The death of execution means one thing: NFL coaches have to start adjusting their systems to fit the abilities of their players.
In the second half and overtime of the Broncos’ Monday night win over the Bengals, Gary Kubiak surprised me.
Throughout his long career as an offensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL, Kubiak has stuck with a few basic offensive concepts: the inside and outside zone running game, multiple tight ends deployed as route-runners, and a passing game that’s built off of play-action and boot-action as much as any in the league. At times, he has tied himself to his schemes to a fault, and I’ve talked to players around the league about the predictability of Kubiak’s passing concepts, how easy they are to read and react to.
This season, with Peyton Manning as his quarterback, Kubiak stubbornly stuck to his ideas in the face of clear evidence that Manning worked better in other schemes. It’s not that Manning’s clear regression was exactly Kubiak’s fault—there are a host of reasons for that—but to me, this was yet another example of Kubiak’s insistence that his players fit his concepts no matter what. And that’s generally a recipe for disaster, unless the players happen to fit what the coach wants.
And then, down 14–3 to the Bengals at halftime on Monday night, Kubiak did adapt, to the benefit of quarterback Brock Osweiler. His late-game offense increased the tempo, allowed Osweiler to react to what he saw on the field, forced Cincinnati’s defense into its base formations and tired out the Bengals’ defense with a higher play volume. The Broncos had 63 total plays in the game, but 47 came in the second half and in overtime. Denver gained just 89 yards in the first half and finished with 390 for the game.
Similarly, Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips veered away from his first-half strategy of playing his cornerbacks in aggressive man coverages, and using more zone concepts in the second half. Bengals receiver A.J. Green was toasting Denver’s excellent cornerbacks, just as Steelers wideout Antonio Brown had the week before.
But after Phillips’s adjustments, everything changed. Backup quarterback A.J. McCarron was more flustered by the zone concepts and his deep throws started to wane. After the game, McCarron admitted that the errant snap exchange that sealed Denver’s win in overtime was due to his need to scan the protection a bit too long. Cincinnati gained 204 yards in the first half and 90 yards thereafter.
Denver’s adjustments made all the difference.
“It’s something we felt like we needed to do because we had no possessions,” Kubiak said Tuesday about the decision to adjust the tempo. “In the first half, we had three. I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of that. We had to do something to create some tempo and some plays before the day is over. You’ve got to sit there and say, ‘OK, we had 16 snaps.’ We were well on our way to about 40 in there for a while. We had to do what we had to do.”
NFL coaches have to adjust and adapt. Any coach who tells you that it’s all about execution, and his players just need to play better ... well, he's either lying to himself or lying to you, and he probably isn’t long for the job.
Chip Kelly, fired by the Eagles on Tuesday night, was famous for throwing a similar line out there. Whenever opponents are saying publicly that they have your system figured out before the plays happen, as was happening to the Eagles early this season, that’s big trouble. In Kelly’s three NFL seasons, he hadn’t expanded his palette enough, and the league caught up to him. It always does.
“You know when a team is in Tampa-2 [coverage], they’re going to slant their 3 and 7 technique [defensive linemen],” Kelly said in September, after Josh Huff, one of his own receivers, claimed that Cowboys defenders were calling out plays before the Eagles ran them. “When they do it, it’s not a surprise to us. Everybody has predictabilities and tendencies going into every game. That’s just part of the game. Everybody kind of does what they do. ... We need to execute.”
Part of the problem in Philadelphia was that with Kelly’s breakneck tempo, the quarterback didn’t have time to call audibles—basically, he would head to the line, read what he saw as well as he could, and the offense would have to hope for the best. If the pace didn’t break the defense, that strategy would collapse in on itself, and eventually, it did for Kelly.
Similarly, Mike McCarthy is presiding over a passing game in Green Bay that is inconsistent at best and a hot mess at worst, and the insistence of McCarthy and his staff to run a bunch of isolation routes over and over, without presenting Aaron Rodgers with better openings—“scheming guys open” in NFL parlance—has been a mystery all year. But if you ask the coach about the system, he’ll point back to the players.
“The reality is, we’re not that far off,” McCarthy said the day after Rodgers completed 22 of 43 passes for 202 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Bears in a 17–13 Thanksgiving night loss. “It’s the attention and the details. Our issues are technique and discipline in the technique, and quit worrying so much about the plays. Just win the route or win the play called.”
