There are two players in this year’s NFL draft that I find compelling in so many ways. Both are wide receivers: Cordarrelle Patterson and Tavon Austin. Each is fascinating as an individual prospect, with explosive athleticism and multi-dimensional skills that mesmerize and captivate. Even for an old tape hound like me who rarely gets excited with the remote in my hand, evaluating Patterson and Austin was a lot of fun. There were many times I found myself audibly saying ”Wow”; believe me, that does not happen too often when I’m watching tape.
In certain respects, Patterson and Austin were similar; in other ways, they were different. The most visible distinction was size: Patterson is almost 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds; Austin is just over 5-foot-8 and weighs in at 173 pounds. The similarities were a function of utilization and talent; both aligned all over the formation, including in the backfield, and each possesses an extraordinary combination of flash quickness, lateral explosion, stop and start acceleration and top end speed. Both are live wires with the ball in their hands: shifty, elusive and unpredictable, with the ability to turn routine plays into impact, game changing masterpieces. Was there a better singular performance this past college season than Austin’s work of art versus Oklahoma? Aligned as the running back behind Geno Smith in the Pistol formation, Austin rushed 21 times for 344 yards. They were all basic zone runs that are the foundation of many running games. Let that sink in for a moment. 344 yards.
Then there was Patterson versus Troy. He caught a number of short passes in front of the corner, and then turned them into video games. He has open field instincts and movement that you cannot teach. When you watch him weaving and cutting his way through a defense, you lose sight of how big he is. Keep in mind that he has much work to do as a receiver. At this point, with his lack of experience, he is not as quick, fast or explosive running routes as he is with the ball in his hands. My guess is that won’t dramatically affect his draft status; there are not many players that size with that kind of ability. Those that have it get drafted in the top half of the first round.
Austin, on the other hand, is a more intriguing projection to the NFL, simply because of his size. The argument, and I intellectually understand it, is that there have not been many 173-pound receivers/backs that have been successful in the NFL. The principal concern focuses on durability. He’s a small man in a big man’s game, and therefore it is just a matter of time before he gets hurt. Of course, that’s a purely speculative contention based on some vague and nebulous sense of percentages, the notion that slightly built players are far more prone to injury. It sounds right, so we accept it. And it may be true. It will eventually become an “access to the result” argument. If Austin gets hurt, those who vehemently expressed it will say, “I told you so.”
This is where I present my philosophy as to the changing nature of the NFL game, the direction in which I see it moving, and what I believe may well become the “new normal”. Broadly, we’ve seen a number of factors take shape in recent years. We all know the NFL is now predominantly a passing league, driven by the quarterback. We’ve all seen the continued integration and fusion of college spread concepts with NFL passing game principles. None of this is revelatory. I have given a lot of thought to what I think this all means when you drill down deeper, put it under the microscope, and look ahead.
To start, let’s look at the New England Patriots. Visualize what they have done the last couple of seasons. They have aligned with “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends and two wide receivers), the “tight ends” being Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The reason I put tight ends in parentheses is that Gronkowski, and more specifically Hernandez, align anywhere and everywhere in the formation. I can’t tell you how many times watching tape I have seen Hernandez in the backfield, and Gronkowski flexed or split. That puts a major burden on the defense, both in terms of personnel, and coverage. Do you stay base, or do you play nickel? Can you match up man-to-man, or must you play zone? I spoke to a defensive coordinator who told me “12” personnel in general is a very difficult matchup, and against the Patriots in particular.
Now look at the Green Bay Packers. They presented a different personnel grouping with four wide receivers on the field, either with a back or a tight end. When it was a tight end, it was often Jermichael Finley, and he presents his own set of problems. Randall Cobb was the wild card. He aligned in every receiver position, including the backfield, where he was a threat as both a receiver and a runner. You have to think about this from a defensive coordinator’s perspective. There’s so much you have to have an answer for. Start with alignment. Normally when a player is offset in the backfield, he’s not dealt with by the defense as an immediate vertical threat since he’s not on the line of scrimmage. But with Cobb, and his speed and route running quickness, you must treat him that way, or he could be down the seam in a heartbeat.
Let’s expand the concept. It’s Aaron Rodgers in the shotgun, Cobb offset in the backfield, Finley split, with three wide receivers. Defensively, it’s more than likely you have to counter that with dime personnel. If you play man-to-man, who matches up to Cobb: the single linebacker, a safety? You can pose the same question for Finley. Either way, the answer you get is not one you’re comfortable with. In man coverage, you have matchup problems.
One final point, and it leads me directly into the “Cosell Doctrine”. I wrote about the Seattle Seahawks a number of weeks ago, specifically relating to the trade for Percy Harvin. I made the point that Seattle did not acquire Harvin solely to line him up at wide receiver. He will be so much more than that. He will align everywhere in the formation, the ultimate chess piece that can attack from anywhere on the board. Just like Cobb in Green Bay and Hernandez in New England. This is the light bulb moment. That’s exactly what Austin should be in the NFL. Those who see him solely as a slot receiver are stuck in conventional thinking, and missing the larger, more expansive point. Austin is not a static, inert player. He’s a movement player, a peripatetic ball of energy that creates all kinds of matchup issues for defenses.
I believe Austin, Hernandez, Cobb and Harvin are representative of where NFL teams would like to go with their personnel, and their passing concepts. The objective is to have five receivers, and certainly four, who can align all over the formation. Traditionally, they can be wide receivers, tight ends or running backs. It can be the Patriots with their “12” personnel. Or the Packers, with their four-wide receiver personnel. From a schematic perspective, it doesn’t matter how you define them by position. The overriding, and superseding point is that they are all movable chess pieces, all “Jokers”, to use the term that I’ve used before and I think is aptly descriptive. That’s the “Cosell Doctrine”, and that’s the direction I see the NFL game trending. It’s about passing, and how you can create, and ultimately dictate favorable matchups. You do that with players that are amorphous and fluid in their ability to be utilized in ways both multiple and expansive, yet somewhat unstructured based on conventional definitions.
Of course, you have to have receivers capable of that, but more often than not it’s just a matter of thinking outside the box, seeing things with a slightly different perspective. There are far more receivers, including the influx of athletic tight ends that continue to come into the NFL, with the physical attributes to be multi-dimensional “move” players than one might think at first glance. And don’t forget running backs with these capabilities. Believe me, there are more players like Darren Sproles in the college game, with the receiving skill set to be deployed in diverse ways. It always takes a small leap of faith to try something a little different, but I sense strongly this is where we’re headed. It’s another step forward in the evolution of NFL offense. It may be in its early stages, but don’t be surprised when the “Cosell Doctrine” becomes the new normal.