10 Lessons We Learned from the 2012-13 NFL Season

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIFebruary 10, 2013

10 Lessons We Learned from the 2012-13 NFL Season

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    Now that the dust is settling on Super Bowl XLVII, it is time to take one last look back at the 2012-13 NFL season to see what kind of lessons we were able to learn from this special year.

    This year taught us a number of new things and debunked some old NFL axioms or theories in the process. In life you always need to keep learning, and that is true for the NFL as well. If any franchise doesn't stay on top of all of the latest trends and new wrinkles, they will be left behind in the dust.

    Conventional wisdom from prior decades of NFL history is replaced with the understanding of how the game is being played today. For teams that are leading the charge and staying ahead of the curve, they will continue to be contenders. For the teams that are followers or lagging behind, they will keep winding up with a draft pick in the top 10 selections year after year.

    For a team to gain an edge on their competition, they have to be willing to experiment with new schemes and attacks until they find something that works. They can run the new attack until the rest of the league has found a way to stop it. Then go back to the drawing board one more time and start over again.

    Giving your opponent more formations to study, different personnel packages and being able to execute multiple things makes it very challenging for defenses to prepare in just one short week. That is just one of the reasons why coaches basically live at their team facilities during the season. There just isn't enough hours in the week to properly prepare for every game.

    We will highlight 10 lessons that impressed us during the course of the 2012 regular season and the playoff run that concluded with the memorable Super Bowl XLVII game.

Don't Be Afraid to Make Big Changes Mid-Season

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    We have always been taught that you go to the finals with the players that brought you to the dance, or something to that affect.

    But the reality is that once teams get into the heart of the regular season they are hesitant to make any major moves or sweeping changes that would affect team chemistry.

    But in 2012, our Super Bowl finalists, San Francisco and Baltimore, taught us that it is okay to make dramatic changes mid-stream. Sure, you might wind up with some bumps in the road, but if you have confidence in what you are doing, there is no room for looking backwards or second-guessing.

    For the 49ers, it was not being afraid to bench Alex Smith in favor of unproven Colin Kaepernick. For the Ravens, it was dismissing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replacing him with Jim Caldwell.

    Based on the success that the Harbaugh brothers had with these bold moves, don't be surprised if you see more coaches suddenly find the courage to try similar moves during the 2013 season and beyond.

    Sometimes you just need one or two examples of somebody willing to take a calculated risk, and then all of a sudden everybody else is willing to go down that same path. If we know anything at all about the NFL, it is that it is a copycat league. Success has a way of being copied over and over again.

Quarterbacks Don't Have to Be 6'4" or Taller to Succeed in NFL

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    For anybody that has played the quarterback position and cursed your misfortune at not being at least  6'4", you now have Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to provide inspiration. Wilson proved that you can be much shorter and still be successful at the pro level.

    Wilson stands just 5'11" and can easily get lost when he is standing behind offensive linemen that range from 6'5" to 6'7". However, it also helps if you have the quickness, mobility, awareness and athleticism of Wilson to evade the pass rush. Wilson has that sixth sense built in that allows him to rely on his instincts to feel the pressure and begin moving around in the pocket to avoid taking a costly sack.

    There was no doubt that Wilson was a strong leader at Wisconsin, and that he had the respect of his teammates when they voted him as captain of the team. His performance at Wisconsin proved that he could lead a team, but he was still passed over 74 times in the draft because he was simply too short.

    If every NFL team was allowed to go back and draft the 2012 class all over again, where would Wilson be drafted then? First, second or third?

    By using his feet and keep the secondary guessing as to where wants to go with the football, Wilson was able to keep his interception total down to a very respectable 10 for the year. With a ratio of 26 touchdown to just 10 interceptions, that is the kind of ratio that many season veteran quarterbacks would be proud to have.

    Wilson will serve as a pioneer to a degree, paving the way for shorter, athletic quarterbacks to continue to hold out hope that they can earn a living playing in the NFL.

