Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Thing You Have To Understand About Football Teams, Vol. 1

The thing you have to understand about football teams is they are all creatures of habit. You can, with only as much thinking as it takes to dial up the Apples in Stereo on your iPod, figure out what a given pro football team will do. Not on the very next play, of course. (Well, maybe: 47 cross-trap. Correll Buckhalter loses three. There.) But over time, teams have tendencies, and they tend not to get away from those tendencies unless something cataclysmic happens, like Ahmad Rashad figuring out what those appendages on the ends of his arms are for.

Proof of this is everywhere. The Chicago Bears have been around for more than 90 years, and in only four seasons have they led the league in passing yards. Three of those seasons were Sid Luckman’s (and he had a bunch of second-place finishes in there, too); one was Billy Wade, when the Bears were hydrophobic and pass-happy and in the process of stinking up the joint so they could draft Gale Sayers – draft Gale Sayers so they could run the ball better, which is the lesson here. The Bears have been the league’s top running team 17 seasons, ranging from 1934 to their most recent title, in 1986. In the first NFL draft the Bears drafted seven linemen, so they could run the ball better and keep the other team from running. The Bears have nine linemen in the Hall of Fame, and five running backs. The Bears had the all-time career rushing leader. They had the league’s first 1,000-yard rusher. They had the first player to score seven TDs in a game. They had Bronko and the Galloping Ghost. Only once did they spend a really high draft pick on a throw-it-around guy, and then they didn’t know what they were in for with Sid Luckman. The reason why no one in the Bears’ war room has ever said, “Hey, why not that Jeff George guy?” (except when George was so far gone that he was throwing 40-yard out patterns to the Chicago Tribune billboard) is because he doesn’t fit into the offense, and it would take too much to change the offense to fit him. And if it was that way last year it would be that way this year, and next year, and it just keeps rolling.

The Bears are a running team. On the other hand, the Colts have always thrown it around, even when Kelly Holcomb was doing the throwing. The Rams have thrown it around excepting for two times: during the Ground Chuck days, when they ran the ball in the most excruciatingly direct way possible so that to the casual football fan it looked like God was punishing Los Angelinos for being so wanton, and now, when there is truly nothing else they can do. The Cards throw it around. The 49ers throw it around, which makes Alex Smith so painful for them. The Lions run it. At his best Herman Moore was a Barry Sanders’ beard, a decoy who caught 100 balls a year. (Given that, the Millions’ decision to fritter away draft picks on the Williams boys and Charles Rogers ranks higher on The Dumb List than even The Men Who Stare At Goats.) The Eagles run it. The Bills run it. The Bengals run it. The Vikings … eeesh. The Vikings have mostly always run it, but they have these spells. If you’re a Viking fan you understand.

This stuff can change, but it takes an exceptionally talented player who sticks around a long time to make it change. Earl Campbell changed the Oilers from a Blanda/Dickey/Pastorini throw-it-around team to a running team. Even Brett Favre at his gunslinging worst couldn’t not hand the ball to Earl Campbell. Speaking of Favre, he made running far more optional in Green Bay, in part because he outlasted all the running backs. When Brett Favre is your constant you throw the ball. And when an orderly transition is made to Aaron Rodgers you keep throwing, because you have Donald Driver and Greg Jennings out wide and Ryan Grant in the backfield, and guys like Mark Tauscher in the line whose idea of downfield blocking is falling forward.

The same thing works on defense, and the reasons why are more inscrutable. You’d think that since defense is largely reactive that teams’ defensive tendencies would be based on the teams they play, but that happens less often than you’d think. What happens is this: When the Buffalo Bills had Bruce Smith they drafted personnel complementary to Bruce Smith and created their schemes around the fact that they had Bruce Smith. The D-backs played tight and the safeties played for wounded-duck interceptions; linebackers who could cover were chosen over linebackers who could rush the passer; interior D-linemen who could occupy blockers were tabbed over penetrating D-tackles. And once Buffalo got all these pieces together to complement Bruce Smith … Bruce Smith split the blanket.

What do you do? You can’t dump everyone because you dumped Bruce Smith, though sending Gabe Northern packing would be a bit of lagniappe. The shining path is to take Phil Hansen, Ted Washington, John Holecek, Sam Cowart, et. al. and give them another pass rusher to play with. So the Bills did exactly that and inserted Marcellus Wiley, who did a fine Bruce Smith impersonation, and the defense rolled on. When Washington vacated his half-acre lot in 2000 the Bills plugged the hole with Pat Williams and Shawn Price – two people, in part because of Washington’s extreme avoirdupois but also because new coach Gregg Williams installed a 4-3 though the Bills’ personnel was still mostly the Bruce Smith 3-4 gang. The result smelled like chicken ranch. The team that was 13-3 in Smith’s last year and 8-8 with Marcellus Wiley went 3-13. That’s nothing against Pat Williams and Shawn Price. That’s a team being taken against its essential defensive tendencies too soon. And Rob Johnson playing like an idiot.

If teams could turn over all their offensive or defensive personnel at once it would be easy for them to change tendencies. But swapping out players one at a time is like changing a string of Christmas lights from red to green by replacing only the lights that burn out. It takes a long time, and it looks like compost in the process. It’s totally reasonable to get a third of the way in and decide, “What the heck. I like red lights better anyhow,” and never make the change.

If you want more you'll have to wait for Vol. 2.

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