Brown’s work places the nuances and complexities of football within the grasp of the common fan. His book is easy to read, yet impressive deep. I can honestly say that I personally flew through the book, dog eared key pages, and reread several sections multiple times. I consider myself a knowledgeable watcher of the game, but Brown’s book taught me a dozen new things at least.
He was gracious enough to answer some questions for Colts Authority. Enjoy the interview and be sure to read The Essential Smart Football.
C/A: I loved the chapter on Polamalu and Reed. I feel like Indianapolis was heading down that route with Bob Sanders before, well you know…he didn’t play for four years. Any thoughts on what Sanders could have been? Do you feel like he was ever at that level?
Brown: Bob Sanders was an exceptional defender while healthy, and, when playing at his best, was right at the same level as Reed and Polamalu. Indeed, although the Colts were known for the Tampa-Two under Tony Dungy, on first downs their favorite coverage was to go Cover-1 Robber, with a single safety deep, man coverage, and Sanders as the “Robber” defender reading the quarterback’s eyes and being the eighth run defender. He was extremely versatile.
It’s probably not worth speculating, but you do wonder if his shortened career was in part a function of his great, physical play combined with his smaller stature in comparison with Reed and Polamalu. In any event, he provided the Colts with many big plays and wins, particularly during the 2006 Super Bowl run.
C/A: The section of the book on spiking the football is an absolute must read. Can you go staple that on Phil Rivers and Norv Turner’s door please? I think I saw Peyton Manning spike a ball three times in his whole career, and only to stop the clock to kick. Is it fingernails on the chalk board for you when you see a QB spiking in two minutes?
Brown: It is, though the calculus is a bit different in the NFL, whereas in college football the clock stops after first downs until the ball is set so it’s really inexcusable. But the spike should be a last resort after a sack or a tackle after a short gain where the clock is running, but those plays should be avoided at all costs.
Quarterbacks must not take sacks or throw needless dump off routes that burn clock and don’t get yards — incompletions are actually better in that instance. A big reason why Manning rarely spiked is he rarely wasted plays like that. Instead it seems like many NFL teams plan on spiking the ball, thus wasting the only thing more valuable than time — a down.
Think about how many games where “last second” drives end not because time expires, but because the driving teams fails to convert on fourth down, and then think about whether they burned a down with a spike. It happens all the time, and as valuable as the time is, the down is usually even more so.
C/A: What do you think the long-term philosophical legacy will be of the Manning-Moore offense? Is there anything for the masses to learn or was it not repeatable because of Manning’s unique…self? I know the Pats took that no-huddle and ran with it. Anything past that?
Brown: The no-huddle and quarterback as field general will both have a lasting legacy. Manning not only was a master at diagnosing defenses but he also was a master at simply messing with defenses. If a defense tried to substitute, he would go fast and hurry to the line to either force them out of their substitution or get guys out of position. If they didn’t substitute — typically out of concern for Manning’s tempo — he’d take his time and get the perfect playcall.
One of the lessons to me is that there’s nothing wrong with simplicity. The Colts were very basic structurally, and obviously having very good players helped a great deal, but there are no bonus points in football for how many formations you run or how many different plays you use. Larry Fedora, the current head coach at North Carolina, tells a story about going golfing with Tom Moore, while Fedora was offensive coordinator at Florida. He tried not to ask Moore too many football questions, but he did ask how many plays Manning and Moore liked in tight situation, say 3rd and 3. Moore replied that they really only liked one or two, and the plays — in particular Peyton’s favorite play — was so simple that he’d laugh. Moore of course described the famous “Levels” concept they used for years to gash opponents, but that was how they approached it. They didn’t invent football, they just got really good at it.
C/A: If a fan wants to up his football IQ in one weekend, what would you suggest, other than reading your book?
Brown: DVR is your friend. Record a game and then pick a handful of important plays — touchdowns, sacks, and so on, stuff where they show a wide view replay — and chart out for yourself what every guy on offense and defense did or didn’t do. Coaches will do that for every game for a season, but just pick a couple of plays from your favorite team. Give each one a grade, maybe just a plus, minus, and check-mark based on effort and apparent success. It’s not scientific, but will help you really evaluate guys and see how the arrangement of all 22 pieces fits together. This is easier too now with the NFL Rewind package.
Worry less about drawing up the plays — though that will come eventually — but just focusing on what each player did, what steps they took, what players had it easy, what others were challenged. Football is a beautiful game, and, although we hear a lot about geniuses and all that, it’s really a simple game. But like all great and important things, while it is simple, it is certainly not easy.
C/A: Did Tony Dungy get too much credit for his work with the Tampa 2? He always seemed to feel it was basically just the 70s Steelers schemes and didn’t act like it was particularly innovative. Accurate or too modest?
Brown: Monte Kiffin, Dungy’s former defensive coordinator at Tampa Bay and currently the defensive coordinator at Southern Cal, fully credits Dungy for bringing the Tampa Two to, well, Tampa. So I think giving Dungy credit for it is fully deserved.
That said, the defense was really designed for a particular time. The tough offenses to stop were the west coast passing attacks that could either throw the ball short to the perimeter or would hit the tight-end down the middle, so this was just a way to play a three-deep coverage while your cornerbacks could jam the outside receivers and the middle linebacker took away the tight-end down the middle. It grew out of a need to defend the San Francisco and Green Bay offenses of the 1990s. It also didn’t require amazing man-to-man corners, instead focusing on physical guys who could read quarterbacks.
By the mid to late 2000s, most “Tampa Two” teams played much less of it in reality than was assumed, including the Colts. As mentioned earlier, the Colts played a lot of eight-man fronts on first down because the Tampa Two is not a great run-stuffing defense, and on passing downs teams had evolved to more “quarters”/Cover Four type looks (or “quarter-quarter-half,” where you play Cover 4 to the offense’s strong side and a Cover 2 look to the weak side). At this point the credit to Dungy is less as having invented the Tampa Two than in rebuilding the Indianapolis defense around guys like Mathis, Freeney and Bob Sanders, good enough to win a ton of games and a Super Bowl.
Thanks to Chris for his interview and all his great work in recent years -NID