Teams Must Think Differently About Football

Once upon a lifetime ago, I was in seminary.

Seminary and I didn’t get along so well. I had a handful of truly life changing classes taught by some remarkable men. I also had a few classes that killed my soul.

One in particular required me to color code the Koine Greek texts of the Gospels. The idea was to help crystallize a theory of text criticism that would eventually help us do something or other. To be honest, it was hell. I’m not sure if I mean that ironically or not.

I resented being forced to endure long lectures about text criticism that did nothing to help me explain, learn from, or enjoy the text. Still, part of being ‘a professional’ (that’s a topic for another day, let me tell you), was knowing and understanding things that were inherently boring and only distantly useful.

This is not an essay about seminary.

It is about football.

On Thursday, new Colts head coach Chuck Pagano waxed eloquently about the merits of “Run the ball and stop the run”. I’m not going to go into all the reasons it’s a terrible philosophy here. It was already ably taken apart by Paul Kuharksy last week. Last year for instance, the top 5 rushing teams by DVOA were the Saints, Pats, Panthers, Eagles and Vikings. The top run defenses were San Francisco, Chicago, Jets, Falcons and Jaguars.

  • Three of the five best run teams missed the playoffs. They averaged 8.6 wins. 6 of the top 10 made the playoffs.
  • Three of the five best run defenses missed the playoffs. They averaged 8.8 wins. Just 4 of the top 10 made the playoffs.
  • The best passing offenses? Try Green Bay, New Orleans, New England, the Giants, and Cowboys. They averaged 11.6 wins. Both Super Bowl teams came from this group. 8 of the top 10 made the playoffs.
  • The best passing defenses? Baltimore, Jets, Steelers, Lions, and Jags. Three of the five made it in. They averaged 9.4 wins. 6 of the top 10 made the playoffs. Ironically, the Jags were good at pass defense and run defense, but were DEAD LAST in passing offense, and won just 5 games.

Passing the ball and stopping the pass wins football games. I know that little experiment doesn’t prove it. There are dozens of others that do. I’m just trying to illustrate what an utterly ridiculous thing it is still be asserting “run the ball and stop the run” in 2012. The game simply doesn’t work that way.

It’s entirely possible that Pagano was just spouting a cliche. It could be his way of saying nothing while still giving an answer. For the Colts’ sake I hope it is. After all, they hired Bruce Arians to be the new OC, and he’s anything but a ‘run first’ coach. Pagano’s job is to give the Colts the best chance to win, and a ‘run the ball, stop the run’ philosophy won’t do that.

Fans can think about football however they want.

As a fan, you can believe in “run the ball and stop the run” if that makes you happy. You can ignore advanced stats and new theories and anything you want if you just want to pop open a brew, kick back and bitch about the head coach of every team. There is not only nothing wrong with that, it’s your right as a fan.

We all get to enjoy sports however we want.  If you want to run a spread sheet and find hidden codes in YPA data, do it. If you want to advocate a no punt strategy and complain every time Pat McAfee takes the field, do it. If you want to hail Terry Bradshaw as a top five QB all time, you can do that too.

Do. Whatever. You. Want.

That right doesn’t extend to the front office and coaching staff of an NFL team.

In seminary, I learned the hard way that it didn’t matter if I enjoyed a particular discipline. It didn’t matter if I felt it was useful. It didn’t matter if I thought it was complete nonsense and destroyed my ability to actually enjoy the Bible. It was my responsibility to learn and fully evaluate all the tools presented to me.

As it turns out, the school of textual criticism presented by prof was utter rubbish. It had no value. I still had to engage with it to determine if it had merit, however. I didn’t have the luxury of just zoning out because it was ‘boring’. Someone had to be familiar with the theory if only to rule it out as a useful way of understanding the Gospels.

Not all advanced stats are useful. Not every new-fangled theory about how football is played and why games are won and lost will have merit.

An NFL coach does not have the luxury of shrugging off the egg-heads, however. He can’t pop open a brew and then spend 10 draft picks on full backs, beefy tight ends, and 350 pound guards just because that’s the kind of football he likes or because someone told him 40 years ago that’s how you win games.

I espouse many ideas that are controversial.

“Passing wins” is not one of them.

No modern coach should ever say “run the ball and stop the run” except as an example of how the team he just beat came in with a stupid game plan.

For all I know, Chuck Pagano is just saying things for the sake of saying them. I’m fine with that. I don’t understand it exactly, but I can see it. After years of Polian-speak, I can respect that winners sometimes just lie.

If he really believes what he’s saying, however, the Colts are in trouble. Huge trouble. I’d be happy to help him research what happens when you build your team around “run the ball, stop the run”. I have a DVD of the ’00s Jaguars around here somewhere.

Chuck Pagano doesn’t have to enjoy advanced metrics. He doesn’t have to like new ways of thinking about football.

He absolutely has a responsibility to understand and study them, however.

The Colts are about to draft Andrew Luck. If they want to win, they’ll do everything possible to build an elite passing attack. Ideally, a team would be good at everything. It’s best to run and pass. It’s best to stop the pass and stop the run. It’s best to have awesome punt and kick returners and coverage units.

The modern NFL doesn’t work like that, however. In the age of salary caps, you have to make hard choices and allocate resources where they will do the most good.

Pass the ball.

Stop the pass.

Win the game.