There is more than one way to skin a cat.
Unfortunately for the last few years, the Detroit Lions have been the cats on the receiving end of the skinning when it comes to offensive football.
As the Lions prepare to enter the 2005 campaign the offense, at least on paper, seems to be poised for big things. New offensive coordinator Ted Tollner has brought an aggressive mindset to the Lions' playbook. As a result, during the offseason the fans have been repeatedly told to expect more passes, and a less predictable aerial attack, this fall.
In addition, another batch of exciting free agent signings (G Rick DeMulling, TE Marcus Pollard and WR Kevin Johnson) and another 1st round offensive skill position player (WR Mike Williams) has help fill the Detroit lineup with more offensive talent than has been seen in the Motor City for the better part of a decade.
How do the Lions plan to utilize all of this newfound firepower?
There are certainly many options. They could feature the receiving five-some of TE Marcus Pollard and WR's Roy Williams, Charles Rogers, Kevin Johnson, and rookie Mike Williams and throw the ball around the field like the St. Louis Rams. On the other hand, they could ride the legs of second-year HB Kevin Jones and try to help ease the already pressure packed load of quarterback Joey Harrington; creating the kind of Priest Holmes/Trent Dilfer offense that helped the Baltimore Ravens to an NFL title back in 2000. Or they could strive for a balanced offensive attack, which proved successful for teams like the Buffalo Bills of the early 1990's and the San Francisco 49er teams of the late 1980's through the Steve Mariucci regime.
When There is Talent – Simple is Better
Whatever the Lions decide to do offensively this season, I've always felt that – provided a team has the necessary talent – the best plan is always to keep things as uncomplicated as possible. Because when it gets right down to it, the game of football has always come down to two basic things – the team that blocks the best, and tackles the best, usually comes out on top.
Some of the most dominant teams in NFL history followed the "simplicity = success" philosophy to tremendous achievement. During the Detroit Lions most dominant stretch (1951-57) when they won three NFL Championships and four Western Division crowns, they had one of the most basic offensive systems of their day. Detroit Head Coach Buddy Parker, who led the Lions to back-to-back NFL titles in 1952 and '53, believed that the biggest flaw of most NFL coaches was that they tried to make things too complicated.
In an article in the November 15, 1954 issue of Sports Illustrated, entitled "Parker Keeps It Simple," the Detroit skipper put his thoughts on the subject of simplicity this way:
"If you ask me, what ruins most teams is over-coaching. I can sit here in my office and think up plays by the yard. You set up an offense and then you think ‘I'd better add this play' and a helpful assistant suggests ‘Let's put this in.' What about the players out there on the line of scrimmage who have to solve these masterpieces on the spur of the moment? They're smart enough, but why bumfoozle them? We've gone through games where we've used only four basic plays and the variations you get off of them. You don't outmaneuver teams in this league, you beat them with good solid blocking and tackling."
Another practitioner of the "keep it simple" philosophy was none other than legendary Green Bay Packers' Head Coach Vince Lombardi. His Green Bay offenses rarely did anything that surprised their opponents. Every defense they faced knew that the Packers were going to use their power running game early and often, and they were going to hit your with the play-action pass once they had beaten you up enough with the run. It was a simple formula, one that won the Packers six Western Division crowns, five NFL Championships and two Super Bowls between 1960 and 1967.
The philosophy of Lombardi's Packers was symbolized by their signature play, the Power Sweep. They ran it as many as a dozen times a game, and it was rarely stopped. The play's key block is the Tight End's (Player Y) block on the strongside linebacker. The tight end is simply supposed to "option" block the linebacker in whichever direction the defender chooses to go. The ballcarrier in turn will read Y's block and make his cut accordingly. The running back could cut inside or take it out wide; the main goal being that a running "alley" is created for the back to gain yardage through.
Below is a diagram of the play Lombardi's Packers made famous.
What follows is Vince Lombardi's philosophy on the sweep, in his own words:
"Every team arrives at a lead play, a No. 1 play, a bread and butter play. It is the play a team knows it must make go and the one that opponents know they must stop. Continued success with it of course makes it a No. 1 play because that success stems from your own team's confidence. And behind that basic truth is that it expresses a coach as a coach and the players as a team. And they feel complete satisfaction when they execute it successfully."
The Detroit Lions had no real bread and butter play last season, and it showed. Maybe the closest thing they had to a "No. 1" play was the "stretch play" that worked so successfully for Kevin Jones during the second half of the season. It was a play that helped spark the Lions running game, as Jones led the entire NFL in rushing yardage during the final eight weeks of the regular season. It was similar in style to the Green Bay Sweep in that it utilized the "Run to Daylight" option blocking concept that Lombardi popularized during his days in Green Bay.
