Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, an examination of the midseason coordinator changes being made around the league ...
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COORDINATOR CHANGES: The impetus for this midseason madness
After watching four well-respected coordinators get dismissed by the midpoint of the season, I'm beginning to believe Jerry Glanville was definitely onto something when he famously quipped that the NFL means "Not For Long." The heightened expectations from owners, general managers, head coaches and fans have created a culture where NFL coordinators are treated like microwave chefs in today's game. If a play caller is unable to take the ingredients and quickly put together a masterpiece, he is tossed aside and replaced by another coach with a different recipe and formula.
Now, I know the league is one where production and performance matters, but the spate of midseason dismissals speaks volumes about the pressure coaches face in today's games. Teams are expected to vie for the title each and every season while racking up impressive fantasy football-like numbers and splashy highlights.
"There aren't any realistic expectations in sports," one former NFL general manager told me. "Everyone expects their team to be in the Super Bowl, Final Four or College Football Playoffs at the end of every season. If you aren't playing for the trophy, the season is viewed as a failure. ... There's something wrong with that, but that's the world we live in."
Although every coach in the league faces immense pressure to produce blockbuster results, offensive coordinators are catching it the worst because the league is governed by quarterbacks, and the "most important player" on each team must be put in the best position to succeed. Looking at each of the coordinator changes this season (Greg Roman in Buffalo; Marc Trestman in Baltimore; Greg Olson in Jacksonville; and Norv Turner, who resigned this week from his post in Minnesota), it's not a coincidence that their QB1s were struggling at the time of the divorce. Regardless of whether their struggles were due to faulty play calling or game planning, offensive coordinators are paying for the sins of their quarterbacks. Fair or not, the job description of the offensive leader is to make sure the quarterback thrives because most decision makers (owners, general managers and head coaches) believe the game must flow through the signal caller.
"Coordinators are judged on their ability to create plans that match the personnel," said the former general manager. "Are the top players being put into a position to exploit their talents? Are players being asked to do things that match their skills? Those are the questions decision makers ask when evaluating play callers. ... If the coordinator fails to maximize the individual and collective talents of personnel, then you have to think about making a change."
Despite the former executive citing the deployment of the team's top players, it ultimately comes back to setting up the quarterback for success. Teams surround the quarterback with skill players capable of alleviating pressure on the signal caller, whether it's an explosive deep-ball specialist to help a strong-armed passer or a catch-and-run playmaker to help a dink-and-dunk passer deliver explosive plays in a controlled passing game. Throw in a rugged workhorse runner to attract eight-man fronts or single-high coverage, too. The pro game is all about helping the quarterback play at his best.
With front offices expected to provide the players and coaches responsible for crafting the plan, the job falls on the offensive coordinators to take the pieces and put them in a system that allows them to play to their strengths while creating an adaptable plan that allows the quarterback to play "fast and free" in the pocket. Considering how many QBs enter the league after spending most of their high school and collegiate careers directing spread offenses, today's coordinators need to be familiar with the concepts that are being utilized at the game's lower levels to help the signal caller thrive. Instead of forcing quarterbacks to learn a complex offensive system that's long on verbiage and complicated reads, play callers must find a way to shrink their call sheets and help the quarterback find easy completions on the perimeter.
Whether it's through RPOs (run-pass options), bootleg and movement passes, or vertical throws and quick-rhythm passing plays from shotgun formation or under center, the job of the coordinator is to know what makes his quarterback tick and to find a way to put him in his comfort zone. That's why I'm paying close attention to Nathaniel Hackett's work in Jacksonville and Pat Shurmur's work in Minnesota to see how they blend in their ideas with the established schemes that are currently in place. Shurmur, in particular, is squarely in my crosshairs as he takes over a Vikings offense that is being led by a quarterback he originally helped introduce to the NFL (Sam Bradford). With the veteran quarterback now viewed as the centerpiece of the offense after a spate of injuries robbed the team of a franchise running back (Adrian Peterson), it's sensible for the Vikes to rebuild their scheme around Bradford's skills.
"People forget that [Shurmur] was the guy that helped Bradford win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award," said a former vice president of player personnel. "This should be a great move for him because Shurmur knows exactly what he does best. In St. Louis, it was a short, controlled passing game with a few deep shots sprinkled in. ... I don't know if he can overhaul the offense in the middle of the season, but I would expect the scheme to better suit Bradford's talents."