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Cosell’s Take: The evolution of NFL offense

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Mike Shanahan and Bill Belichick: Two old-school coaches doing some very new things. (Getty Images)

It has become trendy to talk about the sudden impact of college football on the NFL game. The highly successful utilization of the Pistol formation, and the read option with its multiple concepts has ignited conversations that were unthinkable just a few short years ago. Perhaps no single play crystallized more sharply this new age of NFL football than Colin Kaepernick’s 56 yard touchdown run against the Green Bay Packers in the San Francisco 49ers' NFC Divisional playoff win.

Of course, there were other examples in 2012, perhaps less recognized but just as significant: Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers running 72 yards for a touchdown off the read option against the Atlanta Falcons; the New England Patriots running 35 plays and scoring 4 touchdowns in just over 11 minutes of possession time against the 49ers on a Monday night in December (Memories of the 2008 Oklahoma Sooners, running plays every 18 seconds, averaging 80 per game, scoring 60 or more points in 5 consecutive games, the highest scoring team in the modern era of NCAA football).

They were reflections of what is now seen as a distinct new period in the offensive evolution of the NFL: the infusion of what were once viewed solely as college concepts and schemes into the NFL game. The old refrain of, “We don’t do that here. It’s not good enough for us”, has been permanently breached.

There’s a larger, more historical theme at work here. It speaks to the subtle difference between the strategic and the tactical. The former is sweeping and expansive; it’s the overall plan, approach, objective. The latter is narrowly focused; it’s the method, the means, the details. It’s a delineation that’s critical to understanding the development over time of offensive football in the NFL.

For many years, beginning in the 1960s, the NFL took its cue from Vince Lombardi. The strategic plan was basic: a nominal number of plays run over and over. The tactical approach was also minimalist: Two backs, a tight end on the line of scrimmage, and two wide receivers. The means was primarily the power sweep. We can all hear Lombardi commanding, “You get a seal here, and a seal here, and we’re trying to run this play in the alley”.

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Sid Gillman (l.) is the father of the modern vertical offense. (Getty Images)

What followed were the innovations of Don Coryell and Bill Walsh. Their philosophical foundations derived from Sid Gillman, the head coach of the AFL’s San Diego Chargers from 1961-69. Gillman was not beholden to the NFL model. He wanted skilled players in space to force the defense to defend as much area as possible. He envisioned big play, explosive offense, with the pass the catalyst. That was the antithesis of Lombardi’s control the ball, move the chains approach. Coryell and Walsh took their lead from Gillman, and further expanded the thought processes of football. They were creative and imaginative, seeing the pass as a means of limitless possibility and choreographed beauty.

It was Coryell who first recognized the tremendous value of a tight end, Kellen Winslow, who could align anywhere in the formation, and essentially be deployed as another wide receiver. Walsh saw offensive football as a wide palette of strategy and tactics, more of an art form than a game of brute strength and physical will. He featured and mastered a controlled midrange passing game, primarily working from the inside out, both celebrating and expanding one of Gillman’s core beliefs: if you control the middle of the field with the passing game, you can attack and win on the outside.

The broader point is this: Despite the considerable and in many ways momentous changes wrought by Coryell and Walsh (and many more who followed, especially Mike Martz), the objective remained the same as it was with Lombardi. It was about execution. You were not fooling or deceiving the defense, you were simply creating formations and matchups that were favorable to your personnel. I remember Martz telling me back in 2000, when his 4 receivers were Isaac Bruce, Torrey Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl, that no defense had third and fourth corners capable of matching up to Hakim and Proehl in the slots.

When I was researching the book I co-authored with Ron Jaworski, “The Games That Changed the Game,” I had numerous conversations with Al Saunders, a 31-year veteran of NFL coaching who began his career as an offensive assistant under Coryell in San Diego. He explained that the established and long held belief, proven over time, was that consistent offense was the result of synchronized execution. Defense, on the other hand, was a function of disruption and deception. Good offense was predicated on execution, the capability to run plays properly, with no assignment mistakes, as often as possible. That was the coaching ideal. It reminded me of a quote I once read, attributed to Lombardi: “We are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence.”

The tactical - the means, the details - was always founded on execution. That was the prevailing attitude in the NFL from what seemed time immemorial. The infusion of college concepts has changed that. Deception, once seen primarily as a defensive objective, is now a featured part of offensive game plans. Think about the read option, and the multiple alternatives that stem from it. The goal is to deceive and mislead the defense, to betray their eyes. One phrase you always hear defensive coaches repeat over and over is “Trust what you see”. That does not work against the read option, where you cannot be certain of what you are seeing, and thus defending, until it has actually happened. Therefore, the defense is reactive, not proactive. They must wait rather than attack. They cannot disrupt -- they can only respond.

That’s what the college game has brought to the NFL -- the idea that deception on the offensive side of the ball is a legitimate and highly effective means of breaking down defenses. It’s a multi-dimensional expansion of the basic play action concept that for years was executed with the quarterback under center, and more recently, out of the shotgun. The objective with play action (or more accurately at times, run action) was to create a false read for the defense, primarily at the second level. The linebacker reads run, takes a step or two forward to aggressively play his run responsibility, then is out of position to get to his coverage assignment in time. Very few regard it this way, but play/run action, at its core, is about deception.

It’s only logical then to take it to the next step, what college coaches have been doing for years: the more elements you add to the action in the backfield, the better chance you have of deceiving the defense. The defense has more to see, more to react to, more that creates uncertainty, indecision and ultimately paralysis. It was fascinating this season to see linebackers totally motionless as they watched Robert Griffin in the Pistol work through multiple fakes in the backfield. They seemingly had no sense that routes were being run, that receivers were wide open in the middle of the field behind them.

A couple of quick points need to be made. One, read option can only be utilized with a quarterback who’s a viable running threat. Two, the wider hash marks in the college game provide far more opportunities for backfield deception to be successful. There is a much larger wide side of the field with which to work, more space the defense must cover. It dramatically alters the mathematical parameters of the game. And defense, especially pass coverage, as I learned from Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, is all about geometric concepts, reducing the larger rectangle of a football field into more manageable squares that are easier to defend. That’s more difficult to accomplish in college football.

It’s clear that the NFL has integrated specific college schemes into its offensive game plans. The sample size at this point is too small to conclude the overall impact. The essential point, and one that will no doubt continue to evolve as the years progress, has been the fundamental change in the tactical objectives. Once ruled by the straightforward and uncomplicated concept of execution, NFL offense now relies more and more on deception. The overriding question will be how expansive these ideas become in a league still ruled by pocket quarterbacks.

Greg Cosell is the Executive Producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup," and he's worked for NFL Films since 1979. Follow Greg on Twitter at @gregcosell.

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