Caponomics Book Excerpt from Theories Section: Be Different, Creative and Unique

This is a first draft of one of the 25 or so theories from the “Caponomics Theories” section of my upcoming book Caponomics: Understanding NFL Roster Building through Super Bowl Champion Salary Cap Analysis. Any of the references to other chapters in this article are

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You have to do things differently, you have to be creative, you have to be unique. Every team’s coaching staff is working 80-100 hours a week to figure out how to win in the NFL, the only way to beat them is to work smarter because it’s almost impossible to outwork guys who are pushing it to the limit of human performance, you can’t really work harder than someone who consistently works 20-hour days.

For a variety of reasons, it’s all about doing things your own way, creating a system that’s unique to your team and entire organization, do something that no one else is doing. Do something so revolutionary that when people try to copy your formula, they’ll already be years behind you.

As you’ve seen in the chapter on the 1995 Cowboys, Jimmy Johnson brought a new perspective to the NFL, which in turn helped him turn the franchise from a 1-15 team in 1989 into a Super Bowl Champion by 1992. Chip Kelly is bringing that same kind of mentality into the 2010s, same with Pete Carroll.

As I covered in that chapter, these guys from the college game, come to the NFL with their own ideas that aren’t tethered to the old ways of doing things like those who may have spent their whole careers in the NFL. People who have spent their whole careers in he NFL might find themselves in a cycle of continuing to do things the way they have always been done. This is what happens when you allow yourself to become entrenched in a pattern of thinking.

This is largely why I don’t listen to too much sports talk radio or sports podcasts, I do read NFL stuff, but it’s mostly in researching stuff I’m writing because I need to understand the situation more to write about the topic I’m covering. I’ll read what Jason and my fellow writers at Over The Cap write and what Peter King’s crew at Monday Morning Quarterback write because their writing tends to be long-form special interest type stories that I love. I try to stay away from predictions of what teams should do and stuff like that.

I found that when I was consistently listening to Ross Tucker’s Football Podcast, I’d find myself too often going down a path of discussing the same things that I had just heard someone else say on that show. I love his podcast, but I want to do my best to form my own voice and perspective. I know of quite a few comedians who are afraid of listening to other comics because they’re nervous they’ll end up subconsciously ripping off their ideas.

As you guys can see with this book and my writing on Over The Cap, most of the stuff I write is theory based and I hope you find it unique. The things I do listen to though are non-sports podcasts like the Joe Rogan Experience, The Church Of What’s Happening Now, The Fighter and the Kid, The Adam Carolla Show, Nerdist, Joe DeFranco’s Industrial Strength Show, Bill Burr’s Monday Morning Podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show and even that weird hippy, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour. I do this because I obviously love it, but also it fills my mind with hours of educational and entertaining content.

Joe Rogan is my biggest influence as, while I’m not an MMA or UFC fan, I’m becoming one because of his incredible ability to educate the layman on all martial arts and the UFC. I’ve listened to three hour podcasts with kick boxers and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) artists because of how interesting he makes the discussions and how the things I learn from them carry over to what I write on Over The Cap.

I’ve even written articles where the headlines are martial arts related like “Antonio Brown the Black Belt Wide Receiver” and “Football: An MMA Match of Creativity and Creating Confusion” because of the stuff I’ve learned just listening to Rogan. These interesting ideas I find from other areas are things I can learn from and carry over into my realm.

What has made the UFC maybe the fastest growing sport ever, since UFC 1 was just over twenty years ago, is the incredible education we’re all getting not only in martial arts, but problem solving. When I was a kid, everyone seemed to be doing Tiger Schulmann’s karate because that was the hot thing at the time, but with the UFC exposing what works and does not work, everyone immediately realized that things like BJJ were what worked the best. You can’t theorize some philosophical nonsense when there’s a fight going on that exposes what works and what doesn’t. (Sometimes I wish people with political opinions that make no sense had to deal with an equivalent to the UFC.)

