Sunday, July 12, 2009

Giants: The strategy of building a roster

This is the slowest part of the year for the NFL. The off-season conditioning program and the OTAs (organized team activities) are ended. Players and coaches are away on vacation. The draft is over. The free agent signing period is past, at least for the first wave of highly desirable FA's (our old friend Amani Toomer is still on the market, eg). Trades, which are so common in baseball and fan the flames of the winter hot stove league, are relatively rare in football and the air-conditioned league of July is cold rather than hot with trade discussions. Training camp hasn't started yet and so all we have to read and think about is the off-the-field stuff, usually filled with stories and incidents we don't want to read about.

I thought I would write a post about something I have thought about for a while now and discussed often with some of my football buddies, especially my friend Ray. The strategy of building an NFL roster is not just about filling out the lineup card. It's also about matching the parts and styles of play of the different parts of the roster so that they form a cohesive unit. In baseball, if you find a 3rd baseman who hits more HRs and has a higher OBP than the 3rd baseman currently on your team, then if you replace your current player with the better player, you will have a better offensive team and score more runs. Perhaps I am simplifying a little bit, because there is something about chemistry, hitting with RISP and some other stats that may be important. My point is that styles of play are relatively unimportant in baseball. Just ask Michael Lewis and refer to Money Ball - OBP and slugging percentage drive offenses in baseball.

In football, I think it is a bit different. For example, you don't just need a good OL; you may do better by having an OL that matches the style of your RB. I'll talk about that in more detail a little later in this post, but first consider the following example. If you have a qb that has a strong arm but is not particularly nimble, you would not want him to run a west coast style offense, which requires quickness, accuracy and quick decision making. Vinny Testaverde and Joe Montana are not going to prosper in the same types of offensive schemes. Jason Campbell, for another example, is not a good match for the west coast offense that Jim Zorn decided to run in Washington and I think their offense will decline somewhat this year. I also think coaches (like Zorn) that decide to run a particular style of offense or defense without actually evaluating the roster and seeing what style of play matches the personnel on the team are... well.. stupid. It was a breath of fresh air when Spagnuolo came in two years ago and evaluated the roster before he decided what type of defense to run. Everyone just assumed that he would run the exact same defense that DC Joe Johnson ran in Philadelphia. A month or two into his job, he was asked by reporters whether he had completed installing the new defense yet. DC Spags replied that he's not quite finished, because he's still evaluating the skills of the players and looking at what parts of the defense worked last year. The reporters laughed derisively and, not knowing Spagnuolo, took it as a sign of weakness, of a DC who was being indecisive, who was in over his head in a job that was too big for him. By implication, he would fail miserably. I, on the other hand, was applauding vigorously - imagine: a coach that actually tries to coach his team and his players, fitting a system to the skills of the players and the talent on the roster rather than forcing a system onto the team. We all saw the results.

I think it goes further than coaching the players you have and it extends to building a roster so that all the parts match. There can be subtleties in things like the style of play of the OL matching with the skills and running style of the RB and, of course, the types of running plays that the offense uses. Since this is a Giants blog, I thought I would use the Giants as an example. In the few years leading up to and ending with 2006, Tiki Barber was the Giants RB, Jim Finn was the FB, Pettigout was the LT and David Diehl was playing G. Barber was a finesse type runner, not a power back. Therefore, having Pettigout at LT and Finn as FB was not a catastrophe and was a match to his style. Pettigout was an average pass blocker and as run blocker, he was not the road-grader type. Finn was the same way at FB; he was not a huge powerful guy but was fairly nimble and had a high football IQ. The running play the Giants liked to run was to have Pettigout, Finn and a pulling G slide out to the left side of the OL and not really try to knock any defenders back, but just float out and engage the defenders. It was like a swarm of bodies bumping, touching and engaging each other on a dance floor at a disco or a club. Tiki would get out behind this swarm and would wait for an opening. When one of the defenders tried to break through the swarm of Giants in front of Tiki, the blocker would simply take the defender where he wanted to go, it would open up a crease for Tiki and he would scoot through the opening. He was quick and was great at setting up his blockers this way. It was a good match between OL, RB and types of running plays used in the offense. As a result, Tiki put up great rushing numbers under Coughlin from 2004-2006.