That’s a nice thought, but in the modern NFL, with its hybrid defenses and multi-faceted route concepts (among the more advanced play-callers, at least), “beat your man” sounds a lot like dinosaur thinking.
“It’s been a long time since you were able to run a system you like and just rely on executing it better than everybody else,” Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson told me on this week’s Audibles Podcast. “That’s what made the Packers so dominant back in Vince Lombardi’s time: They could run a few things, and they would just out-execute everybody else. They ran those things so well, they’d just do it better than you’d defend it. It doesn’t work anymore. [Vikings offensive coordinator] Norv Turner is another example of this. He can do some really clever things when he doesn’t trust his quarterback. When he thinks his quarterback needs a hand—either he’s a flawed player or he’s a young guy and he doesn’t quite have the tools to work the system—he’ll do clever things to help him out. But as soon as he thinks he’s ready, he takes the training wheels off, and he expects the system to out-execute. And it won’t work anymore.”
Systems come and go. Bill Belichick is the foremost proponent of the philosophy that you don’t go into a game or a season with a definitive system or scheme—instead, you design and vary your concepts to best meet your opponent. That’s why you’ve seen the Patriots run everything from pure inside power runs to three-tight end sets as a base package to spread sets with a tight end on offense, and it’s why the Pats tend to switch from 4–3 to 3–4 as a base defensive concept every few years.
And just to keep everyone guessing, Belichick will throw a new wrinkle in there now and again. While most coaches preach about the importance of continuity of an offensive line, New England had nine drives against the Jaguars earlier this season and ran nine different personnel combinations on their offensive line. One for each drive. These things don’t always work, but they are examples of one coach’s need to stretch past the constraints of any one system at any time.
Any coach who doesn’t adopt that mind-set, and thinks his precious system will magically take the NFL by storm any longer than it takes the rest of the league to figure it out, is halfway to his own professional execution.
Q&A: Cardinals "Moneyback" Deone Bucannon
Deone Bucannon played safety at Washington State, and did so well enough for the Cardinals to take him 27th overall in the 2014 draft. It was a slightly unexpected choice for general manager Steve Keim and his staff to make—the 6'1", 211-pound Bucannon was thought to be a second-round prospect by many on the outside looking in, but he has validated Arizona’s choice in several different ways.
Bucannon played strong safety in all but one of 18 games in his rookie campaign—he started at free safety against the 49ers in Week 3—but with so much depth at the safety position, and a clear need for a hit-and-cover linebacker as Daryl Washington remained on indefinite suspension for various off-field incidents, head coach Bruce Arians and new defensive coordinator James Bettcher decided to make Bucannon an inside linebacker, for all intents and purposes.
Thus, the second-year man became the only 210-pound inside linebacker in the NFL, and he’s been a valuable force inside. He’s learned to deal with rushing gaps and expanded his repertoire as a box player, and maintained his ability to cover when needed. The Cardinals now refer to him as their “Moneybacker” in their dime-based defense, and he’s listed as an “$LB” on the team’s depth chart. After he amassed 11 tackles and returned an interception for a 39-yard touchdown against the Eagles on Dec. 20, he was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Not bad for a guy a lot of teams would have stuck at strong safety and left it right there.
“Deone was one of those guys that was a tall, active safety we needed to match up on tight ends and running backs,” Arians told me this week. “We lost Daryl Washington, so there was a void up front. We put him in the nickel package, and he really took off. He was too good to take off the field, so we basically kept our nickel package in and adjusted it to play against regular [personnel]. It’s always been that way, and it goes back to when I was a head coach at Temple—we’d recruit skinny defensive ends, hoping they’d grow into tackles, outside linebackers would grow into defensive ends, and safeties that would grow into outside linebackers. It’s one of those things that ... the more position-flexibility you have, the more valuable you are to us.”
I mentioned to Arians that this was the same philosophy Jimmy Johnson used to build the great Cowboys defenses of the early 1990s—take smaller, faster guys and make them bigger and faster—and he laughed.
“Yeah, Jimmy and I grew up around the same time, so it’s pretty similar.”
I then spoke with Bucannon about his NFL positional adjustment, and how it’s worked out for him.
