I’m having a lot of fun writing the current chapter of the Caponomics: Management Theories book as I’ve been getting to dissect the two coaches in the NFL who I think are bringing in the next evolution of football, Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly. In my opinion, for the next fifteen to twenty years, these two will do for the NFL what Bill Belichick has done for the league the last decade and a half, a true trendsetter who has popularized the pass-catching running back role, the slot receiver, and the pass-catching, run-blocking tight end, which I go into detail on in the “Think Like A College Coach” chapter that I’m speaking of.
I introduce the chapter with an interview that Ray Farmer took part in on NFL Radio where he discussed some of the things that Belichick and the Patriots have done and popularized. To give you an example, Farmer mentioned having two good players at one position who have distinctively different talents that can combine to create one great player for the team at that position over the course of a game and a season. Just last season we saw the way that Belichick did it all the way to the Super Bowl with a different leading rusher for each month of the season and we saw it done on a weekly basis with whichever rusher they had pairing with Shane Vereen in the Kevin Faulk/Danny Woodhead role, which now looks like it will be James White’s since Vereen is in New York with the Giants.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s even more interesting when you see the tables that show the statistics side-by-side for their pass catching and lead rushing roles in the offense.
First the pass catching running back role…
And second the lead rusher role…
I think I’m going to put the first draft of this intro to the “Think Like A College Coach” chapter/section up here in a few days and I was thinking of including it in this article, but the main point that I was trying to make by referring to that point by Ray Farmer is that Belichick and the Patriots were the NFL’s driver of trends and over the next few years, I think that Kelly and Carroll will share that role with Belichick or take that role over if he retires. Belichick and Carroll are both 63, while Kelly is 51, but I think Belichick and Carroll both love this game so much and they’re both, Carroll especially, incredibly youthful and energetic for their age, so I believe there’s a chance of them coaching into their mid-seventies if they want to.
I could make the chapter titled “Think Like Belichick” because he’s been the most innovative, influential and successful coach of the 21st century, but “Think Like A College Coach” gives NFL organization’s looking for a new head coach someone they can target, someone they can envision as their next head coach, while you can’t just look for a Belichick. The ideas that I share in the chapter are in regard to a kind of football mind and a style of thinking that has it’s roots in college as many of the ideas come about because of the things that college football coaches tend to have to overcome. These are things like a need to replenish your roster every four years, which leads to the creation of roles that allow you to seek out a kind of athlete that you can plug-and-play into that role. This is something that we are now seeing Kelly and Carroll bring to their own teams in a masterful way.
A couple weeks ago I went to an Eagles open practice at Lincoln Financial Field and I sat all the way up top, three rows away from the end of the upper deck, so that I couldn’t see the numbers on the players without really straining my eyes, so that I had no idea who I was watching at first glance. I mean I had no idea who I was watching for much of the afternoon as I watched the receivers group specifically. They were three groups deep of athletes who plugged into specific roles for them and looked identical to the player who’s in front of him. Just to start, Nelson Agholor is the exact same size and measurables as Jeremy Maclin was for them last season, then I saw Quron Pratt and I was confusing him for Maclin by the way he was moving on the afternoon. With Pratt bring 5’ 11”, 195-pounds, which is actually 11 pounds lighter than Josh Huff, he’ll probably be more of a slot guy, but as a late-round pick, he had a style of movement to him that really caught my eye. That kind of explosiveness from low-cost players who could be very high-value players is something we’re not done talking about.
At running back, I was confusing Kevin Monangai and Darren Sproles because they’re both quick, explosive and adept pass catchers out of the backfield. With Sproles contract running through 2016, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Monangai inherit that role in 2017. Again, this is another undrafted free agent like Pratt who has an explosiveness to him that is why there were executives from the Titans, Jets, Ravens, Saints, Falcons, Cowboys, Steelers, Panthers, Redskins, Texans, Raiders and Bills at the game against the Colts. There were 12 teams scouting this game because they know that the Eagles and Seahawks have a knack for finding lower-cost, high-value players.
