To Pay or Not to Pay a QB

Disclaimer: With the small sample size the NFL provides, it can be hard to learn anything. But I’ve read 300+ football books and I’m pretty sure of a few things. Other than “situational football is the most important thing”, there’s this:

Overpaying a QB hurts your team more than it helps your team.

It’s not a stoned Friday without a good-natured Twitter spat. Today it was with one of my idols. Maybe he’s right. Maybe QBs should be overpaid. Maybe “you have to”. But I’ll believe it when 10 consecutive Super Bowls are won by overpaid QBs.

I’d put the factors of a team winning (consistently) as these (in no order):

  • organizational stability
  • coaching
  • complementary football
  • situational football
  • injuries
  • turnovers
  • Lady Luck, that bastard

It’s hard to put them in order because every team and every game is different. We’d have to go play by play through a decade of football to list all the examples. But the important takeaway is the QB has a little to do with a few of those. For many, he’s not even on the field. Certainly not enough to pay him more than 13% of the salary cap. Why such a seemingly arbitrary number? Because Steve Young was paid 13.1% of the cap in 1994 and the Niners won the Super Bowl. Nobody has crossed the threshold since. The most dominant team since, the 2013 Seahawks, paid their QB less than 1% of the cap. I’m not saying you have to do that. THAT would be crazy. I’d pay the worst of the lot (HEY, JOE!) before I’d just draft a 3rd rounder every 4 years and throw him in there (but I’d consider it, as I think Russell Wilsons, Jimmy G’s, and other players are fairly easy to find and while they are good, much of their success is due to roster depth, coaching, etc – intangibles which we’d probably never agree on).

Part of the trouble is it’s hard to know which QBs deserve to be close to the line. I’d argue Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees [and Peyton Manning when he played] comprise the entire list. Let’s look at QBs dancing around the threshold now (the first 2 are great, the others in the order they cross my mind):

  •  Aaron Rodgers – great QB who was part of a strong roster (including a great defense) won the SB in an uncapped year, has only been to one conference championship since, usually misses the playoffs of burns out in an early round
  • Drew Brees – great QB who was part of a strong roster (including a great defense) won the SB in 2009; has never been to a conference championship since, usually misses the playoffs
  • Matt Stafford – a train wreck who has played in 1 playoff game
  • Joe Flacco – a train wreck who was part of a strong roster (including a great defense) that won the SB in 2012 while on a decent contract; has played in 2 playoff games since
  • Kirk Cousins – an “efficient” QB to some who has 0 playoff wins and was terrible in both his big games so far (that playoff game and a Week 17 win and you’re in game that they lost)
  • David Carr – a train wreck who has played in 0 playoff games
  • Big Ben – an average QB who went to 3 SBs with a strong roster; hasn’t been to a Super Bowl since the uncapped year of 2010
  • Andrew Luck – 1 good season that ended in a blowout loss; may never play again because his owner guaranteed he’d play Week 1 of 2017 and he played 0 snaps all season
  • Cam Newton – 1 good season that ended in a SB loss due to bad situational football
  • Matt Ryan – to many, almost proved you can win and overpay a QB; on the other hand, I’d argue that was 1 of his 2 good seasons (in 10 years) and they lost due to situational football and roster depth
  • Jimmy Garoppolo – has 5 games with his current team, who knows, maybe he’s the unicorn who will “prove me wrong” by just being an exception to the rule

Note: Due to all sorts of shenanigans, the exact % can vary but is around 13 from year to year. Again, I’m not saying you can’t pay your QB a lot, just that you can’t pay him so much he hurts your roster. Some teams can get away with more, such as the 2015 Broncos, who had Von Miller on a cheap contract, but that’s based on them being terrible and having a high pick, the luck that another team didn’t draft him, him panning out (the draft is an absolute crapshoot no matter what you hear), him staying healthy and out of trouble, and timing (Peyton Manning hitting the market, which is exceedingly rare, in part because teams overpay their “franchise” QB).

How should we define a franchise QB? I’d say “a guy who the new owner would pay more for if the team was for sale” and I’d limit that to Brady, Rodgers, Brees.

Overpaying a QB makes almost every position on your team worse. The strength of an NFL team is the middle of the roster, and when those players are squeezed into taking less money they are almost always lesser players. Your swing guard, backup slot receiver, 2nd TE, sub pass rusher, sub LB, 5th and 6th DB are all gonna be worse players over the time you have that albatross of a contract on the books.