Doug Farrar: What was behind the transition from safety to inside linebacker? How did that happen?
Bucannon: Honestly, it was coach BA who brought me into his office, and he wanted our best 11 guys on the field. We’re really deep in the secondary and he just thought I’d be best suited to be closer to the ball, based off my play and things like that. I took it with open arms. He said I could get even more playing time than I got before. He said I’d be able to get out there and be an every down guy. When he presented me with that, I couldn’t turn it down. I just wanted to be out there on the field as much as I could.
DF: What's the mental adjustment to making that kind of switch?
DB: It’s easier on me because a lot of people don’t know that I haven’t really played any safety in the league yet. My first year, my rookie year, I was in the box as well, the nine games that I started last year. I’ve been playing linebacker. This is my second year really, playing essentially line at the linebacking position. It was a transition. Just [help from] guys like Kevin Minter and coach [Larry] Foote. When you’ve got one of the best that played at linebacker coach, it makes it a lot easier. Things like diagnosing plays, you have a lot less time to diagnose plays at linebacker. You’ve got three to five yards as opposed to safety position, where you have 10 to 15. At linebacker it happens a lot faster. The biggest thing was understanding gap assignments and pulling guards and formations.
DF: Which hybrid players did you watch to better understand the “Moneyback” position?
DB: The closest thing I’ve seen to it was [Seahawks safety] Kam Chancellor. He’s really in the box a lot the same way, and he’s versatile. He gets back and he gets at half field, middle field, he gets in the box. He does it all. As far as people that I watch that have a similar type of role, of course he’s in coverage more because he’s more of a traditional safety. As far as a big safety that goes in the box and punishes linemen, take on pulling guards and is always sticking his head in the fire and being a physical player, definitely Kam Chancellor is one of the guys that I always watch. Now, and even when I wasn’t in the league, a guy that definitely is a fantastic player. As you can see, [a] Pro Bowl selection, one of the best safeties in the league.”
DF: Do you know Chancellor well?
DB: Yeah. I trained with him this last off-season. I just tried to get all the tidbits I can get out of him.
(Chancellor on Bucannon: “That’s my dog. We worked out together in the off-season, and I gave him a few keys. He’s playing well.”)
DF: Does losing Tyrann Mathieu for the remainder of the season affect your role at all?
DB: No. It doesn’t change my role. He’s a phenomenal player. Nobody’s trying to replace him because nobody can replace him. We just, as a team, want to keep our heads straight and forward. He’s with us everywhere, except physically. Mentally, he’s out there coaching and helping out. As far as my position, my vision hasn’t changed, I’m still playing the same.
DF: How exciting has this season been for you?
DB: We set our goals and we set them high. I love playing on this team, I love everybody on this team. They’re like brothers to me. I feel like that’s how we play on the field. We play with a chip on our shoulder. Everything’s going right, but there’s going to be a time when something goes wrong. We’re going to have to respond to it. When that something goes out of the ordinary or how we don’t want it to go, we’re going to respond in a great way because of the relationship we have on this team with each other. I feel like that makes us a strong team. We’ve got that mentality and we keep that mentality, and we know the sky is the limit for us.
History Lesson: “We’ll kick to the clock”
Bill Belichick’s decision to kick to the Jets in overtime last Sunday did not go the way the coach wanted: New York drove downfield, covering 80 yards in five plays, and won the game 26–20 on a six-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Eric Decker. Special teams captain Matthew Slater, who told head official Clete Blakeman “We want to kick that way” after his team won the toss, tried to explain the reasoning after the game.
“We went out for the toss, and Coach told us that if we won the toss, we wanted to kick off,” Slater said. “Obviously as a player, you ask three or four times because you want to double-check and make sure you get it right. We won the toss, we chose to kick off just like Coach instructed us to, and the only confusion was whether we got to choose which direction we got to kick the ball. We double-checked and triple-checked with Coach, and Coach had a discussion with the referee. I was just checking to make sure we did or didn’t get to choose which way we wanted to kick off, but we certainly wanted to kick off. That was our intention going in there—we won the toss, we were going to kick off. We did what we wanted to do.”
