Little Things, Big Dividends
SEATTLE—Let’s try to find some fault, any fault, with Seattle’s 36-16 dismantling of the Packers on Thursday night in the opening game of the NFL’s 95th season. Found one! The punt-returner doesn’t call for fair catches enough.
In their last two games, the Seahawks have played two of the best quarterbacks in the modern game, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, and outscored them by 55 points. Against Manning in the Super Bowl, it was a brutal defensive beatdown. On Coronation Night at CenturyLink Field, it was … well, so many things. Mostly imagination and offensive depth.
But let’s focus on the little things. Let’s focus on one play, 17 minutes into the game. Green Bay led 7-3, and Seattle was driving at the Packer 33. The game was competitive then. It held the promise of the kind of drama we hadn’t seen in the NFL since the Seattle-San Francisco NFC title game last January.
Then offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell of the Seahawks called the kind of play that took some breath out of everyone watching. On a first-and-10 at the Green Bay 33, Wilson lined up in the shotgun, with Marshawn Lynch a sidecar to his left, and what followed is a play I’ve never seen in the pro game. (Maybe it’s been run; I just know I haven’t seen it.) Wilson took the snap, and Lynch immediately extended his arms to take an inside handoff from him, except that the handoff wasn’t forthcoming. Option read, clearly. Wilson took the ball into his gut and sprinted left. We’ve seen this before, Wilson on the edge isolated against a linebacker or safety or corner, trying to beat one man and make a big gain. This time, though, Wilson stopped after two running steps before the line of scrimmage when cornerback Sam Shields came off his man, wide receiver Ricardo Lockette, to play the run. Wilson cocked his arm in a split second and fired the ball to Lockette, 15 yards in the air, and Lockette beat a rookie safety, Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, for the 33-yard touchdown.
So many things to love about this touchdown. The origin, for one.
“That’s the boss right there,” Bevell said in a hallway outside the Seahawks’ locker room. “That’s a Pete idea.”
Pete Carroll did cop to hatching the play. “We’ll go anywhere to find a play,” the Seattle coach said afterward. “And that one—uh, Muschamp at Florida, no … Auburn. They ran it. Give Gus Malzahn credit. That’s a great play. I kept telling them [the offensive staff and players] this summer, ‘It’ll work, it’ll work.’ But it didn’t work all summer.”
The reasons Carroll and Bevell liked the play when they watched Auburn run it last year against Alabama is simple. The read-option assumes the running back or the quarterback will run the ball—the running back if the quarterback sees a hole when he puts the ball in the back’s gut, or the quarterback if he sees traffic and knows he (the quarterback) needs to tuck it down and run. But what if the quarterback, about to get pummeled, pulled it down and just flipped it to the nearest receiver?
“That was a great read by Russell,” said Lockette. “He sees the corner coming up, and so he knows I’m free. It all happens fast, so he’s got to read the play in a split-second.”
“We practiced it a little,” said Bevell. “But it came from college tape. We just thought it fit another dimension off the zone read and could enhance the play. We’re committed to find the best plays for the players we have, and that certainly looked like it fit our players.”
I mentioned the little things. Count how they helped in this play:
- Wilson has to sell the fake, that he’s going to run, to the defenders on the edge. He does.
- Tight end Luke Willson has to execute a seal block on the Green Bay defensive end to prevent him from blowing up the play. He does.
- Lynch has to sprint left after not getting the ball and be prepared to protect his quarterback. He does.
- Lockette has to beat the safety once he catches the ball. He does.
- Bevell has to have the guts to call the play. He does.
“What really helps,” said Bevell, “is that Russell is a point guard. He cares about distributing the ball to everyone, and putting everyone in the best position to make plays. He has such a great understanding of our offense. He cares about the little things more than anyone I’ve known. No detail is too small. He dissects everything.’’
Russell is committed to improving on the little things every day," Bevell says. "It’s his refusal to fail.