Often people think I’m saying “overpaying your QB means you lose in the conference championship instead of win the SB” and that’s not at all what I’m saying. I’m saying it’s much worse. Usually you miss the playoffs entirely or lose in an early round. If I was wrong, Rodgers and Brees would be playing in the NFC Championship every year. But they’re almost always sitting at home by the 3rd week of the playoffs, and it’s rarely because of another overpaid QB. This past year it was injury for Rodgers, backup QB Case Keenum for Brees. So yeah, feel free to overpay and tell yourself “it’s the only way to do it.”

If you could guarantee a conference championship game appearance, I’d actually be on the other side of this argument. THAT would be worth it. But that isn’t the situation. Look at the most recent conference championship QBs: Bortles, Brady, Eagles backup Foles, Vikings backup Keenum. That’s my point. Brady (who fits neither side of the argument, but is “vastly underpaid” no matter the scale you use) and 3 cheap QBs on strong rosters.

 

Sure, some years you’ll get a Brees or Rodgers, but not enough to justify hurting your roster. It doesn’t need to be collusion. The QBs have no power. What are they gonna do, go lose somewhere else? Good for them, you can build a better team. The Jaguars and Vikings didn’t lose the conference championships last year cause they “didn’t have a great, overpaid QB.” They lost for many reasons, few of which even involve a QB. Mostly, they were against the two best situational coaches in the NFL. And there’s the foundation of my argument. Not the always underpaid Brady. Nick F. Foles, Super Bowl champion, acquired (and paid GOOD backup QB money) in 2017 mostly because the team had Carson Wentz on a rookie deal. They also were able to cut their previous backup and absorb the cap hit, further proving the point.

With (soon) almost half the QBs being overpaid, it’s only a matter of time before the argument gets tough to make, but for now, I’m 24-0.

You CAN argue that since NFL owners value revenue over winning, overpaying the QB is worth it for tickets, merchandise, etc but I’m talking about winning consistently, not “my revenue is $700 mil” like gloryhole-seeker Jerral Jones, who overpaid Romo year after year and never came anywhere close to winning anything. He’ll soon overpay Dak Prescott, and yet he’ll blame things like “it’s tough to win in this league” for the lack of success. But that would lead us to a discussion of Jason Garrett’s piss-poor coaching, and I’m too high to worry about that today. I’ve covered it before, and lord knows I’ll have to cover it again in a few months. But at least they’ll have a chance this year with a low-cost QB.

Uh-oh. Did I just make a case for the Cowboys way of doing business?!?!?!?!?!

You’ll notice I’ve left Eli Manning out of this discussion. That’s because most years the Giants miss the playoffs (5 of 7 years under the current CBA – 81% of the time) and both Super Bowls he won featured low-scoring games with dominant defensive fronts built mostly through the draft in one of the few stable organizations in league history. Analyzing that is like analyzing the Patriots. You can draw many conclusions, but the Patriots will mostly win, and the Giants will mostly lose, except for when the Patriots play the Giants, and that will be a one-score game, which means you can’t learn much. This NFL analysis is tough, but at least I’m not claiming Sean McVay time-traveled and stole a play from Sean Payton, as Tony Romo did on live television last season.

I’ll probably never agree with overpaying QBs, and the “experts” who see no other way to do business will probably never respect my opinion. Such is life. At the end of the day, all we really have is weed and Coen Brothers quotes, which often go hand in hand:

“The more you look, the less you really know.” – Freddy Riedenschneider

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RIP Sean McDonough[‘s MNF job]

Sean McDonough went on record with WEEI and proved my point that play by play announcers don’t know much about football. He said this, about his time on MNF:

“…it was geared around Jon Gruden…It was really football heavy, X and O heavy, and I think most play by play guys, all play by play guys, would’ve felt like a bit of a bystander.”

But the truth is, Gruden rarely talked about Xs and Os, and when he did it was often just joking references to Spider 2 Y Banana. The fact that McDonough doesn’t know how much Gruden wasn’t talking about Xs and Os shows that McDonough doesn’t know much about Xs and Os. So why was he the play by play announcer for a prime time game?!

I don’t know who the new guy is in the MNF booth, but hopefully he has a decent grasp of the game and hopefully his cohort is given more time to elaborate on the strategy of the game than Gruden was. Just cause Gruden talked more about it than Joe Theismann did doesn’t mean he did a good, thorough job of it.

As always, if you wanna learn about football, you’ve got to watch the all-22, which thankfully comes without announcers. It’s not just that they don’t know what they’re talking about, they don’t know what the other person in the booth is talking about, either.

Why Not to Overpay a QB

There’s really only one way to guarantee you lose more than you should these days: overpay your QB. Sometimes it means overpaying a true star, other times it means overpaying an above average QB as if he’s a star, and so forth. It’s never worth it.

