Sunday, October 17, 2010

Football is stuck in the 20th century

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As I watch the Chargers flail helplessly against the Rams, a week after watching them flail helplessly against the Raiders, I am reminded that the brightest minds seldom choose football. Norv Turner makes error after error, the coordinators struggle with obvious play selection, and the players seem intent on losing.

The first two problems should be easy to fix.

I've been thinking about what I'd change if I were an NFL coach with complete control over roster construction and play calling. Here's what I've come up with, with my reasoning in italics:

Roster construction:
  • Focus exclusively on pass rush. This means looking for superb cornerbacks and pass rushing linebackers while essentially ignoring run defense. Truly good backs make mincemeat of even brilliant run defense. There are very few good backs. Defend the modern NFL, defend the pass.
  • Concentrate on acquiring good tight ends and a good low-volume running back corps. They'll average one carry per set of downs and really only need to avoid fumbling while picking up between 2-3 yards per carry. In simple terms, any mediocre college back. Once you see my offensive strategy, you'll understand. Again, there are few elite backs. Save the roster space for more important positions.
  • Offensive lineman are more important than the quarterback. You can have Ryan Leaf at quarterback if you're running a good o-line and multiple tight end sets. Seriously. Every time a quarterback gets sacked, he's less likely to give himself enough time to complete the pass on the next series. Bad quarterbacks look great with a great offensive line. In the Chargers' case, great quarterbacks look bad with a bad offensive line.
  • Get the best kicker available. You're going to need a lot of points from 50+ yards, and if I can kick a 35 yard field goal in the dark with an injured ankle, a professional football player should be able to kick 60 yard field goals all day, especially indoors.
  • Run on first down. Run on first down when the other team expects it. Run on first down when there's nobody in the backfield to defend the pass. Run on first down when your best back is in a wheelchair on the field. The Chargers depend on first down passing, and when they suffer an incomplete pass, they try to run the ball on second down with no success. Every third down is a third and long for Phil Rivers.
  • Any time you don't feel confident, throw a screen to a tight end. It works so frequently in short yardage situations that it's amazing anyone tries anything else.
  • Almost never punt. The only acceptable punts occur when the kicking team is inside its own 30 yard line. In other words, if the opposing team is out of field goal range, you shouldn't be punting. 2.5 yards per possession should be (and is) an achievable goal as compared to 3.3 yards per possession.
  • Defend the pass well enough that the other team is forced to rely on the run. This might require giving up some points, but there are few running corps in the league that can consistently put up 300 yards a game.
  • Demolish the quarterback. Every play needs to apply pressure to the QB. The modern NFL leans heavily on quarterbacks. Make your defense eliminate them. This means you should be picking up a roughing the passer penalty every game. Make it count.
Special teams:

Frankly, every team in the NFL would be better by taking a new approach to special teams. I understand there are problems with the solutions I've outlined above, but these changes should be universally understood.
  • Every kickoff should be a touchback. I've always wondered why teams don't do this, and assumed it must be impossible. Then Stephen Gostkowski had 5 touchbacks in a game and I realized that not only is it possible, but it's brilliant. Every time a team is allowed to return a kick, the chance of a return touchdown or excellent field position exists. The best any kicking team can do with an inbounds kickoff is get the ball downed at the 1 for a -19 yard differential. The best any receiving team can do with an inbounds kickoff is 7 points and a +80 yard differential. This seems like a no-brainer.
  • Field goals of 50+ yards should be makeable and commonplace. It is ridiculous that field goals are missed with such frequency. Teams need to start looking outside football for kicking talent.
  • When defending a kickoff or punt, don't run to the spot the ball is landing. Run to where the receiver is going. This seems elementary, but every kickoff features at least one player from the kicking team shooting past the receiver and into the backfield. Stay in front of the receiver and force him to make his move while you still have position. If you're going to be able to hit him the second he gets the ball, he's going to fair-catch the thing, and you still have the advantage if he fumbles.


Kyle said...

•Every kickoff should be a touchback

That is the only point i had an issue with. No kicker has EVER wanted a return, they are trying to kick it into the endzone every single kick. But leg strength, wind, weather, sometimes make that impossible

Also your description is basically the Colts, that is exactly what they do. THe hardest part of football is the financial. It is hard to afford pass rushing DE's linebackers and good corners. YOu have to skimp somewhere.

Kyle said...

•When defending a kickoff or punt, don't run to the spot the ball is landing

That comment shows that you haven't played football (no offense intended) on kickoffs every defender has a lane, they run directly up the lane, this gives the best defense coverage. If the defense collapsed they offer up cutback lanes. And the atheletes will cutback and score. You cover the whole field then trust your defenders to make tackles.

Marcus said...

I don't know, man. If they can kick it to the 1 yard line on every kick, then you'd think at least 50% of kicks would go into through the end zone. Especially for teams that play in domes.

It's true, I've never played football. I'm Jewish. But I'm just saying that sending a single defender to the races to beat the returner is dumb, only because 90% of the time the defender would be better served falling down in front of the returner and slowing him down. Too many missed tackles.

Kyle said...

Its all a matter of scarcity, there are kickers who can kick touchbacks fairly often. They make a lot of money. This season Baltimore has gotten a touchback on 56% of their kickoffs.

And as for return coverage its about gambling or playing it safe. If you all collapse to his running lane sure youll get a lot of short returns. But hes gonna cut back every once and a while and get a touchback. By having every defender fill a lane you guarantee the highest probability of stopping the touchdown. Also you have to realize special teams players are normally scrubs. Teams cant afford to invest in the best players there so they arent the fastest or best tacklers. So you make a system to counteract that.

Most sports suffer from antiquated thinking and football is not immune. Every so often a team tries something new and it shifts the paradigm. In the last 5-10 years we have gotten the spread offense, two running back systems, the wildcat, as well as the return of the 46 defense.