For football geeks everywhere, the recent announcement that the NFL was going to release coach's tape on every play of every game through its NFL Game Rewind package was a large slice of heaven. As a football fan, you could compare it to mono vs. stereo, or black-and-white vs. color TV. Or, go back and play one of those 8-bit Madden games, and compare it with the more recent iteration. The differences are that drastic. The overhead and end zone angles we will now see on every play (Game Rewind had previously inserted overhead views in about 15-20 plays per game) give us so much more to view and understand.
When you watch coach's tape, or "All-22," (so named, obviously, because you can see all 22 players on the field at all times), you are going to see more play development than you will in most standard camera angles. You will see route combinations in ways you never have, and you will see defenders reacting to them in ways you never imagined.
Here, by way of example, are two views of Eli Manning's amazing throw to Mario Manningham with 3:46 left in Super Bowl XLVI. It was one of the best passing plays in Super Bowl history, and it's even more impressive when you see the entire field. Both views are at the moment when Manning releases the ball. He has already made the decision to throw to the read on the back side of his view, which means he's scanned the easy stuff, and he doesn't like it.
Here's the angle you saw on TV:
And here's the overhead view:
This is where two of Manning's primary attributes -- decision-making and ability to take successful risks -- really come into focus. In the standard camera angle, you see that the Giants are blocking their butts off for Manning, and that his hot route is open. With the All-22, we see that his hot route is bracketed, there's an intermediate zone set up to cover and corral any crossing routes or quick patterns to the middle of the field (seemingly a point of focus for the Patriots defense during this game; both inside linebackers fired out into coverage right off the snap), and that Manning is clearly expecting Manningham to outrun his coverage, because the defender has what looks like ideal inside position on the boundary.
We also see that a second Patriots defender is positioned to converge on Manningham, which is exactly what happened. When you see it from this point of view, Manning's throw is even more ridiculously impressive.
So, even if you're not quite sure what you're looking at from a schematic perspective, the overhead view shows you a lot more -- even at stop-action rates. That's the value. The concern from some quarters is that the release of this additional information will allow some pseudo-experts to throw some more weight behind their ill-informed evaluations, claiming that "Well, I watched the All-22, and I think [insert name of coach/player/front office executive] should be fired immediately!"
As Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's "NFL Matchup" told me recently, it's not anywhere near that simple. These new perspectives on the game require an entirely different level of understanding as much as they provide it.
"One thing that people have to recognize is that, if you really want to watch coaching tape, it's work," Cosell said. "It's not a 10-minute exercise. And it's work that takes an awful lot of time. I can honestly say that it took me three or four years, sitting with quarterbacks and coaches right next to me, to have any real sense of what I was looking at. Beyond just the simple stuff. And it really takes a lot of work to do that.
"I really think that there will be a lot of people who are willing to do that, and then there are a lot of people whose initial response will be, 'Great! Now I can see the coaching tape!' They'll look at it for 15 minutes and say, 'Wow -- [the players are] really small. I have a tough time seeing a lot of these guys. I don't want to do that anymore.' For some, it will be really great. For others, it seems great, and it won't be. Some people will make judgments that they shouldn't, because it really takes time to understand concepts, schemes, and what people are supposed to do within those concepts and schemes."
Former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who does fabulous analysis for the National Football Post, said basically the same thing on Twitter -- even when you've got a playbook in front of you, this stuff is hard to read.
Cosell expressed his own concerns about how All-22 might be used. "I'm not naming names, but a beat writer, for instance -- if he pops on the tape, and the team he covers gives up a touchdown, and he sees the receiver relatively wide open, he's going to write that they blew the coverage. Well, I don't know if you can say that without knowing what the coverage is, and what the responsibilities of the players are. Any zone coverage has holes in it, and a proper route combination can exploit those holes. If there was a zone coverage that didn't have holes, every team would play that coverage all the time!
"I could draw up route combinations, and if it was the right one, you'd have a wide-open receiver. That doesn't mean the coverage was blown."
I learned this when I talked to former NFL quarterback and current Seattle football analyst Hugh Millen about a play the Seattle Seahawks defended against the Atlanta Falcons in 2010. The Seahawks gave up a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Michael Jenkins, and broadcaster Tim Ryan (another former NFL player, and a very smart guy) misread the responsibility for the touchdown even with his overhead view and years of experience. Millen was at the Seahawks facility the next day for Pete Carroll's press conference, and he gave us the real scoop on what happened -- a dissertation that was subsequently backed up by Carroll's own analysis of the play.
I also learned this during one of my conversations with former Oakland Raiders and current Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Stanford Routt. Especially when it comes to defensive backfield responsibilities, we don't really know what's going on because most of us don't talk to the players and coaches about specific plays all the time, and we're not really conditioned to watch deep secondary play because the standard TV angles haven't provided that perspective until now.
Even if you have a reasonably solid knowledge of the game and can identify basic coverages, you can get fooled just like opposing offenses can, because defenses disguise coverages all the time. That straight Cover-2 you see may actually be some ungodly man-zone hybrid, where three different defenders are baiting Mr. Quarterback into doing something he shouldn't.
And if Mr. Quarterback can't figure it out, what chance do we have?
Here's what I'd like to see as an adjunct to the All-22 -- more real talk with coaches and players about what's going on out there, and for the coaches and players to welcome that dialogue. Now that we can see the whole field view of the game, let's endeavor to ask more pointed and intelligent questions about what we're seeing. Since the NFL has done away with the "You didn't see the whole field" excuse I've heard from some over time, the least we can do is to use this new technology to heighten the level of dialogue about the game we love.