It’s the opening of free agency, with deals being confirmed in the “legal” “tampering” window. As the Saints overpay Drew Brees and the Vikings overpay Kirk Cousins and the Cardinals overpay Sam Bradford, etc, etc, they join the club that includes the Lions who overpay Matt Stafford and the Chargers who overpay Philip Rivers. They’ll be joined soon by the Packers overpaying Aaron Rodgers and the Falcons overpaying Matt Ryan. I should probably add Alex Smith to the list but he was a trade so I’m leaving him out. There’s a few others on the fence, Big Ben and Eli, but their success was never sustained so to me they’re irrelevant. The Steelers often cheat their players out of money and the Giants are maddeningly inconsistent so I doubt much can be learned from either, other than “the sun shines on every dog’s ass once in a while” type of learning, which this author abhors. What he abhors more is the Joe Flacco contract, which destroyed the Ravens.

Only teams with underpaid QBs consistently win. Granted, many years this refers to the Patriots and teams with QBs on rookie deals, but that’s how it goes. Every extra million you give the QB hurts your team by costing you an extra player because important role-playing veterans must be jettisoned in favor of lesser players. To win, you need those veterans who you can pay fairly well instead of the below replacement level players you have to settle for when you’re up against the cap due to your QB. Last year’s Patriots yet again had a deep roster because Brady didn’t get the $35 million or so he deserves. Last year’s Eagles were able to build in free agency with important role players such as Chris Long, LeGarrette Blount, Torrey Smith, Alshon Jeffrey, and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles because Wentz is on his rookie deal. Once they overpay him, they’ll be done. Their fans will always have 2017, but if Howie Roseman was as smart as he thinks he is, he’d just draft another good QB and save $25 million or so per year.

No NFL team has won the Super Bowl with a QB taking up a huge percentage of the cap since Steve Young’s 49ers in the early days of the salary cap. That was the 1994 season. Since then, the only QBs who have taken up 10% of the cap who have won Super Bowls are Brett Favre (early years of the cap), Peyton Manning (great QB with deep roster), Eli Manning (average QB with deep roster), and technically Brady who’s cap number spiked in one season and who isn’t as underpaid as people claim but over the years is underpaid (the Patriots smartly shift money around, adjusting the contract frequently and never getting in cap hell for it because Brady doesn’t demand $35 or so).

It’s not that every team can be the 2013 Seahawks with Wilson making less than 1% of the cap but any team could be the 2012 Ravens or 2017 Eagles. The teams who’ll be competitive over the next few years will be the Chiefs, Eagles, Rams, and of course the Patriots. Once the Chiefs overpay Mahomes and Eagles overpay Wentz and Rams overpay Goff, they’ll be back in the middle of the pack. The other teams will blame their coaches or the football gods but lose because they don’t have a good enough player at special teams gunner or 6th OL or dime back or 2nd TE or 3rd RB.

It’s hard to know who’s the crown prince of this, with many people singling out Joe Flacco as the most overpaid. I’m tempted to go with Philip Rivers or Matt Stafford, whose teams have never even gotten to a Super Bowl. But I’d argue it’s Brees and Rodgers. Two QBs who should have been to 4 or so Super Bowls by now have each only been to 1. That’s pitiful, and it’s not because they suck. It’s because a great QB makes his team better, but no QB is perfect so there’s only a certain amount they can improve the team, and it’s mostly limited to offense. There’s some bearings on special teams and defense due to lower turnover numbers, field position, slight increase in scoring.

Notes: It’s hard to find too much of a trend because the Patriots win at an absurd rate and skew all the data. Eli won his first SB before he got paid too much. The Steelers often rip off their free agents, so they’re tough to go by. With a better coach, they’d have more wins. Brees won his SB before he got paid too much. Rodgers won his SB in the uncapped year of 2010. Flacco won his SB before he got paid too much. Peyton won his recent SB with a great defense, and that defense was then dismantled by free agency.

Bad Analysis Monday

For the past 15 years, as a man who doesn’t support any teams (because all owners care about revenue more than winning and most coaches are too stubborn to improve and players are transitory), I’ve hoped the Patriots would win the Super Bowl. Because when the Patriots don’t win the Super Bowl, there’s more ignorant hot takes in the offseason. Here we are, one week after the Super Bowl, and it’s happening.

Peter King examined the game-winning TD and came up with this:

How does Patricia’s communication not get to the field on the biggest play of the season—or how do the Patriots not account for the real possibility of the safety vacating his space to follow a motion man? That’s something the Patriots could be haunted by, the way they’ve haunted so many teams since the turn of the century.

