Mailbag: What does it mean to “install” a football scheme?

From reader Isaac H:

[DC Jack] Del Rio talked about the "installation" of the defense being pretty much complete over these OTA's. I've heard the term "installation" of either the offense or defense a lot over the years and have often wondered what exactly that means?

It's a very good question, Issac, so thanks for asking it. We always appreciate having the chance to learn exactly what our readers want to know about.

So, what's in an installation? In brief, its main function is to give the players a chance to learn precisely how they - the offense, defense or special teams - are going to handle all the game situations by walking through them in a slow, thorough manner. It lets them see how the group functions as a whole and how the chosen scheme applies to game situations.

It's important to note that teams always change certain parts of their offense and defense each season - it's a yearly ritual in the NFL. Much as we here at IAOFM talk about the importance of scheme, it's a good thing to also note that the schemes change in some degree, lesser or greater, every year. You also have new players coming into the system and other players who, for whatever reason, haven't had a chance to go through this process previously. The installation puts everyone on the same page.

Derek Wolfe missed it last year while finishing up his degree at Cincinnati, and he spoke this week about the difference that it was already making in his game. He had become clearer on the overall concepts of Del Rio's approach and had a chance to slowly go through all the plays and situations with an emphasis on the exact footwork, hand placement and overall technique in a way that you just don't have the time to repeat during the season. He recognized how it was benefiting him even as he went through the process.

The team also finds out who does what well and who needs to have their responsibilities tweaked to get the best overall result. Some things you don't find out until you put on pads, but it's impressive how much the coaches learn through teaching the techniques and roles to each player. We tend to think of a team's scheme as immutable during the season, but that's unintentionally misleading. It really changes each week to adapt to the upcoming opponent, and it is often changed in some degree to protect a guy who isn't as fast as you'd hope, or who either does or doesn't have quality coverage skills, among other issues. It also changes from season to season, in some degree.

As an example, Wolfe was handling his defensive end work last season in a fashion that frequent IAOFM readers know would normally be categorized as that of an odd-front or 3-4 defensive end, or as taking on the more common aspects of the role of an undertackle in a 4-3 as well as his DE responsibilities.

Having the chance to walk through an installation let him get comfortable knowing who and where his reads are, what the team wants to have happen on each play, how they could adapt if the offense counters with 'X' approach, and it details against  exactly who and how he will play his own role.

As Wolfe (among others) has noted several times, technique is what makes you effective against other players, whether they're bigger or stronger than you or not. Sheer power is never a bad thing, and players like Wolfe maximize their time in the training/development room with Luke Richesson, but knowing how to channel that raw power exactly via proper technique will give you the chance to maximize your overall effectiveness and to dominate players who have the raw tools, but not the precise technique to make that power efficacious.

As the team walks through the process, the entire squad hears and learns the role of each player, as well as the specifics of how that player's role will dovetail with those of the players around him. That helps with communication as well as improving the solidarity of the group. Other players know what to comment on, what questions to ask, and how to answer questions of the players around them.

In many ways, it's a key part of the process, whether it's called 'mandatory' or not. It's one of the players' best opportunities to learn how to play their position, as well as learning how their own role supports the goals of the team on that play, against X type of opponent (WCO, vertical/Coryell, zone blitz, etc.) or in certain key situations - goal line work, red zone work, two- and four-minute drills - as well as the more common responses to 3rd-and-short, 2nd-and-2 or -4, 1st and 10, and so forth. It's extremely thorough.

It's the chance to learn both the intricacies of your own position and to gain a better knowledge of the overview of your position, group and team. It's the players' one opportunity, over the course of the year, to slowly go through the details of their responsibilities and to see how every part fits together to create an effective team offense or defense.

For some veterans (Ryan Clady and Willis McGahee, in the case of the 2013 Broncos), since this is not mandatory, feel that they have had enough background to pick up what they need to know from studying the playbook and in training camp. It's understandable, and I wouldn't argue with it.

From my own background, I think that the time together with all the players is an effective opportunity for strengthening team unity, but they do get paid the same whether they're at the installation or not. I can understand why they wouldn't want to attend, but as both a fan and a former (medical) businessman, I think that they're missing a salutary chance. It's not my time that we're talking about, though, so it's easy for me to say that from the standpoint of someone who hasn't had to leave their family for a walkthrough, much of which would be repetitious at any rate.

But for many players, this is a golden opportunity. You can improve your technique, learn how the players around you are tasked in all situations, and clarify exactly how you can improve both your role and the team's effectiveness. It's an opportunity that only comes around once each year, and the more dedicated players on the team will be there whether they're long-term veterans or not.

The veterans who attend do so knowing that they'll have the chance to influence and improve the players around them in that setting. That gives the team one more small opportunity to improve in ways that might pay dividends next winter when the games tend to matter the most. Those small parts can fit together in a way that strengthens the important whole - game time.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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