As I also mentioned in that 1995 Cowboys chapter, Chris B. Brown states in Smart Football, “new ideas in football tend to arise as potential solutions to specific problems.” I believe that if you’re thinking like everyone else is, you’re putting yourself at risk for going with the crowd and you won’t find these new solutions. For so long, when you’re a part of football teams, you just go along with what you’re told to do, it’s very regimented, similar to the military in that you do as your told or you’ll drive yourself crazy if you question everything.

Speaking to that problem solving, the West Coast offense, Air Coryell, and Erhardt-Perkins were all created as a solution to a problem, you’ll see me go into this in depth in my chapter on those offenses. Air Coryell was created because Don Coryell couldn’t recruit the kind of players to San Diego State to compete without something different and creative. He found a larger supply of wide receivers and quarterbacks than he found offensive linemen and running backs, especially competing for recruits with UCLA and USC. During that time, NFL teams ran conservative offense where they would try to win through attrition and, when he got into the league, Coryell was the first kind of guy to go in attack mode all game.

Revolutionary ideas can even be spawned out of simple mistakes like a bobbled ball at NAIA’s Glenville State College, which caused Rich Rodriguez to create the spread option. Mistakes can end up showing you an idea that you may have never realized on your own. Chocolate-chip cookies were created by a woman named Ruth Wakefield, the owner of the Toll House Inn, who ran out of baker’s chocolate and substituted small broken pieces of sweetened chocolate into the cookie dough. She thought the chocolate would melt and make chocolate cookies, but instead made the chocolate-chip cookies that we love today. The right mistake or accident can be very profitable by the result or what it eventually leads you to.

While the West Coast offense and Erhardt-Perkins are great advancements for the game, they’re not as revolutionary as some of the things you’ll see come out of the college game because like Mike Martz mentions about Air Coryell, so many people at the time told Coryell that “you can’t do that,” which has been at least one person’s response to almost every revolutionary idea in human history.

In the NFL, there’s often too much on the line for you to try something that’s never been done before. You even see me discuss the merits of following past success for teams as I applaud the 2014 Cowboys for going all the way back to 1995 Cowboys to copy what has worked for them before. What you’ll find too often in the NFL though are teams who are at the bottom of the NFL following what everyone else is doing rather than doing something creative.

When I was playing at the University of Rhode Island, we were trying to go from one of the worst teams in the league to compete in the Colonial Athletic Association, which is the best conference in FCS (D1-AA) football. The best we ever got was 5-6 in 2010, but the next season, my senior year, we went 3-8 as we had lost many of our top playmakers on defense. We were counting on our offense, which had a line with Kyle Bogumil who had a mini camp tryout with the Dolphins and Jason Foster who has been bouncing around the NFL the last few years. While we had a great line, we actually ran out of serviceable running backs in the middle of the season.

So without an actual running back, we tried to use a track guy at running back for the last three games of the season. In those three games he averaged 15 carries per game and 2.2 yards per carry. Rather than take the hand you were dealt and do something creative with a team that was already out of playoff contention, they decided to try and fit a square peg in a round hole with a guy who was about 5’8”, 170 pounds and had never played running back before. Meanwhile, we had about five receivers who could be serviceable possession receivers and would have given the coaches something they could work with.

I’ve seen lazy thinking before, so to see the ideas that Don Coryell or Rich Rodriguez had really excites me. It was the incompetence of our head coach at URI that helped spark my love of entrepreneurship because I never again wanted to leave my career in the hands of someone who just isn’t very smart and lacks character. (I believe one of the great philosophers of our time said, “Sorry, not sorry.”)

As I said, Coryell saw that he could find a deeper supply of quarterbacks and receivers. This is a mentality that every head coach of any sport should understand when forming his systems, what positions or skills can I routinely replenish? You’ll see this on Saturdays in the fall when the teams from Florida have speedsters, while Wisconsin always has five 300-pound offensive linemen and a great running game.

These kinds of challenges don’t happen much in the NFL, an NFL team will never completely run out of running backs because you can get someone on the free agent market who can give you something if you have any kind of offensive line and you aren’t just recruiting players from your home state.

