Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at a high-profile coach (and team) on the brink ...
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Can an old dog learn new tricks?
While I don't personally believe the team should move on from McCarthy at the end of the season (based on the head coach's strong resume), I don't run the show in Green Bay. And it seems pretty clear that he must make some changes to his offense (and his 4-5-1 team) or risk losing his job. Despite posting an impressive 125-75-2 record over his 13 years as Green Bay's head man -- including eight seasons with at least 10 wins and nine playoff berths -- the Packers are 21-20-1 since 2016. That mark is unacceptable in "Titletown," particularly when you have Aaron Rodgers as your QB1.
That said, McCarthy only has two losing seasons on his ledger (2008 and 2017) and he's routinely directed one of the NFL's top offenses. Considering how many coaches are unable to build a winner, McCarty's consistency should earn him a reprieve, in my eyes, regardless of how the team finishes over the final six weeks of the regular season.
Now, I know the Cheeseheads don't want to hear that, with Green Bay on the verge of missing the playoffs for the second straight season, but they should look at the New Orleans Saints' re-emergence as a title contender under Sean Payton as a prime example of how staying the course can pay huge dividends. From 2014 through 2016, the Saints failed to make a single playoff appearance, finishing every season at 7-9. Although Drew Brees led the league in passing yards in each of those seasons, New Orleans couldn't get into the tournament while leaning on its QB1 as the team's primary playmaker. Granted, the Saints' struggles during this time could be attributed to the team's leaky defense (ranked 31st, 31st and 27th in total D from 2014-16) and pedestrian running game (13th, 24th and 16th), but Payton couldn't get New Orleans into the winner's circle regularly enough.
Fast-forward to 2017: The Saints draft a bumper crop of playmakers on both sides of the ball and Payton fixes an offense that had become too reliant on No. 9. Although New Orleans didn't hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of last season, getting bounced from the playoffs courtesy of the "Minneapolis Miracle," the Saints went 11-5 and are currently 10-1 this season, suggesting that there's something to be said for staying the course and trusting an established coach to figure out how to fix problems.
With that in mind, McCarthy must be able to evaluate his scheme, players and coaches to make the necessary changes that'll turn things around in Green Bay. Although he revamped his offensive staff at the end of last season (after the Pack finished 23rd in scoring), the jury is still out as to whether he can identify the offense's current issues (Green Bay ranks 13th in scoring) and come up with solutions. Better yet, can he embrace some of the out-of-the-box thinking needed to fix the program?
"He's old school," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "He runs the purest version of the West Coast offense in the league and he hasn't updated his concepts or route combinations. ... He can get away with it when he has superior personnel, but he doesn't do anything to help his guys win on the outside. Plus, he doesn't run it enough to take some of the pressure off No. 12.
"He's a good coach and he's been one for a long time, but he needs to update and evolve his offense a bit."
To that point, a quick look at the All-22 Coaches Film reveals an offense that's grown a little stagnant over the past few seasons. The Packers rarely motion, shift or use bunch formations to create easy opportunities for their pass catchers. In addition, they've used the same route concepts and combinations for the past decade, which makes them easier to defend. Throw in McCarthy's reluctance to fully commit to an RB1 -- or the running game, in general -- and it is not surprising to see the offense underwhelm.
Looking ahead to how the Packers could evolve, I believe McCarthy should steal some ideas from another old-school West Coast offense disciple: Andy Reid. The former Packers assistant learned the offense from Mike Holmgren during the 1990s and has run the scheme for the majority of his head-coaching career. However, he started to flirt with different concepts, particularly spread principles, when he added Brad Childress and Chris Ault to the Chiefs' think tank shortly after his arrival in Kansas City. Childress was responsible for researching the spread offense and bringing new ideas to the head coach, while Ault provided Reid with insight on other aspects of the spread, including the pistol offense that he crafted at Nevada. With the Chiefs' offensive coaches throwing out ideas at every turn, Reid expanded his horizons as a play designer and play caller.
"Reid has evolved from being a hardcore West Coast offense teacher to being more innovative and creative with his scheme and concepts," the former NFL defensive coordinator said. "He needed to tweak the route combinations and added some of the college-like plays to their playbook. McCarthy needs to tweak some of the Packers' staple concepts to keep defensive coordinators from skunking (anticipating) his plays."