This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of football. The Patriots clearly had Ertz doubled, but the Eagles used a Bunch formation, which forced the Patriots to check to a 4 on 3 coverage, which included SS Chung. So when the RB motioned out, the FS Harmon had to follow, which made him unable to double-team Ertz. That’s how football works. It’s a great call by Pederson. If Peter King was coaching, nobody would follow the RB, and it would be an easy TD. Or maybe King would have a DE follow the RB, and it would be an easy TD. Regardless, the double coverage was called but motion prompts defensive checks. Great work by the Eagles with the personnel, formation, motion, execution. It’s how football has worked for generations. It’s nothing to be “haunted by” – that’s ignorant.

I wouldn’t know about it, but for some reason the usually reliable Bucky Brooks was impressed with the article and tweeted it out, crossing my feed.

Guess who else bought it hook, line, and sinker? Mike Florio, who claims the play “exposes a flaw in the Patriot Way.”

The Patriot Way is not a thing. You cannot define it because it’s a phrase used by lazy sportswriters. They don’t understand football, so the Patriots success must be due to some ephemeral “Way.” Every single defensive call has a “flaw”. There aren’t perfect coverages. What’s flawed is an era of football writing where some of the most widely read people don’t even understand basic football concepts.

One thing that’s baffling is this quote of Pederson:

“The other thing,” Pederson said, “and this is sort of a philosophy that I’ve brought here a little bit. I like to create plays or unique formations and motions like this in multiples of three. You have a drop back pass, you might have a screen, you might have a run, off of the same shift in motion.”

Maybe King screwed up the context of what Pederson was saying, but that’s how football has worked since the 1800s. Many coaches have way more than three plays from a formation and motion. This quote baffles me. If Pederson only has three, I’ll have to dial down the compliments I’ve been giving him the past few months.

The final play, “Gun Trey Left Open Buster Star motion 383 X Follow Y Slant” was a GREAT call, based partly on self-scouting (the Eagles had only used star motion on 12 plays all season). Pederson deserves a world of credit, and a better writer than King to dive into it.

Sometimes both coaches make a good call. Sometimes both coaches make a bad call. Sometimes a coach makes a stupid call and it still works. Sometimes a coach makes a brilliant call and it fails. That’s part of football. Writers drawing the wrong conclusions only makes it harder for fans to tell the difference.

Making it worse is comparing it to the Malcolm Butler INT. That was a bad call. Regardless the coverage, throwing a slant to a WR bad at running slants and into the middle of the defense while the defense is compressed is dangerous. It happened to be a good defensive call (not a fancy one, just a heavier defensive front than usual with Cover 0) – but if the Seahawks had man-beaters called on the left side of the field, it could have been a TD to Lynch.

It would bother me a lot more if I hadn’t heard Tony Romo and Cris (not Chris) Collinsworth misidentify plays all year long, and then get complimented for being “great” at their jobs. Ugh.

Crazy Theory

What if Bill Belichick, famous for strange gameplans, had another one for Super Bowl LII and it just didn’t work? It didn’t fail miserably, it was yet another one score game which could have gone either way. Belichick could be 8-0 or 0-8 as a head coach in Super Bowls. Just consider this: What if he thought he had no chance of winning if the Eagles ran, and so he decided to show mismatches to entice them to throw? It’s another version of his famous Super Bowl XXV game plan, where he thought he had no chance of winning if the Bills threw, so he decided to show mismatches to entice them to run. The core of it was not using the smaller Malcolm Butler, whose presence on the field would more often get the Eagles to check to a run play.

The Jeffery TD was a great throw and catch, and was similar to a TD against Butler in the Titans playoff game.

The Foles TD catch was a great play, period. It’s seen at all levels because it works.

The Clement TD catch was a great throw and catch, and Butler wouldn’t have been in coverage.

The Ertz TD was a great result of motion. The motion by the RB forced the safety to go with him and Ertz beat McCourty. Even if you believe “Chung would have been there,” Belichick makes all sorts of coverage decisions that other people deride, and there’s no guarantee this assignment woulda been different. It was a great Y-iso formation and, if there was a double team (it seemed there was pre-motion), the motion of the RB broke up the double team assignment. That’s great play design.

Belichick thought he could win a shootout. Brady had 500 passing yards, proving Belichick right. A few missed tackles and bad angles hurt the Patriots, but Doug Pederson has turned out to be one of the best coaches in the game, even at Belichick’s bread and butter, situational football. He planned and coached a great game.

That’s how it goes.

The Blount TD was an example of how outmatched the Patriots were in the trenches. Much like the Super Bowls against the Giants (and you could argue against the Falcons), it wasn’t a great matchup game for the Patriots.