A weird call, to be sure, but not at all the most famous overtime deferral in pro football history. That honor would go to Dallas Texans running back Abner Haynes, who found himself with that same call to make when his team won the overtime toss in the 1962 AFL championship against the Houston Oilers. The Texans were trying to break Houston’s two-year run as the champs of the other league, but this didn’t help. When the Texans won the toss with the score tied 17–17, Haynes famously said, “We’ll kick to the clock.”
“They gave the sign, and I went to the sideline,” linebacker E.J. Holub said in Going Long, an outstanding oral history of the AFL. “Holy s---. What’s goin’ on?’ ”
What was going on was, there was a tornado warning in Houston, and Haynes was trying to weigh the wind at old Jeppesen Stadium against the advantage of possession.
“We really wanted to defend the clock side,” Texans receiver Chris Burford said. “Abner said, ‘We’ll kick to the clock.’ Problem is, the first thing you say is your choice. Then, the other team automatically has which way they want to defend. So, we lost the ball and the wind.”
“The official never gave Abner all the choices,” Texans coach Hank Stram said. “That’s what screwed it all up. The normal procedure is to ask if you want to kick, receive, or defend the goal. But the official said, ‘What are you going to do, kick or receive?’ Poor Abner’s been taking the heat all these years, but that’s really what took place.”
“I was thinking running game,” Haynes said. “The field was slanted. So, when I said, ‘Kick to the clock,’ I was simply pointing downhill. It was a stupid statement ’cause you’re supposed to be checking the wind. I didn’t want to give them the wind. That was my mistake.”
“The tornado warnings were out.” Burford said. “The conditions were terrible. Everyone was worried about the tornado coming. And we were kicking against the wind in overtime.”
As it turned out, the botched call didn’t affect the result. The Texans and Oilers went through the first overtime without a score, and at the end of that first overtime period, Dallas’s Bill Hull picked off a George Blanda pass, putting the ball at the Houston 48-yard line. With 2:54 gone in the second overtime period, rookie kicker Tommy Brooker kicked a 25-yard field goal to win the game, 20–17.
“My mother and dad were in tears the way the TV guys had dogged me and how stupid I was,” Haynes concluded. “If the Oilers had taken the kick and scored, I’d have had to leave the country.”
Belichick, talking about Haynes’s mistake a few years back in the outstanding NFL Films AFL documentary Full Color Football, talked about that experience from the coaching side.
“Stram was on the sideline, talking to Haynes in a very consoling way—obviously, he knew he’d made a huge mistake, and it was a great insight into a player-coach relationship in such a critical game. It’s such a critical situation.”
One wonders if Belichick thought of that moment on Sunday afternoon.
Bro-fficial Review: Dean Blandino defends Big Ed Hochuli
Dean Blandino, the league’s V.P. of Officiating, has a tough job. Not only are his referees blowing calls at an all-time rate, he can’t even spend time on Jerry Jones’s party bus without people freaking out. Here, we give Blandino, the most bro-like NFL executive, equal time to counter the slings and arrows headed his way.
“BRO! DUDE! Monday Night Football, was, like, UBER-COMPLICATED! My main man Ed Hochuli—the biggest bro of all our bro-fficials, the Axl Brose of the refs—had himself a rough game when the Cincinnati Bro-gals and Denver Bro-cos faced off. First, there was that time when it looked like the bros in stripes were looking up at the JUM-BRO-TRON to get a face mask call right after they missed it! I’d like to think Ed was flexing, or telling his crew how to work with, like, kettlebells, when he should have been paying attention. But the thing about me calling the crew to bro-verrule what they did? Like, no WAY! The only time I call Ed is when I need ab tips! WOO!”
/does 150 sit-ups
//listens to “Two Step” by the Dave Matthews Band at top volume
///watches “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” un-ironically
“Oh, wait ... Big Ed told Gary Kubiak that he may have gotten some late info from the Bro Squad. My bad!
“Look, Chillbro Swaggins. It’s all about getting the calls right, even when we get them wrong. Like on the second-to last play of overtime, when super-bro A.J. McCarron obviously fumbled, and Big Ed got it wrong even with a review! We may have been on the Bud Lights with Leinart at that point. I can neither bro-firm or deny. Next play, a bobbled snap, and game over! That’s why my man A.J. is a total bro—he’s got my back.
“Until next week and more weird officiating, Bromo Sapiens!”