Bevell is lucky. He has a general manager, John Schneider, who knows players, and doesn’t fear the wrath of the media and public for taking a 5-11 quarterback in the third round of a draft. He has a coach who is the ultimate bottom-liner, who preaches the gospel of all-that-counts-is-what-you-can-do-for-today. He has a quarterback who works as hard as the coaches. He has a weird running back who is a human bumper-car, who doesn’t seem to care anything about his shelf life—only about today. He has Percy Harvin. And he has so many unknown weapons. I mention to him that he must be having so much fun because he doesn’t have a glaring weakness in his arsenal.
“You’re wrong,” Bevell said. “We do have weaknesses. The players have weaknesses. But it is our job as coaches to find the strengths in what our guys do. They all have strengths, and that’s what we highlight. What really helps is having Russell. He is so committed to improving on the littlest things every day. I try to find a word for this sometimes, but I can’t … it’s his refusal to fail. No detail is too small, and he makes sure to stress that every day.’’
I’ve noticed this being around this team in the past couple of years: Wilson’s attitude mirrors Pete Carroll’s, and it is infectious, in season and out. Lockette was with a gaggle of reporters explaining his touchdown when one asked him about the significance of this win. “We treat every game like a championship game,” he said, “and we treat every practice like a championship practice. I’m really looking forward to the next championship practice.”
Sounds corny. It is corny. But that’s the way a lot of these guys talk. That’s what the coaches preach, and that’s what Wilson preaches to his mates.
And this was Wilson, an hour after this masterpiece, on the little things:
“The details,” he said. “It’s the details, the little details, that make the difference between being great or just being good.”
The details showed up Thursday night. The details will make Seattle a threat to be great, this year and into the future.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Josh McCown, quarterback, Tampa Bay (No. 12).
What a long, strange trip it’s been for McCown. This long, and this strange:
2002: Arizona drafted him in the third round.
2005: Arizona re-signed him in free agency.
2006: Detroit signed him in free agency.
2007: Oakland acquired him in a trade for a fourth-round draft choice.
2008: Miami signed him as an unrestricted free agent. Five months later, he was traded to Carolina for a seventh-round draft pick.
2010: Carolina re-signed him as an unrestricted free-agent and later cut him. Hartford of the United Football League signed him in August, and he played that fall season in the new league.
2011: San Francisco signed him as an unrestricted free agent and cut him before the season. Chicago signed him an unrestricted free agent.
2012: Chicago re-signed him in free agency, cut him before the season, and re-signed him in November.
2013: Chicago re-signed him in free agency.
2014: Tampa Bay signed him as an unrestricted free agent.
Ten seasons, nine teams.
And now, at 35, McCown—for the first since 2007 with the Raiders—opens the season as the clear starting quarterback of a team when Tampa Bay plays host to Carolina on Sunday. This is one of the significant games of the weekend. Carolina has struggled on offense during the preseason, with a rebuilt line and receiving corps. Tampa has looked good, and the number one defense allowed just a field goal in 17 series. McCown is in a good spot and won’t get the rug pulled out with a bad start. Lovie Smith trusts him.
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“It’s been humbling,” McCown told me during training camp. “Humbling for both my brother [Saints backup quarterback Luke] and me. But I think we’ve both approached it with the attitude of, Be the best you can be. It doesn’t mean you’re any less of a competitor. And being a backup—it’s not a bad gig. It really isn’t. It grinds on you, because you want to play, but it’s a great career. You’re in the NFL.” Now he’s in the NFL with a good receiving corps and a strong running game. If his line protects him, I think McCown’s going to have a good season, starting Sunday.
Sound Bite of the Week
Each week during the season, Friday's Game Plan will feature a sound bite of audio captured inside the game, either by NFL Films wirings, from interviews or anywhere I think I can increase your inside knowledge of pro football. This week I’m using a piece from the HBO series “Hard Knocks,” inside the Atlanta Falcons, with special-teams coach Keith Armstrong ranting at his players for poor performance. Each week, I’ll include the clip, then write about its significance.
Atlanta special teams coach Keith Armstrong, in a special-teams meeting during training camp:
“Who do you think you are? The game don’t mean enough to you, and that’s very ----ing apparent. You better wake up and get your pride in the game. Go out there and play like s---? The s--- was coached the right way! I don’t want any excuses, selfish a--. What the hell is this? Look at this crap. Are you kidding me?"
