THE NFL IS FACING A FUTURE OF LOST FUNDAMENTALS AND LESS TIME TO TEACH
BY Greg A. Bedard
TOM HERMAN IS one of the brightest minds in college football. In his first season as head coach at Houston, the former Ohio State offensive coordinator led the Cougars to a 13--1 record, including a Peach Bowl victory over Florida State. Just don't ask him about pro football. "I do catch NFL games every now and again, and it doesn't remind me of anything that I watch when breaking down opponents or watching college games on TV," Herman says. "It's completely different."
Stephen Jones is COO and director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys. He also sits on the NFL's competition committee, charged with stewarding the game. He picks players in the draft, but college football is still a foreign concept to him. "I haven't been around as long as some others," Jones says, "but in my 25 years with the NFL, I've never seen a larger disparity between the college and pro games."
Same sport. Vastly different games.
On Saturdays, most college games are high-scoring affairs ruled by simple schemes on both sides of the ball and even simpler techniques. Quarterbacks rarely call plays or take snaps under center. The receiving routes are basic, and offensive linemen don't often get into three-point stances, which is the norm in the NFL. This affects the defensive side of the ball as well. Ends can't develop pass-rush moves, because the ball gets out so quickly. Defensive backs need to protect space, so few of them have ever played man coverage (again, the norm in the NFL). Linebackers in college are more adept at dropping into a passing zone than shedding a blocker. College safeties are like goalkeepers in soccer, just trying to keep the ball in front of them.
Sundays, on the other hand, are a chess match. Quarterbacks bark out complicated play calls in the huddle and then change them at the line. Defenses bluff in and out of different looks and then bring an unorthodox blitz with press-man coverage. The offensive line has to execute perfectly timed double teams from three-point stances, or the running game doesn't go anywhere.
Both games are great and have never been more popular. But the huge disconnect between the two has begun to affect the NFL. The draft is even more of a crapshoot than before. Rookies take longer to develop, if they ever do. As a result, play in the NFL seems to be suffering. "What makes it so tough is [that] the college game is not our game," says Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman. "Back when I first started [in 1986], you were drafting players who were fundamentally sound, who understood the game. The college and pro games [were] similar. Now? You get guys who are fundamentally unsound.
"One of the concepts [Bill Walsh] had was a two-year rule: From the day you walked in the building, you had two years to prove your value to the 49ers. Well, back then the NFL was getting a much more finished product. So now it's really a three-year rule. Nothing's easy. A guy can have all the talent in the world, but this game is about fundamentals, and these players don't have them."
If Harvard's business school turned out graduates who needed three years to get up to speed on Wall Street, the institution wouldn't place many ladies and gentlemen in the finance industry. But if they were the best available, the Street wouldn't have any choice, just as NFL teams don't.
So who's to blame for the disconnect? Is there a way to bridge the gap? Does it even matter?
TO ILLUSTRATE THE recent struggles of players entering the NFL, take a look at the 2013 draft. Of the men taken in the top half of the first round, it's likely that only five (DE Ezekiel Ansah, Lions; OT D.J. Fluker, Chargers; OT Eric Fisher, Chiefs; DT Sheldon Richardson, Jets; DT Star Lotulelei, Panthers) would be drafted that high today if there were a redraft. And none would be considered elite at his position. That's just three seasons out.
In 2010, another quarterback-poor draft, the top 16 produced eight players who once were or still are looked at as elite (DT Ndamukong Suh, Lions; DT Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers; OT Trent Williams, Washington; FS Eric Berry, Chiefs; OT Russell Okung, Seahawks; CB Joe Haden, Browns; DE Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants; FS Earl Thomas, Seahawks).
Part of the blame for the drop-off goes to the early 2000s proliferation of certain college offenses: the spread, the Air Raid, Art Briles's hybrid at Baylor, and any other combination that exploits the width of the field and the hashmarks (21½ feet wider than those in the NFL) and a fast tempo to stretch a defense. There's also college football's rule that restricts meeting and practice time to 20 hours per week. "Most schools are trying to run the simplest, fastest thing they can run," says Texans coach Bill O'Brien, previously the coach at Penn State. "[In] the spread offense there's not that much blocking technique and reading coverage technique, and ... it's kind of basketball on grass."
