Sunday NFL Scouting Report: Bill Belichick and a Copycat League
For all the hype about about coaches being “cutting-edge” and “innovative”, the reality is that most coaches in the NFL are remarkably results-oriented, simply finding what has work recently and emulating it as best they can. Conversely, if a strategy or game-management decision doesn’t pan out on Sunday in front of 50 million television viewers, a head coach or coordinator may be less inclined to go against the grain.
It’s no surprise then, that one of the few head coaches who regularly makes controversial decisions, from game management to player personnel, decided to do something that made football fans everywhere scratch their heads. With his unusual choice to kick the ball away in overtime and take the wind, Bill Belichick may have started a new NFL trend.
The NFL, it has been widely noted, is a copycat league, and football coaches in general are notorious for drawing up what they saw on TV the week before and trying to use it in their own gameplan. That said, every once in a while there seems to be a trend in play calling or game strategy. Take for example:
November 13, 2005 – Jon Gruden goes for two against the Redskins for the win and gets it. That ignites something of a miniature trend for the rest of the season of several other coaches making the gutsy call to go for the win, usually successful.
September 16, 2007 – Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan calls a timeout just a half second before Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski kicks what he thought was a game winning field goal. Janikowski ends up having to kick again, missing his second attempt. For the rest of the season and to the annoyance of broadcasters and television audiences everywhere, coaches would repeatedly call a timeout just as the field goal team was about to snap the ball, making the opponent think they had successfully kicked a game-winning field goal. (You may recall this strategy was used successfully on Thanksgiving as well, when Mike McCarthy did the same thing to Lions kicker David Akers, causing him to miss a field goal as the first half clock expired).
September 21, 2008 – Ronnie Brown runs for 4 TDs and throws another as the Dolphins use the wildcat to destroy the Patriots and end their 21-game regular season winning streak. As I’m sure everyone remembers, for the next few months, every offensive coordinator in the league went crazy trying to draw up as many different variations of this “newfangled” offense as possible. The use of the wildcat has since died down for the most part, though it is still used in certain situations by several NFL teams, and has even entered the realm of “real football” whatever that means.
Even as recently as last season, the pistol broke into the mainstream of NFL schemes, used primarily by the 49ers, Seahawks, and Washington to shred NFL defenses with the zone read and all the variants out of it. This season, even Peyton Manning and co. regularly line up with the tailback in the pistol set, which is here to stay in football for good. There are simply too many advantages to not do it, whether you run some sort of option scheme, or stick with a more traditional offense.
So what does it all mean?
The key factor in all of these situations was that they were successful. No coach is going to rush into the office on Monday morning to draw up a play from a game he was watching the day before that didn’t work.
It’s also an interesting thought experiment, to think of the possible innovations that weren’t adapted simply because they failed the first time out, and in this reactionary league things work both ways. If something works, everyone will try to copy it in some way, and if it doesn’t, no one will bother looking at what the coach was trying to do, or study it to see if it has some merit, they just assume it won’t work and go back to the style of football they’re comfortable with.
Don’t believe me? It took exactly eleven years before anyone decided to kick off in overtime again, because no coach wanted to become the next Marty Mornhinweg, a guy who became the meme for horrible coaching decisions before the word meme existed. That means every team in the league played over 170 games, and it still took one of the NFL’s ballsiest coaches to even attempt it.
Of course the conditions that created the opportunity for Belichick to make such a decision are not that common, since a coach would have to be playing another overtime game in strong winds to get the opportunity to repeat that choice. We may have to wait a while for another chance, but I doubt this is the last time we’ll ever see a team choose the wind over the football in an NFL overtime.
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