Sports Nut

The NFL Outsmarts Itself

Why pro football needs to get back to basics.

The Patriots’ Tom Brady

Despite the Patriots’ quest for immortality, 2007 is not a vintage year for the NFL. For every game like last weekend’s Pittsburgh-Cleveland thriller, there are bunches of unwatchable contests like Oakland-Chicago and Monday night’s heinous Seattle-San Francisco game, which served as little more than a platform for the 49ers’ historic offensive ineptitude. The majority of the weekly action in pro football pits the inept against the infirm.

What’s the problem? Many commentators have pointed to a lack of quality quarterback play. Once you go beyond the league’s top 10 QBs, the pool of talent is appalling—Cleo Lemon, Alex Smith, Damon Huard, Brian Griese, and Tarvaris Jackson all rank among the worst signal callers in recent memory. Worn-down retreads like Vinny Testaverde and Kurt Warner have become valued assets. To this observer’s eyes, bobbled snaps, false starts, unblocked defenders, dropped passes, and delay-of-game penalties are seemingly at an all-time high. (I’m sure there are stats to prove otherwise, but as Charlie Brown once said, “Tell your statistics to shut up.”) But the NFL’s putrid appearance can’t be blamed on the talent pool—the league has never had faster, stronger, more skillful players. The problem, it seems to me, is the combination of player movement and the league’s ever-increasing offensive complexity.

Salary cap pressures, injuries, and the Hobbesian brevity of NFL careers mean that coaching staffs must constantly bring players up to speed on the intricacies of their systems. For example, most modern passing schemes rely on three- and four-receiver packages in which each wideout has the ability to choose his route based on the defense. Then factor in blocking assignments that change at the line of scrimmage, and running backs and tight ends who either stay in to block or run routes, again depending on various factors. If everyone isn’t on the same page—and it’s rare that everyone is—the play goes nowhere.

If game plans weren’t so difficult to master, the learning curve wouldn’t be so steep, and we fans would be spared so many execrable displays on Sundays. You might think that simplified playbooks would lead to staid, predictable offenses, easily stuffed by the league’s defensive grandmasters. Not necessarily. Pushing the easy button is leading to the greatest season in modern history. The key to New England’s offensive brilliance is simplicity. They only run a handful of plays (albeit out of multiple formations), the most successful keying off wideout Randy Moss running deep. Tom Brady either hurls a long one to Moss, counting on him to go get it despite multiple defenders, or goes to a receiver running to the soft spot in the coverage left in Moss’ wake. When the opposition blitzes to prevent the deeper routes from unfolding in time, Brady hits a hot receiver, like Wes Welker, coming out of the slot. When the defense sits back to prevent longer plays, the Pats run it or dump short screen passes to one of their elusive backs.

The Patriots’ fantastic, and somehow still underrated, offensive line is often in maximum protection mode, augmented by a tight end or two. They are agile enough to flip between power run blocking and max protection with a single word or signal from Brady, and do their jobs cohesively. In the wake of Spygate, the Pats seem determined to win by as many points as possible without resorting to any schemes that would require inside info. It’s backyard stuff—send the tall, fast guy deep, the shorter fast guy medium, the slot guy short, and have the game’s best triggerman decide where to throw it. It’s simpler than most high-school offenses, but it’s executed by the most brilliant of athletes.

Brady, like fellow maestro Peyton Manning, has proven he can excel in more complex schemes. Most of his cohorts have proven they cannot. Roughly two-thirds of the league muddles through with quarterback situations that range from unsettled to downright ruinous. Rookie quarterbacks, brought in to replace injured or inept incumbents, have little chance of figuring things out. John Beck, drafted in the second round to take over in Miami, is still underwater midway through his rookie campaign. In the summer, Beck talked about struggling to come to grips with verbiage like “Scatter-Two Bunch Right-Zip-Fire Right-273-Pivot-F Flat.” Even rookie “success” stories, like Trent Edwards in Buffalo, are qualified—the Bills managed a win with the rook at the helm, despite his one touchdown pass against five interceptions so far this season.

Is a playbook thicker than the Bible, one that might as well be written in Urdu as far as the overwhelmed newcomers are concerned, really necessary? “Getting back to basics” may be a hoary staple of locker-room speak, but like most clichés, it’s based in truth. Thinking players are slow players—even the slightest hesitation means defeat in a league as tightly balanced as the NFL. That goes for defensive players, too. The popularity of the Cover Two shell defense arises, in part, from the ease with which it can be mastered. In essence, players simply fall into a deep zone, react fast to the ball, and gang tackle. Most NFL defenders can handle that, even newbies, which explains the success many Cover Two teams have in subbing in replacements. (The Colts have been able to stuff teams this year, for example, despite losing a raft of defenders to free agency and injury.)

Regardless of scheme, however, good defense usually comes down to good tackling, so difficult stratagems probably hinder the offense a little more than the defense. I can’t help but think that pro coaches are trying to compensate for the elemental physicality of the game by nerding it up. All the X’s and O’s wizardry has a calculated element; after all, a coach who simply tosses the balls out onto the field isn’t as likely to get the multimillion-dollar contracts given to supposed geniuses. (See: Weis, Charlie.) Confident coaches embrace simplicity. And then there are guys like Brian Billick, for whom running for a first down on third and short is far too philistine a notion.

The bad news is the level of play isn’t likely to improve, as starters continue to fall and quarterbacks struggle to know where their teammates are on any given play. But there might be a silver lining—teams forced to streamline their sets because of circumstance will find a locker room full of relieved players, and perhaps an extra victory or two. After a bad loss, a disgruntled coach will tell the media, “We need to simplify things.” A nation of aggrieved football fans hopes the entire league follows that advice.