Agholor made a play in the preseason game against the Colts where he leaped up for a errant Sanchez pass on a short hitch route, reeled it in, took advantage of the cornerback overplaying the pass and he exploded for a score from over thirty yards away. As I’ve repeated numerous times here, by letting Maclin go and sign that five-year, $55 million deal and drafting Agholor, they saved themselves $32 million over the next four seasons and that brings us to a very, very important issue in the NFL marketplace that the Eagles are taking advantage of.
What I’m really trying to understand about the Eagles under Kelly through my research the last month or so is what are the underlying questions that he’s trying to answer with his offense and defense; and I’m focusing on the offense specifically. When I’m trying to understand something that seems complex, I try to ask myself questions, so that I set myself up for some kind of answer as a solution, rather than just approaching it and attempting to think of solutions without questions. So with Kelly’s offense, I started asking things like:
- What are the main goals that you’re trying to accomplish with your offense over the course of the game?
- What kind of balance do you think there should be?
- What’s the most important metric for measuring your offense?
- How can you measure efficiency?
- What are the most important skills needed on an offense for it to achieve these peak performances we’re looking for?
- What should you be aiming to be doing with each play?
- What kind of athletes will you need for this system and will you be able to find those kinds of athletes to play for you every 4 to 5 years? (With the cost of second contracts for top players in the NFL, as we’ve seen with the Seahawks, some tough decisions have to be made and you’ll need to replenish your roster after some very talented free agents leave.)
When I first began this task of trying to understand Kelly’s offense, I started by looking back at the Oregon teams he coached from 2007 to 2012 and I watched how they got better almost every season in specific metrics. By his last season, they were second in the country with 49.6 points per game and they had increased their rushing yards per game all the way to 315.2 on 52.7 carries at 6.0 per; they even averaged 3.7 rushing touchdowns per game. That year, they passed the ball 28.7 times per game for 222.2 yards with a 67.0% completion percentage and 2.7 passing touchdowns per game.
Looking at that 2007 team, they still rushed the ball a ton, 47.3 times per game, but they averaged “only” 251.7 yards per game on 5.3 per carry with 2.5 rushing touchdowns per game. In the passing game, they had 215.8 yards per game on 31.8 attempts for a 59.1% completion percentage and 2.0 passing touchdowns per game.
I know that some of that difference comes from Dennis Dixon being under center in 2007 and Marcus Mariota in 2012, but I argue that they were able to improve the quality of the players they were recruiting across the board as they started to find the right players for Kelly’s system and as he himself improved the system. The 2012 team ran 2.3 more players per game for 69.9 more yards, while averaging 0.7 more touchdowns per game. The 2007 team was a solid squad as they went 9-4 with 38.2 points per game, which was 12th in the country that year, and had very solid players like Dixon, Jonathan Stewart, and Ed Dickson on offense.
With Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback and Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount at running back, 2008 was a year that makes me think of what the Eagles would look like with Tim Tebow under center. They went 10-3 with 41.9 points per game, which was seventh in the country and 280.1 rushing yards per game at 6.2 per carry on 45.0 attempts per game. This team especially is why I can’t understand how anyone could think Tebow isn’t going to make this team, Kelly is too creative and too innovative to let an improved Tebow, who played in a similar system in Florida, go to waste.
This is part of what I love about the experience that college coaches bring to the NFL. Some years, you end up with players who don’t quite fit exactly what you’re looking for, but you’ve still got to figure out a way to win anyway and Kelly has consistently done that. That 2008 team averaged only 204.8 passing yards per game, but a running game with two 1000-yard rushing running backs and Masoli with 718 himself gave the Ducks a remarkable spread rushing attack that Tebow could run incredibly well.
At the open practice two Sundays ago, I tweeted:
(In retrospect, I really should have said Top 5 as I believe they can be that good.)
I firmly believe that and what Kelly’s accomplished with similar quarterbacks to Tebow is proof of it. There’s no reason why Tebow couldn’t pilot this offense to a strong season as Kelly’s smart enough to create an offense that Tebow, with his improved throwing mechanics could succeed in. To put Kelly’s ability to succeed with less than ideal circumstances, look no further than the 2013 Eagles. With Nick Foles under center, the Eagles led the league with 6.33 yards per play, which is 0.16 higher than the 2014 Packers, led by league MVP Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy, who led the NFL last season with 6.17 yards per play. That 0.16 yards per play is a considerable difference over the course of a season as well as in the statistical sense as the figured for this are understandably very tight.
