How NFL QBs Adjust to New Offensive Systems

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How NFL QBs Adjust to New Offensive Systems
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Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is one of seven veteran singal callers who will be adjusting to a new offensive coordinator this year.

What would happen if your boss got fired?

Things would be a little weird at first, right? There'd be a few weeks with no real boss and everyone scrambling to fill in the gaps. Then, there'd be an awkward meeting introducing the new boss—either promoted from within, hired away from a competitor, or maybe transferred from another state.

Eventually, things would settle back down into the corporate routine. If you're an established veteran NFL quarterback, though, a new head coach or offensive coordinator can flip your world upside down.

Imagine showing up for work and finding out the new boss replaced your Windows-based workstation with an Apple computer, or the other way around. Imagine getting a 700-page document explaining that from now on, "emails" are called "faxes," "invoices" are called "emails," you'll use the phone to use the copier and use the copier to make coffee. Now, imagine the weeks of chaos you and the 25 people in your department would be thrown into.

That's a little bit what it's like for the seven established starters who'll be working with new offensive coaches this season: Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III, Jake Locker, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford and Ryan Tannehill. There's also been turnover in Cleveland, Houston, Minnesota and Tampa Bay, where there will be rookies, free agents and holdovers vying for the favor of those new coaches.

These transitions won't be easy.

  

Terminology

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press/Associated Press
Chris Simms getting a training-camp tutorial during his 2008 season with the Tennessee Titans.

Bleacher Report NFL Analyst Chris Simms, who played for three different teams in his NFL career, told me "the first thing" about changing offensive systems, "which was always the biggest challenge, is just the language itself."

Everything in the NFL has a name.

There's a name for the groups of players that go out for each play, like "Posse," meaning one running back, three receivers and a tight end. There's a name for the how those players line up, like "Trips" to describe three receivers next to each other. There are names for the different protection packages, even names for each position, like the "X" and "Z" receivers.

There are names for each route on the route tree, names for the combinations of those routes and words for all of the audibles and checks the quarterback might have to use at the line of scrimmage based on the defense's alignment. They all can change in a new system.

"You might have called the curl-flat concept one name for the first eight years of your career," Simms said. "Now you get a new offensive coordinator and they use a totally different name for the same concept." 

Ben Margot/Associated Press

A quarterback needs to know all of them cold just to relay the play call in the huddle, let alone play his position well. To get an idea of this, FootballXOs.com hosts a digital copy of a University of California playbook from 2004, written by current Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford.

Try reading the pages 20 through 23 over and over again until you recall all the terms as quickly and accurately as you recall "left" and "right."

Then, imagine being handed a new playbook, with nearly all new terms—and some of the same terms have completely different meanings. It's up to the quarterback to attach new names to the same concepts, absorb new ideas and keep it all straight in his head.

New playbooks are installed across a matter of days during OTAs, so quarterbacks have to cram like crazy beforehand to make sure they hit the ground running.

 

Philosophy

There are as many different ways to coach the game as there are coaches. Every team's offensive system is a mix of its architect's influences, experiences, ideas and football values.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

What every coach is trying to do with all these crazy words, circles, squares, arrows and dotted lines varies wildly. Even two coaches using the same plays and terminology will want different timing, tempo and situational execution—so it's not just what they're doing that's changing, it's how.

At the University of Oregon, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly's high-speed, high-scoring spread offense earned him a reputation as a brainiac, a prodigy, a wizard of mad football science teetering on the bleeding edge of football innovation.

But that's not how Kelly describes his philosophy. He presented at a 2009 coaching clinic; the transcription is provided by Oregon football site FishDuck.com. Kelly led with a quote from Paul Brown about protecting the football, and then:

We want to get off the ball and be a physical, downhill-running football team. This is not a finesse play. We teach our offensive linemen a block we call the bust block. The idea is to bust their sternums up against their spines on every play. We want to come off the ball, create a double-team, knock the crap out of the defender, and deposit him in the linebacker’s lap.

Executing any offense is more than just following the X's and O's. It's acting as an extension of the coach on the field. That includes the coach's preferred mechanics, fundamentals, attitude and approach.

"It's the nuances of the new offense," Simms told me. "There aren't going to be a lot of concepts you haven't seen before, but now it's being preached through a different voice."

The old coordinator, for example, might have taught a familiar route concept to be read deepest to shortest; the new coordinator might want it read shortest to deepest. One might have preferred a five-step slant, but the other uses a three-step slant. As a result, even familiar plays will have to be executed in a whole new way.

New Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner runs a descendent of the Air Coryell offense, which doesn't have quarterbacks throwing to receivers—it has them throw to spots.

Turner's timing-based offense means receivers have to hit exactly the right mark at exactly the right time, and quarterbacks have to deliver the ball no less accurately. Vikings receiver Greg Jennings told Master Tesfatsion of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune his "head is spinning" trying to reinvent how he approaches the game:

Even though the offense is coming and it’s starting to sink in. Just with all the different change-ups we can present to the defense, the different looks, the different formations we can run the same play, the different variations that come within the same play. Your head is spinning at all times until you have it down.

The variations from one play to the variations of how we can get to that one play, is a lot. I’m being a little sarcastic with this statement, but it almost equates to what we had last year—just one play. It’s a lot.

 

Personnel

One of the ways a quarterback can ease this transition is by relying on the rapport he has with his teammates.

Eli Manning has been working under offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride for the last seven years; now Gilbride is out and Ben McAdoo is in. Manning may often target receiver Victor Cruz, whom he trusts and whose game he knows well.

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

"That often happens in new offenses," Simms said. "You know, your quarterback's not always comfortable. He's breaking the huddle, he's still trying to think of, 'What did I just say in the huddle?', 'What's the formation?', 'What are my checks?', and sometimes just to make life simple you just go, 'You know what? I'm not 100 percent comfortable in this play, I'm just going to play my matchup.'"

For players like Stafford, who's always been able to throw it to Calvin Johnson whenever he's in doubt, switching systems will be less disorienting.

For players like Locker, who's never had a consistent playmaker to lean on, the task will be tougher. It's harder yet for incoming rookies and free agents trying to earn playing time, like Tampa Bay's Josh McCown. They'll not only have to transition to an unfamiliar system; they'll have to do it with unfamiliar teammates.

 

On the Field

Once new offenses have been drawn up on the chalkboard, passed out in playbooks and installed on the practice field, executing them in the face of a ferocious defense in front of a live crowd of 80,000 and a television audience of millions is something different.

The new system has to come to mind as quickly as the old one did.

Manning, said Simms, "probably audibled to a certain protection or route against a 'Will' linebacker/free safety blitz the last seven years of his career, and now Ben McAdoo's going to ask him to do a totally different audible, maybe a totally different protection or route combination that he likes."

This is why quarterbacks make big money: There are very, very few athletes with the physical skill set to play the position—but an even smaller portion of those can hold their coach's terminology, philosophies and tendencies in their head and execute it all flawlessly.

It also shows why "arm talent" isn't as important in today's NFL quarterback as making good decisions quickly.

For established starting veterans working under a new boss, to rookies getting their first taste of the NFL as professional quarterbacks, these transitions can be a tremendous challenge. Those who succeed, though, will dramatically increase the odds they stay in the NFL through the next coaching transition.

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