Stretching the Truth

One of our goals here at 18to88.com is to educate fans.  10 years ago, Colts fans were among the least educated in football.  Today I read an article that wound the clock back 10 years.

First a disclaimer.  I’ve been working on this response piece all day.  I’ve been watching film and scouring for data.  I’ve worked hard to not base this solely on my opinion (unlike the original article).  Part of the problem is that for now, the play by play data I seek isn’t accessible.  The footballoutsiders are planning on releasing their game data on a team by team basis soon.  I can’t afford three years of game charting work for the whole NFL, but I make you all a promise.  As soon as they release the data by team, I’ll purchase the Colts pack and revisit this issue.

Today I woke up to one of the worst fan written pieces I’ve seen in a long time.  The main thrust was an attempt to discredit the Colts stretch play.  It had no research.  It was loaded with erroneous opinions.  It bothered me deeply because I knew that it would strike a nerve with fans.  Fans love to complain about the Colts’ inability to run in short yardage.  They love to blame things that aren’t the problem.  Today’s article was no exception.

Problem number one: The author doesn’t understand the purpose of the stretch play.

The stretch play is designed to create a situation where the defense can’t predict run or pass.  It is out of the stretch play that the Colts run most of their play action passes.  The stretch play serves to do more than just run the ball, it is a vital part of the Colts ability to strike quick from any part of the field.  Its demise hurt the passing game last year.

Problem number two: The author fails to identify the reasons the stretch went out of vogue.  Last season there were multiple reasons for the demise of the stretch.

1.  Manning’s knee was a huge factor.  Early in the season, the Colts tried to run toss plays to mimic the stretch.  They were a massive failure because they couldn’t replicate the deception caused by the true stretch play.  The stretch is designed to keep the defense guessing.  By instituting a pitch instead of a hand off, the offense lost the ability to deceive the defense via slight of hand.  The result was fewer deep completions (the fewest of Manning’s career) as well as a massive decrease in Manning’s YPA.  Teams used to struggle to prepare for the stretch because none of the backup QBs could simulate Manning’s delivery of the hand off or play action fake.

2.  The Colts line was worse last year than at any point in recent memory.  The Colts did run successfully outside to the left, but were a disaster running right.  The stretch failed in part because Ryan Diem and Mike Pollack had terrible years.  The line also allowed more QB hits and pressures than in recent memory.  The stretch sets up the deep ball, but if the line can’t protect, there isn’t as much call to run it.  The line was bad at run and pass blocking, so a play that can be either a run or a pass is doomed to failure.

3.  The stretch died because the Colts had two running backs: one was slow (Dom), and the other was hurt (Addai).  The stretch requires a certain amount of speed from the back to work well, and the Colts didn’t have that at the end of the season.

Problem number three: The fundamental assumption of the author is wrong.

That issue is the stretch play itself because (and I know this is a controversial opinion) the over-reliance on this play makes the Colts a soft running team…My opinion is that the Colts’ over-reliance on the stretch play is the cause of this. This reason being is that the stretch play is about pushing people to the side rather than pushing them back. It’s about the RB using his vision to find seams rather than using his speed and power to run North-South. In short, the stretch play makes the Colts too “cute.”

This, of course, is nonsense.  He has nothing to back this claim other than his own opinion.  The play does not make the Colts unable to run in short yardage.  One could argue that the Colts have been a mediocre short yardage team because of the overall philosophy of the offense.  The Colts favor smaller, quicker line men.  They aren’t trying to get four yards by ramming it up the middle.  They are trying to put the defense in a position of weakness.  That means going no huddle.  That means favoring backs that can catch and block versus plow ahead.  It means running plays from which Manning can pass or hand off and the defense is left guessing which as long as possible.

The argument that the Colts are soft is an old one.  It’s one they dispelled with the bruising drive to end the Baltimore playoff game in January of 2007.  The author lists a string of anecdotal evidence that the Colts are bad at running in short yardage.  First, anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence.  Second, he gets the dates wrong on the games.  Third, he blames the stretch while ignoring the context of those runs (none of which came on a stretch run):

1. Edge fails to get a goal-line TD in the 2004 Pats game. I think he means the 2003 game at the dome on the goal line.  He fails to mention that Dallas Clark got hurt in that game, and the Colts later felt that the run play would of worked had they not had to run it behind a backup TE.