There are other factors at play too. In 2011, as spread and fast-paced offenses were reaching critical mass in college football, changes were made in the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Players' safety had become a matter of paramount concern, and the league acquiesced to demands from the union to curtail off-season activity. Instead of arriving for voluntary workouts on March 15, players—including those coming off their rookie seasons—didn't have to report until the third Monday in April (first Monday for teams with new head coaches). So players who don't make the playoffs have nearly four months off. And once they do report, there are no pads or contact drills before training camp. Even in camp, practices in pads have been dramatically cut back. Same goes for the regular season.
"The biggest jump for a player as an offensive lineman was from his rookie season to his second season," says Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, but the new rules have slowed that process. "From January until April you can't talk to him, you can't touch him. He's behind the curve."
The lag puts a premium on college players who are further along in their development. "It's an advantage for a guy at the Iowas and Stanfords, the Alabamas, Wisconsins—they play an NFL style. I've coached wishbone guys, I've coached veer guys. It's my job to get them up to speed, but if I can't because of the CBA, at the end of the day that owner still wants to win a Super Bowl. How do you get those guys ready? It's hard."
ARE THERE SOLUTIONS? Maybe it's time to talk about bringing the college and pro hash marks into alignment. In 1972, in an effort to boost offensive production, the NFL narrowed its marks to the width of the goalposts. If the NCAA adopted NFL standards, most experts believe, the spread would vanish overnight because defenses wouldn't be stressed to cover the wide side of the field. "Yes, [a switch to NFL standards] would change the game dramatically," says Herman. "There wouldn't be formations into the boundary, and the concept it puts on the defense wouldn't exist. The kinds of throws we ask our QBs to make would be different as well."
What about a compromise: splitting the difference? "Not much of an impact," Herman says.
There could be some internal pressure in college football to adopt more NFL techniques and strategies if recruits realize that schools that play more pro-style schemes produce more NFL-ready players. "An 18-year-old coming out of high school has the option of playing for a team that's running a more pro-style offense," says Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler, who played his final two seasons at Arizona State in an up-tempo scheme and was thus viewed as a developmental player (second round) in the 2012 draft. "If I ever have a son and he's the quarterback and he's getting recruited, I think that's something you certainly have to look at. Because it would definitely ease the transition to the NFL."
Of course, those changes may never come, and NFL teams can't afford to wait. Teams have to consider everything from new schemes to alterations of the CBA and the creation of a developmental league. "You have to evolve and change with the times," says Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert.
Cam Newton is the only college quarterback from a run-based spread offense to have had sustained success in the NFL, and it's no secret why: Panthers coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula met the talented passer halfway, successfully blending old-school NFL offensive principles with the innovative tactics used on the college level. "Coaching makes a difference in this league, especially as we've gotten further and further away from the fundamentally sound kids we used to get," says Gettleman. "Ron and his staff have done a great job."
NFL coaches seem to be looking to the league office for help in doing their job better. O'Brien is among those coaches who would like to see the off-season rules apply differently to two categories: rookies through third-year players, and veterans. "I'm not the only head coach who's talking about this," O'Brien says. "Let us use shoulder pads, helmets, whatever with the younger guys. And let's get them in here earlier in the off-season. We're just trying to get it so the product on the field doesn't suffer, because I don't think you're going to be able to change the college game."
Meanwhile the gap between college and pro football appears to be widening. The pro game is suffering as a result, as are the players caught in between. It's time for a conversation between the camps, one more extensive than their brief annual meetings at the scouting combines. Both games are great, but they could be better if they worked more closely together.
COLLEGE COACHES NEED TO WIN AND CLOSE THE TALENT GAP
BY Andy Staples
THE NFL COACHES and personnel men who took the podium at the combine kept repeating the same complaints. College offensive linemen rarely operate from a three-point stance. College quarterbacks, for the most part, don't take snaps from under center. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians summed up the accumulated angst best when discussing the debate over whether to play rookie quarterbacks: "You're going to get your ass fired trying to get this kid developed."
NFL coaches fail to understand that the lack of development exists because every coach at every level lives in constant fear of getting canned. As coaching pay has skyrocketed in college football, the pressure to win has risen proportionally. Two years and a losing streak is all the tolerance an FBS-level coach can reasonably expect, so, like his NFL counterparts, he may not have time to develop players. He must run schemes that allow him to plug in what he gets from high schools.