There's definitely some truth to these sentiments. The Packers haven't exactly embraced the RPO revolution and their scheme features few concepts that would appear on Saturdays. Green Bay is running an offense that's stuck in the early 2000s, lacking trendy wrinkles like the jet-sweep action that forces defenses to be wary of multiple possibilities (sweep, RB power, counter).
According to Next Gen Stats, Green Bay primarily operates out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE and 3 WRs), with 72.1 percent of their offensive snaps featuring a three-receiver grouping. When the Packers move away from three-receiver sets, they typically trot out 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs), with 19.1 percent of their offensive snaps featuring two-tight end formations. Green Bay doesn't routinely incorporate motions, shifts or exotic formations, allowing opposing defensive coordinators to easily anticipate the Packers' pet plays, which makes it harder for Rodgers and Co. to generate "explosives" (runs of 12-plus yards, passes of 25-plus yards).
Looking at Green Bay's current roster, the team is in a challenging position, with only one blue-chip player on the perimeter (Davante Adams) and a host of pass catchers trying to figure things out. With Randall Cobb dealing with a hamstring injury and Geronimo Allison on injured reserve, the Packers have been forced to lean on rookies Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown on the outside. Jimmy Graham, who's dealing with health issues of his own, is still learning the nuances of the offense after signing with the team as a marquee free agent to give the Packers a dynamic "Y" (tight end) to move all over the field.
Throw in the youth and inexperience of second-year running backs Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones, and the Packers haven't been able to feature a tempo offense (no-huddle/hurry-up) to quicken the pace of the game. Not to mention, the overall youth, inexperience and lack of versatility of their perimeter playmakers make it hard for McCarthy to move guys around to create variety in the team's formations. Thus, it's difficult to manufacture and exploit potential mismatches.
Remember when the Packers would utilize Cobb and Ty Montgomery as "slash" (RB/WR) players in their 10 (1 RB and 4 WRs) and 01 (1 TE and 4 WRs) personnel groupings a few seasons ago? The team currently lacks healthy, versatile playmakers, which explains the bland formations and player deployments from McCarthy.
Still, McCarthy somehow needs to quickly overhaul his approach and rev up the Packers' offense. He can go back to basics and lean on the tactics that made the offense a high-flying circus when he took over the job or he can give Rodgers more responsibility and let him call his own plays.
If McCarthy goes back to his roots and uses a wider variety of personnel packages and formations, he will need to lay out a more role-specific plan, with his young players only asked to master a couple of things to get onto the field. This would require more work from McCarthy and his staff to clearly identify each player's strengths and weaknesses, before crafting a plan to put everyone on the field for plays specifically designed to elevate personal skill sets. Much like Payton does for his playmakers in New Orleans, McCarthy would be forced to take a "player over plays" approach. Essentially, call the game with the intention to get the ball to the right players in the right situations, instead of worrying extensively on calling the best play against an expected defensive look.
If McCarthy were to choose Door No. 2 and allow Rodgers to call his own plays, he would essentially put his coaching future in his QB1's hands. Although this seems like a scary proposition for a coach sitting on the proverbial hot seat, the decision to give No. 12 more control could work out well for the Packers. Rodgers has routinely shined in two-minute situations throughout his career, and such a move could really stimulate the two-time MVP. Rodgers would not only demand more from his young teammates, which could accelerate their growth, but he would be able to flow with the rhythm of the game. For an artist or creative playmaker like Rodgers, the freedom to operate based on feel and instinct could definitely unlock the offense's explosiveness.
"At this stage of his career, Rodgers should be calling a lot of his own plays," the former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "He's seen every look in the book and has a great feel for how to play the game. He's a smart player who takes excellent care of the ball.
"Mike should check his ego and let his quarterback run the game."
One way or another, McCarthy has to step outside of his comfort zone. The 55-year-old coach has to tweak his approach. Otherwise, his tenure in Green Bay could be over by January.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Andrew Luck's evolution under Frank Reich. It's hard to justify including a .500 quarterback in the MVP discussion, but Andrew Luck deserves "honorable mention" status based on his exceptional play this season. After missing the entire 2017 campaign with a shoulder issue, the three-time Pro Bowler has posted fine numbers in 2018: 67.3 percent completion rate, 29:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 101.8 passer rating. Luck's projected final numbers (4,430 pass yards, 46:14 TD-to-INT ratio, along with the aforementioned completion rate and passer rating) show he's on a pace quite similar to the average of the last 10 quarterbacks to win the MVP award (67.0 percent completion rate, 4,507 pass yards, 39:9 TD-to-INT ratio, 109.2 passer rating).
