I Playcall, Therefore I Am

Jimmy Raye

Jimmy Raye

“Oh, go up to the king cause the sky is falling in, but it’s not.  But it’s not.  Maybe not.  Maybe not.”

-Radiohead “2+2=5” 

Third-and-6.  Less than 2 minutes to play.  Leading by 4 points.  Opponent has one timeout remaining.  Quarterback takes the snap, turns and hands it to the running back who runs into the pile.  No gain.  4th down.  Opponent burns final timeout.  80 yards in 1:29.  No way to stop the clock in the field of play.  Rewind…

Much has been made of the offensive play-calling on the final possession of the Week 3 loss in Minnesota, specifically the fact that three consecutive inside runs were called.  Against the league’s best run defense.  Without your star running back and best player available.  The sequence has led to questions.  Not just questions about the play-calling itself, but about the entire philosophy behind the offensive system.

Ever since Mike Singletary laid out his formula for success last season, the emphasis on the ground game has been obvious.  Never mind the limitations at QB, the lack of a certain lofty draft choice to sign his contract, or anything else:  Singletary wants his team to run.  Hard.  A lot.  He doesn’t just want to crush your will.  He wants to rip it out of your body, hold it over his head while the rest of the team chants some gibberish, then throw it to the ground and crush it with a sledge hammer. 

Sounds great in your head, doesn’t it?  It sounds great.  But does it work?

In spite of all claims to the contrary, the answer is yes.  Football is a game won by physicality.  It was before they invented the forward pass.  It still is.  One need only look at some of the most successful teams of the last decade to see it.

There are anomalies.  New England is the team of the decade, and they never had a fierce running attack.  Likewise, Indianapolis has a long track record of success this decade, especially in the regular season. 

But for all their success, Indianapolis has one Super Bowl win to show for their dominance, and it was thanks to the vast improvement of their defense (and the return of Bob Sanders) and the emergence in the playoffs of their running game that was chiefly responsible for their title (Peyton Manning had 3 TDs and 7 INTs during that postseason, and a QB rating of 68.1).  Arizona had a similar path to their Super Bowl appearance last season:  they gained almost 1/3 as many rushing yards in their three NFC playoff games as they did during the entire regular season, and their defense took a major step forward, registering 13 takeaways in four games.

Overwhelmingly, the success of teams, particularly in recent years, is predicated on the oldest formula in the game’s history.  Run the ball.  Play good-to-great defense.  Mix in the passing game.  From the Giants to the Ravens to the Steelers to the Chargers to last year’s Panthers/Falcons/Titans and this year’s Jets/Vikings.  New Orleans has emerged as a legitimate contender because of their newfound rushing attack, not because of their all-world QB…5000 yards couldn’t get them a playoff berth in 2008.  Cincinnati has surprised with back-to-back impressive wins, and their commitment to the running game in both has been the leading cause (along with an amazingly improved defense).

This is not to suggest that the passing game be neglected; far from it.  In fact, I wrote about the need for balance last week.  But this balance should still operate within the paradigm that has proven successful.  Diversifying an offense is a great thing.  Taking what someone gives you is good.  Taking what you want from someone is better (this is not an invitation for robbery/rape/murder, although out of context it sure looks like one…wow).

As the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat.  There are many different environments in which to raise a child, and all of them have benefits and drawbacks, but most folks would agree that a two-parent home is ideal.  There are dozens of options out there for those who want a “greener” alternative to their mode of transportation, but mass transit is most likely to be your best bet if you have a commute.

Likewise, there are a wide variety of offensive philosophies that have shown to be successful, from the 2000 Ravens extremely low-risk approach to the run-and-shoot days of the Houston Oilers.  But the philosophy that has proven to be the most effective for long-term success is the classic “balanced but run-oriented” system.  The reasoning behind the proliferation of this mindset is simple:

It doesn’t take a superhuman quarterback.

There aren’t many quarterbacks that pass through the NFL who go down as all-time greats.  MAYBE Tom Brady has established himself in that class.  If Peyton Manning can win another title and play better under pressure in doing so, he probably gets there.  But outside of those two (and Kurt Warner if you ask certain people), none of the rest of the QBs who have established records of success with their teams likely scream “legend” status the way Montana or Elway does.  Operating within that framework, it becomes obvious why Mike Singletary’s formula for success so strongly resembles that of so many other coaches.

Singletary has said this week that he plans on “opening up” the offense as QB Shaun Hill gets more comfortable in the offensive system.  Time will tell if that becomes a reality, but in spite of his rigid reputation, he has shown a willingness to adapt (from pulling JT O’ Sullivan in his first game as coach to naming Dashon Goldson the starter at safety) to whatever works.

And as far back as you could possibly care to look, “whatever works” has shown to be the physical juggernaut Singletary envisioned when he got the job.         

  • Brodie12

    I agree with all you stated here. However, when everyone in the stadium knows you are going to run on 3rd and 6, even mediocre defenses stuff it today.
    If and when the same scenario comes again, I also hope we don’t “try to mix it up” with three play-action pass calls.

    • wickerman

      I agree somewhat, but I think it’s not so cut and dry.

      Yes the Steelers and the Giants run you into the dirt. Their passing game is at least a threat. Ben and Eli are not John Elway, but if you ignore Hines Ward or Plaxico (ooopsss I mean… hehehe) Eli or Ben CAN get them the ball and they will murder you with a long pass.

      That means stacking 8 in the box to stop the run is going to get you killed. Same thing with the Chargers. IF you do nothing but defend LT, Gates will eat you up. What the Niners need is to CONSISTENTLY prove that stacking the box to stop Gore is going to mean Davis or Morgan in one on one coverage and an easy first down.

      I think Davis is slowly getting there. I think Hill needs to find a way to get Morgan or Jason Hill or ANYONE with some measure of speed involved to spread the defense. I love Isaac Bruce, but unless a coverage is blown, he;s good for short yardage possession stuff 90% of the time. You can defend that while you defend vs Gore. What you can;t stop with 3 DBs in coverage is Vernon Davis on a deep out. You can’t stop both Morgan and Hill running streaks.

      The problem is, Raye has shown no desire to keep a defense honest with this type of play outside of a handful of passes. Hill also hasn’t shown a lot of confidence and comfort in attempting them. Given the 9 sacks he’s taken in 3 games, I can understand that, but as much as the O-Line needs to step up, there have been a few that were on Hill too.

      Raye and Sing need to spend some time developing the pass as a threat even if it is not the main one.

      THAT will make the 9ers a productive and – dare I say it – respected offense. If they build toward that, I think they can have Giants/Steelers/Eagles style successes.