Sunday, August 18, 2013

Are tactical innovations in the NFL making football fans' vocabulary obsolete?

You could say I came of age as a football watcher as a teenager in the 90s, so I consider traditional I-formation offenses to be the norm. That style of offense allowed for a fairly clean and simple understanding of what constituted play action. There's more to it than this, and occasional exceptions, but from our perspective as a fan any time we saw a fake handoff we could call it play action and we got by just fine. As Tanier said in a recent Mandatory Monday, "We need to learn enough Spanish to get around Barcelona; not every verb needs to be properly conjugated."

But recent tactical developments in the NFL such as read option and packaged plays (not the same thing, but there is overlap between them and it is not a coincidence that they are arriving in the NFL simultaneously) may force fans like us to abandon some of our simplistic definitions. A read option play in which the running back doesn't get the ball isn't so much a fake because up until the QB reads the defensive end's first step there was a legitimate chance the running back could end up getting a carry. Regular old fake handoffs, of course, are designed to be fake from the beginning.

And I don't think its just casual TV watchers like me that will have this problem. Consider this Football Outsiders post evaluating 2012 NFL defenses against play action. I did some time as a FO game charter a few years back, and I'm pretty sure I was told to chart a play as play action any time I saw a fake handoff. They could have adjusted the definition since then, but if so I see no indication of it in this article. And I did notice that the 2012 game charting data did not record plays as specifically read option. A play designed to have the option of a handoff and a play designed with a fake handoff seem like completely separate tactical concepts, so I'm not sure it's that useful to measure a defense's performance against both lumped together.

The best I can come up with is to watch the quarterback's head. A characteristic of a quarterback who expertly sells a play fake is that he completely turns his back to the defense while faking a traditional handoff. Obviously, that QB is not giving himself any opportunity to read the first steps of a defensive player.

But for obvious reasons, handoffs out of read option come with both the running back and the quarterback facing the line of scrimmage. I will probably assume that when the QB is facing forward it is so he can choose between multiple options. But that feels simplistic to me. Given how much every defense is preparing for read option these days, there is no reason to think that offenses won't start incorporating fake read option into other plays to freeze the defense.

Also take a look at this example of a packaged play from a Chris Brown Grantland post, which you really need to read in it's entirety:

"...the Bills ran a four-in-one play that included a read-option concept for the quarterback to hand off to the runner or keep it himself, throw a bubble screen, and have the option of throwing a quick 'pop' pass to the tight end if the linebackers to his side crashed for the run — yet another counter to the plans defenses have been creating all season to handle the read-option."

By a few weeks into the 2012 season I would have been comfortable enough with the read option concept to recognize the quarterback making a decision at the mesh point to either keep the ball or hand it off. What would be hard for me here is recognizing all the pass routes here as legitimate options rather than diversionary. There have always been receivers running routes on run plays, screens, and other situations where they have zero chance of having a pass thrown their way. Suppose the QB chooses to run it himself here - I'm not so sure I would recognize that the bubble screen was a real option as opposed to a diversion to pull a defender out of position.

Packaged plays like this also mean that run versus pass is no longer a simple dichotomy. In many cases when a team passes twice as often as it runs in a game it will not necessarily be because the coach called twice as many pass plays, it will be because the defense's reactions dictated a post-snap pass decision to the quarterback more often. It seems like this will seriously complicate many discussions about tactical differences among coaches.

It is, of course, pretty exciting to see such dramatic tactical developments in a league I have been watching my whole life. But I think football fans and media will have to go through quite a learning curve as we adjust to a new vocabulary to describe the game.

[Update: Apologies for the weird white highlighting that seems to be appearing wherever I used copy and paste. It doesn't show up in my composition window so I can't find a way to get rid of it. Not the first odd formatting problem I have had with this blog site.]


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