MythBusters: Does it really matter when opponents know your plays?
In our "MythBusters" series, SI.com’s Doug Farrar uses tape, statistics and conversations with some of the NFL’s most knowledgeable voices to debunk ideas surrounding the league's top storylines that have gained traction. In this installment, Farrar debunks one of the key premises behind the latest instances of opponents knowing which plays are coming.
MYTH: Teams are costing themselves games and seasons because their offenses are too predictable.
REALITY: Most teams and players know what their opponents are doing. It comes down to communication and execution.
One of the primary themes of the SpyGate scandal was the importance of knowing what your opponent is planning to do at all costs. Why, we all wondered, would Bill Belichick put his team and his legacy at risk to spy on teams if the results didn't bear out the possible cost?
Another belief that has been around for decades is the idea that if your offense or defense is too predictable, you're going to get figured out, and you're going to get beaten. The term “outcoached” is used a lot in this setting, probably far too often, and the general assumption is that NFL teams must prepare for any opponent with reams of concepts and schemes, trying above all else to win the chess match.
While there's a bit of truth to that, there's also been a recent overreaction to the importance of a complex playbook and meticulous planning. After all, if your opponent has seen something on tape, how can you possibly run it against them?
This subject came up after two Week 3 games. After the Broncos beat the Lions 24–12 on Sunday night, Denver cornerback Bradley Roby was quoted as saying, “We pretty much knew what they [the Lions] were gonna do, and they did it."
“That’s a play we hadn’t run all season, so I don’t think it’s predictable,” replied Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw a pick to Roby on a ball intended for receiver Golden Tate with 2:24 left in the first quarter. “You know, I think the kid just made a great play. These guys, you know, for the Broncos, they do a good job playing with their eyes in the backfield. All of them play off and jump routes and do that sort of stuff, but it’s the correct place to go with the ball, and the guy made a good play.”
“He's gonna have this guy [receiver Lance Moore on the outside], but he's gonna fall back as Golden Tate comes underneath,” NBC's Cris Collinsworth said as he was illustrating the replay of Roby's pick on the live broadcast. “It's just a really heady play. It's a straight zone defense, and Stafford's looking at [Tate] the whole way. One of the things [cornerback] Aqib Talib was telling us is how many more questions Bradley Roby is asking—how much more film study he's been doing. What a difference-maker he is. He wants to be in the category with Talib and Chris Harris."
After the game, Tate put it down to simple execution. “We moved the ball well against a good defense, but then we would have a setback or we would have a penalty,” he said Sunday night. “A guy would jump early or a fumble or throw an interception when we had momentum, or the quarterback was on the ground. There’s no one to blame for it. It’s a collective effort. It’s got to change quick.”
Two days later, when he appeared on a Detroit radio station for his weekly segment, Tate was singing a different tune.
"I didn't read anything about it, but that's not the first time this year that another player has said that,” Tate said. “I've had a couple occasions in literally each game, where they called out our play for one, then afterwards been like ‘Hey, we knew what you guys were doing.’ I don't know how they know or what film they're watching that we're giving away ... That's something we got to go back and watch our tendencies to figure out where we line up or how we line up or what formation or whatever it may be. We've got to figure it out because we're clearly giving away. All three weeks, a player's come up to me and said, ‘We knew what you were going to do.’ That's bad."
Lest you think this was Roby putting stuff in people's heads or Tate with a case of sour grapes, there's more. With 3:44 left in the game, Stafford threw a pick to safety David Bruton that put away any chance Detroit had of coming back. Bruton traveled a great distance across the field to make that play, as if he knew exactly what was going to happen.
“It was just a formation where we knew what was coming,” Bruton said on Monday. “They've had a high tendency to show a particular play, especially a wrap-six, so usually the No. 2 receiver sits down about five or six yards with a guy running a dig route right behind it. We were just alert and once I saw the running back chip before his release, I knew what was coming, so I just read Stafford's eyes, broke on the ball and was able to make a play.
“We do a great job, coaches and players alike, we do a great job of just knowing what to expect. Especially as a DB you can't play everything, but if you get certain looks that you know for sure, you're going to try to make that play. I try to go in there with three particular looks to see if I can make a play on those three looks.”
