Why you shouldn’t align with the McDaniels haters

Criticizing Josh McDaniels is lots of fun, and it’s not too hard to do.  I mean, let’s face it.  He’s young, (the same age as me, incidentally) and he thinks he knows how to build and run a winning football program.  It’s the same kind of deal as with Raheem Morris, who I’ll be writing about on Tuesday evening.  (I have a planned event tonight… sorry that my around the league stuff will have to wait a day.) How can it be possible that these young guys would dare to act in complete defiance to the football cognoscenti?  (Think about it… it’s really funny to consider fools like Peter King, Mark Kiszla, Woody Paige, and Pete Prisco as being part of a cognoscenti, isn’t it?  No?  How about an intelligentsia?  I didn’t see Dinner for Schmucks, but I’m picturing some distinct similarities.)

One thing is clear.  (Well, really, a lot of things are clear, when you are the type of person who can see clearly.)  Josh McDaniels doesn’t care what you or I think.  A lot of people, like Woody, get offended by that fact, but I’m personally very impressed by it.  I am a big believer that most of the world is usually wrong, on most everything, and that the road of conventional wisdom leads to the palace of ignorance, just as the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.  (OK, so, I stopped really believing so much in excess when I turned about 25.  It was a fun philosophy for awhile, though.)

In any case, McDaniels has a clear vision for how you win football games in the NFL, and give yourself a chance to win championships.  His program comes first, which, in itself is offensive to the thinking of some.  Some people will tell you that football coaches (or business executives, or whatever) should adapt their approach to the resources they currently have in place.  It’s a pretty conservative (and stupid) way of thinking, and when it fails, and the coach gets fired after 3-4 years, he doesn’t get beaten up too badly.  Chances are, he recycles into another job in a couple years, and history repeats itself, but he respected the game, and acted in accordance with the scores of other mediocre coaches in the fat part of the bell curve.  The media will still show him some love, and present him as a poor, hapless salt-of-the-earth type, who was in JUST over his head.  (Remember, this was the accepted Norv Turner narrative, until he got into a situation where a capable program-setter had set a good program, and left him to simply coach.)

Newspaper reporters and columnists also tend to be the kind of people who you’ll find near the fat part of the professional-class bell curve, so they naturally love the kind of conservative, conventional thinking you get from most coaches.  It’s good to generally agree with everybody else, and to never go too far out on any limbs.  When some young whipper-snapper comes along and frankly exploits conventional wisdom, they get confused, and they fear what they don’t understand.  As sports writers, (which as Michael Lewis put it, is sort of the women’s auxiliary to the sport itself) they feel the need to maintain a little bit of macho-ness, and they don’t want to show fear, so it comes across as anger and disdain.

I’m here to tell you what the plan is with Josh McDaniels, and that it’s working.  In the era of the salary cap, which we can only assume will continue once the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached, teams have constraints.  Since everybody is earning and spending roughly the same amount of money, parity is systemically encouraged, and generally achieved.  (Digressing for a second, it should be noted that revenues vary much more widely, team-to-team, than expenses do.  Obviously, that drives a wide variance in profitability too.)  Teams with the best programs in place are the ones which defy parity, and regression toward the mean.  This is a pretty simple concept, but most people don’t see the forest through the trees.

Which teams have consistently defied the NFL’s intended systemic parity throughout the 2000s?  We may quibble a little bit, but I’d name four: New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.  The people who see the trees, but miss the forest, will reflexively attribute their success mostly to the Quarterbacks, in 3 of the 4 cases (Pittsburgh being the exception).  The QB play of all 4 teams has been responsible in large ways for the success of each, but it’s far from the whole story.  Each of these four organizations (and you can add others who are more successful than not like Dallas, the Giants, and San Diego) has a clear philosophy when it comes to player procurement and schemes.

I don’t want to rehash the decisions to jettison Jay Cutler,  Brandon Marshall, and Tony Scheffler, but understand my general point that McDaniels had the courage to do what he was sure was the right thing, in the face of constant, unreasonable criticism.  McDaniels has a vision of what a championship team looks like.  It’s big, strong, and versatile on both lines.  It has DBs with excellent ball skills, who get the ball back for the offense, and it favors experience and intelligence on defense.  On offense, it throws the ball first, to get leads, but avoids committing turnovers, and it runs second to protect those leads.  Above all, it understands value, and measures it against financial constraints, and subsequently allocates value and cost efficiently throughout the roster.  Generally, you pay quality QBs, offensive linemen and pass rushers, and skimp somewhat on RBs, ILBs, WRs, and DBs, where scheme can make up for lesser talent sometimes.