That's an insane amount of production coming from a quarterback returning to the lineup following a career-threatening injury to his throwing arm, but it is even more remarkable when you consider Luck's circumstances. He returned to a Colts team that featured one blue-chip player (T.Y. Hilton) and a handful of "possibles" (Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, Erik Swoope and Mo Alie-Cox) on the perimeter. Not to mention, he's playing behind a rebuilt offensive line with a couple of rookies (Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith) acclimating to the pro game.
Considering Luck is also stepping into a new offensive system crafted by a first-time head coach, No. 12's success demands great appreciation, especially with Indianapolis (5-5) surprisingly right in playoff contention.
While most of the credit for Luck's performance should go directly to the quarterback for his diligent work on and off the field, the arrival of Reich (and his quarterback-friendly system) has certainly helped Luck become a more effective and efficient player from the pocket.
Instead of Indy's old "bombs away" system that encouraged Luck to hold onto the ball while waiting on deep routes to uncover from traditional and spread formations, the Colts are using a quick-rhythm scheme that features a number of short and intermediate routes from spread formations, as well as two- and three-man vertical routes from run-heavy sets following hard play-action fakes.
Studying the All-22 tape from Indianapolis' recent games, I was impressed with the structure and design of the team's passing game. The Colts run a number of carefully coordinated short and intermediate routes with quick reads and immediate answers for the quarterback against man or zone. Luck routinely finds open receivers at the top of his drops, which leads to timely throws and few hits in the pocket. On deeper routes, the Colts frequently use a combination of max protection and play-action fakes to build a cocoon around Luck while creating huge passing lanes down the field. With Hilton and others torching defenders on a variety of deep, two-man combination routes (post-deep over, deep comebacks and post-corners), Indy's passing game has become more lethal and explosive this season. The added protection has enabled Luck to not only take a deeper drop, but now he can fully step into his throws, leading to more velocity and pop on each release.
This is exactly how Reich envisioned the Colts' offense when he provided a preview to reporters at the NFL's Annual League Meeting this past spring.
"You've got to protect the quarterback," he said, via the Indy Star, at the NFL meeting in Orlando. "And it is really the whole unit, so that involves scheming to get the ball out quicker."
He later compared ebb and flow of dink-and-dunk and shot-taking to the game plan of a championship boxer.
"The analogy that I like to use is a boxing analogy," Reich said. "A lot of jabs, stick and move, and then here comes the big punch. And when you keep them off balance with the jab and you set up the big one, that's the way it works best."
Although Reich has rebuilt the Colts' passing game in the image of GGG, it has been the deliberate approach of the quarterback that has given the offense a Floyd Mayweather-like feel. Luck has tossed at least three touchdown passes in seven straight games. And on the season, 12 different pass catchers (six wide receivers, four tight ends, three running backs) have notched receiving touchdowns. The balance and diversity have made it tough for opponents to hone in on a No. 2 option behind Hilton.
Additionally, the combination of quick-rhythm throws and max-protected routes has kept Luck from taking a beating in the pocket. He has logged 214 straight dropbacks without taking a sack, which ranks as the second-longest streak in the NFL since 1991 (trailing only Mark Rypien's 244-dropback stretch).
With Luck protected in an impenetrable pocket and thriving in a carefully crafted scheme, the Colts have re-emerged as playoff contenders behind a quarterback playing at an elite level. If that's not worthy of MVP consideration -- or at least mention in the discussion -- I don't know the meaning of Most Valuable Player.
2) What's next for Lamar Jackson and the Ravens' offense? I don't know if Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh instructed offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to build a single-wing offense around Lamar Jackson, but the team's run-heavy approach with No. 8 at the helm will give AFC defensive coordinators plenty of headaches when crafting game plans against the Ravens.