Belichick won’t ever explain it, but what’s he gonna say, “I didn’t think Nick Foles could beat us?” I’d argue his game plan says the same thing. And if you think Malcolm Butler was some sort of shutdown corner in the 2017 season, watch more film. The Patriots run lots of man coverage, the Eagles ran mostly man beaters and Foles made great throws. Any other coach punts to the Patriots on 4th and short down by 1 with 6 minutes left. Pederson knew not to, and that, along with a great defensive play, led to a close win. Ignorant fans everywhere will celebrate the Super Bowl winner and pretend all the other teams had a bad year. It’s a sad way to look at football, but thems the breaks.

Sadly, we have a long, long time before football returns.

Bill Polian Can’t Be Trusted

Bill Polian came up out of his snake den this week to give an interview with the Talk of Fame Network podcast in which he said the following about the Tampa 2 defense, specifically on why SS John Lynch should make the Hall of Fame over Brian Dawkins:

“I know too much. This is a dangerous place to be. I know what the safety position means to the (Tony) Dungy defense…There are three players in the Dungy defense that are the lynchpins of the whole the defense. First, is the 3-technique. That was Warren Sapp. Second is the will linebacker. That was (Derrick) Brooks. Third is the safety. That’s John Lynch. I don’t think I need to say anymore. Those are the three that made it one of the great defenses in the history of football for the time they played together.”

First of all, it’s classic jackass Polian, with the “I know too much.”

The problem with football ignorance is fans don’t know much and people like Polian mislead them on the rest. EVERY defense ever played is adjusted to the personnel. Some better than others, of course. Tampa 2 defenses don’t JUST play “Tampa 2” coverage. They simply base out of it. They run all sorts of man and zone coverages based on situations. Otherwise in the NFL they’d get cut to shreds. The same thing is seen these days with the Pete Carroll influenced Cover 3. Many writers pretend that these teams are always running Cover 3 and they explain it as 3 Sky or 3 Buzz. But it will alternately be Sky, Buzz, Cloud, “Easy” (DE plays Flat). These will also all be rotated to the weak side, which some call Invert (giving us Invert Sky, Invert Buzz, Invert Cloud, Invert Easy).

Note: Some coaches just call it Cover 6 or something when they rotate weak but that’s not universal as many coaches use Cover 6 to refer to Quarter Quarter Half (Cover 4 on one side and Cover 2 on the other side).

Those Cover 3 defenses will often include pattern matching. And, lo and behold, they’ll play Cover 1 and Cover 2 and Cover 4.

Back to the Tampa 2. It also involves multiple fronts. For some teams, there will be 2 DTs and they’ll take turns playing the 1 Tech (over the Center) and the 3 Tech (over the Guard). But if you have a Warren Sapp, you want him single-teamed so he can wreck offensive lines, so it’s easier to get him single-teamed if you run an Under front (so he’s on the outside of the weak side Guard). This puts the DE on the outside of the weak side Tackle, and voila, Sapp is almost impossible to double team.  But that edge rusher, in many cases Simeon Rice, is also important. So is the 1 Tech, eating up double-teams, as he can be blocked by the Center and the strong side Guard. Warren Sapp is a a hall of famer because he was a great defensive tackle, NOT because he played the 3 Tech in a Tampa 2.

As for Brooks, he was a great linebacker. But there’s no way to separate his work from the other LBs. The MLB has a tougher job, responsible for helping against run plays and also responsible for playing deep middle pass coverage. Brian Urlacher will surely be in the Hall of Fame soon. He was the MLB in a Tampa 2 based scheme. Did they not win a Super Bowl just because they didn’t have a Derrick Brooks? NO!

As for Lynch, he’s one safety and I’d love for Polian to explain how that cancels out the work of the other safety. All the pass coverages depend on both deep safeties. Lynch will probably deservedly make the Hall of Fame soon, but it’s nothing to do with a Tampa 2. He could also play the traditional Cover 2 where he had to cover more ground.

Some coaches would say Ronde Barber was important to the Bucs success. I’ve never seen an effective Tampa 2 without 2 solid Cloud corners. It’s a lot to ask a CB to make lots of run stops (most teams have Safeties or LBs responsible for run support) as a Tampa 2 does. Ronde Barber is probably the best blitzing CB in the game’s history.

Let’s use Polian’s own Dungy-coached Colts as an example. They ran the same system. They didn’t have Sapp, Brooks, Lynch, Barber, etc. But they won the same number of Super Bowls as the Bucs. So it seems the reasons for this would involve understand the entire scheme and players within it and all the nuances. But nope, you could just go with Polian, who “knows too much” but is either too old to explain it or just did a good job bullshitting people for a few decades. I’d bet on the latter, cause I’ve never met anyone with a nice thing to say about Polian.