I compare the way the college game is fragmented to the way our states were supposed to be according to our Constitution. What we were supposed to have was a federal government that linked all the states together and took care of the main things that states couldn’t take care of individually. George Washington appointed only four members of the original Cabinet: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox and Attorney General Edmund Rudolph. These four were meant to advise him and assist him in carrying out his duties as president. Sounds simple, right?

What we would have today if our government wasn’t in the business of expanding would be 50 different states that are almost completely governed by themselves outside of the main few things that a federal government is needed for. These states would all be their own little experiment of how things can be done and it really would be an incredible thing to analyze. Instead, today we have a national government rather than a federal government as we’ve completely abandoned the principles of federalism.

We have 11 more members of the Cabinet with titles like Secretary of Education, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Labor, Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Health and Human Services. They oversee massive departments that don’t actually produce any of the things that are in their job title, they just regulate the people in those industries and increase the cost of doing business on them, and in turn, they increase the costs passed on to us. Remember, the Department of Education doesn’t actually have any educators in there educating people, the Department of Energy, doesn’t create any energy.

I relate college football to the state experiment we would have if the Constitution and founding principles were followed. Each team is given freedom to run their own experiment and run their team the way that works best for them. Really unsure how some people think that’s some radical idea, but it sounds pretty simple when you hear it explained that way, right? I mean our current federal, which is actually a central (national) government by definition, is like if the NFL was trying to tell every single college team what to do. The NFL doesn’t know how to run the football programs at the University of Texas or the University of Arizona, the people working at those schools know how to.

That brings us all the way back to Chip Kelly and the lessons he learned while coaching at Oregon and how those philosophies became perfected at the college level and are now being used masterfully at the NFL level. One quote Chip Kelly quote from Chris B. Brown’s Grantland article titled “The Influencer” really resonated with me because it reminds me of myself: “I was probably a pain in the ass as a little kid. I questioned everything. I’ve always been a why guy, trying to figure out why things happen and what they are and just curious about it from that standpoint.”

Brown writes about how, when the Eagles hired him, they didn’t realize that Kelly “intended to rethink much about how NFL teams operate, from huddling (why bother?) to traditional practices (too much wasted time), to player nutrition habits (bye-bye, Andy Reid’s Fast Food Fridays).” He later mentions that Kelly is open to sharing his knowledge with other coaches and the world, but he refused to discuss his no-huddle communication system, for obvious reasons, and the particulars of their sports science program, which points to the huge competitive advantage they feel they get from it, but also the fact that once the system becomes known, teams will begin to catch up. It’s about delaying their discovery of what the Eagles already know as quickly as possible.

The importance of keeping guys healthy is so obvious and you can see a difference within the Eagles division. According to Football Outsiders and their adjusted games lost rankings, the Eagles were first in the least amount of games lost to injury in 2013 with only 32.2 and were fifth in 2014 with 48.6. Meanwhile, the Giants were 32nd in the NFL BOTH years, losing 141.3 in 2013 and 137.1 in 2014.

The league average over the last two seasons was 67.6 and 74.3, respectively. As you can see, the Eagles were well below that average, while the Giants were double the average. While the Giants had 20 players on injured reserve in December, the Eagles had 7 with their main injures being Nick Foles, Demeco Ryans and Todd Herremans.

This is largely why the Giants have gone 7-9 and 6-10 the last two years. I’ve mentioned in this offseason, the 2015 Giants didn’t need to add a lot, they just needed to stay healthy. You can obviously see that reflected in the Eagles 10-6 records over the last two years as well after that 4-12 season they had in 2012.

I hate to be negative, but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Sorry, but the simplest thing that you can judge a strength and conditioning staff off of is if they can keep players healthy. Jerry Palmieri and his staff have been terrible at this the last few years with many guys being injured heading into the season. The week that I’m writing this, Will Beatty from the New York Giants just tore his pectoral muscle bench-pressing with the team. He will be out until at least November 2015.

Another quote from Brown in that August 2014 article was, “in just one year, Kelly’s question-everything approach has caused many smart NFL coaches and executives to ask themselves why they’ve been doing things the same way for so long. And many are realizing that Kelly has better answers.”

