I’m going to try to share some of my notes from the weekend of watching football every week (at least most weeks) this season. These will typically just be thoughts I’ve had while watching games, so they won’t be too organized, but hopefully they can spur some thoughts for other writers to explore or just give you another perspective to think about when watching games. Some of these are objective concepts that could be addressed with analytics, while others are more subjective.
I’ve been busy and will be busy with my continuous cycle of writing and rewriting chapters for Caponomics, so I haven’t had the same amount of time to explore writing much outside of that. If you do explore these or similar topics as a writer or you know a writer who has, please tweet them over to me at @ZackMooreNFL as I’d love to add to my reading list.
The Impact of Information
We’ve seen FBS Appalachian State take preseason #9 Tennessee to overtime, South Alabama from the Sun Belt beat Mississippi State, Conference USA’s Louisiana Tech lost to Arkansas by one and then Arkansas beat #15 TCU the next week. This is a small sample size, but a part of a broader trend in my opinion with the proliferation of information that comes from the internet.
This is more of a thought or question than anything, but are small schools becoming better able to compete with big schools due to creativity and coaches using the vast array of resources for discovering talent that can fit their system? They still have far less scholarships, name recognition and resources to recruit, but when I was getting recruited as a member of the class of 2008, we still had to send tape or DVDs out to colleges or wait for them to come to you. Now, kids can post their highlights on YouTube, which is far cheaper, thus giving more kids a shot at being discovered and widening the number of prospects. This means their highlights are available for any coach to see at any time. Over time, coaches can begin to develop schools and parts of the country that have a specific kind of athlete that fits their system. For example, there’s a proliferation of 7-on-7 leagues in places like Texas, Florida and California due to population density, love of football and weather, so they’re a great place to find quarterbacks and skill players who have gotten a lot of reps.
In addition, players in high school have access to far more information for developing. Colleges have far more access to information. Everyone has access to more information.
In my opinion, the last decade or so of the internet, pushed by YouTube, social media communities and online resources, has really increase our ability to find people who we can learn from. People in the jiujitsu community talk about the increase in information with YouTube causing huge leaps in the sport and we are seeing the same thing in football. Crazy one-handed catches have become a norm in a way that they weren’t just ten years ago, but the level of skill continues to increase with access to information. Strength coaches have access to endless free resources to learn from others and the experiments they’ve run in training and perfecting their own processes. Just like over the last 70 years the average NFL player has gained 1.5 pounds, there are other areas we’re seeing and will see similar types of increases in skill or some other attribute.
All You Need Is This Stat Line
As I wrote in the article on the Bradford trade in regards to the Andy Reid/Doug Pederson system needs and Texas Longhorns QB situation, there needs to be an emphasis on achieving some kind of production or stat line in the system. In my research, I’m noticing that coaches likely have some kind of production metrics in mind for what they need from their offense in terms of rushing yards, passing yards, per play metrics, completion percentages, turnover ratio and much more, while their defense alternatively has their own metrics. The Broncos won a Super Bowl by creating a formula that seemed to be simplified to: if we score 20 or more, we should win. They’re using that same strategy in 2016 with Trevor Siemian instead of the depleted version of Peyton Manning they saw in 2015.
Across the NFL during week one, I perceived an increase in completion percentages from the stat lines I was seeing and I found myself to be correct in that, albeit a smaller sample size, we saw an NFL average completion percentage of 63.9%, which was almost a point higher than the 2015 average of 63.0%. In 2014, the league wide average was 62.6%, so I believe this a trend that’s going to continue as it has since Bill Walsh changed the game with his West Coast offense moving the league away from it’s ground and pound, then air it out deep past.
Matt Stafford completed 79.5% of his passes against a horrendous Colts defense. Andy Dalton completed 76.7% against a Jets defense that should be pretty good. Jimmy Garoppolo completed 72.7% of his passes against a Cardinals defense that was Super Bowl quality last year and without Rob Gronkowski. This trend is also affected by the decrease in time to pass after the snap that we’re seeing across the NFL, which is pushed by Belichick’s adjustment to defenses trying to get to Brady with interior pressure.
I talked about this concept quite a bit this offseason as I believe that higher completion percentages, mobile quarterbacks and a focus on yards per play as well as yards per target are going to be a part of the future. In supporting higher completion percentages, I can’t forget about depth of targets, so this chart from Week 1 from Football Perspective was very interesting and something to follow this season.
Speaking to the point regarding stat lines, I’m beginning to see the importance of just this sort of 65-70% completion percentage with around 250 to 300 passing yards for somewhere around eight yards per target. Especially near the end of the last CBA, I believe that teams got caught up in a sort of “this is a quarterback driven league” hysteria that caused the whole industry to view quarterbacks who were perceived to be good as this asset they needed to acquire no matter the cost.
I think the success of the 2013 Seahawks and the 2015 Broncos with their defense and rush game driven strategy is helping the industry start to wean off that kind of thinking. I think that historical data that shows how rarely a big money quarterback has won a Super Bowl is also helpful in dissuading that notion.
If you look at a football team like you’d look at an MMA fighter, you want a versatile roster like what the Patriots build every year, so paying a quarterback, or any player, more than 13% of the cap seems to be something that shouldn’t be done. This kind of thinking, along with a focus on what you’re trying to produce in terms of a stat line, rather than who is producing it should help create a more balance quarterback market over time with more creative solutions than what we’re used to seeing. Just looking at what he’s produced and created over the years, I believe that’s kind of “what kind of production are we looking for?” thinking that Belichick has been able to find the roles to fill his roster.
