So my wife is pretty awesome.
That may seem like an odd way to begin an article, but it serves multiple purposes. First, it was an action on her part that indirectly led to me thinking of an article idea and busting my writer's block wide open. Second, I can use a weird sentence like that as an easy introduction sentence (one of the hardest sentences to write every time. So hard not to be boring or repetitive). Third, and most important, it's a valuable opportunity to win points with the wife (married guys everywhere are nodding along).
So about my wife. My birthday is coming up in early March, and she got me a present. Most wives, they get their husbands ties or something lame. My wife? She buys me Take Your Eye Off the Ball 2.0 by Pat Kirwan. Like I said, my wife is pretty awesome.
I've been meaning to read this book (or its original version) for what feels like forever. Unfortunately, between the lawyer thing, the family thing, and the football writing thing, finding time to sit down and read for fun is not easy. And so I just waited for... well, apparently for my wife to buy the book, giving me an excuse to sit down and read it.
By the time I got through the first two chapters, I was already wildly impressed. I promise this won't turn into a long advertisement for Kirwan, but it's a phenomenal read. Easily worth the money for anyone who wants to know the game.
Early in the book Kirwan broaches a topic I found particularly interesting, and one I've wanted to touch on here for awhile; when we talk about what's happening on the football field... we really have no idea what we're saying.
Kirwan describes the process coaches have of narrowing down their playbooks for gameday. How they whittle away on the number of plays they might call from the "main" playbook, and then organize the plays in terms of what they might call depending on down and distance. In other words, there's a set number of plays meant for 2nd and 6, depending on game situation. Formations vary, but the overall play concept is the same, with different audibles depending on what look a defense shows.
On each play, the offensive and defensive coaches are trying to exploit a tendency they've seen on the other team's film. Of course, both coaches know the other guy is doing that, so they try and mix things up from the tendencies they've shown. Of course, both coaches know the other guy is doing that... and on, and on, and on. Each play coaches are trying to adjust to the adjustments of the other team that were made in response to the adjustments of their own team and... yeah, my head hurts.
What we see, in real time, is generally something like "QB drops back, looks at players we can't see down the field, throws the ball. WR is open, catches ball, runs out of bounds." How did the OL give the QB long enough to survey the field? How did the QB adjust to the way the defenders like to rush the passer? What routes were run, and how did they flow together to create open space? Those are just three of a zillion questions we rarely have time to even consider. Instead, we follow the ball and say the players made a play.
Quite often, when things go wrong, we like to pretend we know why they went wrong. Now hey, sometimes it's pretty obvious what happened. When a CB in man coverage gets beaten by a nifty cut, it's pretty clear. But all too often there's way more going on than we realize. Because, quite simply, we don't know what the job was of the player we're watching.
Basically what happened here is Mitch Schwartz, a professional NFL offensive lineman, "broke down" a play and, in the process, said Thomas Davis "guessed." Davis took exception. Why? Because on the play in question, he was doing exactly what he'd been coached to do.
Let that sink in. A pro football player couldn't tell what the defender's assignment was, and because of this, wrongfully blamed (he claimed it was a "wording" mistake. That's a stretch, frankly) a player for doing something wrong when he hadn't.
A really good example I saw of this recently is a tweet that gained a ton of attention.
Watch the LG pic.twitter.com/OcPEE3T00O— Cian O'Fathaigh (@Cianaf) February 22, 2016
Chiefs fans everywhere went berserk when this play happened. And really, you can see why. From all appearances, Ben Grubbs has a guy blocked and then just... goes away. It makes no sense whatsoever when you watch it, and it resulted in a busted play. The world blamed Grubbs, then moved on.
Crap, even Carlos Dunlap found it odd.
But here's the thing... that wasn't just some random act of insanity on Grubbs' part. He didn't just suddenly forget what he was doing, or think that the Bengals players were going to fall down. He wasn't mad at Alex Smith, and he didn't have bets placed on the game (I mean, as far as I know at least).
No, Grubbs (if you really look at the evidence) just did what he was supposed to do on the play.
For a little bit of clarification, watch Mitch Morse on this play, a long touchdown catch by Travis Kelce that made Chiefs fans delirious with joy.