As for who should make the Hall of Fame first, it’s irrelevant. The Hall of Fame is a political thing, not a reputable museum. Jerry Kramer, Robert Brazile, Don Coryell are all NOT in it. Oh, maybe they’ll get in someday. Coryell is dead, so I doubt he gives much of a speech. It’s embarrassing who’s not in the HOF. Lynch and Dawkins will both probably get in at some point, because they were great safeties of their era along with Rodney Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed. It’s not whether they played MOF, deep Half, deep Tampa 2 Half, various roles in a Cover 3, Quarters. They all started in an era where they could lay out receivers who came across the middle, and they all did it well. Now that those types of plays aren’t legal, there’s fewer famous safeties. Earl Thomas is the best of the modern safeties, and he’s famous for playing deep MOF. His greatness is how rarely teams throw at him, and there’s no stat for that.

Don’t forget: Bill Polian says he had a high grade on Tom Brady, he just chose not to draft him. I enjoy the new spread out pass game most of the time, but remember, the Colts never woulda reached a Super Bowl if Polian’s whining hadn’t gotten the pass rules changed. Guess who was better under the old rules? All the safeties listed above. Maybe he wouldn’t have to whine about their HOF candidacies if he hadn’t knee-capped pass coverage techniques that were plenty good for decades.

Note: List of defenses where the 3 Tech, WLB, Safety are “lynchpins”: EVERY DEFENSE EVER. There’s almost always at least one 3 Tech, there’s always someone, whether called the Will or not, performing the functions of a weak side LB (sometimes it’s a slot defender), and there hasn’t been a base defense without two safeties since the days of the 7 Diamond in the early 1900s. Defensive success depends on 11 players working together, and if those players are HOF caliber, it will usually win at least one championship. And jackasses who worked for that team or a similar team will give interviews. And I’ll be here, screaming into the void about it.

If you wanna get in the way-back machine, the Tampa 2 concept (rush 4, CBs play Flat, 2 LBs under, MLB running deep, 2 deep safeties) was invented by Bud Carson of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. Here it is, from their playbook, where it was called Cover 22:

xo_Cover2_SteelersTampa2

Guess who’s not in the Hall of Fame? Their 3 Tech, Will LB, or SS. Those roles were filled by different players at different times. Because they had Mean Joe Greene at the 1 Tech, Jack Lambert at Middle LB, Jack Ham at Strong side LB, Mel Blount at CB. All four of those are in the Hall of Fame. Because every defense is unique.

 

Superb Owl LII Preview

Who will win? I don’t know. But hopefully the Patriots so we can get great research in the offseason instead of just hot takes about it was Philly’s time or some such shit. Lemme guess? Eagles fans “deserve” to win one? No, they deserve to be flayed for supporting bad ownership through the years. Finally they got a halfway decent one but he put up with Andy Reid’s garbage in-game decisions for more than a decade, so don’t look to me for sympathy. Even if the Patriots win, the offseason will suck. Remember, after Super Bowl 49, the greatest situational football of all time, people wrote that Belichick had made a mistake in not calling timeout, because sportswriters these days can’t be bothered to be objective and study the situation for it’s uniqueness, and the uniqueness of that situation was nearly endless.

The Patriots use lots of personnel, lots of formation, and lots of motion. Other teams do less of this. As to why, a great quote about Belichick from his former LB Carl Banks is:

“It’s just the simplest things that he prepares his teams for, where other coaches are lazy and they won’t do that, or they don’t think it’s necessary, or they don’t think they have the time.”

Here’s an example of a simple thing. When offenses align in Empty (zero players in the backfield with the QB), many defenses check to a Cover 2 zone. So the Patriots often do this in hurry-up, so the defense can’t change personnel. The Patriots then align their 2 least talented receivers on the outside. For example, the RBs. Many coaches would never align their FB outside the numbers. But versus zone defense, this means the defense’s best 2 coverage players are essentially wasted. The Patriots often run Hoss Y Juke from this alignment.

Here it is, explained by former Patriots OC current Texans HC Bill O’Brien:

That’s easy yardage. And if the MLB gets too aggressive, they’ll convert the Juke route to a Nod route. The player will fake in or out, then run vertically.

They’re also fairly simple on defense, just with lots of window dressing. But a majority of the calls are variations on 1 man or 2 man. The most popular variations are having one or two of the Safeties doubling not necessarily the offense’s best receiver, but their favorite receiver for THAT down and distance and field position and personnel. For some reason defenses are graded on yardage allowed, and the Patriots were 29th in the league this year. But they were 5th in points allowed. They were 1st in points allowed if you throw out the first 4 weeks, which you should because under the current CBA September is basically an extension of training camp. Everyone wrote the Patriots off when they were 2-2 this year, even though the Patriots were 2-2 at the same point of the 2014 season and won the Super Bowl that year.