Andrew Luck Proved You Can Win with Shaky Pass Protection

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    I had the opportunity to listen to a podcast by Pro Football Focus founder Neil Hornsby (dated 2/5/13). In the podcast, Hornsby revealed that Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck was either hit or sacked 148 times during the course of the 2012 season. If that seems like an extremely high number to you, than you are correct, because it is.

    What is striking about that statistic, besides recognizing how bad the Colts pass protection must be to allow their No. 1 overall draft pick to be pulverized that many times, is that Luck was hit 32 percent more than the next closest quarterback on the list. That happened to be St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, who also plays behind a weaker offensive line.

    The fact that the Colts finished the year with a record of 11-5 is remarkable enough, considering that they were tied with the Rams at 2-14 for the worst record in 2011. Obviously, the results demonstrate that neither team did that much to improve their pass blocking from the prior year.

    It is a tribute to the toughness of Luck that he was able to survive the 2012 season taking so much physical abuse and punishment.

    The lesson learned from this story is that the old axiom of protecting your quarterback and keeping him upright to ensure success isn't always the case. For Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, that still holds true. But for Luck and the rest of the young breed of quarterbacks right now in the league, they are physically tough enough that they can cope with the abuse every week and still play at a high level.

Getting Hot Down the Stretch Isn't Vital to Postseason Success

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    Another NFL myth that was destroyed in 2012 was the old axiom that teams that get hot at the end of the regular season have the best chance to win the Super Bowl.

    The Baltimore Ravens were the very definition of an ice-cold team when the 2012 regular season came to an end. The Ravens played five games in December and wrapped up the month going 1-4. They lost two games at home and two games on the road. They lost in regulation and they lost in overtime. It didn't matter what their motivation was at the time, they just kept finding new ways to lose, and lose they did.

    Then when the postseason began, and some of the injured starters came back to the lineup healthier than they had been in a while, the Ravens were able to turn a switch and revert into a much better team in all three phases of the game. The transformation was sudden, but that is something you can only pull off if you are a veteran, battle-tested team.

    So every time in the next four to five years that you hear some team being exalted due to getting hot down the stretch, realize that it really doesn't mean a thing how hot you are in December. The Ravens proved this year that it is completely immaterial.

2012 QB Play Will Change the Way the Position Is Evaluated by NFL Scouts

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    Due to the performances of Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson in 2012, NFL scouts will have to throw out the old system they used for how to evaluate college quarterbacks.

    Looking at how well these quarterbacks played, you know there are some embarrassed pro personnel directors that completely missed the boat on Kaepernick and Wilson. Kaepernick was picked at No. 36 overall in the 2011 draft, while Wilson was selected with the No. 75 overall pick in the 2012 draft. Yet you have quarterbacks like Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder that were drafted much higher than either one. Safe to say that there are some front office personnel that were called in on the carpet.

    For every team that is still searching for a franchise quarterback, you can only imagine that they have been going back to the drawing board. General managers and personnel directors have to re-examine what qualifications they need to accurately identify what a successful NFL quarterback should look like.

    That will require them to throw out the old molds and typecasting. Kaepernick, Griffin and Wilson are revolutionizing the quarterback position.

    All three quarterbacks display great athleticism when they are on the move in the pocket. They have demonstrated that they can take some hard licks and can remain calm in the face of pressure. But one of the most impressive qualities they possess is the ability to stay calm in the playoffs. For Kaepernick and Wilson, they rallied their teams from behind on the road, despite having so few NFL games as a starter under their belt.

    NFL draft analysts have declared that the 2013 draft class for quarterbacks is weaker compared to the 2012 class. Because of the performance of our three featured quarterbacks, you have to wonder how their impact on the league will influence the draft.

    Will the hard lessons learned from this past season force teams to make a reach in the upcoming draft? There are already some red faces over poor quarterback draft selections. Try to recall this slide as the first few rounds of the 2013 NFL draft begin to play out in April.

Winning Which Categories Determines Success in Playoffs?

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    Once teams reach the postseason, which aspect of the game is most crucial to guaranteeing success in the playoffs? I can just see some smart aleck out there thinking "points on the scoreboard!"

    Nice try, but not the answer we are looking for.

