Copyright 2013 by John T. Reed
I thought I’d never see the day.
Contrarianism has finally come to the NFL. Am I talking about the debut of former Oregon coach Chip Kelly as head coach of the Eagles? He’s part of it, but it really started several years ago.
The first week of the NFL 2013 season had a number of games that highlighted things in my two books:
Am I taking credit for the warp-speed no huddle which has now become very popular and effective at the college and NFL levels?
No. I invented what I called the warp-speed no-huddle in 1993. I don’t think college and pro coaches got that from me. I got it from them, notably Marv Levy’s Buffalo Bills and the Bengals whole-game no-huddle. But mine was a bit different and actually faster. We tried to snap the ball within two or three seconds of the ready-to-play signal. It is next to impossible by rule to go any faster. The various NCAA and NFL whole-game no huddles are much sower than that, even those called “warp-speed” by the media.
I may have helped push the warp-speed a bit at the NCAA, NFL, and NFHS levels by elaborating on it in my book Football Clock Management, 4th edition book. At the youth level, I am probably the main guy responsible for its much increased use.
Am I taking credit for the dramatically improved clock management recently at the NCAA and NFL levels?
You bet. That book of mine is now in its fourth edition. I also wrote a column about it for two years in the late 90s in American Football Quarterly magazine, the premier coaches football magazine. And I gave four clinics on it during those same two years at the American Football Quarterly University conventions to rooms full of NFL and NCAA coaches. Virtually every NFL team now has the book. Many of them bought it from me. Others probably did so incognito, and others got it because of all the cross pollination by coaches changing teams each season.
Any doubters are welcome to compare video from NCAA and NFL games prior to my book (which came out in the Fall of 1997) and column (which began in early 1998) with those today. What you will easily see is teams religiously waiting until :03 left in the half before calling a final play timeout (usually to kick a field goal), leading team defenders sliding after making a last minute pick instead of trying to run it back for a big gain or TD, leading team ball carriers sliding after getting the last first down needed to take a knee for the rest of the game, occasional QB sweep-slide plays, taking intentional safeties by stepping out of the back corner rather than being tackled in the end zone, cessation of using the go-for-1-or-2 card early in the half, and more. All those things were advocated by me in my book, all but unheard of before my book, and standard practice today.
Read my 288-page book on the subject to learn more.
Plus, be advised that the coaches still have not adopted ALL of the clock management best practices I recommended. Why not? They are afraid those ignorant of those best practices will think them incompetent and get them fired. So you will see how current NCAA and NFL coaches are still deliberately doing the wrong thing clock-wise in every game.
Am I taking credit for the increased contrarianism in NCAA and the NFL in recent years?
No. I did write the book The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense, 2nd edition. And coaches like Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh, and others are doing things that suggest they read it. But the only one I recall buying it was Mike Nolan when he was head coach of the 49ers. He is now the defensive coordinator of the Falcons.
Contrarian Edge… is an excellent book—a sort of brainstorming session combined with a history of successful football contrarianness—the forward pass was once contrarian in football—and it goes far beyond the current bits of contrarianism in the college and pro games. It also explicitly includes the stuff they are doing. I benefited from studying the history of football as you will see if you read the book. But I did not learn anything about contrarianism from guys like Kelly or Harbaugh. That does not necessarily mean they got it from me. My best guess is it’s a case of great minds running in the same channels parallel to each other and ignorant of each other.
For example, one chapter in my Contrarian book is titled “11-man Offense.” The recent fashion of having some QBs run with the ball, especially using the zone read option, is an example of 11-man offense. So was the Wildcat explosion in the NFL back in 2008. Ever since the T formation became popular and, indeed, took over football offense, in the 1940s and 1950s, teams have been playing with 10 men on offense. The QB goes off duty after handing the ball off or passing it. He does “not have to be accounted for.” In the NFL, it is even illegal for him to go out for a pass if he took the snap from under center.
Since then, offenses where the QB may run with the ball or really block—like the triple option, wildcat, unexpected sneaks, called QB draw plays, and the indirect-snap double wing recently popular in high school—have shocked defenses and, in some cases, set long-standing records.
A recent Sports Illustrated cover story—or collection of cover stories in one issue—discussed the zone read option and running quarterbacks at length. Indeed, they used the 11-man offense phrase a lot. I’m not saying they got it from me. But I did not get it from them. That chapter was in the first edition of my book when it cme out in 2008. You read it first in my book, if you had bought my book back then.
