Getting deep about running the ball

I’m a corporate finance guy, by profession, and one of my favorite words is fungible.  It’s a fairly specialized word, and many of you may not know it, so I’ll explain what it means.  If an item is fungible, that means that individual units of that item have mutual sameness, in terms of value, and are easily substituted.  (Commodities tend to be fungible, as mutual sameness is a lot of what makes something a commodity rather than a product.)  Currency is fungible.  One dollar bill has the exact same value as another dollar bill, even if the second one has a phone number written on it lipstick.  A bushel of corn is also fungible, as is a barrel of light sweet crude oil.  Here is the Wikipedia article, if you’re interested.

Employees tend not to be fungible.  Do y’all know of Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders?  He’s kind of a B-minus football thinker who thinks he’s an A-plus.  Like all the guys at Football Outsiders, and others of their ilk, they tend to over-value statistics, especially the proprietary ones that they create.  Anyway, this fellow Barnwell had a silly tweet the other night.

I explained to this guy what fungibility means, and how punters don’t have mutual sameness, and are therefore not substitutable.  After one lame response about how I should take a broader view of punters’ skills, he ignored me.  Fungibility, as explained, means that one item is just as good or bad as the next substitute.  They’re materially indistinguishable from each other, so there’s no point in ever choosing one over another.  Barnwell obviously doesn’t understand what the word means, from his tweet.  He’s trying to sound smart, but is actually sounding dumb.  It happens, I guess.

I don’t bring this up to show how I got the better of this guy.  I can get the better of him any time I feel like it .  That episode, and an unrelated conversation I had with my father last night about the lack of fungibility of a shipyard’s  labor force got me thinking about how nothing whatsoever in football is commoditized or fungible.  It’s a fairly obvious thought, and I’ve been at the edges of it before, but it kind of all came together for me last night.

Here’s a thought exercise for you.  What does an ideal Running Back look like, in terms of the attributes that produce the final product?  How about an ideal Center?  What’s the best offensive personnel grouping for 3rd and 5 from the 50 yard line?  What play maximizes your ability to pick up the first down?  These questions all have the same answer.  Each depends on a lot of different factors.  Everything about football is complex, so no part of it is fungible.

If you want to consistently play winning football, you need to start at the very bottom, and decide in detail how you want to construct your program.  This seems simple and intuitive, but when a coach takes over a football team, he has an existing state of affairs to contend with.  There are coaches, players, and salary cap implications to consider.  The new guy needs to evaluate which, if any, holdovers fit into his long-term vision for the program.

I’m obviously not in Josh McDaniels’ head, but I feel pretty qualified to describe his offensive plan, from 20 games worth of observation.  He wants the Broncos to be primarily a passing team on offense, which is smart in today’s NFL.  He recognizes the need to run the ball, both to set up the pass, and to run the clock once you have a lead.  The screen game is frequently used, and is an extension of the running game, more than the passing game.  We’ll discuss that later.

Running is secondary, but it’s important.  Because the primary goal is to be effective throwing the football, you have to start there first.  An offense that throws the ball frequently needs offensive linemen with the primary ability to move well in all four directions, and to anchor and mirror once they reach their engagement point.  Different protection concepts have different engagement points for each position.  An engagement point is simply the place on the field where first contact is made.  It generally depends on the drop depth of the QB.

This is a bit of a digression, but it’s an advanced piece of football information that’s worth sharing.  When a QB is going to take a 5 step drop, a receiver is going to run an intermediate route like a 12-yard In-cut, and the tackles are going to take two steps backward, and widen out against a speed rusher (making his outside angle wider) before engaging and riding the rusher past the QB’s designated launch point.  Everybody knows the plan, and it all works together.

Back to the story.  The linemen are selected to be good pass protectors first, and good screen players second.  When you’re dropping back to throw all the time, screening is an essential element of stressing a defense horizontally, and slowing down the pass rush.  In that way, and from a risk-management perspective, it acts like the running game.  The biggest play of Sunday’s game between the Broncos and Titans was the 41 yard screen pass to Eddie Royal.  It forced the Titans to spread out from the box area, and slow down on the pass rush.  The offensive line played better as the day went on, but that play stressed the Titans horizontally, and forced them to spread out their defense more than they were.

You have a robust passing game, and an improving screen game.  Finally, there’s the running game, which has been lousy this season for the Broncos.  There are several reasons for that, which we’re now going to discuss.  It really gets down to a holistic understanding of the offense, which is why I started on the passing and screen games.  I’m not the only guy in the world who’s qualified to get into this level of detail, but I may be the only on who’s willing to do it for the Broncos.

The first question is why.

1.  Why do the Broncos pass the ball? They pass because it’s the most efficient way to score points and gain leads in football games.  Once leads are gained, the opponents necessarily are limited in their ability to be tactically flexible.  Having a lead is always the goal.