The main thing I took away from yesterday’s game, and also from Week 1, is that the Broncos have an awesome passing game, and that every team in the NFL is going to be challenged to contain it.  It has less to do with the players (who are good) than it does with the scheme, much like New Orleans.  Right now, I’ll put the Broncos passing scheme with those of New Orleans, New England, and Dallas as the best in the NFL.

I could just put that out there, and expect you to take my word for it, but that would be pretty un-Tedlike.  Instead, I’m going to explain and diagram what I mean, until I run out of time in about an hour.  Ready….  Begin!!!!!  (Who’s missed that?)

A passing scheme is fundamentally about math, just like a pass coverage scheme.  You have a certain number of players, eleven, except when you only have 10, as in the TD play in Jacksonville last week.  Assuming 11, you can assign each to do something specific to promote the success of each play.  A minimum (and generally a maximum) of 5 players will be covered, meaning they aren’t in the backfield, or on the end of the line.  Those players are required to block, and can’t go downfield until a forward pass has left the QB’s hand.

If you only have those 5 men blocking, that’s called minimum protection.  All teams do this some, and some (like the Bears) do it almost constantly.  If there are 5 linemen and 1 QB, there are 5 eligible receivers.  (Also known as the two ends on the line of scrimmage, and 3 men in the backfield.)  Schemes will sometimes assign one or more of those players to stay in, and help with pass protection, mostly TEs and RBs.  Maximum protection will generally be 8 blockers and 2 receivers, and on certain plays, most teams will do this.  Picture a play action pass with a seven-step drop.  Usually, there’s one deep route, and one underneath route, and everybody else is selling the run, and/or blocking.

I know what you’re thinking; why are you going through this basic stuff, Bartlett?  We know all this.  Right?  Well, the story gets better.  Pass scheming is about math.  I already said that, but focus on defense for a minute.  Defenses can choose to either have their players rush the QB, or drop into coverage (which can be zone, man-to-man, or a combination.)  The defense is going to rush X players, and drop Y players.  The offense is going to keep A players in to protect, and send B players out into the pattern.  WTF?  Algebra?  Really?

Let’s start with personnel, and illustrate this.  Pretty universally, offenses will identify their personnel groupings by number.  Here are the ones you’ll generally see:

10 Personnel 1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR

11 Personnel 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR

12 Personnel 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR

13 Personnel 1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR

20 Personnel 2 RB, 0 TE, 3 WR

21 Personnel 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR

22 Personnel 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR

01 Personnel 0 RB, 1 TE, 4 WR

00 Personnel 0 RB, 0 TE, 5 WR

Are you following me?  Algebraically, (considering that X and Y are digits, and not multipliers), the team is in XY personnel, where X = the number of RBs, Y equals the number of TEs, and the number of WR equals 5 minus X minus Y.  The personnel grouping is the first element of pass scheming, on both sides of the ball.  Generally, a defense will want to match the offense’s personnel grouping, so the offense has a dictatorial advantage in this sense.  That means if I’m in 11 personnel, the defense is going to see that, and and send in an extra CB, and remove a LB, to be in their nickel package.  If I’m in 10 personnel, or 01 personnel, it’ll probably be a dime, featuring 4 CBs.  (Defenses which feature safeties or LBs who can cover exceptionally well in man-to-man don’t always have to follow suit, which is a big advantage for them.  Witness the Buckhalter TD yesterday, where 11 personnel cleared Seattle’s big guys out of the inside running lane.)

OK, so, from a personnel balancing perspective, defenses will try to match offenses.  Generally, offenses have more good WRs than defenses have CBs, so in sub packages, the offense has a built-in quality advantage.  Ponder that, and remember it, because we’re going to come back to it shortly.  Let’s consider alignment of the formation.  I have 11 guys on offense, and I have one rule in constructing formations, which I alluded to before.  Seven men must be on the line of scrimmage, and only the two on each end are eligible receivers.  Usually you’ll have a Tight End and a Split End (which is the technical term for one flavor of “Wide Receiver”, which is a dumbed-down term).  With seven men on the line, that leaves a QB, and three other men lined up behind the line.  The other “Wide Receiver” who is behind the line is technically called a Flanker if he’s the furthest player outside, or a Slotback, if he’s inside of a Split End or Flanker.