    I decided to analyze the following factors: rushing the ball, passing the ball, first downs, total yards gained, yards per play, the turnover battle and converting opportunities in the red zone. In a review of these statistical categories, off the top of your head, which one do you think is most vital for a team to win in the playoffs? We will now break down each area for all 11 playoff games.

    Running the football - (9/11). In the vast majority of games, the team that ran for the most yards won. The two exceptions were Minnesota at Green Bay and in Super Bowl XLVII.

    Passing the football - (6/11). As with rushing the ball, the team that passed for the most yards won the majority of the time. However, there were four games where the losing team passed for more yards. They were Seattle at Atlanta, both conference championships and the Super Bowl. There was one tie, where Baltimore and Indianapolis both passed for 267 yards each.

    First Downs - (4/11). In the 11 playoff games, only four times did the winning team have more first downs than the losing team. Those four games were Seattle at Washington, Green Bay vs. Minnesota, Houston vs Cincinnati and San Francisco vs. Green Bay. Moving the chains helps but it is not vital to winning.

    Total Yards Gained (7/11). In the majority of playoff games, the teams that gained the most yards won. The exceptions were Seattle at Atlanta, both conference championship games and the Super Bowl.

    Yards Per Play (7/11). Seven times the team that gained the most yards per play won the game in the postseason. The four exceptions were: Minnesota at Green Bay, Seattle at Atlanta, Baltimore at New England and Super Bowl XLVII.

    Turnovers (8/11). Every losing team in the playoffs turned over the football more than the winning team, with three exceptions. Those three exceptions, both teams had the same number of turnovers, which were: Indianapolis at Baltimore, Cincinnati at Houston and Seattle at Atlanta.

    Converting Red Zone Opportunities: (7/11). Seven times in the playoffs, the team that scored the most touchdowns in red zone opportunities won the game. The four exceptions were: Seattle at Washington, Baltimore at Denver, Seattle at Atlanta and Super Bowl XLVII. The first three games listed, the losing team scored more red zone touchdowns. In the Super Bowl both teams cashed in two red zone touchdowns. If San Francisco had converted their final try, they would have won the game.

    In looking over these findings, all areas have some degree of importance in winning, with the exception of first downs. No single category turns out to be a foolproof method for guaranteeing success, but having a balanced dynamic offense, taking advantage of turnovers and taking care of the ball clearly increases your chances of winning. 

What Happened to Playing Dominating Defense in the Playoffs?

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    Another slide with some interesting observations about the postseason, but this slide is devoted to the defensive side of the football, and to the various rounds of the playoffs. 

    Wild Card round: All four losing teams in the Wild Card games (Washington, Minnesota, Indianapolis and Cincinnati) were able to score more than 14 points. These four offenses came up short in the postseason, and no doubt will be looking to add more weapons during the 2013 offseason.

    Divisional round: All four losing teams in the Divisional round (Denver, Green Bay, Seattle and Houston) were able to score at least 28 points. That kind of production would have easily resulted in winning in the Wild Card games, but wasn't good enough one round later. It also meant that the four losing teams were giving up anywhere from 30-45 points on defense. Where did the dominating defenses disappear to?

    In the four divisional round games, the eight offenses averaged 34.5 points per game. There is the bend-but-don't-break philosophy, but allowing 34.5 points per game means that there are a number of broken defenses in the postseason.

    Conference Championship round: Defenses stepped up to play better in this round. Baltimore held the top scoring offense in the NFL, the New England Patriots to just 13 points, while San Francisco held Atlanta to 24 points.

    Super Bowl: Both defenses were roughed up by high-flying offenses. San Francisco generated 29 points against the Baltimore defense (plus the safety by the Ravens punter) and actually gained 101 more yards than Baltimore did. San Francisco's defense gave up 27 points, while the special teams gave up the one kickoff return score.

Head Coaches Have to Take Control over All Three Units

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    When the 2012 season ended, it didn't take NFL teams very long to start firing head coaches around the league. In total, we witnessed eight new head coaches named with the goal of taking their team to the playoffs. We can't really say that they were all hired to turn around a losing program, since Lovie Smith wound up with a 10-6 record but was still fired for missing the playoffs again.