This spread efficiency I’m talking about is exemplified by the 2008 Oklahoma Sooners November beat down of Michael Crabtree’s Texas Tech Red Raiders that year. I came to this game because I was researching Mike Leach and trying to understand what has restricted his teams from always reaching that next level, that BCS bowl type contender and I realized that it’s a kind of efficiency that can only be achieved through balance. It was then that I realized that the trade for Sam Bradford and the signing of Demarco Murray isn’t a coincidence; Kelly knows that these two can be very successful in his system and that he can help amplify their talents.
Through analyzing that game, I began to come up with the yard per play metric that I’m discussing now and it will be explained in depth in Caponomics. I think Cap-Heads will really enjoy as it should help us understand how offenses should look at their own cap management depending on the offense they’re trying to construct.
On that November day, the Sooners outgained the Red Raiders by 219 yards with only one more play and they averaged 8.0 to Texas Tech’s 5.3 yards per play. That Texas Tech team may have been the best in school history at 11-2 and their success was in large part due to them having a running game that could be relied on at 4.8 yards per carry for 117.8 yards per game. Texas Tech led the country that year with 5371 passing yards, 413.2 per game, so as usual, the passing game carried their average rushing offense and below average defense. While Leach took Tech to heights that they probably never dreamed of with his pass heavy spread, there’s only so much that you can do with an offense that doesn’t have balance and a below average defense because that’s an incomplete team and the margin for error is too small for such inadequacies. It was in this game though, that this was put on display.
That afternoon, Graham Harrell threw for 361 yards; a nice day even though it was below their season average, but the real killer comes in the form of two things. First, they only had 45 rushing yards and second, it took him 55 passing attempts to get those yards. This is why their yard per play was so low and something that Oklahoma was able to take advantage of as they had a balanced attack, which did more with less. Bradford only threw the ball 19 times on the day and he had 14 completions to Harrell’s 33, but Bradford completed 73.7% of his passes, while Harrell connected on 60.0%, while Demarco Murray and Chris Brown both had over 100 yards to combine for 233 on 39 carries (6.0 ypc). It was that powerful ground game that opened up the passing game and really opened my eyes to the efficiency created by balance.
The best spread teams in college today are all going for a run/pass balance, but not the run/pass balance we think about in football, they’re going for a yardage balance, not a play balance and you see it in how Oregon, Baylor, Ohio State and others play. The passing game is where you’re going to have more yards per play naturally, but it has to be supplemented with a strong running game as that keeps defenses off balanced, which allows you to attack openings in the defense that are created by the balance. Chris B. Brown wrote a great article in June 2011 bout constraint theory and how they’re designed to make sure you create situations where the defense essentially can’t win. Constraint plays are things like bubbles and smoke screens off of the running game if the defense is cheating to stop the run, but today’s spread offenses are basically “constraint offenses” as they’re running plays with speed and the skill to beat the defense in multiple ways.
I explain it in the coming book and I may have mentioned it on here before, but, while the West Coast is about spreading the defense horizontally and the Air Coryell is about spreading them vertically, the spread offense is about spreading the defense in every direction and then attacking the holes you’ve created by doing that. You spread the defense with formations, motions, routes, but most of all, speed. This is why Kelly got rid of LeSean McCoy as he abandoned the running style that helped him lead the NFL in rushing in 2013 and reverted back to the dancing in the backfield that just won’t work in Kelly’s offense. This is why he went and signed Murray as not only was he cheaper, but he’s probably the best north/south runner in the NFL The attacking the holes in the defense is not a passing or a running thing, they need to supplement each other for them to succeed.