So, let’s say I have 11 Personnel, which is very common in the NFL.  How do I line them up, given those rules?  Here are the first 6 ideas that occurred to me.

You see that?  Clockwise from the top left, I have an Ace look, a shotgun look with twin backs, a 4-wide look, an empty spread shotgun look, a tight 2 by 2 shotgun look, and a trips look with one back.  This is all from 11 personnel, and the defense has to be ready to match up with all of these, and other looks, with nickel personnel.  I could have easily come up with about 2 dozen more variations from this personnel grouping, but I think you get the point.

So, I have 11 personnel against nickel personnel.  As mentioned before, I have an advantage from the jump, because the defense has a CB on the field who is very likely a lesser player than the LB he replaced.  He’s also probably not as good as my third WR, because CBs are harder to find than WRs.  I call for a trips right formation, from under center, with one RB.  My TE is going to be the inside man in the trips grouping, on the line of scrimmage.  How does the defense line up?  If they show an even 2-deep look against it, I’m going to have 3 on 2 outside against it, and I know what I want to do from a sight adjustment.  Let me show you what I mean.

This is an even cover-2 defensive look, which screams "numbers mismatch" to the QB.

I see what looks like Cover-2, which means that on the right side, I’m going to have 2 blockers to hit 2 defenders if I want to run a quick bubble screen.  This is basically what happened on Demariyus Thomas’s first NFL catch Sunday.  On 3rd and 14, the Broncos correctly guessed that the Seahawks would be in Cover-2, which Pete Carroll favors generally, and especially at that down and distance, and they exploited it, by going 3 on 2 against it, like it was a fast break with Magic, Worthy, and Michael Cooper.

Say that Sam LB is cheating out, expecting the screen, and tipping the QB he wants to man up on that TE, with the NB and CB taking the two WRs.  Then the defense essentially becomes a 2 man-under look, at least on the heavy side.  We have a good answer for that too.

Since we're reading man-to-man, we're going with a bunch of rub action, and one of the 4 players on the right side is virtually guaranteed to be open.

Eddie Royal’s TD catch yesterday came in 11 personnel, with action that looked very similar to this diagram, albeit from a slightly different formation.  A pattern like this is almost impossible to completely defend, and somebody is always going to be open.  (Note that by pattern, I mean the collection of routes on the play.  A route is individual event by one eligible receiver, and a pattern is a collective event by all receivers.  The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t ever be.)

The McDaniels offense runs patterns like this all the time, and that’s why it always seems like there’s somebody open.  A lot of schematic attention is paid to how people are going to get open, and a successful QB in this offense needs to always know where the open spot should be.  That’s the main reason that QBs get better the more time they have in the offense, because they get used to the different route combinations, personnel groupings, protection schemes, and alignments, against different defensive looks.  A lot is made of QBs being able to read defenses, but especially in an offense like this, the key reads come pre-snap, and not while the bullets are flying.  The QB looks at the defensive alignment, and has a really good idea of where he’s going to go with the ball.  Once the ball is snapped, he’s looking to the area that’s most likely to be open.

So, back to numbers, to make the key point.  When does 11 not equal 11?  When you can scheme ways for players on the opposing team to have nothing useful to do, that’s when.  Aggressive teams think in these terms, more often than not on defense, vis-a-vis blitz schemes.  I’m going to take the unorthodox approach of borrowing a diagram from myself, that I used on my old site:

I created that diagram as an example of the Jets overload blitzing the Colts, during last year’s playoffs.  The defensive line is all lined up opposite the left side of the offensive line, but the idea of this blitz concept is to leave the Left Offensive Tackle with nothing to do, and the Left Guard beaten because he got confused, and took a false first step to his outside.  The defense is bringing six men against 3 or 4, and then jamming the outside receivers to prevent them from getting quick separation.  Pretty clever, huh?  You can do this same kind of thing on offense, too, and the McDaniels offense constantly tries to.  Look at the same play we just explored again, where, this time, I bothered to draw the zone concepts on the backside.

On the backside, the cover-2 concept remained in effect, because there was no pre-snap reason to check out of it, unlike on the front side. The effect is that 3 players are zoning one offensive player.

