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SmootSmack 02-04-2006 03:50 AM

WSJ-NFL's Secret Schemers
 
Here's a good look at what guys like Coy Gibbs do

Pro Football
The NFL's Secret Schemers
Who wins the Super Bowl strategy battle depends on some little-known assistant coaches
By RUSSELL ADAMS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 4, 2006; Page P3

DETROIT -- When the opening kickoff sets Super Bowl XL in motion Sunday, all eyes will be on star players like Ben Roethlisberger and Shaun Alexander. But in the critical early moments of the game, the fates of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks may come down to a handful of junior coaches charged with what could be pro football's most challenging mission: Keeping their teams unpredictable.

These unsung staffers are the so-called quality-control coaches. A decade ago, QC guys were often just coaches' friends who needed jobs. Now, each team has as many as four dedicated QC coaches who can make or break a team's chances in any game by gaining -- or losing -- the edge early on. They pore over countless hours of film and analyze reams of statistics on the competition. And unlike traditional scouts, they spend almost as much time tracking their own teams' games, searching for tendencies that, left unchecked, might allow an opponent to predict their play-calling.

Their work keeps getting more important. Thanks to the salary cap and free agency, the National Football League is in an era of unprecedented competitive balance, with 27 of the league's 32 teams making the playoffs in the last five seasons. Teams now believe a single series -- even one play -- in the first quarter can tip the scales in a game, if not by scoring, then by knocking the opponent off-balance with a surprise tactic.

The Steelers have been particularly adept at this psychological warfare. They stunned the Indianapolis Colts three weeks ago by coming out throwing (instead of their usual running attack), and they did it again against the Denver Broncos in the AFC title game.

"I thought it was brilliant," says New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi. The strategy worked because the Steelers passed using formations in which they run the ball the vast majority of the time, so they baited the defense to stack eight men at the line. "The defense, they get paid [to watch film] too," says Steelers offensive quality-control coach Matt Raich.

The Steelers' strategy to beat Indianapolis was probably most clear in a single play toward the end of the first quarter. The Pittsburgh offense came to the Colts' seven yard line looking dead-set on running the ball into the end zone, with bowling-ball runner Jerome Bettis in the backfield and a blocking fullback ahead of him. But Mr. Roethlisberger faked a handoff, the Colts defenders charged forward to stop what they thought was a run, and Mr. Roethlisberger flicked the ball to tight end Heath Miller for a touchdown that put Pittsburgh ahead 13-0.

For all their importance, quality-control coaches are still considered junior staffers, and rank somewhere between team nutritionist and assistant defensive-backs coach in terms of notoriety. At Media Day on Tuesday, the swarm of reporters left all four of the Steelers' and Seahawks' QC coaches entirely alone.

The NFL quality-control movement is part of pro sports' ever-strengthening push toward quantitative evaluation of every aspect of every game. In baseball, a sport dominated by one-on-one contests (pitcher versus batter, catcher versus base-stealer), it's relatively easy to isolate and break down statistics from every game situation. But football, where each play involves 22 players doing important and dramatically different things, is a tougher nut to crack. And while teams have always studied game film, technology now makes it possible to track games to the tiniest detail.

The two-week gap between the Steelers' and Seahawks' previous games and the Super Bowl has given their quality-control staff extra time for analysis -- and trickery -- so the first quarter Sunday should be a clinic in football strategy. The two teams have been scripting the first 10-15 plays of the first quarter and second half almost since the minute they qualified for the game.

Those plans are based on exhaustive study by quality-control coaches. If Pittsburgh has blitzed a linebacker in 87% of short-yardage situations this season, Seattle offensive quality-control coach Gary Reynolds knows about it. And you can bet the Seahawks offense will be ready for it Sunday, with extra blockers looking to pick up the blitz. Of course, Steelers defensive quality-control coach Lou Spanos might anticipate Mr. Reynolds' scouting and suggest a new wrinkle to throw at him.

The cat-and-mouse game can wear on coaches, especially under playoff pressure. On Media Day, Mr. Reynolds let slip his worries about the Steelers' plans as he sat alone in the bleachers with a crossword puzzle. "Did Lou say what our tendencies are?" Mr. Reynolds asked. "How many games are they looking at?"

For Mr. Reynolds, knowing what Mr. Spanos is analyzing would give him an idea about what plays Seattle's offense should run and what they might expect from the Steelers' defense. And Mr. Reynolds isn't the only coach doing perhaps too much thinking. "You're thinking they're going to be [studying] your last four games," says Mr. Raich. "But you start thinking maybe they're using this game because it was a close game or they're using this game because they were a better opponent. But in the back of your mind you're saying, 'Don't chase ghosts.' "

A big part of their job is scouting their own team. Say a team wants to know what play to call on third-and-five inside the opponent's 30 yard line. An offense runs about 65-70 plays per game, so it might face that situation only once or twice a game. But put four or five games together and patterns emerge. Should you stick with what you do best, or has the opponent uncovered the same pattern and drawn up a play to stop you? Head coaches often aren't aware of their own tendencies.

"[Mr. Reynolds] is feeding me things on a daily basis," says Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren. "His biggest contribution...to me is self-scouting. So hopefully, I don't get into a routine that becomes too predictable."

[IMG]http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/images/PT-AB448A_qccoa_20060203154737.gif[/IMG]

dmek25 02-04-2006 08:50 AM

Re: WSJ-NFL's Secret Schemers
 
its amazing how little what goes on the field has to do with who has the better players

That Guy 02-04-2006 12:27 PM

Re: WSJ-NFL's Secret Schemers
 
[QUOTE=dmek25]its amazing how little what goes on the field has to do with who has the better players[/QUOTE]

coaching is getting the most effeciency out of your players' potential talent. The west coast offense (holmgren kind) was created entirely due to one coach having a weak armed QB and no other options ;)

If you look at the Capital's AO though, he's a perfect counterpoint. I think he's one that could score 60 goals a year without coaching.

70Chip 02-04-2006 06:59 PM

Re: WSJ-NFL's Secret Schemers
 
Great article. It reminds me of the Wally Shawn seen in the "Princess Bride".


"...so naturally I cannot choose the glass in front of me."

Does anyone else find it odd the way the author kept referring to the coaches as "Mr. So and So". Perhaps they had a run-in with Bob Knight somewhere along the way.

FRPLG 02-04-2006 07:44 PM

Re: WSJ-NFL's Secret Schemers
 
[QUOTE=70Chip]Great article. It reminds me of the Wally Shawn seen in the "Princess Bride".


"...so naturally I cannot choose the glass in front of me."

Does anyone else find it odd the way the author kept referring to the coaches as "Mr. So and So". Perhaps they had a run-in with Bob Knight somewhere along the way.[/QUOTE]
Yes is was entirely annoying how he used the Mr. crap.


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