The "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams stretched defenses into some new thought patterns. (Getty Images)
One of the things I absolutely love about my job as executive producer of “NFL Matchup” is the amount of time I spend watching NFL coaching tape. It’s the visual foundation of the show, of course. More importantly, everything we talk about derives from thorough and detailed tape study. I can always hear Ron Jaworski, going back to our early years together, around 1989-90, telling me, “I don’t know what happened until I put in the tape”. As I’ve learned over time, truer words were never said.
For me, breaking down coaching tape is a systematic and comprehensive academic exercise that demands time, and then more time. I am continuously fascinated by the way in which 22 players move on each play, in a finite area of space, each side of the ball carefully and precisely planned and orchestrated by competing coaches. Believe it or not, coaches do not roll the ball out, and say, “Go make plays”. Sometimes it may look like that, but that is not how the game is coached and designed. Having had the good fortune to sit in NFL meeting rooms and attend training camps over the years, I can declare with certainty that the game is precisely taught, and coordinated, with little left to chance and spontaneity.
It is always fascinating when you see the game change and evolve. Rarely do you take note of these transformations in the initial stages; I’m not that smart (cue the snide comments). What immediately comes to my mind is the St. Louis Rams' offense in 1999, when Mike Martz was the offensive coordinator under Dick Vermeil. Most remember it for the remarkable story of Kurt Warner, who had been undrafted out of Northern Iowa in 1994, and had not thrown an NFL pass until 1998, when he attempted 11. That 1999 season evokes different memories for me. It was the first time I took note of a team utilizing three- and four-wide receiver personnel in normal down and distance situations as a standard feature of its offense. (I’m not suggesting it was the first historically, just the first time I really noticed it). First-and-10, second-and-3, it didn’t matter. The objective was to get Az-Zahir Hakim, and Ricky Proehl, the third and fourth receivers, matched, (or more correctly, mismatched) on the opponents third and fourth corners. The personnel construct proved very effective as the Rams scored 30 or more points in 13 of their 19 games, winning Super Bowl XXXIV.
The idea that a team’s third receiver (few teams had, or have four wide receivers the quality of the 1999 Rams) was better than the defense’s third, or slot corner, became a prevailing concept as the NFL advanced in the first decade of the 21st century. It was spread offense, NFL style. It clearly opened up more options with better matchups in the pass game, but “11” personnel – one back, one tight end, three wide receivers – offered much more than that. It provided the full playbook with all its dimensions. You still had a strong side running game with a line of scrimmage tight end, and you had 7 man pass protection concepts (five offensive linemen, the back, and the tight end) if you felt you needed it against a pressure, blitzing defense. High volume and favorable matchups: offensive coordinators liked the tactical opportunities “11” personnel presented, and more importantly, it afforded answers to any defensive problems.
Defenses responded.Read More »from Cosell’s Take: The safety switch, Part 1