2. Same situation with Edge in the 2005 Pats game. Again, I think he means the season opener in 2004.  Edge fumbled the ball on the goal line late in the game.  I’m not sure what that has to do with the stretch play.

3. Joe Addai, in the 2008 Chargers playoff game, fails to convert on 3rd and short to win the game (and God only knows how many 3rd and shorts the Colts have failed on over the years). Almost. It was a second and short.  He also failed on a third and short in the 3rd quarter.  But again, the offensive line was horrible in nearly every kind of run situation down the stretch.  By the author’s own admission, the Colts had given up on the stretch.  Blaming the stretch for the Colts failure in this case makes no sense. If they weren’t running it, how could it be responsible for the failure to get that first down?

4. Finally, let me just add that you know it’s bad when every time there is a 3rd and short or a 3rd and goal you, as a fan, feel this sudden sensation of despair sweep over you. This is pure silliness.  How fans feel about a play has no bearing on anything.  It’s not evidence.  It’s not an argument.  It’s nothing.

The stretch play has always been unpopular with fans because it isn’t smash mouth football.  Smash mouth football is attractive to those who like simplicity.  Calling into to question the stretch play is calling into question the entire foundation of the Colts offense.  Ok, so you don’t like cute?  You don’t like zone blocking?  You don’t like quick strike, no huddle?  Then you don’t like the Indianapolis Colts offense.

Problem number four: The conclusion doesn’t match the facts.

The author says:

I have no problem with the Colts running the stretch play some, but the team must get back to basics in terms of running the football. Run more straight ahead and a lot less side to side.

Earlier in the piece he admits the Colts abandoned the stretch in 2008.  He also notes the Colts had their worst year running the ball since Edge blew out his knee in 2001.  Put two and two together. 

The problem in 2008 wasn’t the stretch…it was the LACK of the stretch.

If the Colts had run more stretches in 2008 and been worse overall in the run, I could buy the conclusion.  Instead, the author asks us to accept the premise that the stretch made the Colts so psychologically weak that even after they abandoned it for all the reasons mentioned, they still couldn’t run the ball because of the residue of the play.  That’s simply not a credible theory.

Fans, you can’t have it both ways.  You can’t call for an explosive run up the score offense AND a smash mouth one.  Each require different skill sets, different types of players.  The Colts have a type of lineman they look for.  Now, in 2006 they managed to run the ball up the middle on Baltimore’s defense to keep the ball and run out the clock in the playoffs. The first half, the Colts ran the stretch unsuccessfully.  Like any play, it doesn’t always work.  They changed up in the 4th quarter and rammed the ball down the Raven’s throats to win the game.  The stretch play did not make the Colts soft. They were 22nd in the league that year in power runs (contrary to the assertion of the author who did no research at all to validate his position.), but when it counted ran the ball effectively up the middle despite running the stretch play most of the game.  The problem in 2008 is that Tarik Glenn, Jake Scott, and Ryan Lilja weren’t up on the line for the Colts.

Fans, do you want a big play, hurry up offense?  Do you like watching 18 toss for 4000 yards every year?  Has the Colts offense been good for a decade?  Then embrace the stretch play. If you want to be the 1991 Giants, fine.  Get Lawernce Taylor to come play linebacker along with Otis Anderson at RB.

It is always acceptable to question any given play call.  The stretch play won’t always work.  Some games it won’t work at all.  It is both a play that typifies the Colts offense and defines it.  But to remove it is to cripple the offense.  It sets up everything else they do both running and passing.

Simply put:  In 2008 the Colts stopped running the stretch.  They also stopped running well.  They also stopped passing deep effectively.

The solution:  get a healthy line that can run the stretch so the offense can work right.  If the Colts O can execute the stretch in 09, it will be back to being elite. If fans are allowed to run the team, all is lost.

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