And while an NFL coach has multiple first-round picks on his roster, there's a good chance that a college coach doesn't have any future top choices. The best high school players, given the option to choose, tend to flock together. In the past five years only 49 of 127 FBS schools have signed a recruit ranked in the top 100 by Scout.com. Meanwhile, 11 schools signed 60% of the top 100 players. Alabama, winner of four of the past seven national titles, led the way with 48 top 100 players. Ohio State, winner of the 2014 title, signed 34. Florida State, winner of the '13 title, signed 29. So, NFL coaches: Imagine designing a scheme for a team that boasts one or two first-round draft picks to beat a team that suits up dozens. Would you run something similar to what those teams run and get your head kicked in by superior athletes or would you try something wacky? Welcome to college football.
And where do the colleges get their players? From high school coaches under similar pressure to win but with at best a limited ability to recruit players. "The thing about the high school level is, it's all about survival," Baylor coach Art Briles says. "You're coaching who walks through the door. So you have to be innovative." Briles spent 16 seasons—and won four state titles—as a high school coach in Texas before moving to college football. Baylor's offense, which has ranked in the nation's top 10 in yards per play in four of the past five seasons, was born on high school practice fields in towns called Hamlin, Georgetown and Stephenville. To get more students to come out for football, Briles crafted an offense that used multiple receivers and forced defensive backs to play those receivers one-on-one. It made the game more fun, and the best athletes in the school, who might have stuck with basketball rather than play in the wing T, joined the football team. Years later an offense built on the same concepts thrives at the college level.
The catch is that this offense looks nothing like the ones favored by NFL coaches. Briles is a dyed-in-the-wool veer guy, so his linemen use the three-point stance regularly, but the Bears often run packaged plays, in which the quarterback has the option after the snap to hand off or throw. The linemen typically block the run play, so a tackle, such as 2016 draft prospect Spencer Drango, isn't often asked to pass-set the way he'll be asked to in the NFL. Meanwhile, the receivers routinely line up outside the numbers, which before Briles was unheard of, even in spread offenses. This eliminates the out route, but it forces the safeties to commit to playing either the pass or the run, which helps the quarterback make a read that wouldn't be so obvious in a different alignment.
It also allows the quarterback to squeeze off plays quickly, since he doesn't have to adjust the protection at the line of scrimmage the way an NFL quarterback would. Baylor's QB is almost always in the shotgun, too. Taken together, all this means that Baylor's linemen, quarterbacks and receivers will have to relearn their positions in the NFL. But why should Briles change to accommodate coaches at the next level? He inherited a perennial doormat for the 2008 season, and he has since won the Big 12 twice. Baylor's football success has increased donations and allowed the Bears to build a palace of a stadium along the Brazos River.
The Bears' offense, long thought too crazy even in the innovation-friendly world of college football, has taken root elsewhere. Tulsa runs it under former Baylor coordinator Philip Montgomery. Syracuse will install it this year under new hire Dino Babers. Even at blue-blood Texas, coach Charlie Strong needs Sterlin Gilbert, a former Briles graduate assistant and former Babers and Montgomery coordinator, to produce in his first year as the Longhorns' coordinator, or the entire staff might wind up unemployed.
CLEMSON'S DABO SWINNEY found himself in a similar situation five years ago. He ran a diverse offense after taking over at Clemson in 2008, following the midseason ouster of Tommy Bowden. But after going 6--7 in '10, Swinney needed production. So he hired Tulsa offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who was only one year removed from running the program at Lake Travis High in Austin. Morris brought an up-tempo spread just as quarterback Tajh Boyd became the starter. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins was a sophomore. Fellow receiver Sammy Watkins was an incoming freshman. "I had all these guys," Swinney says. "I ain't getting in the I formation." In '11 the Tigers were 16th in total yards and won their first ACC title since 1991.
The offense only got better from there. Even after Morris left to become the head coach at SMU, Swinney kept building on the scheme he and Morris designed. In 2015 the Tigers were the nation's only team to throw for more than 4,000 yards and run for more than 3,000. (Baylor, meanwhile, was the only team to run for more than 4,000 and throw for more than 3,000.) That offensive success helped the Tigers win the ACC and get to the national-title game. So why should Swinney, now well removed from the hot seat, change to satisfy NFL tastes?