Brown then makes a point about how hard coaching staffs work, which made me realize the idea that you have to do things differently than others because every single coaching staff is working hard. If you’re all doing the same thing and you’re one of those teams in the bottom half of the league, then you’re not going to take those leaps forward to catch up to whoever is leading the pack.

While the big three offenses I mentioned before are still as important as ever, Kelly was one of the leaders of changes in how offense is played. Mike Leach from Texas Tech is another one of the leaders of the spread offense with his Air Raid Offense that he created with Hal Mumme at the University of Kentucky. Like what I said above regarding not thinking like everyone else, Leach never played football, he went to Brigham Young University and followed the teams led by head coach LaVell Edwards and offensive coordinator Norm Chow’s pass-happy offense.

Upon graduating, he went to Pepperdine to get his Law degree, then to the United States Sports Academy where he earned a Master’s of Sports Science in Sports Coaching in 1988. He’s one of only five FBS coaches who didn’t play football in college along with Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech, David Cutliffe at Duke, George O’Leary at UCF, and Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss.

Leach has such a unique background that his life experiences have shaped him into someone who sees things much differently than almost every other college coach. It’s those experiences that make our perspective and us unique.

Brown writes that “Kelly’s offense isn’t unique because of specific schemes; it’s unique because of how he organizes and implements them.” Kelly mentions how he doesn’t do anything revolutionary as they do many of the same things that almost every team does, zone blocking, sweeps, powers, five-step passing, three-step and screens. Brown writes how Kelly is “trying to break defenses” by creating advantages where the Eagles have one more player than the defense whether in the running or passing game. This is illustrated in some of the unbalanced line sets they’ve used that we just saw Belichick implement with the Patriots during the January 2015 playoffs.

That unbalanced line leads to a situation where there will be two pass eligible players on one side with two tackles on the other side. This leads to a situation where the defense is put in a bind where they can’t make the right decision because if the secondary supports the two eligible side, then there’s no secondary run support to the right, but if they go to the unbalanced side, then there’s no pass support on the two eligible side. It becomes a situation where the Eagles can’t lose.

Maybe the most important point that Brown brings up is Kelly’s “ability to seamlessly mesh old-school tactics with NFL-style attention to detail with an approach that attacks the very structure of the defenses. College football has produced a lot of innovation over the last 10 years or so, but many of the great college innovators lack the attention to detail to succeed in the NFL. At the same time, many NFL coaches are too ingrained in the old ways to adapt to an evolving game. Kelly has always been at home blending the old and the new. That’s where the NFL is going, but Kelly is already there.”

As I mentioned before, the only two things that Kelly won’t share are his no-huddle communication system and their sports science program. As follows comes directly from Chris B. Brown’s article on Kelly as I think it’s all important just to give you an idea of the kind of process that a great football thinker goes through to create something game changing. As he says, here’s what we know about the sports science program:

  • “While coaching at Oregon, Kelly began investing significantly in sports science, both by bringing in outside consultants and by developing in-house expertise and technology. He built principally on researchfirst conducted for Australian-rules football.
  • Many of those studies, which have since been expanded to cover a range of sports, used heart rate, GPS, accelerometers, and gyroscope monitors worn by players in practice to determine how to train for peak game-day performance (a) and how to prevent injuries (b). These studies also tracked the movements players made in games (c) so teams could mold practices and training to what players did on an individualized and position-by-position basis.
    • a) How much rest and recovery were needed; when were the best days to train the hardest.
    • b) When a player reaches his “max load,” the point at which his risk of injury increases exponentially.
    • c) Short bursts versus long sprints; the force and angles of contact.
  • When Kelly arrived in Philadelphia, the Eagles invested huge sums into their sports science infrastructure, and Kelly hired Shaun Huls a sports science coordinator who’d worked for the Navy Special Warfare Command for nearly five years, training SEALs and focusing on reducing the incidence of their noncombat injuries.
    • Huls is a protégé of Boyd Epley, who founded one of the first and most successful strength and conditioning programs in football at the University of Nebraska.
  • Kelly’s team uses the latest wearable player-tracking technology, and his staff monitors the resulting data in real time to determine how players should train and when they become injury risks. “On an individualized basis we may back off,” Kelly said recently. “We may take [tight end] Brent Celek out of a team period on a Tuesday afternoon and just say, because of the scientific data we have on him, ‘We may need to give Brent a little bit of a rest.’ We monitor them very closely.”
  • At least so far, it’s worked. In addition to their on-field success, the Eagles were also the second-least-injured team in the NFL last season,according to Football Outsiders.
  • Just as important, the playersthink it works. “What happened with our players is all of a sudden when we started to get to game day every week they were like, ‘Wow, I’ve never felt this good,’” said Kelly. “And I know every guy, to a man, in December — Todd Herremans, DeMeco Ryans, Trent Cole, guys who’ve been around a long time — said I’ve never felt this great in December.”

