The Philadelphia Eagles' defense is in full crisis mode, and new coordinator Juan Castillo needs to find a way to adjust his strategies to fit the considerable assets the unit has acquired.
Lombardi: What's wrong in Philly?
Thus far, the mesh between Castillo's talented defensive line and young, undersized linebacking corps is not working properly. The Wide-9 technique played by defensive ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole is leaving the linebackers too exposed. These alignments are great for putting pressure on offensive tackles and thus the quarterback, as shown by Babin's league-leading seven sacks, but it causes huge problems with the run defense.
An equally pressing problem is finding the right locations for the Eagles' talented cornerbacks. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are excellent cover guys, but they belong on the outside. Asante Samuel has the size and abilities to be a good nickel inside defender, but he doesn't want to play there.
In my opinion, the answer for the Eagles is to implement the "Cat defense." The basic premise is to give each of the corners an opposing player and say, "You take that cat, you take that cat, and you take that cat," and then take the remaining front eight and build the box to stop the run. Not only does this take advantage of the extraordinary talent on the outside, but also it is easier to coordinate eight people than it is 11 for first-time coordinator Castillo.
The Vikings need to imitate ... the Lions?
The move I am advocating, however, has little to do with Donovan McNabb and his play to this point. It is simply time to start building for the future, and that starts with taking the reins off Ponder.
The Vikings made an all-too-common mistake: They over-judged their talent, believed they were a playoff-caliber team, and put off the inevitable re-tooling that's required. At 0-4 and chasing two undefeated teams in the NFC North, the Vikings are very unlikely to become a playoff team this season. It doesn't matter whether you miss the postseason by one game or five games -- you are either a playoff team or you are not.
One of the teams Minnesota is chasing has shown exactly how this process must go. The Jim Schwartz era in Detroit started by drafting a franchise quarterback, then wrapping around him young talent to highlight his abilities. They have done this methodically over the previous two years. Now in year three, they are realizing the gains. It was painful to be sure, but they combined solid drafting and strategic signing of veterans to build a 4-0 team that could contend for some time to come.
If not now then very soon, the Vikings must let Ponder, the player they drafted No. 12 overall, begin his progression toward being that franchise player. Other examples like Matt Ryan of the Falcons or Joe Flacco of the Ravens show that teams can start a first-round quarterback, surround him with talent, limit his role as he matures and still win. In the case of Cam Newton, the Panthers are rebuilding a team around their first-rounder's tremendous talents and letting him develop, even with the mistakes that will likely keep them out of the playoffs this year. The belief is it will set the stage for the Panthers to be a formidable opponent in the opening weeks of the 2012 season.
Back to McNabb, the veteran QB has done all that his talents allow at this stage of his career. He is a class act and does not deserve this fate, but he simply doesn't have the team around him to allow him to finish his career in a way that is proportionate to what he has accomplished in this league. Nevertheless, the Vikings have to do what is in the best long-term interest of their team and organization, and unfortunately for McNabb, that means starting Ponder.
The only way to find out if Ponder is indeed that guy -- or if they made a mistake and reached for Ponder at the 12th pick (many thought he was likely an early second-round selection) -- can only be determined on the field. The sooner the Vikings find out, the better.
Could Moneyball apply to football?
For those who have not seen (or read) Moneyball, do so. It is a great movie and an even better book. The true story of Billy Beane and the Oakland A's adapting their tactics to fit their budget is inspiring. Beane focuses his assets in a role-driven atmosphere that lets each player's individual talents collectively out-perform more talented teams.
Could this principle work in football? I can't tell you how many people ask me this. The premise is a fantasy player's dream -- could someone with no experience or professional training put together a team made of B-level and C-level players and beat a team with superior talent?
The answer is no.
The problem is this: With 162 games and the dominance of pitching and hitting, baseball is the ultimate statistics game. Football has only 16 games and involves 22 players participating on every snap. Certainly NFL teams have done exhaustive studies on quantifying the value of positions and players, and where the money is best spent to put a team together. However, even with the NFL being a quarterback-driven league, the interaction between the players on both sides of the ball on every play makes it impossible to define roles so specifically like between a pitcher and a hitter in baseball.
Keep in mind there is not the discrepancy between teams, payroll-wise, like there is in baseball. Although there is certainly a difference between what the Cowboys make and what the Bengals can generate by way of income, the NFL salary cap creates a much more equitable playing field for its 32 teams. There is no equivalent to the New York Yankees and the Oakland A's.
Also remember that as brilliant of a strategy as it has been for the A's, they have not won a championship with this methodology. Only when the Boston Red Sox adopted it and augmented it with a handful of players did it win a World Series.