The NFL is accidentally fun, and that's not a bad thing

Stephen Dunn

It would be fun to call the NFL a stodgy league stuck in the past. It would also be wrong.

As Russell Wilson backed out, then sprang forward, and then back out again and into open field, I thought something I usually don't think when watching the NFL: this is ... fun? Fun is not part of the equation in the NFL, at least not during plays, grimly executed canon schemes descended from Perkins, Walsh, or if you're really crazy, perhaps Don Coryell or the ghost of the run-and-shoot. June Jones was once in charge of an NFL team with Jeff George at quarterback. Don't ever tell me the impossible can't come true, and stay true for hundreds of days at a time.

How the Pistol offense is changing the NFL

Russell Wilson is also fun, but note that Wilson is a short kind of fun: 5'11 at best, taller than the average American male, and a dwarf in a league of quarterbacks as tall as NBA power forwards. This may be the only fault with Russell Wilson as a prototypical football player at any level, or even as a human being. Russell Wilson probably has great handwriting and remembers to floss, too.

Russell Wilson is really so beautiful you should hate him is what we're saying, which some NFL analysts take to heart by actually hating him and one of the plays that has made him so good: the dreaded "gimmick" of the zone read.

Zoneread1_medium

The zone read is one of the most college-y of college plays, a staple of the spread run game championed by Rich Rodriguez that will never, ever work in the NFL thanks to lightning quick defenders and the potential of injury. It is certainly not the play that Colin Kaepernick rode to 181 yards rushing against the Packers, nor the one that opened up gaping holes in the Packers' secondary off play-fakes. It cannot work in the NFL, and that is most certainly not Colin Kaepernick running down your street, free and untackled by any mortal hands on a Monday morning two days after an NFL playoff game.

This would be the point where I would usually turn to slagging the NFL as being a boring league with an intelligence apparatus incapable of adapting to their incoming labor pool's changing talent set. There are reasons for this besides "HURR NFLS ARE STOOPID." There's money riding on teams, and money and profits and corporatism tend to make people conservative, risk-averse, and unwilling to change things that work and get them sweet rivers of flowing cash.

Profits can, however, point you in the other direction. The direction NFL teams like the 49ers, Seahawks, Washington, and others have embraced is pragmatism: using the ingredients available in the draft to their maximum potential, and then adapting the systems on the field to what they can do best. In an era of spread offenses and players brought up in seven-on-seven leagues, this means embracing the concepts that got them there: the zone read, the pistol offense, the precepts of the Air Raid, and yes, even some option thrown in from time to time against murderous NFL defenses.

That adaptation is a gradual one, for the most part, and comes with widely varying degrees of success. Kaepernick's pistol experiment has by far been the most successful mostly because of the ideal marriage of personnel and plan. 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman went to the source itself, Nevada coach Chris Ault, Kaepernick's college coach and the architect of the pistol attack. They've been choosy in using Kaepernick as a runner, but the QB run in the pistol under Ault has always been a choosy, selectively utilized option. In 2010, Kaepernick averaged just 12 carries a game, and still rushed for 1200 yards of offense. Russell Wilson, too, has a surprisingly low number of carries for all the excitement over Seattle embracing the zone read: 10 carries against St. Louis in week 16 was his high, and his only double-digit game in rushing attempts.

The obvious failures of the new wave have come when plan doesn't match personnel. Cam Newton struggled with Rob Chudzinski's hodgepodge spread attack in Carolina, but by all accounts that's as much a matter of bad design and a player clearly unhappy with his surroundings than anything else. Robert Griffin III ran the ball sparingly as well, and likely did way more damage to his knee in the four years of football preceding his rookie year than in his final, hobbled game of 2013. Designed runs weren't the issue with Griffin, but rather the undesigned improv on passing plays that can shorten any NFL quarterback's career.*

*The management of Griffin in the final game of 2013 is a well-worn topic open to debate in another forum. Prior to that game, the Redskins had done a decent job of protecting him. Not great, but better by sacks than a lot of teams, including Baltimore, Green Bay, and Seattle. RG3's knee is the issue, and has been since college. The offense, in comparison to the horrors dropback passers can suffer getting rolled up or crushed in the pocket as a sitting duck, is not the issue.

There is no gimmick at work here because adaptation by necessity is never a gimmick. That is what, with surprising effect and speed, some NFL teams are now doing quite successfully. Mind you, no one is going to hire Chris Ault as their offensive coordinator, nor steal Urban Meyer away from Ohio State, but it's there, and it is not going away so long as the produce continues to require new recipes in order to keep the dining room full.*

*That's a long kitchen metaphor, I know, so if you're lost just know that Tim Tebow is the weird slice of meat the chefs just gave up on and sent down the street to the CFL taqueria for use as side meat.

I would love to lean on the notion that the NFL remains the brutal, airless Costco league to college football's homegrown shambles of a farmer's market. I really would. It would feel so right, and so good, yet be so very inaccurate. The truth is that the NFL is no longer struggling with the mismatched talent it sees coming up from the college ranks, and is no longer insistent on sawing off Colin Kaepernick's legs to fit him into a Steve Young mold. They're doing so judiciously, even carefully, and having success with it at the highest levels possible.

In fact, even the stodgiest NFL teams don't seem to be too invested in making anyone a stick figure anymore, even their most prototypical dropback passers. Example of examples: on Sunday at the goal line in an NFL playoff game, Matt Ryan faked the shotgun toss right, one of the Falcons' offensive staples throughout the 2012 season. Ryan held the ball, though, and shoveled it forward to fullback Jason Snelling for a crucial second half touchdown in an eventual Falcons victory. It is both an old play and a new play, one with origins in the 1950s at Utah, and in more current use as a standard of the Urban Meyer spread option attack. It's weird, not anything you'll find in your standard NFL playbook. It also works, something the NFL prizes above all else.

Until it stops, you'll have to deal with the neverending gimmick that is the future.


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