And it's not just the Lions. After the Cardinals decimated the 49ers 47–7 on Sunday, Arizona defensive back Tyrann Mathieu said that San Francisco's rudimentary passing attack left Arizona's defenders with easy reads all day. Mathieu had two interceptions in the game, including a pick-six in the first quarter. Two of Kaepernick's first four passes were interceptions returned for touchdowns, and he threw four picks in total.
“We knew going into this game that the focus for them was to run the football,” Mathieu said. “Their passing game has just simplified so much, it was easy for us to anticipate routes, get some good breaks on the ball today.”
The solution: ‘Hush your mouth, and execute the play’
It makes for great postgame fodder. But when you talk to people in and around the league, the message is clear: Defenses knowing what's coming is common, it's been happening for decades, and the key to outplaying your opponent is to outexecute him, because most players and teams know what other players and teams are going to do most of the time.
“That's probably an accurate depiction, because that's why you study film and look at formations,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell says. “That's why you look at both sides of the ball and see if you can get a sense of what to anticipate. That's also why you look at your own tendencies and make sure that you break them. It's part of our culture.”
But when a player on your own team says these things, I asked, does that make you ramp up your self-scouting?
"Uh, no. Heard that thousands of times, and usually it's on the winner's side. That's the way it is, and I think oftentimes people will carve something out of a conversation and try to get as much traction as they can.”
No matter who was asked about Tate's comments, that was the general consensus: Much ado about nothing.
“I think people are starting to be upset that things aren't working,” former NFL safety Ryan Clark said this week on ESPN Radio. “I probably called out five plays per game when I played in the NFL, because I studied that much. I knew I wasn't fast enough or big enough, so I wanted to be ahead of the curve in anticipation, knowing what was going on. These things don't become an issue, and players don't start saying things about them, until they start to lose. Until they aren't productive. Because now, it's almost like, ‘Hey guys, we aren't winning, but we're too predictable. The coaches need to change something up. It's not us—it's them.’ And truly, it's everybody. But it's about execution. It's about going out there and doing the right thing.
“Think about it. Dallas plays Atlanta last week, and you know it's going to be [Devonta] Freeman if they run it, and if they throw the ball, if anyone gets it but Julio Jones, they're probably going to bench Matt Ryan. And [Dallas] couldn't stop it. So, when you look at things like that, it doesn't matter if they're calling out your plays. I played with [linebacker] Antonio Pierce, and I felt like he called out about half the plays when we played together with the Redskins. There were times when we were in Cover 4, and Sean Taylor, God rest his soul, was supposed to be covering the tight end, but he'd blitz because Antonio said it was a draw play, and he was [accurate in his reads] that many times. This is not new. What this is, is this Twitter, Instagram, immediate gratification world. 'Hey, guys, it's not me. Don't tweet about me because I'm not producing. They're calling our plays out!’
“Hey man, just go play football. Hush your mouth, and execute the play.”
I recently asked Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins if the media was overselling these stories. His comments eerily echoed Clark's at times—and remember, Jenkins plays for a team whose offense has also been panned as too predictable.
“I think anyone who watches enough film, and studies the game enough, generally knows what's coming,” Jenkins said. “Every now and then, they'll bring a new wrinkle, or a play or concept you haven't seen. But every offense has their core plays they believe in, and it becomes about execution. I guarantee there are the same number of DBs who say, ‘I knew this was coming, but the guy caught it anyway.’ You don't hear that side of it. Just because you know it's coming doesn't mean you can stop it all the time. Sometimes, you'll see players who have a jump on it, and there's something they've found on tape that's tipped them off about the offense, and the offense doesn't know they're tipping it off. Those are the ones where you can make some plays.
“Here's the other thing. There are 11 people on defense, so one person knowing doesn't do anything. You've got to have everybody on the same page. Now, when the whole defense knows? That's when you start to suffocate an offense and big plays come. But when Roby and those guys are playing, I guarantee you there are times in the meeting room where [the coaches say], ‘When we get this look, this is coming.’ And when they see it, I guarantee you they'll make a big play on it. Those are the fun ones. But everyone has the same set plays they run, and there are times when they can execute it even when you know it's coming.”