The Patriots favorite pressures are “Rain” (2 defenders reading the protection – the one who’s blocked drops, the other rushes). They will run some Cover 0, but usually they make it look like Cover 1 or Cover 2 (as opposed to having nobody deep pre-snap) with the safeties playing man solo against #2 and often an expected rusher dropping into the hole to take away hot routes. Everything they do is fundamentally sound, and it’s gonna be hard for a backup QB to put together long drives. But not impossible. Eli’s done it twice.

Often they’ll have 2 deep safeties and it will look like 2 Man or 2 Zone or Tampa 2 (it’s often hard to tell, as Belichick wants them to look the same for the first 5 yards). But one safety will be over the top of a specific receiver, and the other will be not just playing the hole but cutting off a crosser. A similar coverage tricked Brady into the pick 6 in last year’s Super Bowl, and Nick Foles probably hasn’t seen a lot of this. I’d expect the Patriots to take away Jeffrey with Gilmore, Agholor with Butler, Ertz with Chung and a bracket. So the game could hinge on Foles buying time and getting it to his 3rd read or so, which I’d say he can’t do based on his career, but he killed the Vikings with it two weeks ago.

Let’s move to Special Teams. The Patriots spend more draft capital and salary cap and roster spots on core special teams players than any other team in the league. The best way to learn about the Patriots special teams concepts are by watching the Belichick Breakdown. Following victories, Belichick shares his thoughts on some of the key plays of the game. It’s often heavily loaded with special teams plays. The Patriots are always prepared on special teams, as was apparent when the Jaguars aligned in a strange formation on a 4th and 1 in the AFCCG. The Patriots didn’t panic and call timeout or jump offsides. They made their defensive checks and waited for the snap. The Jaguars checked out of the fake and aligned in a normal formation and punted. Getting a first down there would have significantly increased the Jaguars chances of winning, but they gave the ball back to the Patriots. Shame! Shame! Shame!

Let’s move to the Eagles, where Doug Pederson proved he’s one of the better head coaches in the league. He’s great at using personnel, formations, motion. He’s a great play-caller. He’s even aggressive situationally, often going for 4th and short. If he’s disciplined enough to run lots of run plays from 11 personnel, the Eagles have a good chance of winning, because that’s where the Patriots struggle. If the Eagles go heavier, the Patriots are gonna run Bear fronts and their 2-gap Even front, in which they’re good at stopping the run. Many previews say that the Eagles Center Kelce is used in pulling a lot, but a Bear front prevents that.

Against the Vikings the Eagles ran a lot of read option and RPOs, so much of this game should hinge on how well the Patriots stop those. I’d bet they have a few new wrinkles to surprise the Eagles and maybe trick Foles into throwing INTs. Not only do the Patriots have a few great tactics against read option and RPOs, but Saban has some new stuff, and I’d bet Belichick has spent the past week putting a couple in. One thing that may benefit the Patriots is seeing [and struggling against] similar things Week 1 against Andy Reid and the Chiefs, which of course is where Doug Pederson came from.

The Eagles defense is run by Jim Schwartz, who worked for Belichick in the early 1990s. Belichick tried to hire Schwartz in New England but the Titans blocked the move. Schwartz then designed the “Wide 9” front. He refers to it as the Attack 4-3. Many people refer to it as a pass rushing front, but it was designed to stop the Colts stretch runs. The best team at stopping these in the early 2000s was Belichick’s Patriots. Belichick was doing it with his disciplined OLBs, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest. They were usually in a 3-4. Schwartz wanted to stay with his 4-3. So he widened the DEs, putting them, in technique terms, in a Wide 9 alignment. The terms originated with Bum Phillips via Bear Byrant’s playbook:

Techniques

The numbering varies a bit from coach to coach but in general, 0 and even numbers are head’s up, odd numbers are the defender shaded to one side of the blocker. Nose Tackles are 0 or 1, Defensive Tackles are 2 or 3, Defensive Ends are 4 or 5. If there’s a TE attached, the number is higher. Many coaches don’t use the 8 (which would mean head’s up over a 2nd TE to the same side. Therefore, 9 is the widest alignment. This front worked well against the Colts, and had an unintended benefit. Peyton Manning’s favorite play-action deep pass from under center was built off a stretch play-fake. But whereas the Patriots OLBs weren’t always rushing, Schwartz’s 9 tech DEs were always rushing. Peyton Manning didn’t want to run that play-action with his back to one of those DEs. So the defense designed to stop a certain run stopped that AND Peyton’s favorite deep shot play. So instead of running many different fronts (he had previously been an Over/Under fan) Schwartz decided to spend all his time getting his front great in the Wide 9. Here we are, nearly 2 decades later, and he’s still running the front. It’s often derided by people who don’t understand it, but it’s a great front. The Guards are almost always covered, so they can’t help the Tackles block the DEs. The linemen often run stunts, making it even harder to prepare. The one problem with some Wide 9 fronts is they run out of gas near the end of a game. But the Eagles have a deep DL, and have played 8 and 9 players in some games. This depth could be key late in the Super Bowl, if Fletcher Cox and Chris Long are fresh.