Watch Mitch Morse here. The Chiefs used this OL action more than once last year, and fans FLIPPED when it failed. pic.twitter.com/ULISVY2ULe— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) February 26, 2016
That looks pretty familiar, no? Take a moment and try to figure out what those two gifs have in common with regards to pass blocking scheme.
Give up, other than the fact that both involve an interior lineman sprinting right?
Both plays have a TE blocking a much larger edge rusher one-on-one.
The Chiefs actually did this more than you think this last season. Demetrius Harris got left alone quite a few times as a pass protector. Only he wasn't always alone. This OL action (an interior lineman pulling suddenly to the right side to aid the blocking TE) was something the Chiefs did multiple times last year. No one really noticed because on most plays, it didn't result in a sack.
On the contrary, on the Kelce touchdown Mitch Morse leaving the interior to help Harris could have been the difference between a touchdown and a broken play. Harris is about to lose (which, when you're a TE blocking J.J. Watt alone, is understandable) when Morse comes flying in (he moves so ridiculously well. What an athlete) to remove the outside rush. Smith has tons of time to survey the field and hits a wide open Kelce on his favorite route.
"Yeah, but MN, Morse didn't have anyone to block. Grubbs did, that's why it was his fault!"
I knew you'd say that. Take a look at the play again. Now stop watching Grubbs and watch the 2 rushing defensive linemen on his side of the line. Also, watch Morse and Donald Stephenson.
The defensive linemen are running a stunt here, in which the outside rusher goes inside and the inside rusher goes outside. When that happens, at least generally speaking, offensive linemen are to "pass" their rusher off to the next man in line. Think of it like switching on a screen in basketball.
Now, watch the player who is the "edge" rusher initially (who stunts inside). Then watch Morse. THEN go back and watch Grubbs. Do you see what I'm trying to tell you?
Now, I wasn't involved in the play call, so there's no way I can tell you with 100% accuracy what occurred here (that's kinda the point I'm trying to make). But when we slow things down, watch every player, and examine all the evidence... it appears Grubbs had the same assignment Morse did on the Kelce touchdown; stick around for a second, then get to the edge to help the lone TE.
Grubbs knows he's supposed to do this. He helps pick up the stunting DE... then believes he's passing him off to Morse. The problem? Morse never takes his eyes of the DT (who stunts to the outside for Stephenson to pick up) and doesn't engage at all. Suddenly, the DE is standing there with no one blocking him while Morse runs after a guy who is already blocked. Then Alex says "ow." I'm guessing he said a whole lot more than that in the huddle.
Morse had a wonderful rookie season, so in no way am I going after him here. My point isn't to pass blame, but to point out the narrative that spread about this play, when you REALLY examine it, doesn't appear to be accurate. Which is what happens when you don't look at every player involved in a play.
Want another quick and easy example? Remember the big Charcandrick West gain on a short pass against San Diego when they just apparently decided not to defend him at all? Sure you do!
I mean, that looks bad. In the weeks after, basically everyone who talked about that play (including me) described it as a "blown coverage" for the Chargers; just another example of their completely inept defense.
But the thing is, if you really examine the play, it wasn't just some stupid mistake by a Chargers defender or coach. It was a case of the Chiefs using scheme, route combos, and anticipated action by the Chargers (who they knew would base THEIR actions on the Chiefs perceived tendencies) against them to create a wide open player.
A Philly writer broke it down better than I ever could with a short video when he was discussing the Doug Pederson hiring. Take a look at the difference when you view it on all 22 and are watching something other than the ball.
Go look at the broadcast view again. Seriously, there just isn't enough time to break this stuff down as it happens during the game unless you have quite a bit of experience with the game. And even then, the limitations of the broadcast view make it impossible to know everything that's going on.
I guess what I'm trying to say is pretty simple; I'm echoing Kirwan's encouragement to take your eye off the ball. And even once you do, understand that folks like you and me, and even professional football players, really don't know what we're talking about when discussing a play we weren't a part of.
Ignorance is bliss, right? Let's all revel in our bliss. And now that I've completely shot my (and every other layman analyst's) credibility all to Hades, I'll get going on that Mitch Morse film review!