This time last year, Doug Marrone, then Syracuse's head coach, had a serious problem — his offense. Marrone, now head coach of the Buffalo Bills, seemingly had all the pieces needed to be successful. Marrone followed his tenure as a highly respected NFL offensive line coach with three seasons as offensive coordinator for one of the league's most prolific offenses, the Drew Brees–led New Orleans Saints. At Syracuse, he had a quarterback considered a possible first-round pick, Ryan Nassib, and had been recruiting his own players for several seasons. Yet in 2011, Syracuse finished 90th in total offense, as they transformed a somewhat-promising start into a disappointing 5-7 record, including five straight losses to end the year.
Marrone and his offensive coordinator at Syracuse, Nathaniel Hackett, son of longtime NFL coach Paul Hackett (and now the offensive coordinator with the Bills), spent the offseason trying to figure out how they could fix a pro-style offense that was supposed to take college football by storm. The answer was to go the other direction — to learn from the top college offenses. Marrone and his staff spent extensive time that summer studying teams like Oregon, Toledo, and West Virginia to figure out how to blend their up-tempo, spread-it-out philosophies with the NFL concepts Marrone and Hackett believed in. They didn't pull the trigger right away, but after the first couple weeks of training camp showed little improvement on the prior year's results, Marrone called for the switch that would change the course of his career.
Before the second play of his first NFL game, Philadelphia's new head coach, Chip Kelly, a man who made his reputation as the architect of college football's most prolific offense — the Oregon Ducks' fast-break, spread-it-out attack — did the unthinkable: He had his team huddle. He followed this with another knee-weakening moment: His quarterback, Michael Vick, lined up under center, an alignment from which the Eagles ran a basic run to the left. For 31 other NFL teams, this would be as ho-hum as it gets. But this is Chip Kelly, he of the fast practices, fast plays, and fast talking. By starting out this way, Kelly, who repeatedly has said he doesn't do anything without a sound reason behind it, was no doubt sending some kind of message to fans, pundits, and opposing coaches waiting anxiously to see what a Chip Kelly offense would look like at the professional level. It was a message that was unmistakable: See, I can adapt to the NFL.
At least that’s what I thought at first. But after studying Philadelphia's game against New England, I came away with almost the exact opposite conclusion: While there were clear differences from what Kelly’s system looked like at Oregon, his Eagles offense looked a lot more like the Ducks offense than I ever anticipated.
For years, the Cowboys have been nothing if not erratic. Whether it’s quarterback Tony Romo's on-field inconsistencies, the vacillations of owner Jerry Jones, or the propensity of a very smart head coach (Jason Garrett is a Princeton grad who scored a 36 on the Wonderlic test) to make silly in-game decisions, Dallas has all too often seemed like a team that just cannot get out of its own way.
In recent years, running back, once football's glamour position, has been diminished beyond all recognition. Not so long ago, NFL teams routinely built around franchise running backs, but now the need to highly invest in the position is mostly gone. Late-round picks in established systems frequently explode onto the scene, only to be replaced by some other value pick in time. The franchise running back is dead.
Except, of course, for Adrian Peterson, who is the exception that proves the rule. Nearly every bit of modern football wisdom we’ve learned about running backs — running backs should be short and compact, running backs don’t return from major knee surgery as the same players — must be qualified with “… unless you’re talking about Adrian Peterson.” From his talent, to his results, to his importance to his offense and his team's success, Peterson is a throwback to an earlier time, a time when running backs still reigned supreme.
Much of the talk this offseason has been about stopping the read-option, but in Sean Payton's year away from the NFL, he had trouble with a much different offensive attack: the single wing.
During his Roger Goodell–mandated suspension from the Saints, Payton spent his time coaching his son's sixth-grade pee wee football team, the Liberty Christian Warriors, who eventually went to the league championship game. The Warriors lost just two games all season, but both of those losses came against the same team, the Springtown Orange Porcupines.
For those familiar with Sean Payton, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he took this seriously (well, at least mostly seriously). After losing to the Porcupines 38-6 in the regular season, Payton enlisted the help of some rather noteworthy former NFL coaches to help devise a plan that could slow down Springtown Orange's offense. It didn't work: Payton's Warriors lost 58-18.
The Philadelphia Eagles' selection of USC quarterback Matt Barkley in the fourth round of this year’s draft appears, by any logical measure, to be a great value pick. At one time, Barkley was talked about as a high first-round pick, and there's no doubting his precise footwork or his accuracy on short and intermediate passes. That’s saying nothing of his personality and whiteboard smarts, which coaches and scouts have raved about since he started as a true freshman at powerhouse Mater Dei High School.
Barkley steadied USC through the loss of Pete Carroll to the NFL, NCAA sanctions that limited scholarships and depleted the Trojans roster, and the often bizarre antics of his coach, Lane Kiffin. Barkley’s final season at USC, one in which the Trojans began the season ranked no. 1 in the country before finishing 7-6, was one to forget. His play was inconsistent, and he finished the year on the sideline after suffering a shoulder injury against UCLA. But for Chip Kelly and the Eagles, grabbing such an accomplished player in the fourth round should qualify as the quintessential "value" pick.
The NFL offseason is fundamentally about one thing: hope. The mantra of "Any Given Sunday" is expanded to "Any Given Season," and the new — new rookies, new facilities, new schemes, new management — is the stuff those dreams are made of. But the most powerful offseason story lines, both in depth and on-field potential, are ones of redemption. Alex Smith's impending trade to the Kansas City Chiefs to play for Andy Reid offers that chance for both men.
Smith's story is, by now, well known. A former no. 1 overall pick by the 49ers, he, like the rest of the organization, stumbled around for several years until Jim Harbaugh became the head coach before the 2011 season. That year, Smith flourished in a game-manager role as the 49ers won 13 games and were a few special teams miscues away from playing in the Super Bowl. In 2012, Smith was better in almost every statistical category — completion percentage, yards per pass attempt, an impressive 104.1 passer rating — until he got hurt … and never regained his job, as the young, fleet-footed, strong-armed Colin Kaepernick took over and led the team to the Super Bowl.
Smith isn't yet 30, and a marriage with new Chiefs coach Andy Reid's offense seems — on the surface, at least — like it has the potential for sustained success. Reid is a stalwart of the old West Coast offense, the one developed by Bill Walsh and then carried throughout the NFL by protégés like Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, and, of course, Reid, who spent the last 14 seasons as head coach of the Eagles. Smith seems like the model West Coast offense quarterback — smart, accurate on underneath throws, with good feet and quickness. The scouting report on Smith sounds a lot like one for another great West Coast offense quarterback — Joe Montana.
"The running game in pro football has gotten so boring," former 49ers coach Bill Walsh remarked some years ago. "There's just four or five plays they can run. I think the whole thing is headed in the wrong direction, and it's really unfortunate." Even after his passing in 2007, Walsh’s observation had held true for some time. That is, until now. And fittingly, it's the 49ers leading the way.
The Pistol read option plays aside (we’ll get to those), the 49ers' multifarious running game uses many of the same blocking schemes Walsh taught for nearly four decades. Jim Harbaugh deserves much of the credit — the vision for these 49ers is certainly his — but the mastermind behind the 49ers' weekly game plans and the coach who deserves credit for taking Walsh’s criticism to heart is San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
After a decade of mostly familiar names, Super Bowl XLVII is set to provide some welcome new blood under center. Sunday will mark the first title game in five years to feature two quarterbacks who’ve never been here before, but that’s about where their similarities in experience end. For Colin Kaepernick, this start in New Orleans comes barely three months after the first of his NFL career. For Joe Flacco, it’s the next step in his playoff success. But even with all the pressure young Kaepernick is set to face, in my mind, and in terms of scheme, support, and circumstance, there will be more of it placed on Flacco.
Like the 49ers, previous versions of these Ravens relied on a bruising running game and great defense to buttress a young quarterback as he improved from week-to-week. This year, those areas of strength have lagged. After a long stretch of dominance, Baltimore's famed and historic defense fell to the middle of the pack in nearly every category, and although the Ray Rice–led running game is still formidable, its efficiency and production took a step back.
This means that for the first time, the Ravens have become Joe Flacco’s team, and more than ever, Baltimore has relied on its passing attack. Ray Rice has been a steady bailout option for most of Flacco’s career, but it’s Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Dennis Pitta who will be the keys come Sunday night.
Manti Te'o finished the 2010 season, his second in South Bend, as already one of the most decorated linebackers in Notre Dame history. A former five-star recruit, Te'o finished his sophomore year with 133 tackles (good for 21st nationally), was a finalist for both the Butkus and Bednarik awards, was named a second-team All-American by CNN/SI, and, against Stanford, had managed 21 tackles. There was just one problem: He could've played a lot better.
"He had a lot of production he left on the table," Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who is also Te'o's position coach, recently recalled. Fortunately for both the Irish and their star linebacker, Te'o, as Diaco puts it, "longs to be coached." That offseason, Diaco put together a DVD from the season — a lowlight reel of sorts — and gave it to Te'o with an accompanying message: "If you really want to take the next step in your game, here are the 83 plays you will be able to make next year.” The response was, in hindsight, predictable. "He studied that thing," Diaco said. "He broke the film studying that thing."
With Tom Brady and Peyton Manning still dissecting defenses, this weekend’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins might not produce this year’s Super Bowl winner, but it may still be the key to the NFL’s future. Since their 3-6 start, the Redskins are on a seven-game winning streak, during which their already potent offense stabilized into one of the best in the league. Seattle, on its own five-game winning streak, has coalesced into arguably the best team in football. After outscheming the Chicago Bears en route to a dramatic overtime victory, Seattle pulled off one of the greatest three-game stretches in league history by bludgeoning the Cardinals, Bills, and 49ers, a stretch during which they outscored their opponents 150 to 30.