    One thing that is becoming apparent is that coaches need to be involved across the board in every unit of the team. Smith was a defensive guru, and didn't have that much involvement on offense. Chan Gailey was the opposite in Buffalo, as he focused on offense, and turned over all of the defensive responsibilities to Dave Wannstedt.

    The lesson learned is that head coaches need to be willing to oversee everything, and in order to be able to accomplish that, they need to be willing to relinquish some control over their personal area of expertise.

    Jerry Jones insists that Jason Garrett gives up play calling so that he can concentrate on overseeing the entire team. You see Rob Chudzinski hiring Norv Turner to be his offensive coordinator in Cleveland. Marc Trestman hires Aaron Kromer to be his offensive coordinator in Chicago. Mike McCoy hires Ken Whisenhunt to be his offensive coordinator in San Diego, and so it goes.

    This trend will continue in the NFL for some time to come. Eventually, the old school coaches that insist on running things their way like Bill Belichick will retire. By having the ability to delegate responsibilities to many people, it will allow head coaches to make more changes during the year, as we observed in the earlier slide when John Harbaugh canned Cam Cameron for Jim Caldwell.

Having Success One Year Doesn't Guarantee Anything for Next Year

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    Another lesson learned from the 2012 season is the strange case of Tim Tebow. To think that one year ago Tebow-mania was sweeping the country, coming off of his dramatic rallies in 2011 that led Denver to the AFC West title and the overtime win in the playoffs over Pittsburgh.

    Fast forward to now, and we are left to wonder if there is any NFL team that is willing to carve out any kind of a meaningful role for Tebow going forward.

    The Broncos have obviously moved on to Peyton Manning, so have no reason to bring him back. The Jets made Tebow a joke by passing him over and starting Greg McElroy instead. A further illustration of how bad things were for Tebow in New York was that Jeremy Kerley completed his only pass attempt this season for 42 yards. That wound up being three more yards than Tebow passed for in the entire season.

    One of the first things that new Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell did was to declare that he couldn't see any way, shape or form of how there would be a role for Tebow with the Jaguars. When your own hometown team doesn't want you, then where do you turn?

    Tebow's case is a great illustration of how fast fame can be fleeting in the NFL. A national hero one day that sold the most jerseys of any NFL player, and a running joke soon thereafter. Can you imagine if it was Tebow that had come up with the butt-fumble play instead of Mark Sanchez?

J.J. Watt and Geno Atkins Are Redefining Defensive Line Play

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    Another lesson from the 2012 season was the way that defensive linemen J.J. Watt and Geno Atkins influenced games with their dominating play.

    Both players generated impressive sack totals, (Watt had 20.5 while Atkins had 12.5) and were rewarded with being named to the AFC Pro Bowl team. Watt was further rewarded by being named as the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.

    The other part of Watt's game that needs to be discussed is his ability to recognize when he won't have the ability to reach the quarterback in time to prevent a pass attempt. Instead, Watt will gather himself, and jump as high as he can in hopes of getting some kind of a pass deflection. The tactic worked 16 times during the 2012 season, with a number of those deflections resulting in an interception for Houston.

    Atkins came up with a couple pass deflections as well, to go along with his six tackles for a loss. Those six tackles tied him for the team lead along with LB Vontaze Burfict.

    It didn't take long for Watt's highlights to be shown week after week, then you would begin seeing other defensive linemen around the league trying to duplicate his efforts. Depending on the depth of the pass rush, and what kind of an angle the defensive linemen can take away from the quarterback, this type of penetration can limit what offenses can do with their quick, timing passing attack.

    People started to take notice when Watt intercepted a pass from Andy Dalton in the playoffs in 2011 and returned it for a touchdown. He continued to raise his play another level in 2012, and now it appears that the sky is the limit for Watt.

    There is little doubt that we will be seeing more and more defensive linemen that will incorporate Watt's moves into their overall game. Like we said before, the NFL is definitely a copycat league.