2.  Why do the Broncos use so many screens? Screens make both downfield passing and traditional handoff-based running more effective by forcing defenses to spread out pre-snap, and to read the initial action of all eligible receivers before pursuing the QB or RB with the ball.  The Broncos are currently an average screening team, and they were below average at it in 2009.  The best screen team in the NFL is New Orleans, which does things nobody else does in the screen game.

3.  OK, so why do the Broncos run? They run to set up the pass, and to control the clock while maintaining a lead.  They also do it to entice defenses to play man-to-man in the scoring area.  Remember how I discussed the Broncos passing scheme a couple weeks ago?

There’s literally no right defensive answer, because the scheme is determined to play 11 on 10 (or 9), and is flexible enough to accomplish that, no matter the counter-measure.

I just went there.  I quoted myself.  Bill Barnwell would be so disappointed.

He can get at me when he gets the definition of fungible down.  Extending my thought about creating a situation where there is no right defensive answer, you can incorporate the running game into that overall aim.  Go with me here.  Let’s say we have 11 personnel on the field, which is the most common grouping that the Broncos use.  This is passing personnel probably 75%-80% of the time, so defenses are going to substitute in a CB, and substitute out a LB.

Defenses will either lean toward trying to pressure the QB or playing coverage.  If they’re bringing pressure, or stacking the box, screens are a really good idea, especially on early downs, and against zone blitzes.  If you think they’re going to give you cover-2 with seven men in the box, you want to run the ball.  If you’re getting man-to-man, maybe throwing the ball is a good idea.  If a blitz is coming from one side, either throw to that side, or run away from it.

When an offense is really clicking, like New Orleans was for most of 2009, it can attack whatever a defense shows.  That’s where the Broncos are trying to get to this season, and they aren’t far from it.  They need to start running the ball better, and there are a few ways they can start doing that right away.

For one thing, I think the Broncos should stop using Fullbacks on any play which isn’t short yardage with 2 yards or less to go.  They have gotten very little value from Spencer Larsen as a blocker, and they got negative value from Dan Gronkowski Sunday.  The Broncos best personnel packages are 10 and 11, especially once Knowshon Moreno gets healthy.  I was listening to former coach and scout Chris Mattura speak on Sirius NFL Radio a day or two ago, and he hit on a fundamental belief of mine in offensive football, that I don’t consider to be obvious.

When the defense thinks you’re going to run, you should consider passing.  When they think you’re going to pass, you should consider running.  That historically has pertained to down and distance, but increasingly in the modern NFL, it pertains just as much to personnel groupings.  When the Broncos have 3, or especially 4 WRs on the field, and they’re spread out a lot, either 2X2 or 3X1, defenses have to be really worried about that, and they have to have a lot of DBs on the field, aligned outside to match up with them.

That kind of personnel grouping definitionally means there are less good tacklers on the field, because you’re mostly looking at backup CBs in the place of starting LBs.  Mattura made the point on the radio the other night that he believes in never accounting for blocking CBs in base personnel.  You block linemen, linebackers, and safeties, and leave it to the RB to get past the play-side CB.  His point was valid that if a RB can’t beat a CB most of the time, that means you need a new RB.

In today’s NFL, nickel and dime running are where it’s at, especially for a team like the Broncos that really likes to throw the ball.  It may seem counter-intuitive to take out a FB and a TE to run the ball better, but it’s the smartest thing the Broncos can do.  Every time I see them in 21 or 22 personnel, I wonder why in the world they’d do that.  It’s wasting a body on a bad FB, and practically asking the defense to stack the box, and have more hats there than you do.  On the topic of nickel running, I remember when Knowshon Moreno was drafted in 2009′s first round.  I didn’t like the pick at the time, but I remember Michael Lombardi talking about it on NFL Network that night, and he brought me around.  (He’s one of the few guys on the internet who writes about football who I actually think is smart.)

Lombardi’s point was that Moreno was an ideal nickel RB, because he’s a very good blocker and receiver, and because he’s powerful enough to run through the arm tackles of most DBs.  Moreno has been missed the last two games, but I really feel like he can be effective running from these sub packages, against a lot of defensive backs.  But please, no more fullbacks, okay?  I know Merril Hoge likes them, and has his own utterly retarded nickname for them, but they provide negative value for the Broncos.  (I do love Larsen on special teams, though.)

The other thing the Broncos need to do is get their offensive line healthier, and working well together.  I’d advocate for getting Zane Beadles ready to step in at LG, because I’m not impressed with Stanley Daniels’ play the last couple weeks.  I think a group of Ryan Clady, Beadles, J.D. Walton, Chris Kuper, and Ryan Harris is what the team had in mind when constructing the 2010 roster, and I’d like to see the Broncos go that way soon.