Several valid points here, but it's important to highlight the idea espoused by both Clark and Jenkins that players never say they knew what was coming when plays are made against them. Bruton, to my knowledge, hasn't been quoted about this 22-yard catch he allowed to Lions tight end Eric Ebron with 2:10 left in the game. Bruton was straight over Ebron and still got turned around on a crossing route.
Greg Cosell, who has been with NFL Films since 1979 and the producer for ESPN's NFL Matchup show since its inception in 1984, has seen a lot of football, and he agrees completely with the idea that there isn't much new when it comes to fooling your opponent at this level.
“I think smart defensive players who study have a really good feel for it,” he said. “I remember sitting with Jeremiah Trotter five or six years ago, after he retired, and he watched film with me one day. Literally every play that came up—and it wasn't necessarily an Eagles play, it was just whoever we were watching—he would say, ‘Oh, the back is offset here; that means they're going to run this.’ And 99% of the time, he was right. I mean, two years ago when the Eagles led the NFL in rushing, they ran the same plays they run now. So, I don't know exactly what that means.”
In 2013, the last year of Gary Kubiak's tenure as the head coach of the Houston Texans, opponents were calling his route concepts too predictable. I wrote at the time that the Texans clearly needed to diversify their route concepts, which makes me as guilty as anyone of falling for it.
“I remember that,” Cosell said. “That was where Schaub kind of threw it out into the flat, and [Seahawks cornerback Richard] Sherman read it. But I can't tell you how many times I've talked to coaches over the years where they'll say [about all teams, not just the Texans], ‘Oh, on third down, they do this and we knew it was coming.’ But teams still execute plays, and I think that's very common in the league. And of course, when it's presented that way, it makes coaches look bad. It makes it look like guys are being outcoached. It's great for the media—they run with it, because it makes for a good story. I don't really think its uncommon, and when it's all said and done ... I mean, last year, DeMarco Murray ran 392 times for 1,845 yards. How many running plays do you think the Cowboys have in their arsenal?”
Based on my own tape study, I replied, somewhere around three or four.
“Correct. Don't you think that defenses, in many situations, knew what was coming? So I keep coming back to the same line: I don't know what that means in the big picture. I guarantee that if you broke down even the good offensive teams and looked at all their third-and-6 plays, I'd bet that there would be three passing game concepts that they go to a little bit differently. Maybe there's four, but there's not twenty. Ron Jaworski has told me that when he was playing, and it was a pass play, he knew he was getting like one of three plays. Not one of fifty. With enough study, the defense knows that, too. Coaches can go up on the blackboard and draw up a thousand things.
“But you know what? The players have to execute that stuff.”
Indeed, and one could argue that the two most effective overall position groups in the NFL last season—the Dallas running game and the Seattle defense—were pretty basic by NFL standards. Dallas runs a combination of inside and outside zone, mixed with certain power/counter/trap ideas, and the Seahawks live by Cover 1 and Cover 3 schemes with a few alternate coverages mixed in from time to time. Brutally simple, and totally effective in both cases. Why? The right players executed the plays they were given.
“I hate to be clichéd and talk about execution, but on a certain level, that is indeed what it is,” Cosell concluded. “I don't doubt that David Bruton knew what was coming on that interception. But that doesn't mean that Jim Caldwell and [Lions offensive coordinator] Joe Lombardi are morons, and they got outcoached. I see that all the time when teams lose. ‘Oh, we got outcoached.’ And we've probably all said that at some point in our lives. But that phrase, because we don't know what goes into the process of preparing a specific game plan ... I've always thought of that term as one that accesses the outcome, as opposed to the process. Again, I don't know what that means.”
There are a lot of well-paid coaches and players who grind film all the time in the hope that they'll unearth that one deciding factor. Often, they do. But in the end, it's still about execution on both sides of the ball. Just as it was when it was Vince Lombardi instead of Joe Lombardi calling plays, the team that can beat its opponent even when that opponent knows what's coming will always have the upper hand.
And it happens all the time.