What’s The Word?
A recent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show was an interview with legendary talent agent Shep Gordon. In his opinion, managing an artist boils down to a selling process that you’re aiming to break down into a couple words, which then allows you to tape into this feeling and create a bigger audience. In representing Alice Cooper, what he was selling was “hatred of parents,” which is a common theme of teenage angst in any generation. His goal was to get the parents to tell the kids they couldn’t listen to Alice Cooper, so he’d focus his marketing efforts on the things the parents would watch. His most famous viral marketing attempt at infuriating parents came at Piccadilly Circus in London. He had a truck break down with a picture of Alice Cooper naked with a snake covering his privates in London’s busiest street during rush hour, which got every parent in the London pissed off. Naturally, he sold out the shows he previously wondered how he’d sell due to a lack of name recognition previous to this stunt.
The reason for telling that story is that I believe that thinking in terms of the one to three or four words that describe a team’s position group goals would be a very helpful exercise in getting a better understanding of each team’s strategy.
For example, the Seahawks seem to be building a receiving group out of explosive, quick players with elite speed. The Patriots have always built their group with slot receivers and pass catching backs with quick short area quickness that gives them an advantage in the middle of the field against bigger linebackers who have to guess which way the joystick is going.
The Panthers have built their entire team off the premise that they’re going to punish their opponent’s defense all game hoping to wear them out in the fourth quarter of close games. With three pass catchers 6’5” or taller in Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen and Devin Funchess, the Panthers are throwing three towering athletes at defenses, while the typical NFL defense isn’t going to have three different defensive players who can cover these three. Plus, they add in Corey Brown and Ted Ginn as deep speed burners, then the rushing offense with Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart and Cameron Artis-Payne and they’re just hoping to maul you.
The Third Variable
Speaking of the Panthers, I believe there’s a third variable needed in an offense to make it efficient. It’s not just the run or the pass, that’s the old school pre-Walsh days. I believe that the high percentage passing offense almost acts as a third variable in that it’s this non-rushing, efficient way to move the football, so it needs to be recognized slightly differently as a team like the 2014 Patriots can use it to win playoff games against the Ravens while only gaining 14 yards on the ground.
I don’t have the best way to articulate that point yet, but I believe the Panthers serve as the counter-example to the only other third variable there is and one that teams need to consider much more seriously as more quarterbacks with rushing abilities enter the league from college.
During the Panthers at Broncos game, the broadcast showed a graphic explaining that Cam Newton has led the NFL in carries, yards and first downs on third down rushes over the 2014 and 2015 seasons. During those two years, he had 49 rushes for first downs, which was far more than the person in second.
One of the core reason the Panthers lost the Super Bowl to the Broncos was they ran into a defense that could rush the passer, then play man to man defense behind them, but another key aspect was the depth of their routes. They had just gotten down beating up Tom Brady in an offense that got rid of the ball in less than 2.5 seconds a high percentage of the time. While Brady’s average depth of his passes was around 4-5 yards, Newton’s was between 8-9 yards and that depth means more time to throw. It was my opinion that if they were going to win that game, Jerricho Cotchery was going to have to have a big game because he was their short to intermediate guy in the passing game.
Carolina ran into one of the best constructed defenses of all-time with the 2015 Broncos as they had the pass rush to get to QBs, the pass coverage to shut down teams using man defense and sideline-to-sideline tackling machines at linebacker in Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan. That lack of a short passing game was a glaring issue, but in most scenarios they would have won, so it’s my opinion that the third variable alternative to the high-percentage passing offense is the mobile quarterback who can run the read-option or break if no one is open for a first down on third and five.
Over time, I think most offenses will develop both of these variables into their system, the high-percentage short passing game with a mobile quarterback who can run a little read option. I’ve been taking a lot of how I think about football from MMA lately, so I consider the addition of these kinds of weapons like a martial artists who has a great stand-up game striking adding some serious jiujitsu skills. The goal of the sport is to become as varied as possible to increase the difficulty a defense has defending them.
If You Beat Us, Join Us
Due to their strategy of creating mismatches on offense and defending them on defense, the Patriots are able to use success against themselves as a barometer for if a player would be a good addition to their roster. During a November match-up with the Patriots last fall, Chris Hogan caught six passes for 95 yards on seven targets. That’s an 85% catch rate for 13.6 yards per target. In 2014, Martellus Bennett had six catches for 95 yards on seven targets and one touchdown against the Patriots.
This isn’t the only reason they went out and signed Hogan, but I was watching him make plays against the Cardinals last night and realized that could be one of the many factors the Patriots use to make free agency decisions. When you’ve developed a defense that’s principled and that’s built to stop mismatches, then you can use that defense as a barometer for the kinds of athletes you’re looking for. This is just another added benefit of being the Patriots and having one of the most efficient and stable organizations in the NFL.
Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, author of the upcoming book titled, “Caponomics: The Process for Building Super Bowl Champions” and host of The Zack Moore Show podcast on iTunes and Soundcloud. He received his MBA from Rutgers Business School after playing football at the University of Rhode Island. He is also an NFLPA certified agent. Follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL.