It's the nuances that make football the ultimate team sport. It's like a game of chess played with giant, athletic, moving pieces that don't have to wait their turn to attack.
As I mentioned in the most recent offensive line review, sometimes what sticks out in our memory doesn't always give a clear picture of what happened on a play or what was supposed to happen. Without being privy to the play call, assignments, and coaching given on each play during a game, it's challenging to get a clear picture of what we see watching a game live during the season.
A LOT of things have to go right for a successful offensive play.
- It has to be the right play call for the down and distance
- It has to be the right play call for the defensive alignment
- The personnel has to be correct
- The QB has to recognize how the safeties are lined up (two deep or single high)
- The QB, OL and RBs all have to look for signs of a blitz and make sure they know their assignments
- The QB needs to read whether the CBs are in man or zone coverage
- The OL has to recognize the DL alignment, what the LBs are doing, and be prepared for stunts
- Based on what he's seeing, the QB may need to audible at the line of scrimmage (if the offense allows him to do so)
- Once the ball is snapped, nearly every offensive player has to actually EXECUTE
- Even when all of this happens, the defense could STILL win if they have a player make a dominant play
That being said, it's what happens before the snap that often "makes or breaks" a play. The calls, adjustments and reading of a defense that we can't see from the stands is critical to the execution on a down-to-down basis, and may not show up in "box score scouting".
The most important player in all of team sports?
We often criticize the head coach or offensive coordinator if a play doesn't work ... or celebrate them when a play succeeds. Coaches and play callers clearly have a key role, starting with the week of preparation, game plan and in-game play calls. But there's a reason "average-to-above-average" QBs make $16M per year or more ... the work that happens when a guy like Alex Smith steps up to the line of scrimmage is often the difference between a RB getting stuffed for a loss, and a WR scoring on a quick slant.
In this piece, Greg Cosell of NFL Films does a terrific job of pointing out some of the key things to watch before the snap when looking at film (H/T to Elliott Duncan for tweeting me this piece). The QB is key in his ability to instantly recognize what the defense is going to do and make sure that the team has a play called with the best chance of success.
Coselll details a play where Aaron Rodgers called an audible at the line of scrimmage that resulted in Eddie Lacy's 29 yard run.
That type of play is why coaches like Arizona's Bruce Arians say they don't want quarterbacks who didn't do anything at the line of scrimmage in college. Rodgers made this run by what he did at the line. If you just casually watched the game you might have thought it was a great play by Lacy, but in reality Rodgers deserved most of the credit for this. Rodgers was able to set up the run by diagnosing the Vikings' defense from the snapshot he got before the snap.
Another wrinkle - packaged plays - are becoming all the rage in the NFL
"Combination" or "packaged" plays have been sweeping across college and high school football over recent years, enough that NFL coaches are clearly taking notice. The Bears, Panthers, Bills, Eagles, and Chiefs each ran a number of them in their exhibition games, combining running and passing concepts — meaning the offensive line typically blocked a run play while receivers ran pass routes or screens, leaving the quarterback to decide whether to hand off or throw it out wide — often at a no-huddle pace.
The Chiefs have indeed incorporated packaged plays since Andy Reid's arrival with quite a bit of success. Packaged plays are a complement to the West Coast Offense Andy Reid has been using for years. Packaged plays are also part of what keeps Brad Childress busy in his mysterious role with the Chiefs.
Terez Paylor covered it the best last November:
In their last game, a 24-20 loss to Oakland, the Chiefs, who had 66 offensive snaps, ran at least 18 packaged plays out of the shotgun for 103 yards — a respectable average of 5.7 yards per play.
"We've got several options," Pederson said. "You crowd the box, we throw it. You walk guys out, you run it. The defense can't be right. And that's kind of the mind-set, the mentality."
The Chiefs' willingness to use packaged plays is no coincidence. Colleges are churning out players ready to execute them.
"Offensive linemen know how to zone read," Pederson said. "Quarterbacks know how to read defensive ends or stack linebackers. People know how to run bubbles. They get it. Now, all they have to do is fit into our system, our terminology, and you're off to the races."
To learn more about the X's and O's of packaged plays, check out this piece by Matt Bowen of Bleacher Report.
Omaha, Omaha, Hot Route, Hot Route
QBs often have the ability to change the play entirely when there isn't a packaged play called by using an audible at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes an audible is an aggressive move by the QB to take advantage of a weakness he sees in a defensive alignment. More often, I believe, an audible is called by a QB to avoid a bad outcome when he knows a play call is doomed.
This piece by BJ Kissel (pre-mothership) does a nice job dissecting the QB audible.
Most of the time, audibles are called based on the looks the quarterback is getting from the front seven of the defense. The linebackers may be tipping that they're blitzing or they may be overloading to one particular side. This information has to be quickly processed by the quarterback, who then has to determine whether to abandon the original play completely or maybe just change the protection responsibilities for his blockers.
Conventional wisdom is that the more a QB has earned the trust of his head coach and offensive coordinator, and the more that QB has mastered the offense, the more he'll be "allowed" to audible at the line of scrimmage. Some NFL QBs clearly and famously audible on nearly every play (see Peyton Manning's 'Omaha') It's hard to say how often Alex Smith audibles for the Chiefs but it's safe to assume it's happening more often now in the third year of this offense than it was in year one.
So, when the Chiefs start playing actual football games again (it can't get here soon enough!) start watching pre-snap to see if you can see what Smith is seeing. Watch for packaged plays, too. An easy way to spot the packaged plays is if you see them line up and appear to run the exact same play several times in a row ... with different outcomes (run, pass, screen) each time ... that's probably a package, and Alex is making the quick decision at the snap. If you see Smith pointing and gesturing coming out of the huddle or at the line of scrimmage, he may be calling an audible.
In 2015, the Chiefs offense has built enough continuity between head coach, offensive coordinator and QB that they SHOULD all be on the same page with the game plan, play calling and personnel. But with packaged plays and audibles, the keys are certainly in the hands of QB Alex Smith.