Of course, other NFL teams have begun using sports science, and every NFL team can afford to buy the same equipment and hire the same Australian rules consultants to churn out similar data. But there’s a difference between having the data and knowing what to do with it, and Kelly and his inner circle have years of experience analyzing performance information for football. This is why Kelly is so tight-lipped: He knows that, eventually, other teams will catch up. But he’s not going to help them get there.

  • The Green Bay Packers have been one of the most injured teams over the past few years, and they recently hired Kelly’s director of sports nutrition at Oregon to help with their efforts in that arena.”

They run some of the most unique practices in the NFL at a quick pace that makes it so that their second and third teams get almost twice as many reps as other teams. That has become a benefit to find young talent and recruit veterans who want to prove they can still play as they get more reps with the Eagles than anywhere else. Something that I did through high school and college was walk through or slow paced practices the day before games. The Eagles don’t do that. After talking to Olympic trainers, they “balked at the idea of doing nothing physically taxing in the 48 hours prior to competing.” This led Kelly to start conducting full-speed practices the day before games, which is becoming more common as teams are realizing that a slow practice trains athletes to play slow.

To finish up that article, Brown shares a Kelly quote to a group of high school coaches, “Coaching is one thing and one thing only: It is creating an environment so the player has an opportunity to be successful. That is your job as a coach. When you teach him to do that, get out of his way.”

That idea of creating an environment where the player has the best chance to be successful is a great summation of Kelly’s entire program and philosophy. Not only is he coaching them on the field, but his sports science program and everything else they provide their players with helps them perform at their optimum, which also gives them a great return on investment and is a tool for value creation.

In an April 2015 article I wrote titled “Eagles Finding Value in Injured Players,” I discuss a Phil Sheridan article about the Eagles going after injured players during the 2015 offseason. I mention Jenny Vrentas’ great MMQB article about the Eagles sports science director, Huls, and the story of Robbie Stock, a retired Navy SEAL:

“Stock was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 when a grenade exploded inches from the left side of his body. After nearly a dozen surgeries he had no motor function in his left arm or hand, and surgeons recommended amputation. But Stock had other ideas and sought out Huls back on the Virginia Beach base. For several months Huls worked with Stock, using the Omegawave to determine when his battered body could handle exercise and inventing ways for Stock to train while his arm was mostly lifeless … and then when he regained movement in his biceps … and then when some function returned to his hand. Within a year of the explosion, Stock says, he could bench press 275 pounds, as much weight as he could before his injury; today he says he has 70% function in his arm and hand.

“Shaun was one of the very few people—and when I say few, I mean few—who actually believed I would not be a one-armed man for the rest of my life,” says Stock, whose new business, The Human Performance Initiative in Virginia Beach, uses many of the lessons he learned from Huls. “There are very few people out there who really want to help, and he is definitely one of them.””

Huls is a master of his craft and that kind of testimonial exemplifies the kind of magic he can work for injured players in rehabilitation and, I assume, in injury prevention as well. In that list of things we know about the sports science program that I quoted from Brown’s article above, I mentioned the gadgets that they use to collect information about their athletes. Data is critical to success in any industry, so the amount of data they’re collecting can be a huge advantage as it helps them understand what works and how to repeat that process.

