Mike Lombardi met the press Monday and even though it wasn’t his intention, he said something of significance:
“It’s a passing league. Last year there was only one team in the NFL that ran the ball in the first half more than it threw. One. People say, ‘You have to establish the run.’ Teams that are going to the playoffs run it 33 percent in the first half. You’ve got to be able to throw.” — Mike Lombardi.
Hmm. That doesn’t square with what Vince Lombardi said:
“Football is first and foremost a running game. That will never change.” — Vince Lombardi.
But the ‘It’s a Passing League’ assertion is out there and much accepted. Kanick’s innate distrust of conventional wisdom now engaged, let’s examine the veracity of this idea.* Today I want to take a second look on whether or not the deprecation of the running game is pre-mature. Because my take is that it’s not a run league; not a pass league.
It’s a copycat league.
It’s a copycat league and those coaches who are out front with innovations and see success are the template makers and championship winners. The rest are reactors and re-builders.
Paul Brown, Bill Walsh, Buddy Ryan, Don Shula all changed the game with their ideas and left their competitors scrambling to contrive their own innovations. This is the what the best coaches do. Example: Bill Walsh’s WCO changed the game? Bill Parcells’ 3-4 rose to meet it. (Spoiler: IZR/OZR is designed to exploit attacking 3-4 defenses.)
Hell, take Knute Rockne. Do you think he won two pro pennants for the Massillon Tigers because he practiced his teams harder? Did he win four championships at Notre Dame by recruiting better athletes? Better fight songs? Gipper speeches? Perhaps those were factors in his success but I suspect his adoption of the forward pass at Massillon and introduction of backfield shift for the Irish had more to do with his unmatched success before dying at 41.
Innovation is the key. And hearing our GM spew trite homilies like a panelist on CBS NFL Today is a concern here.
It turns out that the running game is not dead and there’s a new coach in the NFL who spent the last six years demonstrating this. What did Chip Kelly’s offense do at Oregon? How will that impact the NFL?
And, as pertains to the Browns:
- What’s the benefit of insanely good depth on your defensive front if you can’t sub players in and out?
- What good having a defensive end as your best player when where ever he chases, the ball goes elsewhere?
- And of course, if the slogan of your defense is ‘Can’t have too many pass-rushers’ what happens when your central ‘It’s a passing league’ tenet is proved incorrect.
The first two bullets define the success Kelly’s offense. Let’s take a closer look at his up-tempo and zone read concepts.
Up-tempo means what exactly?
No-huddle offenses have been pains-in-defenses-asses for decades. Sam Wyche is who comes to mind in making it a system and found a fair amount of success too. Belichick runs it. It’s not new. What makes Chip Kelly’s different? For that matter, why don’t all teams run it all the time?
I’ll excerpt from Chris Brown to hit the high notes of Kelly’s innovations to the no-huddle:
… Oregon practices are filled with blaring music and players sprinting from drill to drill. Coaches interact with players primarily through whistles, air horns, and semi-communicative grunts. … Kelly’s sessions are designed around one thing: maximizing time. Kelly’s solution is simple: The practice field is for repetitions. Traditional “coaching” … is better served in the film room.
When the games do begin, there’s no question that the no-huddle makes Oregon’s attack more dangerous, but it’s a common misconception that they have only one supersonic speed. The Ducks use plenty of their superfast tempo, but they actually have three settings: red light (slow, quarterback looks to sideline for guidance while the coach can signal in a new play), yellow light (medium speed, quarterback calls the play and can make his own audibles at the line, including various check-with-me plays), and green light (superfast).
This change of pace is actually how Oregon constantly keeps defenses off balance. If they only went one pace the entire game the offense would actually be easier to defend. When the defense lines up quickly and is set, Kelly takes his time and picks the perfect play. When the defense is desperate to substitute or identify Oregon’s formation, the Ducks sprint to the line and rip off two, three, or four plays in a row… .
Summary: by practicing up-tempo Oregon teams execute with a crispness that opponents can’t match. Varying the speed disrupts the cadence of the defense. And, imo, the main thing: the pace of play makes it challenging for defenses built around specific substitution packages to get their preferred personnel on the field.
The last point is key and, if you don’t mind, here is where I point out that the dinosaur 4-3 defense shows its strength.
4-3 defense says this: We’re rushing four with simple man-to-man coverage with press corners.* We’re not blitzing. Our LBs are playing up and taking your slant routes away. No tricks. We’re gonna own your line of scrimmage and we’ll have seven back in coverage. What’s your play, offense?
How does the Browns’ new defense match up? First off, all the blather about d-line depth is out the window. John Hughes, Billy Winn, Jabaal Sheard? Get cozy on the bench because there’s no time to get you in. Want to bring in one of your new nickel-slot (aka really short) CBs and remove coverage liability DQ? Not happening.
Kelly’s up-tempo kills off one of the core philosophies of the new Browns defense.
Bummed yet? Well let’s take a hard look at how the zone read works and see if you feel better.
IZR. A primer in 10 minutes.
