The first comment that makes me hit the mute button is when announcers start talking about establishing the running game and the virtues of how the running game will set up the entire offensive playbook. Hogwash. Is anyone paying attention to what is going on in the NFL today? The running game in the first half does not set up anything other then field goal attempts and potentially low-scoring games. In fact, the team that ran the ball in the first half the most last season, the Minnesota Vikings, failed to make the playoffs. No. 2 was the Oakland Raiders, another non-playoff team. Who is behind this "establish the running game early" myth?
Football is very complicated and complex. It's a chess match each and every week. "They have a very smart coaching staff and we have a very smart coaching staff," New York Jets wide receiver Laveranues Coles said prior to opening last season against the Patriots. "They [the coaches] basically use us as chess pieces. How they position us to play this game, that's the main thing now. Whoever can make the adjustments the best and the fastest will probably have the edge."
Coles clearly understands today's NFL and he's well aware that the chess pieces are moving through the air now. Teams are more proficient throwing the ball and are establishing the pass earlier in the game. And when you throw the ball in the first half, you can score points and build a lead, giving your team an excellent chance to win.
One of the masters of the pro football version of chess was the late Bill Walsh. He built the West Coast offense and many teams in the NFL run a variation of his well-designed attack. But the West Coast offense is really a philosophy, not a system of plays. It's based on throwing the ball early in the game, building a lead, then running the ball to keep the lead. Walsh wanted to take short passes and use the skill and quickness of the wideouts to run with the ball, instead of trying to design running plays that would gain the NFL average of 4.0 yards per attempt.
Teams that build the lead at the half and have the greatest first half point differential are the teams that understand the philosophy of the West Coast. When you make a team play from behind, their margin of error shrinks and a potentially fatal, game-costing mistake will soon occur. That's why all of Walsh's teams had a complementary defense that could rush the passer and force turnovers. He wanted a dynamic pass rusher, not for the sacks, but for the pressure to get the ball out of the quarterback's hand earlier, thus creating turnovers.
The NFL is a passing league and teams that come out and try to find balance with their play-calling in the first half are doomed to fail. You have to throw to score in the NFL. Check out these eye-opening stats of five playoff teams from last season:
These statistics are exactly what the West Coast offense is all about.
During game weeks, the Wednesday and Thursday practices throughout the NFL feature a period called 9-on-7. It's a drill that features nine offensive players against seven defensive players to work exclusively on the run aspect of the game. The drill is quickly becoming obsolete. Teams are rarely in two backs in the back field and very few teams will play with a seven-man defensive box. The most compelling runs in the NFL right now are nickel runs, or space runs that create problems for the defense. The 9-on-7 periods of practice in the NFL will only help a team determine and develop toughness; the teams that practice their space runs each week are the successful ones.
So when watching your team play this coming season, look for more passes in the first half, look for more spread runs and hopefully look for more first-half points.
No disrespect to any of the great athletes that play cornerback in the NFL, but if an offensive line provides good pass protection, no one can keep a wide receiver from making a play. Much like no one is going to hit Nolan Ryan when his fastball is measuring over 100 mph, no corner can stop a wideout from getting open if he has to cover him for a long time. No matter how great a corner may play, if the pass rush is not putting pressure on the quarterback, then the defensive back is in trouble.
Now, there are some corners who are clearly better than others, but the term "shut-down" does not apply to the NFL. Because of recent rule changes and the NFL being a pass-friendly league, the corner position is almost impossible to play at a shut-down level.
Every season we hear about how Green Bay defensive backs Al Harris and Charles Woodson are shut-down corners. And trust me, both are very good at their jobs, but when the Giants offensive line dominated the Packers front in the playoffs, Harris and Woodson looked like they were no longer shutting down anyone, allowing the Giants to throw for 243 yards. When the Giants offensive tackles could block the rushers of the Packers, this placed the corners in a perilous position.
San Francisco made a bold financial statement last year, giving Nate Clements an eight-year, $80 million contract and then proceeded to have the 10th worse pass defense in the NFL in 2007. It's not Clements' fault the 49ers">49ers pass defense failed. The fact they finished 21st in the NFL with only 31 sacks had more to do with it than the actual play of Clements. But people expect when you give someone $80 million, you are getting a shut-down corner. Problem is they don't exist.
Minnesota clearly did the right thing this offseason. Instead of listening to the cries of many that they needed to improve their pass defense, the Vikings signed defensive end Jared Allen. Allen will singlehandedly improve a porous unit that allowed 4,500 yards in the air last season. Defensive backs are nice to have, but a special pass rusher is what can make a defense shine.
"Whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game." How many times have you heard someone -- a player, a coach, a TV broadcaster -- say that? There's no denying that protecting the ball is vital to a team's success. But do you think anyone has told this to the field goal kicker?
In my book, a missed field goal is a turnover. You gave the ball away, you did not score any points and, in fact, the ball is placed seven yards from the original line of scrimmage. That reads like a turnover to me. So the next time you see a team's turnover takeaway ratio on your TV screen, make sure they have added in missed field goals. The ball was definitely "turned over."
The Giants entered the playoffs with a minus-9 ratio in turnover/takeaway. Making the playoffs would be impossible with such a ratio, let alone winning the Super Bowl. But the Giants' opponents missed eight field goals last year, and even though New York missed four of its own, taking account of that stat still reduced their overall total to a minus-5.
Examine each and every turnover that is happening. Someone needs to explain to me why the desperation throws at the end of each half count in the turnover column. I have been around a few quarterbacks in my career who refused to throw the desperation throw at the end of the half because it would impact their passer rating.
What matters most is where the turnovers occur and what a team does with the ball after the turnover. Be careful to quote the turnover/takeaway argument without examining the missed field goal chart.