwich ran like he was chest deep in molasses.  But he did have accuracy and a quick release.  At the time, Leftwich looked more like the next Bernie Kosar.  Get drafted by a middling organization, have some pretty solid years, make the Pro Bowl a couple of times, then drift away.

Sometimes an up and coming black quarterback is like a white predecessor.  Sometimes an up and coming white quarterback is like a black predecessor.

This may not have anything to do with teams, per se.  But it's still dumb.

And Lastly, Stupid Teams Constantly Want Other Teams' Backup Quarterbacks

This tactic almost never works.  Team A, a winning franchise, has an amazingly awesome quarterback. Probably going to the Hall of Fame.  They also have a backup who gets to start maybe two games per year.  When he plays, he is lights out.  Throws for 300 plus yards, a couple of touchdowns, and has a winning smile.

By golly, he might be a great starter!

Back in the 1990s I had a friend who was really into fantasy football.  Every year he drafted Jason Garrett, who backed up Troy Aikman.  He knew that the inevitable one or two games that Garrett started, he'd shine.  And he did.  Like Frank Reich of the Buffalo Bills or Gary Kubiak of the Denver Broncos.

But as often as they had memorable games, none of these guys would have starred as starters.


Some quarterbacks have a few gifts that shine in rare chances to play.  Many of these guys also play for good teams with real live linemen instead of fenceposts.  They shine specifically because they rarely play.  A guy who plays once a year gets no scrutiny.  Conversely, some of the brightest minds in our nation constantly examine the play of Eli Manning, Tony Romo, and others to find the glistening flaws.

Example.  Tony Romo is the best quarterback in the world when he faces no pressure, like when down 20 points in the 3rd quarter.  Blitzes make him average.  Eli Manning has definitely revealed a flaw at some point recently, because defenses now steal from him early and often.

So your talented second stringer comes in almost as a tabula rosa as far as the defense is concerned.  they know very little about him.  Which is why second stringers often have surprisingly good games.

Then they go elsewhere.  Often to bad teams.  Matt Cassel was a second string supernova with one glorious year in New England after Brady went down.  Then faded to black in Kansas City.  Matt Flynn showed some promise in Green Bay.  Oakland just released him.  You know you have hit the wall when Oakland doesn't want your quarterbacking services.

Know the difference between the second stringer and the heir apparent.  One is fodder, the other is the Prince of Wales, waiting on or scheming for the throne.  In any event, the heir apparent scenario often works out well.  The old quarterback gets tossed out before he is done, usually to play well for a couple of years with another team.  The new one often establishes greatness in his own right.  Montana to Young, Favre to Rogers.  Unfortunately, no team has ever figured out how to handle that transition with grace.

What Should a Bad Team Do?

Avoid the backup quarterback as a long term plan.  It's like Elsa reaching for the Holy Grail in the third Indiana Jones movie.  Go after the guy who is near the end of his career (and understands this reality.) If you get one of these while developing a young draftee, that becomes a bonus.

Don't do this in the middle of the season and expect the new guy to come in and light up the world. Yes, I am talking about you, Oakland Raiders.  Carson Palmer was actually a good move, except you gave up too much and you expected miracles right away.  He settled into Arizona, like a lot of old people, and is doing all right.

Great teams draft their stars and build depth through free agency.  Bad teams often do the opposite.

Great teams have a vision that serves as the foundation of what they plan to do.

Bad teams have no plan.  They follow fads and draft who their fans want.

Running an NFL franchise is like a lot of other endeavors.  There are few short cuts to success, but there are tried and true formulas that require hard work, effort, good judgment, and, often, luck.

No comments:

Post a Comment