If you’re like me, you’re a little fuzzy on what zone read is and how it works. I can watch a Paul Brown sweep and focus on Dick Schafrath busting ass to lead Jim Brown around end. But when Marcus Mariota has his head up with the ball in De’Anthony Thomas’ belly, I’m lost.
It’s time to learn what a Zone Read offense is and how it works. You’re going to thank me for this.
I got a chance to speak with Chuck Fisher, the proprietor of FishDuck.com yesterday.** We were on the phone for an hour. He’s just a fan who finally became exasperated that after four years of Kelly’s offense, national announcers still couldn’t speak to it. So he took it upon himself to record some of the best instructional videos you’ll ever see.
[Spoiler alert: we may see more FishDuck.com content here at Kanick moving forward, stay tuned.]
Here’s the basics on the Inside Zone Read (IZR):
Here’s the money quote: It is common we zone read the best player on the defense, thus we negate his effect on our offense. … It doesn’t matter where he goes, the ball ain’t there.
I couldn’t look at this aspect of IZR without imagining Barkevious Mingo as the OLB being zone-read defender (and thus negated).
Another gem: When you don’t block the DE on the backside, the blocking responsibilities shift over to the play-side. That means we pick up an extra blocker on the play-side.
This is the sort of innovation that makes one question the premise of ‘NFL as passing league.’ It’s kind of a big deal and probably a sign that the run game isn’t dead in pro football. Consider: Oregon is averaging seven yards on a dive play.
How do you defeat this offense? Defeat the blocks. Because we announce the plays we have more negative yardage than anyone else.
But this also leads to athletic attacking teams over-reacting to the play and leaving holes open. Anyone know of an athletic attacking defense who might be prone to this?
Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Oregon’s success with IZR/OZR have led UCLA, Washington, Stanford, and Arizona State to get it in their playbooks. Add Utah and Oregon who have long run it and half the Pac-12 runs the zone read.
Does this apply to the NFL? Why shouldn’t it? The Niners, Seahawks, and Redskins have used it and, not for nothing, all made the playoffs. And now the godfather of the IZR is head coach of the Eagles. I think we can anticipate still more success with it and still more teams adopting it.
Update (5/17): I looked further into this down in the comment section. Got a data bomb for you.
The top rush teams in 2012 go: Skins, Vikes, Seahawks, and Niners. Three of them run some zone read. All of them had over ten wins and made playoffs.
So without arguing ‘Zone Read is the Future,’ let me just tie it back to the original driver for the article: YOURE TEN YEARS LATE WITH THE ‘ITS A PASSING LEAGUE’ PRONOUNCEMENT MIKE LOMBARDI.
Putting a bow on this.
Let’s review what the Browns have done to their defense this off-season:
- Added athletes to the edge for more pass-rush;
- Added depth to the d-line to keep players fresh;
- Adopted a nickel-back scheme with the d-backs for passing downs.
Let’s review what Zone Read offense exploits:
- Negates the best defensive player usually on the edge;
- Keeps up-tempo pace and so reduces (or eliminating) the opportunity for sub-packages.
The view from here is Kelly’s offense takes away all three of the tenets Horton’s defense relies on. And of course the irony is that the old-school 4-3 that has a great front four which can apply pressure without blitzes matches up perfectly against IZR/OZR… but we being the Browns needed to scrap our promising 4-3.
The only good news for the league is Chip Kelly’s inexplicable selection for his OC.
One final thought after watching and learning about this offense: some innovative team is going to pick up Tim Tebow for peanuts and add a little IZR/OZR to their playbook.
But relax Cleveland, it won’t be us.
[BTW, if you want to get hip on fire-zone blitzes, inside zone blitzes, time square blitzes.. it turns out Oregon runs an attacking 3-4 hybrid defense. Sound familiar? Thus our new friends at FishDuck offer five tutorials and two white papers on what smells a lot like what the browns will be playing. Link here.
Yes Oregon plays in a league with six zone read offenses. So i’m not saying it can’t be an effective defense. I’m saying the Browns’ premises for why it’s the system to go with are not fleshed out.]
* Here’s a Cincy Jungle post making some good points in challenging the ‘It’s a passing league’ premise.
** Interesting non-IZR info from my talk with Charles. The view from Eugene includes these random thoughts:
- The O-line coach at Oregon stayed and he was a key man, the only guy Kelly talked to on the head-set. (This bodes well for the post-Kelly Ducks.)
- Our short TJ Ward talk resulted in carefully chosen words. Duck fans were surprised he was drafted so high and my observation on him as a non-wrapper-upper tackler was confirmed.
- Steve Sarkisian’s hapless chasing of Chip Kelly’s principles is the object of fun in Eugene. UW is not a team to bet heavily on.
- Paranoia at the prospect of Urban Meyer in Columbus is rampant in Eugene. Putting a guy that smart at a college with so much resource … it’s been noted and is a concern out there.
- Round of applause for FishDuck’s co-star Abbie.
Here’s FishDuck’s OZR primer and this too is well worth your investment of ten minutes. One takeaway quote: In his presentation Chip says the offensive linemen are the most important players on the team. I’m with you Chip.