As with my clock book, the NCAA and NFL coaches are still only doing a part of what I advocate, for the same reason. They are afraid that if they are contrarian and it doesn’t work they will get fired.
God bless the few who have recently had the moral courage to be contrarian. In my book, I named Mike Leach, Urban Meyer, Chris Peterson, and Gus Malzahn—all college coaches. Now you can add Chip Kelly, Jim Harbaugh, and others—who are NFL guys.
In addition to my Contrarian book, I have offered a lot of unrequited contrarian advice to my college alma mater West Point—know as “Army” in the sports pages. Army football sucks in recent years. They have serious handicaps with regard to a 5-year post graduation active duty commitment which essentially precludes an NFL career, almost certain deployment as a ground pounder in wars like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows what next, and an extremely unattractive college life especially when compared to colleges with 50% or more women, fraternities, alcohol, and so on.
So Army needs to be contrarian—big time. They have tried a little contrarianness—the triple option. But that’s not enough and their Commander in Chief’s Trophy opponents, Navy and Air Force, are well aware of option defense. I suggested everything: recruiting left-handed QBs, using their 3,000 scholarships to create depth then run the other teams’ blue chippers into the ground with a no-huddle, make more use of the disciplined Corps of Cadets noise-making abilities. When I was a cadet, we cheered ourselves hoarse at every home game. You can see my contrarian suggestions for Army at http://www.johntreed.com/Armyfootball.html.
I got an email from the father of a cadet football player who read my suggestions. He asked, “Is anyone at Army listening?”
For one thing, In addition to being one of the big critics of Army football, I am also arguably one of the top critics of West Point itself. See Should you go to, or stay at, West Point? I think Army would rather go 0-13 (which they did in 2003 setting a still standing NCAA record) than win even one game using a suggestion they got from me or that someone might suspect they got from me.
I cited the SI cover story about running QBs in the NFL above. Another recent journalistic evidence of new-found NFL contrarianism was in the 9/4/13 Wall Street Journal article titled “A Peek at Every NFL Playbook.” Google that title and you can probably get to read it on-line.
My Contrarian… book complains bitterly that, “If you’ve seen one NFL playbook you’ve seen them all.” Now, with the recent displays of contrarianism on a handful of teams, that statement needs to be modified to “If you’ve seen one non-contrarian NFL playbook, you’ve seen 27 of them.” Hooray for the other five but we have not yet reached the point where you need a discussion of the offensive approaches of all 32 teams. Most are still non-contrarian chickens when it comes to innovation or resurrection of out-of-fashion schemes or tactics.
• being different to nullify the experience of opposing defenses
• ju jitsu, that is, a using team’s strengths against it or changing your offense to turn an opponent’s strengths into weaknesses
In the latter category, I note that De La Salle High School of Concord CA—12 miles from my house and almost always one of the top-ranked HS teams in the nation—has the habit of watching film of the opponent’s offense, not once like most teams, but every day at lunch. Is that a strength? Sure, if you run the same offense against them as they were watching film of the week before your game with them. But it is not a strength if you modify your offense such that what were keys in the games they watched turn into false keys or better yet, unreliable keys, in the game they play. (You would not want to consistently make all prior keys false keys because they would just give them new keys. Inconsistency, on the other hand, with regard to those former keys, would force them to ignore such early reads and become tentative.) If you could do that to DLS, you would have ju jitsued them, turned a strength into a weakness. DLS holds the national win streak record of 151. Their 150th straight victory was agains the varsity where I was coaching the freshmen. The team that beat them on tha 152nd game was Bellevue, WA which used a 14-year-old rookie QB who never threw a sigle pass in the enire game.
The Bucs Lavonte David hit Jets QB Geno Smith late out of bounds at the Tampa 45 with a 17-15 lead and :07 left in the game. From the 45, it would have been a 45 + 17 = 62-yard field goal attempt. NFL kickers generally fail when the kick is more than about 50 yards. 67 is the NFL record. But the 15-yard penalty moved the ball to the Tampa 30 where it was a 30 + 17 = 47-yard kick which the Jets made, to win the game.
The Tampa coaches should have read my clock book, especially the chapter titled “Celebrations and Personal Fouls.” That chapter is about premature celebration, premature mourning, and devastating personal fouls late in a half. David’s late hit would have had the same effect—losing the game—had it happened in the same situation at the end of the first half. The chapter is replete with heartbreaking actual case histories from the Sooner Schooner to Leon Lett’s various bloopers to key-player-injury-causing celebrations and more. The chapter urges coaches to make avoiding premature celebration or mourning or personal fouls a point of emphasis including punishing them severely when they happen in practice or pre-season.