Of course, regardless of the system a team chooses to run, they must have the players to execute the system. Buddy Parker's Lions and Vince Lombardi's Packers certainly had their share of talent. Nevertheless, if you could ask either of them if today's NFL is made too complicated by the league's coaches, I'd bet they'd both answer with a resounding "yes."
Paralysis by Over-analysis
NFL head coaches today are victims of their own work-ethic. They spend too many hours doing things that will have no real effect on the outcome of the game. NFL team playbooks are the size of New York City phone books these days. And for what? Last season, the Lions ran 912 offense plays from scrimmage (407 rushes, 505 passes). That's an average of just 57 offensive plays per-game. Most NFL offenses have upwards of 300 or more basic offensive plays in their playbooks, and that number is probably on the conservative side. Then when you factor in the various formations and personnel groupings that a team has in its bag of tricks, and you have offenses that could potentially run upwards of 1,000 plays. With that in mind, you can see how much of this extra effort to outsmart the opposition is pure overkill.
When you have all of this going on, it is not surprising that you see so many teams today appear to have their heads up their backsides when it comes to simple things like clock management. NFL teams burn timeouts today like matches at a pyromaniac convention. I remember a time not long ago when head coaches did everything in their power to keep their timeouts in reserve; just in case they needed to use them to stop the clock late in the half, or at the end of a game. If a coach had to burn a timeout due to a playcalling miscommunication or a substitution problem, they used to go nuts. Nowadays it just seems like it's supposed to happen.
Buddy Parker was a big advocate of keeping timeouts until you really needed them. Parker's Lions squads were the first NFL team in history to stress and practice what is now known as the "two-minute drill." In his 1954 coaching book, We Play to Win! The Inside Story of the Fabulous Detroit Lions (Yeah, I can hear you all laughing, but they were truly dominant back then), Parker wrote about his philosophy about saving timeouts for the latter stages of a half or a game which, at the time, was a concept still in its infancy.
"Football is a sixty-minute game and you have to play it up to the hilt all the way to be successful. Yet, to my way of thinking there are two stages of a game more vital than any other segment of the contest. Those are the final two minutes of the half, and of the game.
"Here is what I tell my players regarding the two minutes playing time: It is imperative not only for the team captain, but for every individual player, to know when time is out, and whether the clock starts with the snap of the ball or with the referee's whistle.
"Time outs must be saved for these periods. . . . If you can conserve your timeouts and have all three left for use in the final two minutes of the game you'll be surprised how you can use them to jam in more plays. Believe it or not, I've seen the Lions get as many as fifteen (that's right fifteen) plays in during the final two minutes of a game. . . . A team that can handle itself through this period without confusion and frustration will be the champion."
Tick, Tick, Tick
Then you also have cases where a team needs a score and has timeouts to burn, but the coach and everyone else on the sideline looks out to lunch as precious seconds tick off the clock. I think it has a lot to due with the fact that these coaches spend too many hours outfoxing themselves while creating their overstuffed playbooks and game plans.
Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman wrote about one such incident last season involving New York Jets' Head Coach Herman Edwards. In a game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Jets trailed 17-14 and were on their own 45 with 4:03 left and all their timeouts, plus the two-minute warning. Instead of using all of those things to their advantage, the Jets let the clock run down to 5 seconds, before kicking a field goal to go into overtime. The Jets subsequently lost in sudden death, 20-17.
In the article, Zimmerman quoted one unnamed NFL personnel man he spoke with about the incident who felt that it is simply a matter of these coaches being overworked and under-rested by the time a mid-season Sunday afternoon game rolls around. Below is Zimmerman's quote from the unnamed personnel man.
"See if you can find similar footage from an exhibition game, and compare the way he looked then and now," the guy said. "I'll bet Herman looked 10 years older this Sunday. They don't sleep. They work too many hours. They're not functioning at 100 percent. Landry and Lombardi and Noll went home to dinner during the week. You think they slept in their office? They knew that you could have less stuff in there, but if it was coached well, and if you always functioned with a clear head, you were better off."
Last season, the Lions' offense was roundly criticized for three basic reasons – one for being too conservative; two for ineffective quarterback play; and three, for a lack of talent in the receiving corps. Entering the 2005 season, it appears that the receiving problem has been taken care of. It remains to be seen if the other two problems will be eradicated as well.
Detroit Lions' Head Coach Steve Mariucci and new offensive coordinator Ted Tollner are now ready to test their revamped offense on their much improved roster of skill position players. While last season it was clear that the Lions failed miserably in taking advantage of their offensive opportunities due to poor execution, and a predictable and sometimes rudderless offensive scheme; hopefully this season they won't hurt their chances by taking things too far in the other direction.
It doesn't matter how big your playbook is, it's what you do with it, and your available talent, that really separates the NFL contenders from the pretenders.
Outside of that, it's all about good solid blocking and tackling.
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