The scene changed in 2007 when Tiki retired and Brandon Jacobs was installed as the number 1 tailback. Instead of a finesse runner, Jacobs is all brute force. He has good speed, he can get to the edges and he can cut back and make guys miss, but he is not going to set up blockers and cut off them the way that Tiki did. Jacobs making people miss is more predicated on his size and the need for a tackler to dig in real hard when Jacobs is approaching, gather himself, plant himself and prepare for the hit. When the potential tackler is tensed up like that waiting for the collision, Jacobs only needs a little juke to get by him. Jacobs needs a big front that can get a good push on the defense and when they are moving backwards a little bit, he can finish the job and run over them. As a result, Reese got rid of Pettigout and put Diehl out at LT. Diehl is not the best LT in the NFL, but he is a very good run blocker. He is big and athletic and he really runs downhill when he gets out in front of Jacobs. Similarly Snee and Seubert, the two Gs are very athletic and run downhill when they pull to lead a running play. One of the other very first things Reese did when he took over as GM was try to replace Jim Finn, the smallish, nimble player at FB. He signed restricted free agent Vonta Leach of the Houston Texans to an offer sheet in March 2007. It turned out that the Texans matched the offer of the bruising FB, but Reese showed his intentions and his desire to upgrade and get a power FB to match his power RB. Finn got injured, was put on IR and did not play for the Giants in 2007. Instead, the Giants went into the 2007 season with some anonymous players at the FB position, but you all know how it turned out: after the first game of the season, Madison Hedgecock was inexplicably cut by the Rams and the Giants snatched him up 2 days later. When the Giants saw how good he was, they signed him to a 5 year extension after only a few games and his bruising blocking style was a big part of the Giants character, success and the Superbowl in 2007, as well as their two 1,000 yard rushers in 2008.

I don't want to flog a dead horse, but I think we saw something similar in the 1986 and 1990 championships for the Giants. The1986 OL, the "Suburbanites" were smallish, smart and relatively quick. They had Brad Benson, Bill Ard, Bart Oates, Chris Godfrey and Karl Nelson. This quick, mobile group was blocking for the darting, diminutive runner, Joe Morris. Perfect match. In 1990, the Giants had the elephant OL: Jumbo Elliott, William Roberts, Doug Riesenberg, Eric Moore, with Bart Oates back manning the C position. They switched from a finesse OL to a power OL. To beef it up further, they added Howard Cross as TE along with Bavaro, two bruising blockers. The RB they were blocking for was the once-speedy OJ Anderson who had become a power RB by that point in his career. I considered it a remarkable change over and a real credit to the Giants GM George Young and coach Parcells to switch 4 OL-men in the space of 4 years and win a championship with both units. The change of style of play and the match between RB and OL seems clear in these examples from Giants history.

You don't build a roster for an actual NFL team like you do when you're GM in a fantasy football league. It takes some mixing, matching and planning.

1 comment:

wolfman said...

My friend Ray sent the following email to me which I am publishing as a comment to this post on the blog:

As you noted, we have discussed the blog contents a lot and I certainly agree with what you wrote.

But I wonder if it makes sense to take it a step further. It seems to
me, based on an unscientific gut feel, that more big time free agent signings in the NFL do not work out than those in other sports. If true, the likely reason is the failure to match player to iystem. The Redskins stand out here, not only in the Zorn/Campbell situation that you noted, but also in their penchant for signing stars with no regard for their potential fit to the system. But the Giants have also been guilty of this - Arrington comes to mind as someone who, even if not injured, was a bad fit for their system.

It is also my feeling, based on the same unscientific gut, that lots of times mid-level free agent signings have a bigger impact than do the stars. Probably, the same reasoning prevails - a mid-level player flourishes because the system he signed into fits him very well (I consider ex Giant lb Kawika Mitchell as an example of really good system fit with NY, and a less good fit afterward).

I also think that that the secondary is another place where system fit is absolutely critical. A great corner/safety in one system can quickly
become ordinary in another - same player, but skills used differently.

Also suggests that a coaching change on a bad team can help immediately - if the new coach fits his system to what talent he has (think Atlanta last year) - while a coaching change on a good team might be a mistake if the new coach makes significant systemic changes.