With Jackson playing the role of a QB1/RB1 in a revamped offense that featured pistol formations and a variety of zone-read concepts, the Ravens totaled 265 rushing yards with a pair of 100-yard rushers (Jackson, 27 rushes for 115 yards; Gus Edwards, 17 rushes for 117 yards) leading the way past Cincinnati in Week 11. The dizzying display of deception, misdirection and option play left Bengals defenders dazed and confused while also challenging the tactical acumen of head coach/defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. Although the Bengals didn't exactly know what to expect from the Ravens with Jackson at quarterback, their inability to make an adjustment to the zone-read and the myriad option plays and complements underscores the dilemma facing opponents attempting to defend a dynamic dual-threat QB. While Harbaugh might bristle at the suggestion that his signal-caller is a run-first playmaker, there's no denying the rookie's effectiveness as a runner and the challenge it presents.
Remember, Jackson finished his collegiate career with more rushing yards than Saquon Barkley (Jackson logged with 4,132 rushing yards at Louisville, compared to Barkley's 3,843 at Penn State) and totaled 50 rushing touchdowns in three seasons. He eclipsed 1,500 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons, exhibiting explosive quickness and acceleration with the ball in his hands. Despite his sinewy frame (6-foot-2, 212 pounds), Jackson flashes outstanding balance, body control and strength running through contact in the open field. He is hard to corral in tight quarters and his elusiveness makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
In his first NFL start last week, Jackson flashed those same qualities zipping across the field. He routinely blows past linebackers on designed runs and has a knack for making defensive backs miss along the boundary. Although he was on the receiving end of a few bang-bang hits that will make some offensive coaches cringe, No. 8 is a unique weapon as a runner and the Ravens are wise to let him play to his strengths while he settles in as a pro.
"How many plays did the kid make? Running around, throwing the ball? In the pocket, throwing the ball?" Harbaugh said on Monday, via the Baltimore Sun. "All this veiled stuff, is he really a thrower? I've got news for you -- he's a thrower. The kid can throw. He's a quarterback!"
To that point, the Ravens will need to expand their playbook and utilize Jackson's skills as a passer. In spite of the narrative that he is an ineffective pocket passer, the numbers suggest he is a more efficient passer inside the tackle box than outside. According to Next Gen Stats, Jackson has an 83.3 percent completion rate on throws inside the tackle box with a 123.8 passer rating, compared to his 38.5 percent completion rate and 24.5 passer rating outside of the pocket. Although the Ravens' offensive coaches might've pigeonholed him as a movement passer, Jackson is at his best when operating from the pocket. He throws seams and in-breaking routes (slants, digs and skinny posts) between the numbers. Jackson is also comfortable throwing quicks (sticks, seams and pivots) over the middle of the field on "catch and fire" concepts designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
Studying the Ravens' game tapes and the film from Jackson's days at Louisville, I believe Mornhinweg can expand the team's playbook without overburdening the rookie quarterback going forward. Jackson was effective throwing traditional play-action passes at Louisville with "levels" reads (short, intermediate and deep) within his sight line. He can throw the "NCAA" route (post, dig and shallow cross) with ease and execute any traditional flood concept (go, sail and flat) to the outside part of the field off play-action.
In addition, Jackson is comfortable throwing various curl/flat combinations with a receiver positioned in the hook area around the numbers and a complementary receiver running to the flat. Jackson made a living on this combination at Louisville, and the Ravens should feature it prominently in the game plan to get him into a rhythm as a passer.
The Ravens are still in the playoff race at 5-5, but they will need to expand the playbook to maximize Jackson's talents as a dual-threat playmaker. With a few wrinkles in the run game (more designed quarterback runs like QB sweep and QB counter) and more opportunities in the passing game from the pocket, Baltimore could sneak into the postseason tourney behind a unique offensive weapon with a non-traditional game.
3) Seahawks running toward a playoff berth. The NFL is in the middle of a transition into a passing league, but that won't stop some opportunistic coaches from embracing the running game as a way to build a contender. The Seattle Seahawks (5-5) could charge into the playoffs behind Pete Carroll's commitment to playing smash-mouth football in the Pacific Northwest.