Do you see that?  The ILB on the backside, and really the CB and FS are rendered basically useless, because they’re all zoning a player who’s absolutely not going to get the ball in this situation.  The deep in-cut by that WR (we’ll call him Brandon Lloyd) is not accidental, as it magically puts him right at the junction point of the three outside zones, forcing all three to respect it from start to finish, and not to flow to the front side, where the ball is going.  On the front side, there are 4 receivers, running all kinds of rub action, against three man-to-man coverage players, and a zoning strong safety.  The offense has the clear numerical advantage.  Even though the defense sight-adjusted to man-to-man on the front side, to limit their vulnerability, they’re still very vulnerable.  If they drop the strong safety down to help with the rub action, and eventually pick up the RB, the deep coverage suffers when the FS moves into Cover-1.  Suddenly, Lloyd sees a a single-high safety, and can sight-adjust to a go route against single coverage from the backside CB, and the ILB is still a wasted body.  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.

There are a lot of passing offenses which are really basic, and which don’t do much schematically to get players open.  Those offenses reflect a more traditional belief that players should get themselves open.  If you look at Baltimore, San Francisco, Detroit, Indianapolis, Tennessee, and many others, that’s what you’ll get.  Washington and Houston run expressly to set up the pass, and get guys open with a lot of misdirection and bootleg action.

During the game, I tweeted the following:

A short time later, I got a response from @bex34, which I found interesting.

I think she’s right, and it gets back to program-building, and having a plan.  The Broncos have the playmakers, and at the same time, they schematically assist those players in making plays.  Demariyus Thomas is going to be a super-duperstar.  I wasn’t expecting him to be that fast, or to be able to get out of his breaks so quickly as he did Sunday.  Big guys just don’t run routes like this guy can, you have to believe me when I say that.  He’s going to be impossible to handle as he learns how to play at the NFL level.  Beyond Thomas, who’s going to consistently demand that coverages be rolled to him by midseason (which never happened with Brandon Marshall, by the way), there’s a lot more weapons.

Brandon Lloyd is a very talented player who finally overcame being blackballed by Joe Gibbs.  He’s great at going up and catching high balls in traffic, and you can assume that when Kyle Orton goes high to him, it’s usually on purpose.  Jabar Gaffney is a pro’s pro who can consistently defeat single coverage with sharp routes.  Eddie Royal looks great in his new role, playing both inside and outside.  You almost never see a small guy who’s as strong as Royal is, and he’s using his strength better this season.  Eric Decker and Matt Willis are quality backups, who can step in and not miss a beat.  Daniel Graham is good for a couple of key catches a game, mixed in with his blocking excellence.  Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter are both good receivers, and even Spencer Larsen has shown some unexpected smoothness as a pass-catcher.  Orton has a ton of quality guys to throw to, and 2 weeks ago, ignorant pundits (as always, meant negatively) still claimed that WR was a need area.

The McDaniels regime has acquired the players they needed to execute an excellent scheme.  Orton has no bad place to go with the football, and he just needs to throw it to the open guy.  There will almost always be one, and he’ll usually be able to tell who it’ll be before the snap.  It’s just a matter of throwing and catching the ball, and the line providing the necessary protection.  I’m not going to say that Orton is as good as Tom Brady, but his performance can be very comparable to Brady’s, if he just uses the tools at his disposal, including the scheme.

Another Twitter personality, who’s pretty ubiquitous, but who I’m not going to name, recently suggested that the Broncos 2-9 record over their last 11 games is a function of some shortcoming of Josh McDaniels.  He’s wrong, and I don’t want to embarass him by naming him.  McDaniels is an outstanding young coach and program builder, and it’s going to become clear quickly how lucky Broncos fans are to have him.  I’m not saying that they’re going to win the Super Bowl this year, but they’re definitely good enough to win the division, given some of the luck you need going their way.  Brian Xanders recently noted that 32 players from the 2008 roster and practice squad never played in the NFL after that season.  The Broncos team that McDaniels inherited was similar to the recent American economy; it all seemed fine at the top, but at the bottom, things were secretly and unspeakably terrible.  Rebuilding from that kind of systemic disparity takes time, patience, and decisive action, in both football and macroeconomics.  Sometimes, we all need to be dragged to the sunlight kicking and screaming.  Josh McDaniels is going to get Broncos fans there, and Woody Paige and Mark Kiszla (picture a poorly illustrated MTV cartoon called Dumbass and Douchebag) are going to have known all along that there was something special with this kid.

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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