Bringing it back to the conversation that Ray Farmer had on NFL Radio, he also mentioned that they look at what their players can do rather than what they can’t do. This mindset allows them to amplify the strengths of everyone on their roster and put them in positions where their skills can be used well, rather than trying to fit, say a spread quarterback into a drop back passing offense like the NFL has been trying to do with every great college spread quarterback for my entire life. Of course, my understanding of the evolution of the spread is that almost all of the spread offenses that came before the 2000s or so were of the run and shoot variety and they didn’t have the running games that today’s spreads have. Kelly’s spread builds off of the best run concepts from old school systems like the Wing-T and combines it with the spreads formations and passing concepts to bring it into a new age of athletes. Today’s spreads mold together with the best of both worlds, the run concepts that help schools like Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern, Navy, Army and Air Force compete and lead the country in rushing every year with the passing concepts that combines accuracy in the short game with explosive big play potential on any snap. There is no longer any excuse for NFL organizations to pretend the spread doesn’t work as the Eagles, Dolphins and Texans all had success with it in 2014 and will only get better as they both improve the quality of players they have in their roles.
All this talk of the spread leads me to ask how does a team ensure they have success with these systems? What do the best teams in the NFL have in common? What do the best teams seem to look for in the athletes they draft and sign?
With my mind fixated on Kelly and Carroll this weekend, the thing I realized is that both of these organizations simply look for the most explosive athletes that they can find at each position and then coach them to be the best player they can be at that position. A huge benefit of having a staff that’s guided by these collegiate principles is that these are coaches who have experience in teaching players the position. I’m sure that NFL coaches have always been coaching up and teaching players, but I think that college coaches have more experience dealing with raw, explosive high school athletes and then molding them into college level football players, which is a skill and advantage that both organizations have.
This was on full display in the Seahawks game on Friday night with second round pick Frank Clark seeming to be all over the field with nine tackles in about 50 snaps, including three tackles on one drive. Their third round pick, Tyler Lockett, returned a kickoff for a touchdown, then had a couple long punt returns as he made the Seahawks completely forget about Percy Harvin and he’ll cost millions less than he would have too.
I know both these organizations understand the importance of using their salary cap money wisely, the Seahawks need to now with their core on much larger deals and the Eagles illustrated their knowledge of the salary cap all offseason with one savvy deal after another. The wide receiver position for both teams is a solid example of how both teams manage the salary cap wisely because they understand there is an over supply of wide receivers in the NFL today. For different reasons, the Eagles and Seahawks can find receivers that can fill the roles they have in their offenses for a fairly low-cost, yet their rushing attacks, which promise to be two of the best in the league still cost less than two receiver groups that are the 22nd (Eagles) and 25th (Seahawks) highest paid in the NFL. This is due to a running back market that’s already depressed in comparison to a receiver market that’s just beginning it’s decline.
The Eagles have the third highest paid running back group in the league, yet they only cost 8.68% of the cap, while the Seahawks are fifth at 8.44% of the cap, and both are just slightly higher than the Super Bowl average for the position group at 8.25%. The Eagles showed they understood where the market was when they traded McCoy’s bloated contract for Kiko Alonso, who will really improve their defense. As I wrote in this article, they then got Murray and Ryan Mathews for less than McCoy cost, plus the addiction of Alonso. I feel there was an understanding in the organization that McCoy’s contract was far too high for the value that he gave them as an east/west runner in a north/south system, plus the understanding that the cost of a top running back isn’t what it was perceived to be when McCoy signed that deal.
For the Eagles, it’s more than just taking advantage of a depressed running back market and it’s more than understanding that you can get high-value production out of your receiver group through a great passing system that can succeed without breaking the bank because of the immense amount of talent available in the rookie and free agency market every year. You look at Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff coming out of the rookie market, then Miles Austin as a nice supplemental receiver in this offense, the kind of player that you could rely on for 50 catches for 500 yards if you need him and as long as they can keep him healthy. That’s another aspect of the Eagles system that allows them to find value where others don’t, their confidence in their sports science program is a huge bonus as the system has helped them have the least amount of injuries in 2013 and the fifth least in 2014. The Eagles seem to have a complete organization wide understanding of the team needs at each and every position, plus an ability to scout and find talent where others aren’t.
This is similar to what I see when I look at how the Seahawks are constructed with their low-cost, explosive athletes over the last few seasons. Just looking at Russell Wilson, he’s not the prototypical quarterback, but Carroll and Co. saw a solid player with a great football IQ and terrific skills outside of just the normal skill set we look for in a quarterback. The result was having a QB lead them to two straight Super Bowl appearances on a third round rookie contract. You don’t need what everyone else needs to success, you don’t need someone else’s formula, you just need players who can play within what you’re going to ask them to do and succeed.