Among similar dominant stretches in NFL history, one that comes close was by the 1940 Chicago Bears, whose streak culminated in a 73-0 victory over the Redskins in the NFL Championship. That record offensive output followed totals of 47 and 31 points in the previous two weeks. The success was the direct result of a switch in offensive scheme by legendary Bears coach and owner George Halas, a switch that helped turn a 7-3 Bears loss to the Redskins earlier that season into the most lopsided championship game in any major professional sport. Halas, frustrated by his offense, turned to good friend and Stanford coach Clark Shaughnessy for help.
At the time, every NFL team ran the single wing offense, a shotgun-based attack with an unbalanced line where the ball was typically snapped directly to the tailback. Shaughnessy — first at the University of Chicago, where he and Halas became friends, and later at Stanford — had revived the old T-formation, which placed a quarterback directly behind the center. Shaughnessy updated the T to include a variety of motions and misdirection to buttress the running game and bolted on an all-new passing attack. The combination made the offense nearly unstoppable — at least in college. Even as late as 1940, most pro coaches viewed the T formation and its reliance on the quarterback making fakes and dropping back to pass as a bizarre gimmick. That is until Chicago ripped through the latter part of its schedule, and, with Sid Luckman as the prototype for a new era of "T-formation quarterbacks," built a dynasty.
It can’t be overstated just how impressive Stanford's 17-15 overtime victory over Oregon was. Stanford almost entirely shut down Oregon and its record-setting offense, the same offense that shredded the Cardinal 53-30 last season. Last year, Oregon's victory kept Stanford out of the national championship conversation. This year, the Cardinal might have returned the favor.
Last week, I described how Oregon's flashy offensive attack is, at its core, truly about old-school, fundamental football. Stanford's defense — Stanford’s entire program — is unequivocally about the same. On offense, the Cardinal are a power football team, with most of their passing game based on play-action. On defense, they use a "one-gapping," attacking 3-4 system — the same system brought to Stanford by current San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio just a few years ago.
Peyton Manning's return to the NFL has not exactly been a fairy tale. His team sits at 3-3, they've routinely fallen behind early in games, they average a paltry 93.8 rushing yards per game, and Manning's top receiving targets include young but inconsistent players like Demaryius Thomas and the ageless but hardly explosive Brandon Stokley. It’s not just those around Manning who have come in for criticism. Manning is still recovering from his neck injury, and there have been whispers — some quieter than others — that his arm strength isn't, and will never be, what it once was.
Maybe so. Yet, for those still craving some of that old Manning magic, those moments when Peyton shows us all what quarterbacking is all about, Monday was proof that the 36-year-old can still deliver.
There are only three undefeated teams left in the NFL: the Atlanta Falcons, the Houston Texans, and — wait for it — the Arizona Cardinals. Not only is Arizona's record a surprise, but to get there, they knocked off preseason favorites New England and Philadelphia, as well as a Seattle team with wins over Dallas and (however controversial) Green Bay. Most of the credit for Arizona’s perfect record has to go to its defense. Although the smart money remains against their ability to keep up this success, going 3-0 is extremely difficult in today's NFL, and Arizona deserves respect for that alone.
The main concern about Arizona going into the season was its offense, and although they haven’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard, whether it was Kevin Kolb's off-the-bench comeback drive to beat the Seahawks in Week 1 or their get-the-lead-and-hold-on performance against a normally resourceful Patriots team, the Cardinals have made just enough plays to win. Last weekend against Philadelphia was no different: Arizona was actually out-gained by the Eagles, but they made enough key plays on offense to put pressure on Michael Vick and allow their defense to force three turnovers (including a 93-yard fumble return for a touchdown) on the team’s way to victory.
In Week 1, the Carolina Panthers’ listless offense turned over the ball twice, gave up three sacks, and registered a grand total of 10 — yes, 10 — rushing yards. Last week against the Saints, Carolina exploded for 35 points and 219 yards on the ground while Cam Newton averaged an amazing 12.7 yards per pass attempt. The Panthers looked like the offense it was for much of last season, and they did it by getting back to what is, for them, basics — the read-option running game.
Newton is a one-of-kind offensive weapon, and his abilities to both be a threat to run the ball and make accurate run-game reads make everyone on the Panthers offense better, including his wide receivers. Steve Smith had Carolina’s biggest play of the day — a 66-yard catch in which no one on New Orleans's defense was within 20 yards of him. As Newton explained after the game, Smith was the direct beneficiary of Carolina's dynamic rushing attack: "Of all of the people on this field to be wide open, you would think Smitty would be the last person,” Newton said. “But that is what type of pressure the zone read gives us."