Once you have your five guys, they can start getting on the same page in working together.  Clady isn’t quite himself yet, but we can only hope that his health improves pretty quickly.  I applaud his toughness and effort, and he is mostly doing a pretty good job.  I think Kuper and Harris are going to get better as they get further away from their recent injuries.  Walton has been excellent as a rookie, and I’m anxious to see Beadles at LG, where I think he fits best.  The line needs to play better, but I believe that they can, and they will.  We just may not see clear, discernible evidence of it until after the Baltimore and Jets games, because those teams are really good up-front.  They’re also both really beatable through the air, and screen game.

Briefly, please allow me to make a note about blocking schemes.  Do y’all know @ProsB4Hos?  He’s a Broncos fan, and he means well, but I think he’s a fairly negative fan.  He seems to hate Josh McDaniels and love Peyton Hillis, for example, which in both cases, seems to run counter to rooting for the Broncos.  If that’s how he wants to do it, though, vaya con dios.  I invoke Pros (I don’t know his real name ) because he tweeted the following to Doug Lee and I on Sunday night.

I addressed his tweet on Sunday, but it’s a point that needs to be widely made.  Where does this “power system” nonsense come from?  If you’re yelling The Denver Post, I think that was the origin of it too.  Power System is a Denver Post neologism, best as I can tell, like islamofascist.  Suddenly, a lot of Broncos fans think the blocking scheme has changed to something foreign and communist.  All you see on #broncos is pining for the days of zone blocking.  Things were so good when we were zone blocking.  McD is a fool!!!!

*Best 30 for 30 on ESPN narrator voice*  What if I told you that the Broncos are still mostly using zone blocking techniques?  Would you be shocked?  How about if I just come out and told you that there’s no such thing as a Power System?  I mean, we’re getting into dangerous territory here.  You’d have to take it on faith that I know something about football that nobody at the DP knows.  Can you take that leap?

I’m leaping, whether y’all are coming with me, or not.  Here goes.  There are two primary types of blocking techniques used in the NFL.  They are as follows:

1.  Zone Blocking – The linemen take a read step, and then move laterally in a coordinated manner, and blocks areas rather than specific players.  There’s a lot of combination blocks by uncovered players.  (That means a player with nobody straight over their face will double-team with a covered player briefly, and then move off to hit a LB at the second level.  The best I’ve ever seen at doing so was Tom Nalen.)  By getting defenders moving laterally, and cutting backside pursit, the zone blocking scheme can create a lot of cutback lanes.

2.  Angle Blocking – This is the other kind of blocking, and it’s the kind that anybody who was a lineman in pee wee football learned to do.  There is no read step in angle blocking, and linemen either move forward to hit a player in front of them, or pull to a different location to hit another player.  It can be considered a somewhat man-to-man approach, but it’s more landmark based than specific person based.  By that, I mean the plan will call for the Center to block the first guy to his left, and the left guard to pull to the right edge, and for everybody else to work off of that.

You want your linemen to be hitting with power in both schemes, obviously.  Most teams tend to favor one style or the other, but nearly all use elements of both from time to time.  The McDaniels regime is using more angle techniques than the Shanahan regime did, but I wouldn’t say that they’re doing it on more than 25% or 30% of run plays.  (I’m not charting the plays, so that’s an estimate by me, but I’m sure it’s pretty close to whatever the right answer is.)

Think about the teams with really big offensive lines, like Cincinnati, Dallas, Minnesota, Miami, New Orleans, and San Diego, and feel free to use this table I created to help you do so:

Those are teams that are using a lot of angle blocking, and their play-calling reflects the size of their linemen.  These are big guys who are playing straight-ahead football.  (New Orleans is an exception, to some degree, in the sense that they use a ton of screens, despite being a big group.  The make it work really well, though.)  Even Dallas, which runs a lot of outside receiver screens and inside RB draws does it without moving linemen laterally.  (It’s actually pretty brilliant and unique,  what they do.  Tony Romo takes a 3 step drop, and reads both inside and outside.  Whichever is a clearer matchup gets the ball.)

The five should-be starters for the Broncos average 6-4 and 308 pounds, which is bigger than the players they used in the Alex Gibbs days, when guys would be fined for getting to 300 pounds.  If you listen to the dopes at the DP, you’d think there was some sea change with the adoption of this mythical Power System.  (My dad used to run a business that sold power systems to the US Navy, and my first job out of college was there, so that name makes me laugh.)

So here’s another table I made, showing the Broncos and some other smallish groups.