As for coverages, Schwartz runs a lot of 1-high Man coverages and 2-high Zone coverages, but he’ll be unpredictable sometimes there with a 1-high Cover 3 or a 2-high Man. They’ll play off man and press man. They’ll play normal zones or pattern matching.

As for pressures, they’re usually in the 4-3 or 4-2. They run a good many cross dogs, with 2 LBs a few yards off in front of the guards crossing over the isolated Center (because the DTs have to be blocked by the OGs and the DEs have to be blocked by the OTs). They’ll bluff it, then when the offense is unprepared, they’ll run it. It’s hard to slide protect because that leaves one of the DEs unblocked.

The past two Patriots Super Bowls have come down in large part to how the defense matches up with Gronk (SB 49) and how the defense matched up with Patriots RBs (SB 49 and 51). I expect the Patriots to align Gronk wide and play with 2 of their 3 passing backs (Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James White), often split out. They can’t be covered with LBs. An example of how you have to always be alert versus the Patriots could be seen in the Titans game. The Patriots often align an RB wide then “re-load” by bringing him in to align to the side of Brady in the shotgun. They began this against the Titans, and the LB took it for granted. The Patriots snapped the ball and ran a Fly Sweep for an easy TD. Schwartz needs to be prepared for this. You’d think everyone would be, but nobody has been. It’s either a CB following the RB out wide, with a mismatch inside, or an LB following the RB out wide, with that being the mismatch.

The game is in a dome, so special teams should be pretty unremarkable, in a good way. This hurt the Patriots in Super Bowl 46, as the Giants punter [and shoulda-been MVP] Steve Weatherford again and again pinned the Patriots deep in their own territory. It was a field position game with limited possessions, and they lost by one score. As in most Super Bowls, the turnover battle and red zone scoring will probably tell the story. If the Eagles get a lead, it won’t be over. If the Patriots get a lead, it could get out of hand because Belichick will be able to run more unpredictable coverages with better pass-rushers on the field, as opposed to respecting the run. Belichick believes in carrying extra DL in the Super Bowl, it will be interesting to see who’s on the inactive list. That could matter if the end of the game hinges on a goal line situation.

It must be Superb Owl Week cause crappy NFL people are whining about the Patriots “cheating” again. In case you don’t research things, the Patriots scandals are just NFL office PR to convince ignorant fans of “parity”. Videotaping signals was common and never won a game, it was done due to gamesmanship and paranoia, and still legal just not from the sideline, which wasn’t a big deal as Jimmy Johnson explained all stadiums are different, so you go where you want to get the better viewing angle. The rule about being on the sidelines is because they don’t want coaches to have the footage during that game, and NOBODY ever accused Belichick of using it during the game, because he used it to prepare for the next game. And our national nightmare Deflategate involved Roger Goodell lying about basic science, lies that were repeated by Bill Nye the Science Guy (because he’s a Seahawks fan) and even Neil DeGrasse Tyson (because he was too busy working on Cosmos, I reckon) using the wrong damn formula and then not reading the court documents. Average DC and failed HC Steve Spagnuolo is saying the Patriots had his defensive signals figured out in SB39. But SB42 was the first game he was ever unpredictable, which is why the Giants had a chance to win. Even Belichick is predictable most of the times. That’s why there’s film study and tendencies, which in his best moment he uses to trick the opponent. But much of the time it’s just a famous defensive call that he’s been running for decades. If there’s two LBs at the LOS, there’s a good chance Belichick’s running “Rain”, but that doesn’t mean you can stop it. Guess what? Belichick’s father wrote “Pay attention to your own keys when self-scouting”. Other coaches, such as Tom Moore, say self-scouting is “a waste of time but it gives the computer guys something to do.” No, self-scouting is the root of great coaching. You shouldn’t just examine your opponent, you should examine yourself. Former Rams WR Isaac Bruce is joining the chorus of former Rams RB Marshall Faulk and former Rams QB Kurt Warner and saying the Patriots taped their practice, which has been proven false a decade ago. Anyone, including yourself, can watch old Rams games and see their tendencies. If Faulk was offset, it was probably a pass. This isn’t a secret, it’s why Mike Martz never got another head coaching job. He was stubborn to a fault, not a victim of skullduggery.