The key issue in premature celebration or mourning is the whistle. The game ends on the referee’s whistle, not the buzzer. And the play ends on the official’s whistle, not when something good or bad seemingly happens. Premature mourning means stopping before the whistle because you concluded the play or game ended badly for your team when, in fact, it had not yet ended at all. Just as an opera is not over until the fat lady sings, a football play or game is not over until the official blows his whistle.
I was eager to see how Kelly did in the NFL with his almost warp-speed no-huddle. He won and looked good but maybe because Washington played so bad. Let’s wait until Kelly wins a game where the opponent does not throw two picks and have their running QB only gain 24 yards.
In 2012, the Niners beat the Packers badly by having QB Colin Kaepernick run the zone read option play. This year the Packers were ready for that play, only Niners coach Jim Harbaugh never ran it, having Kaepernick pass instead, and won again. That sounds like the idea I suggested above for defeating the extreme video-watching DLS team. What Harbaugh did was arguably game theory which has six entries in the index of my Contrarian book. (You can see all the topics in the table of contents web page for the book.)
The Colts defeated the Raiders when QB Luck ran for a TD. Not necessarily contrarian but I attended a Stanford game in Luck’s senior year there. In that game, Luck lined up at receiver in a sort of wildcat formation and made a spectacular catch of a pass on the sideline. I think the pass was out of bounds, but Luck managed to get his foot down inbounds. His head coach until the season before? Current Niner head coach Jim Harbaugh.
This game featured two of the young, vaunted, contrarian running QBs: Russell Wilson and Cam Newton. The decisive factor was Russell’s 320 yards of passing, which may have been set up in part, as in the Niners game, by the opponent’s fear of his ability to run.
Many a game is won by invisible factors like the opponents’ fear of Deion Sanders back in the day, or their fear of Lawrence Thomas, or of Kaepernick’s legs. My oldest son had a very good arm in Little League, but he never threw anyone out at second when he played catcher. Why not? We made sure he got to show his arm in pre-game and pre-inning warm-ups. After that, no one ever dared try to steal second against him all season—and this in a league where stealing second on the first pitch was otherwise automatic league-wide. I was a pretty good contain man playing tackle football. My last season was at age 25 on a company team in the Army. My typical game at defensive end was the opponent would try my side once or twice in the first quarter, unsuccessfully, then never again for the rest of the game. Boring and not good for one’s stats, but we won the post championship and I felt my taking away one normally powerful, amateur football play was a contributing factor.
Legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes once said the fear of the pass is more important than the pass itself. That statement can actually be said about any capability that scares opponents. On many occasions, our scouting revealed enemy one-play formations. That is, when they line up in, say, a slot, they always run sweep to the slot side. If I thought we could stop it, I would keep secret that we knew. For example, neither I nor any of my players or coaches was allowed to yell “Watch the sweep” when we saw the slot. But once I played a team where I was scared stiff of their backup QB scrambling. We knew it was coming whenever he went in at QB. The play he would run was sort of a called draw or a called scramble. So we practiced defending it with a careful encirclement that closed around him carefully. More important, we yelled “He’s going to scramble!” as loud and by as many players and coaches as possible as soon as we saw him at QB. Our goal was to let them know we knew why he was at QB. We stopped him for a loss the first time they did it in the subsequent game. They never tried it again. Whew!
In my Contrarian… and Clock Management books, I have the “mating calls” of your opponents if you do what I said in the books. One is their defense constantly screaming “Base! Base!” throughout the game. That means they are flummoxed by your tempo or formation or personnel and are calling their most basic, vanilla, all-purpose defense to deal with it. Whenever you can get them to stay in one defense all game, especially a base defense which is a jack of all offensive plays and master of none, you will have much more success on offense.
Another mating call is running into an opposing coach in the off-season and having him say something like, “When are you going to stop running that damned _______ on offense!?” He may go on to say it wastes a whole week of practice because no one else runs it and it’s “not real football,” or dismiss it as “razzle dazzle.” If you are NOT hearing such things, you are not contrarian enough.
Have the NCAA and NFL made strides with regard to better clock management and more contrarian offenses? Yes, but they are still falling far short of what they could be doing and should be doing. It is great fun to know those things and they are in the two books of mine listed above. Oh, and if you are a coach, they will win your more games per season, maybe a championship and better job.