Do you notice something?  The Broncos are on average about a pound bigger than the guys on the Patriots.  If you listen to the Know-Nothing Party errr DP, you’d think New England had some kind of huge line group like the Bengals.  It’s a Power System, after all, right?  The truth is, all of these teams do a lot of zone running and screening, and that requires more nimble offensive linemen.  I reiterate, both the Broncos and Patriots employ both zone and angle blocking principles.  Both teams actually use more zone techniques than angle techniques, if you want to get into facts, or whatever.  Both teams like versatility in their linemen, which should be no surprise, since they like versatility throughout the roster.

So, back to @ProsB4Hos and his tweet.  It’s not a “Power System”, we’ve established that.  Even if it were the Dolphins running an angle blocking scheme, Peyton Hillis still wouldn’t necessarily be a great fit for what the Broncos are doing, and what they’ll be trying to do as time goes on.  We’re WAY stuck on Peyton Hillis as an overall fan base, and the hate and discontent is mostly fed by the Know-Nothing posse in the Denver media.  Noted idiot Mark Kiszla actually said that Hillis is diminishing Josh McDaniels’ IQ, as if he doesn’t realize how completely absurd that comment is.  Josina Anderson, well, I picked on her last week, and y’all know about her crush on the P-Man.  Today though, brother Pork Chop took the cake (after taking some donuts, pork rinds, and other stuff too, no doubt).  I can’t even adequately describe how stupid it is, so I just screen-grabbed it.

The answer to the Broncos’ struggles is a guy who they traded away.  As if they could just take him back.  As if the Broncos are going to start running the ball with one back 25-30 times a game.  As if McDaniels is just some kind of idiot who failed to see the brilliance that Mike Shanahan and Eric Mangini saw and see.

Here’s the deal with Hillis, which is a reiteration for me.  He’s a good runner and receiver, and he’s pretty well-suited for the kind of scheme he’s in.  The Browns have him running a lot of straight-ahead, quick opening runs, and some swing passes.  It’s right up his alley, and he’s getting good blocking, which is a highly underrated aspect of the story.  I’m happy for Hillis, who has established himself as the preeminent white tailback in the NFL.  As the guys at Kissing Suzy Kolber would say, he’s Welkah Tough.  (I just learned of that site today, but I find it to be fantastic.)

There is a very good reason Hillis is not in Denver, though.  He’s a guy who wears down a defense, and gets stronger as he gets more carries.  He’s also an awful blocker, and don’t let anybody tell you different.  Even in Sunday’s game, he was very, very clumsy in pass-protection.  I didn’t even watch it that closely, but there was a notable time when he backed into Seneca Wallace without being pushed into him.  He just doesn’t have a feel for it.  He’s also a bad run-blocker, so you can’t use him as a FB.  He gets decent initial contact, but he has no technique to maintain blocks.  Pork Chop is wrong that Hillis was lead blocker in college.  He was a third-option runner, and a first-option receiver from both Tight End and the backfield.  He “blocked” a little bit, but rarely ever as an Iso FB in the B gap.  That’s why he was a 7th round pick.  He was a slowish, white tweener.  It turns out, he’s a good halfback if you put him in the right situations.  Good for him, and the Browns, who have deemed it the right move to put him in those situations.

I didn’t hear Josh McDaniels say this myself, but I saw a paraphrased comment on the excellent It’s All Over, Fat Man! from Ponderosa:

Thanks for the kind words, Ponderosa, but especially, thanks for the bit about McDaniels’ interview on the Fan.  Not being in the Denver market, I miss those, and I appreciate it.  It makes sense, what McDaniels said, right?  Hillis isn’t a good blocker, and he doesn’t make DBs miss in nickel running situations.  He’s very good at catching the ball, but I’ve never really seen him do a lot of screening.  He’s not a guy who should be in a limited-use role in a pass-heavy offense.  McDaniels did Hillis a favor by sending him out.

So, we’re back to fungibility, where we started.  Strategies in football vary, as do priorities, coaching styles, and personnel.  Players are not fungible, just as no human resources anywhere are.  People are not commodities.  Next time you hear somebody say that Peyton Hillis would improve the Broncos running performance, send them the link to this.  I promise you, he wouldn’t improve anything right now.  The struggles are not just due to a player-carrying-the-ball issue, they’re due to a scheme issue, and a blocking execution issue too.  Those things are all going to improve.

The Broncos need to move the football and score points as a result of moving the football.  Whether it be throwing downfield, screening, or running the ball, they have every ability to do that.  Running the ball with handoffs is going to be tough the next two games, but we’ll talk more about it as those games get close.  For now, focus on the things we talked about, and especially, look for more 10 and 11 personnel.  If it occurs to me, it’s going to occur to the Broncos coaches too.

The Broncos are a good team this year, whether or not they run the ball.  Running it will make the whole road easier to hoe, though, and I believe that they can improve quickly and noticeably in that area.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have written more than 4,000 words about it.  I’m Ted Bartlett, and I approve this message.

Originally posted at One Man Football

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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