This is not dissimilar to what the Patriots built in the early-2000s with loads of low-cost free agent signings that they would use to get the production they needed at a position out of low-cost veterans until they were able to find their player at that position for the future. They did this with players like Bobby Hamilton, Anthony Pleasant and Ted Washington until they found Vince Wilfork in the first round of the 2004 draft. Through having these veterans, they give their young players someone who they can learn from and develop an understanding of what they need to do to succeed in the position before they take over the position after a season as an understudy. The Seahawks are doing this masterfully right now with some referring to it as a redshirt year in the organization. There it is again, that college mindset, find players you think you can develop as undrafted free agents and take the time to develop them or at least bring them in to see what they can do for you like the Seahawks did when they made 283 roster moves in Carroll and John Schneider’s first year together.
A few years ago, when they drafted Bruce Irvin, I wondered why they risked a first rounder on a player who had so many question marks in his personal life, but then you see the explosiveness he brings to the field and you understand why, same with Frank Clark. According to Field Gulls, Bruce Irvin had the highest Nike SPARQ rating out of all the linebackers and LEOs that the Seahawks had at the time when the article was written in 2012 and, considering the Seahawks take SPARQ ratings very seriously, this is an impressive feat.
This is the kind of thinking that will construct future dynasties in the NFL, an ability to find explosive athletes to fill your team with low-cost, high-value players around your core players who are making those bigger contracts. It’s about building your roster from within as much as possible because you want to know how a player will look in your system on a cheaper rookie deal before you put the larger investment in him for that second contract. Now that the Eagles are in Year 3 under Kelly, we’ll begin to see them re-signing the players that the current regime drafted and really construct a team from within like the Seahawks are doing now and the Patriots have done for years. As I write in Caponomics, in an ideal world, you don’t want to have to go out on the free agency marketplace for the most important pieces of your team, although the Eagles seem to have done that masterfully this offseason as they had an understanding of exactly what they needed in their system skill wise, which shows the power of a system that’s completely created by the coach running it in terms of your return on investment.
The more I learn about this, the more that I see the relationship between the team’s philosophy and their specific needs and the Super Bowl spending and averages. The spending and averages that I’m finding should be a framework for teams to learn from if they’re trying to construct a similar team to say, the 2000 Ravens, 2009 Saints, 2013 Seahawks or 2014 Patriots as each of these teams were built in their own unique structure. Theoretically, through the money saving tactics that the Eagles can use on offense, they could create a defense very similar to the Texans as they can save that much money on offense, the important part is finding the top talents at positions of need.
When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time in the weight room doing my own workouts and stuff I’d find on the Internet, I was focused on getting stronger. When I started to go to DeFranco’s Gym in college, I realized the difference between lifting to get bigger and stronger and lifting to get more explosive. The future of the NFL is in explosive athletes at every position, the most finely tuned, coiled springs of power and the Eagles and Seahawks know it. It’s not to say the Patriots and Ravens don’t know this as well, because they have since 2000, but the Eagles and Seahawks are taking it into the future.
I write in my notes often about this concept, teams shouldn’t look at each position and give it the job description of “running back” or “wide receiver,” but should instead have the exact skills and attributes that you’re looking for in that role, so that you can go out and find the exact player(s) who can fill that role and find them at the right price for you. And at the top of the list of needed attributes at All-22 offensive and defensive positions, except quarterback really although you could argue they need to be explosive as well in their own way, and each position really needs it’s own kind of explosiveness to be successful. As we see on both the Eagles and Seahawks, the first-step quickness and explosion that these players have is unmistakable.
The Seahawks and Eagles are becoming the NFC equivalent of the Patriots and Ravens of the last 15 years, two organizations that understand how to build a team in a way that will have a chance to compete every year. Ozzie Newsome’s goal is for the Ravens is to have a team that makes the playoffs every season because if you do that year in, year out and eventually you’ll win a Super Bowl. To do that, you have to draft and find players every year who can come in and contribute rather than waste space on the roster and money against the cap. Look for explosive players in the draft, then have coaches who can coach them up.
Tweet me: @ZackMooreNFL
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