In 2015, Multivoice, a wireless company, conducted a nationwide poll of more than 400 high school coaches, and 61% ran a spread offense. Only 8% ran a pro-style offense. "High school football is under attack with lacrosse and year-round baseball and year-round basketball," Swinney says. "Guys don't want to come out there and be a fullback and go hit the 'backer. The men in charge have had to adjust." High school coaches have. College coaches have. Guess who's left?
"To me, it used to be from the NFL down. The game is now from high school up," Swinney says. "That's your talent pool. And for the NFL, we're their talent pool."
NFL COACHES CAN take solace in knowing that a few college coaches believe running a pro-style offense gives them a recruiting advantage. They're willing to put in the time on the front end to develop players who didn't learn certain skills in high school. Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, for example, has produced three first-round quarterbacks (Christian Ponder, 2011; EJ Manuel, '13; Jameis Winston, '15) since taking over the Seminoles. In the past three drafts NFL teams have taken 29 Florida State players.
It seems logical that the college game might shift back in line with the NFL's if more coaches realize that they have a better chance of landing the best players if they prepare them well for the pros. Alabama (37 players drafted since 2011) teaches pro-style skills on both sides of the ball. An NFL-style offense contributed to Stanford's rise under Jim Harbaugh and has spurred the Cardinal's continued success under David Shaw. Harbaugh, meanwhile, now runs a similar offense at Michigan. Michigan State has won two of the past three Big Ten titles while running a pro-style offense. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back toward the I formation. "I hope so," Fisher says. "I think it's good for the game. But I think people are going to do what they can to be successful. There's too much money in the game."
Fisher is correct on that final point. Only the coaches at programs capable of landing elite talent can keep their jobs for the long term by running a pro-style offense. The coaches who constantly face a talent differential almost always opt for a scheme that allows them to shrink the gap. Meanwhile, the coaches who succeed with such schemes are reluctant to change because those plays work even better when run with five-star recruits. Urban Meyer created his spread-option offense in 2001 to help Bowling Green compete. Later it helped him win two national titles at Florida and one at Ohio State. Even Alabama's Nick Saban has ordered offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to tweak the scheme to make it more like the ones run by the teams Alabama faces. Against Michigan State and Clemson in the most recent College Football Playoff, some of the Crimson Tide's greatest offensive success came through those packaged plays.
So what's an NFL coach to do? Here are a few possible solutions.
• Project better. College coaches have to guess what a 15-year-old will look like when he's 21, and the best projectors make the best recruiters. TCU's Gary Patterson signed Jerry Hughes as a tailback and turned him into an NFL defensive end. Perhaps some players would be better off at another position in the NFL, and personnel people simply need to use their imaginations.
Briles has one suggestion: "If I was a GM in the NFL or a head coach, I'd look at college receivers and see if they could be DBs. Those are your cats." In this draft class, one potential candidate for such a conversion is Auburn's Ricardo Louis. He measured 6'2" and 215 pounds and ran a 4.43-second 40 at the combine. He's considered a marginal receiver prospect because of suspect hands, but wouldn't it be worth a spot on some team's practice squad to see if Louis can learn to cover wide receivers and tackle?
• Keep looking to the basketball court. College coaches have as difficult a time finding tight ends as NFL coaches do. Briles converted 405-pound lineman LaQuan McGowan into a tight end with some success, but Briles also knew he had a perfect tight end walking around Baylor's campus: Rico Gathers. The 6'8", 275-pound Gathers didn't have time for Briles because he was the starting power forward on Baylor's basketball team. Now finished with his basketball eligibility, Gathers hopes to follow in the footsteps of Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham and go from the NCAA tournament directly to the NFL. Meanwhile, VCU forward Mo Alie-Cox is a 6'7" 250-pounder with one more year of hoops eligibility, huge hands and an open mind about which sport he might play after college.
• Don't be so stuck in your ways. Like his protégé Saban, Bill Belichick is the best at his level at adapting. It wasn't an accident that around 2011 the Patriots began using one-word audibles in their no-huddle, an offense often used outside of two-minute situations. What prompted the switch? According to a '12 Boston Globe story, it was an off-season visit from then Oregon coach Chip Kelly. The truncated play calls were already common in college, from Kelly's warp-speed Ducks in Eugene to all the Air Raid descendants of Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, scattered throughout the country.
Belichick, the best NFL coach of his generation, adjusted to what the players walking through the door already knew. So, NFL coaches, what sounds like the best course of action? Complain about the lack of offensive tackles in a three-point stance or redesign your schemes before you get your asses fired?