In the third issue of PFF: The Magazine, Pro Football Focus owner and Sunday Night Football commentator Cris Collinsworth gives his perspective on the biggest storylines from around the NFL. Get the latest issue here.
Size and scheme have changed the NFL
It used to be that speed was everything. It was just a matter of whether you could run by and get behind defensive backs because the only way you were going to get thrown the deep ball was if you were a step or two behind whoever was covering you.
That has changed in the modern NFL, because now these receivers are so big and strong they’re essentially rebounders. They have the ability, even in one-on-one situations, to just go up and make plays on the ball. It’s not that we didn’t, but they just didn’t throw those balls. If you weren’t open they just didn’t throw them. Nobody ever thought “Hey, you know that guy’s big and strong, maybe he can just go up an outjump him.”
The other big change in the game are these back-shoulder throws, which really force the defensive backs to not play as deep and play a little bit more of the bump and run and trail techniques because, if you give these guys too much room, they’ll just throw that back-shoulder-and-go-route combination time after time.
I don’t know how any defensive back covers that back-shoulder throw. You look at it sometimes and just think it’s unfair. We never did it, we didn’t even have that in the playbook.
The other thing that seems absolutely stupid that we didn’t have at the time — we didn’t have bunch and pick plays the way they do now. So we would go against a Cleveland or an Oakland and all that tough bump and run, and we’re still running 20-yard crossing routes that never got there. Our quarterback was on his back by the time anybody got to 20 yards. Now with all the pick plays and the bunch formations, we see a completely different repertoire of things teams can do against you in bump-and-run coverage. That has really taken some people out of that man-to-man technique in some situations.
A counter for defenses, though, is that coverages are much more complex today than they ever have been in the past. There were eight defensive backs on the field in the game I watched Arizona play the other day if you count Deone Bucannon as a defensive back. There are a lot of trap coverages that may have been around for years, but didn’t have that level of complexity. But there’s probably also way more straight cover-1 than ever because the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world can just pick you apart until you die.
Double moves are another thing that changed the game, because you can’t have contact after five yards. When they brought in that rule I knew we were going to see nothing but double moves, because contact was how you used to defend it. If you ran an out and up, the defensive back would just come up and hit you; it was as easy as that. Very seldom were you able to do it. If you ran a hook and go you were going to take a shot from Mel Blount or one of those guys, it was like playing dodgeball. You knew you were going to get hit, so it became a question of, “How could you make him miss?” Nowadays, they can’t even hit you, so a lot of guys will just take the penalty to save the big play. “There’s your five yards, congratulations. On you go.”
Even now the rules go back and forth. The recent Monday Night Football game between the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets was as strict an enforcement of the coverage rules as there could be, but I thought that the Atlanta-Seattle game was probably as loosely enforced as it could have been. Richard Sherman on what could have been a game-winning play just pinned Julio Jones’ arm and there was no foul. Those pass-interference calls win and lose games right now, because teams are taking shots down the field and you could get a 50-yard penalty. Most teams get around 350 yards of offense in a game, something like that, and you’re talking about one-seventh of a day’s offense if you get one 50-yard penalty on pass interference.
I’ve always been a proponent of making pass interference a reviewable play. What they want from replay is to not have huge mistakes in officiating, but that no-call decided that game. If it’s called Atlanta has first-and-10, plenty of time on the clock and only needs a field goal to win it.
I’m in the Bill Belichick camp. I would like to open it up to having two challenges, and the possibility of a third, and you can basically challenge whatever you want.
But holding is the issue that makes everybody insane. Effectively you could find a holding penalty on every play, so you’d essentially be giving the right to take two to three plays of offense from every team in every game.
That really is something that would have to be figured out, and I think that’s what’s keeping people from supporting it in all truth. But I still like the idea of being able to review all calls, especially when they determine the outcome of games.
The (passing) running game
The passing game has changed over the years. I don’t think I scored a touchdown inside of 10 yards. My yards-per-catch figure was 16.1. That’s what you did as a wideout then; you would catch 60 balls a year and average 15 yards a catch. Now most receivers are 10-11 yards, something like that; all those wide receiver screens. I don’t think I ever caught a wide receiver screen.
Bill Walsh brought the idea of ball control and a running-game mentality to the passing game, and it’s only been elevated since. If you play off coverage they’re just going to raise up and throw a slant or a quick pass out to the guy and almost force you to come down and play man-to-man.
Teams can scheme you out of the deep ball now too, and even Arizona is having to change what they do this year. They are not taking as many shots, and instead focusing on ball control. We’re seeing an offense that is built much more around David Johnson than it is Larry Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer.
There aren’t many pass plays in the NFL that don’t have at least one deep component, it’s just a matter of how many times you’re going to take it, and if the coverage allows it.
Fits like a glove
I think the gloves receivers use today is like the difference between playing outfield in baseball with a glove and playing barehanded. The ball just sticks to those gloves.
They’re making catches now that simply weren’t possible when I was playing. It’s changed the way people catch the football. There are catches being made now using hand technique that I’m just telling you wasn’t possible without gloves. And people ask me if I hate that. I say “Are you kidding?” I love that catching the football has gotten easier.
The other thing is that the balls used to be taken right out of the box. I don’t know what they had on those things, but they were so slimy. It was really hard for me – and I’ve got a relatively big hand – just to grip it. I don’t know how some of those quarterbacks used to throw the ball, because it was slick coming out of the box. Allowing them to rough up the balls and get them like practice balls used to be, that’s a major thing. I love those changes, because the excitement from the NFL comes from throwing and catching the ball, and as a broadcaster when you see exciting throws and catches it makes you love the game even more. That is one of the great improvements in the game – that they’ve seriously upgraded the gloves and given the quarterbacks a chance to throw a ball that you can actually grip.