There was more, and it’s a telling, tough look at the real-life way some coaches coach. Armstrong went further, and he got personal with a few of his players. I thought after seeing it on “Hard Knocks” that it was a little too raw for a league asking employees to treat other employees with respect in the wake of the Incognito-Martin bullying scandal last year. But the more I thought about it, and after watching it here again, I think Armstrong goes to the edge of the cliff but not over it. It’s a tough game, and coaches in it are sometimes demanding and brutal. This was the best of the “Hard Knocks" clips I saw this summer, by the way. Thanks to NFL Films, HBO and the Falcons for making it available.
Regular Old Quote of the Week
"We look good getting off the bus.”
—Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith, referring to his trio of 6-5 passing targets—wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins—for quarterback Josh McCown.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Cam Newton. Missed practice Wednesday because of a cracked rib. Limited in practice Thursday because of said rib. Athleticism sure to be limited. All this, while adapting to a totally new crew of receivers and new additions on the offensive line … with a game at a potential sleeping giant, Tampa Bay.
2. The most interesting matchup no one is talking about. Haloti Ngata, one of the most feared defensive tackles of this generation, faces off against a rookie Cincinnati center, Russell Bodine. Oh, and Andy Dalton is 0-3 in his young career at Baltimore. That’s where Sunday’s opener is.
3. The Ravens’ offense. There’s optimism everywhere in the NFL this weekend, per usual on the first weekend of the season. But new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has delighted everyone in the Ravens’ building with a more varied approach to scheming, including lots of screens and a heavy dose of new receiving threat Steve Smith Sr. At age 35, Smith’s body will be tested, but while Kubiak has him he plans to send him deep, often. At least he’ll help Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones by deflecting pressure from them.
4. The Manziel Package. I expect Cleveland’s going to use him at Pittsburgh. When they do, in whatever way it is, it’ll be must-see TV in the early window Sunday. Cleveland had better pull out the stops. They’re 1-17 against Pittsburgh in Ben Roethlisberger’s starts, and the Big One is starting number 19 Sunday.
5. The heir to Jared Allen trying to justify the money. Everson Griffen got $42 million in the off-season when the Vikes decided to pay him and not Allen. His first target: the non-nifty Shaun Hill, on the rug in the Ed Jones Dome in St. Louis.
6. Jake Matthews, on the spot. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan runs some crazy stuff, some overload blitzes and some gambles that tamer defensive coordinators eschew. In the New Orleans-Atlanta game, Matt Ryan’s going to need time to get the ball to his big targets at receiver, and Matthews, thrust into duty in his first NFL game at left tackle after Sam Baker’s injury, and Lamar Holmes will be vital, protecting the left and right edges against the aggressive Saints D.
7. Derek Carr’s debut. Good for Carr: The Jets are totally beat up at cornerback. Bad for Carr: The Jets’ front seven is healthy, and fearsome. Look for extra rushers all day in the Meadowlands, young Mr. Carr.
8. Robert Griffin III, re-defined. Griffin’s got a new teacher, Jay Gruden. He’s had a shaky summer, and J.J. Watt will be chasing him for four quarters Sunday in Houston. It’s a recipe for a long day unless Griffin’s line keeps him clean.
9. The Niners catching a break. With an offense that has struggled all summer, Jim Harbaugh’s team gets to play a defense that might be the worst in the league in the opener. Dallas chafes at that label, of course. Now’s the time for Rod Marinelli and his men to prove us all wrong. Oh, and it’s a virtual certainty you’ll see Ray McDonald escape from his domestic-violence cloud for a day and chase Tony Romo from his defensive end spot.
10. Luck at Manning. Andrew beat Peyton 39-33 last year in Indianapolis, and don’t be surprised to see at least 72 points scored again between the Colts and Broncos on Sunday night in Denver. Even minus the suspended Wes Welker, look for Jacob Tamme in the slot more and Emmanuel Sanders outside and inside to make up for Welker’s lost offense.
THE MMQB PODCAST: Andy Benoit dives deep into Andrew Luck’s brilliance.