Although the approach is unique, especially given the presence of a franchise quarterback on Seattle's roster, the Seahawks' run-heavy approach has accelerated their development as a legitimate postseason contender. Looking at the statistics, the 'Hawks lead the NFL in rushing yards per game (154.3), averaging 32.3 attempts per contest. Seattle is the only team with three rushers boasting 300-plus rushing yards, and the Seahawks' 51:49 run-pass ratio makes them the only group in the league to run on the majority of their offensive snaps. Considering this is the exact formula that helped Seattle make back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 2013 and '14, Carroll's renewed commitment to the running game feels sensible despite the rest of the league going the other way. Carroll was asked this week if he took pride in zigging when everyone else is zagging.
"Yeah, I do," Carroll said Tuesday, via Pro Football Talk. "You know, I don't mind being different at all. I didn't mind it when we were in college, either. We weren't spreading out and doing all the stuff that other people were doing. We were running a pretty balanced attack back in the day and ran for a lot of yards (with) a lot of big-time running backs. I think it's a great way to play. When I look at -- in college football and to look back, I look at the way that Nick (Saban) is doing his stuff there. They are still a very formidable running attack always, and in that when you're playing all-spread teams week and week out, it's a big transition for you and being unique is OK, particularly when you're being aggressive and tough."
With that in mind, I love Carroll's mindset on why the Seahawks' run-heavy emphasis gives them an advantage over their opponents. Better yet, I love how the commitment to the run exploits teams loading up with pass rushers and speedy linebackers to slow down prolific passing games. With a number of undersized quarterback hunters and cover guys on the field, Seattle's counter-tactics force "run-around guys" to take on blockers and make tackles in phone booths.
Remember, most pass rushers hate dealing with runs directed right at them because it forces them to play stout at the line of scrimmage and deal with multiple blockers at the point of attack. The trench warfare also forces them to exert a lot of energy and pause before flying off the ball to chase the quarterback.
For linebackers, particularly undersized defenders who excel when playing in space, the thought of dealing with lead blockers on powers and isolations is a nightmare. The lack of power-based or run-heavy football teams at the lower levels leaves them unprepared to deal with the physicality and force that comes with playing old-school football between the tackles. Thus, the Seahawks are at an advantage when they run right at their opponents, particularly with more "bigs" (offensive linemen and tight ends) on the field.
Interestingly, the Seahawks are a heavy 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) team, with 68.2 percent of their offensive plays coming from that grouping. Still, the team also uses a variety of run-heavy packages with 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), 22 (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR) and 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE and 2 WR), or six offensive linemen on the field. According to Next Gen Stats, the Seahawks have six O-linemen on the field on almost 18 percent of their offensive snaps, with 11.5 percent of their offensive plays featuring the aforementioned "heavy" personnel packages. The 'Hawks are spending almost a third of their offensive snaps in some kind of "beat you up" formation, with a number of big bodies positioned at the point of attack to help create creases at the line of scrimmage.
This Big-vs.-Little approach has helped Seattle run for at least 150 yards in each of its last seven games. Studying the tape of those contests, the Seahawks' collective physicality and toughness jump off the screen, as well as their commitment to handing the ball to their runners. They ignore minimal and negative runs early in the game to benefit from the big gains in the fourth quarter against beleaguered defenses. The "run, run, run" approach isn't sexy, but it's a style that works in the playoffs, particularly when employing a "slow it down" strategy against high-powered offenses (See: Seattle's box scoresagainst the Los Angeles Rams).
When I worked with the Carolina Panthers from 2003 through '07, we went to a pair of NFC Championship Games (and a Super Bowl) leaning on the run, with Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster toting the rock. The strategy helped us knock off "The Greatest Show on Turf" in an NFC Divisional Game, and it made us a tougher overall team because our defense benefitted from playing fewer snaps in games.
Considering Carroll's defensive background and his understanding of how the running game impacts the squad, I'm not surprised to hear him all in on building a bully in Seattle.
"I think it's really, it's about commitment and the commitment to practice it and talk it and then (carry) out and coach it really well," Carroll said of the run game success, via Pro Football Talk. "I mean, everyone wants to run the football, but to be that committed to it, I think that's really what's made the difference. The players are obviously suited -- the guys up front are suited to run the football like that and the running backs are suited to run football like that and Russell (Wilson) complements that, as well. I think everybody's in on it."
With the rest of the league intent on throwing the ball all over the yard, Seattle's contrarian approach might produce an unlikely playoff contender in the NFC.