To the point about signing these players who are either deemed injury prone or coming off injuries, the Eagles signed quarterback Sam Bradford and linebacker Kiko Alonso, two guys coming off ACL tears. They signed two running backs who have had numerous leg issues during their careers in Ryan Mathews and DeMarco Murray, who cost less than LeSean McCoy would have cost by himself in 2015. New Eagles cornerback Walter Thurmond tore his pectoral muscle with the Giants last year and Miles Austin missed the last four games with a kidney injury, but his career was derailed in 2011 by hamstring issues that kept coming back.

With all six of those players, they got talented individuals who can be worth much more than their salary cap figures if they stay healthy. It’s also a sign of how much they believe in their sports science program to go after a few guys who have injury risks, if it does work and these guys stay healthy, then it’s a huge source of value creation for the Eagles as they’ll outperform their contracts.

Of course, since Bradford’s still on that ridiculous pre-2011 CBA rookie deal of his, it’ll be hard to outperform that cap number, but he could be a very nice fit for the offense. If Bradford finally stays healthy and flourishes in this offense, there’s the value creation of the sports science program right there.

Like I mentions with their fast-paced practices, this also gives them a chance to find hidden gems, low-cost players who become big-time players for the team. It helps young guys learn the offense quickly and improve, while helping them recruit veterans who are looking to prove themselves. If you’re a guy looking for a one-year “prove it” deal, the Eagles are an enticing place to go as you know you’ll get an opportunity to play and you’ll improve your skills in the system.

If the sports science program is successful, the Eagles will become a place where players will know they can go with the best chance of staying healthy and reach peak performance. This is an added bonus for those guys who are signing one-year, “prove it” deals.

These are ways that creative thinking and new ideas create value in the salary cap. This 2015 offseason is his first as the de facto general manager, something he now shares with only two other coaches, Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, which isn’t a coincidence. He used to have final say over the 53-man roster, while general manager Howie Roseman ran the team’s drafts and free agency signings, but that changed on January 2, 2015.

With that change, we’ve really seen a whirlwind of moves that show us exactly what kind of team Kelly wants to build. Pair that with the fact that every one of their moves has seemed to make sense in the big picture, it’s why they’ve been the most exciting team to write about during this offseason. Like I wrote in the article, “LeSean McCoy: The Running Back Who Cried Wolf,” they got rid of Pro Football Focus’ worst rated running back in 2014, LeSean McCoy, and replaced him with Mathews and Murray who were cheaper. With that trade, they got one of the best young linebackers in the NFL as well, Kiko Alonso, who costs less than a million dollars in 2015. They let Maclin walk in free agency and replaced him with Nelson Agholor, who’s essentially the exact same player.

I believe that because Chip Kelly looks at the game of football from such a unique and revolutionary perspective that isn’t tied to any old ways of thinking, he’s changing the game. He was a master of the cap this offseason, I just can’t wait to see what he does next.

Remember, walk to the beat of your own drum and don’t follow the crowd because the best are the best because they’re not doing the same thing everyone else is doing. You can’t outwork people in the NFL, so you must outsmart them.

While I used Kelly as a current example even though he hasn’t won a Super Bowl yet, you can look at Bill Walsh, Belichick, Carroll, Jimmy Johnson or Ron Erhardt and Roy Perkins and see how the innovators of the game have always won championships. Each one of those guys, like Kelly, changed the way the NFL was played or how it operated. It’s like in any business, if you’re not doing anything unique, then how are you going to separate yourself from the pack?

Tweet me: @ZackMooreNFL

If you liked the kind of cap analysis that went into this article, please e-mail me at Caponomics@gmail.com, so that you are added to our e-mail list and get some bonus finished chapters as they become available. A couple weeks ago, I sent out our chapter analyzing the 2000 Ravens. Coming soon will be the 2014 Patriots and 2014 Lions.

Caponomics is a book that analyzes the Super Bowl champions from the last 21 seasons, creates theories based on this analysis and then uses those theories to discuss why 2014 teams were or were not successful.

  • Jack Waggoner

    Much as I enjoy your insight about football, you have a tendency to insert completely unrelated political diatribes into your football posts and for that reason I don’t think I’ll be buying your book.