Twenty years ago, shortly before the 1992 NFL season, Jimmy Johnson's Dallas Cowboys held a preseason scrimmage with the Los Angeles Raiders. The Raiders coaching staff was not impressed with the Cowboys, especially their defense. One coach quipped to Sports Illustrated that Dallas's defense was made up of "nothing but a bunch of little guys." He was right; Johnson did have an undersize defense, but while it may have been small, it was also something else — fast.
Jimmy Johnson knew fast. He had built his philosophy — not to mention his reputation and résumé — by collecting speed. As a college coach at the University of Miami, Johnson became famous for recruiting safeties and making them linebackers and recruiting linebackers and making them defensive ends.
By 1992, Johnson had clearly made progress with a Cowboys team that had gone 1-15 in his first season, but it was still easy for the Raiders staff to look around the size- and strength-dominated NFL and assume the present would hold true in the future. Johnson made a different bet, and it paid off. His Cowboys won the Super Bowl that year and the next. In 1995, Dallas went on to win again under Barry Switzer. Around the entire league, the past 20 years have done nothing but prove Johnson right. And those 1992 Raiders? They went 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
The 1990s Cowboys may have set the path, but it's the current coaching innovators who are molding the idea to the present. On offense, the trend appears to be so-called "hybrid" offensive players, primarily the new wave of tight ends like New England's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the Saints' Jimmy Graham, and Jermichael Finley of the Packers. All are big, tall, and fast downfield receiving threats, and those like Gronkowski can also block. Then there are the smaller "space players" like Darren Sproles who are just as dangerous catching the ball as they are running with it from the backfield. The meaning of the term "spread offense" is debatable, but the principle it embodies — that all available skill players are a potential threat on any given play, and gone are the blocking-only fullbacks and tight ends who never touch the ball — is now the standard at every level of football. These multitalented and multipurpose offensive weapons are merely the latest embodiment of that.
In response, Jimmy Johnson's edict — that speed on offense must be matched with even more speed on offense — has been adopted by defensive coaches at every level of football. Those hybrid offensive players are being met with hybrid defenders.
Fittingly, one of the present-day models of Jimmy Johnson's philosophy is in Dallas. DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys' standout defensive end/linebacker hybrid, is the latest in a long line of 'tweener ends/linebackers who are as likely to rush the passer as they are to drop into coverage. Over time, the position has been referred to as the "Elephant," "Leo," or "Buck," and although Ware is the latest version, it's existed all the way back to 49ers and Cowboys star Charles Haley in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
More recent is the rise of the true hybrid safety/linebacker, players seemingly designed to provide answers for players like Gronkowski and Graham. This is the next logical step from Johnson's method for building Miami and the Cowboys. Instead of taking high school safeties and making them linebackers, coaches are taking athletes who can hit and play pass coverage, and simply letting them make plays. That means everything from blitzing the quarterback or stuffing a running back in the backfield to running step-for-step with a tight end or slot receiver. NFL coaches have begun referring to this as their "big nickel" package, which is a bit misleading because "nickel" is a term invented to describe some smaller part of a team's overall defensive game plan. The reality is that just as NFL offenses rarely line up with two true running backs, NFL defenses rarely line up with three true linebackers. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu were the two best safeties of the last decade or so, but their successors — in body type, athleticism, and playmaking ability — may not play safety at all. Regardless of the position at which he's listed, he'll likely be a linebacker in a safety's body.
Or a cornerback's. The best defensive player in college football last year — at least in terms of highlight-reel, game-changing plays — was Tyrann Mathieu of LSU. At the college level, I don't think I've ever seen a player with such an uncanny knack for impactful moments. He intercepted screen passes, blew up quarterbacks on unexpected sacks, and simply ripped the ball from the hands of unfortunates runners and receivers. No doubt it was overdone, but the "Honey Badger" moniker was well deserved.
Yet it's difficult to say what position Mathieu played. LSU's roster lists him as a cornerback, but that's not the way he was categorized by opponents, as CBS's Bruce Feldman, who spent a week embedded with West Virginia as they prepared for the Tigers, explained:
The star or, more apt, biggest star of the LSU defense is "No. 7." To fans, No. 7 is sophomore Tyrann Mathieu, a 5-foot-8, 183-pound whirlwind. To the WVU coaches, Mathieu is known only by his jersey number, just like the rest of the Tigers. No. 7, listed in the media guide as a cornerback, but in the WVU scouting report as a SAM [strongside] linebacker, literally playing all over the field and playing faster than anyone out there. From the Cotton Bowl game, there are clips of Mathieu, then wearing No. 14, blowing past a helpless 300-pound Texas A&M offensive tackle to clobber the quarterback and force a fumble. No doubt, No. 7 is a big, big problem.
As he did all year, Mathieu lived up to his opponents' expectations, forcing two turnovers in LSU's 47-21 victory.
Mathieu's title of most impactful defender in college football as a "cornerback" is strange for a couple of reasons. Along with being undersize, he's only average in coverage. This is the reality for this new hybrid linebacker. It's not as important to be superior at any one thing as it is to do a bit of everything: stuff the run, blitz the quarterback, drop into coverage, and, above all, be a disruptive force.
The final element of the hybrid-defender movement is both the most important and the least newsworthy. Defensive coaches are absolutely not inventing new defenses to feature these players. You see a few unique sets, like the 3-3-5 stack or TCU's 4-2-5, but most coaches are simply introducing these hybrid players and their multifarious skills into existing schemes.
If a coach runs a 4-3 "under" — four defensive linemen, three linebackers shifted into an "under" look — he stays with the same playbook but swaps out a defensive end for an "elephant" hybrid end/linebacker or a SAM linebacker for a hybrid-safety type. With those changes, what was once staid and predictable becomes more difficult to scheme around. There's less certainty about who's rushing and who's staying in coverage. These athletic hybrid defenders are allowing old defensive coordinators to maintain the basic systems they know while learning a few new tricks in the meantime.
This gradual introduction shows the difference in how the game changes on either side of the ball. Offensive evolution tends to come in creative flashes. Some intrepid coach rearranges his players into a new formation or devises a new tactic, and for some period of time defensive coaches struggle to make sense of it. If that struggle persists, the notion grows into a fully formed offense — the West Coast offense, the wishbone, the Wing-T.
With defenses, instead of sudden bouts of innovation, they often morph through the slow gravitational pull of offensive evolution — never too far behind but never quite able to catch up to the latest and best ideas. This year, as defenses work to contain the newest passing attacks, hybrid defenders are the latest. But like all bets on the future, it may take 20 years to see who had it right.