We've talked about quarterbacks far too much this particular offseason and this narrow focus on the Seahawks' major position of controversy can lead to tunnel vision on everything else that is going on during any given play. It's not lost on me that football is a team game and it takes a harmony between line, receivers, running backs, and quarterback to achieve success. Though quarterback is undeniably the most important position, it could be argued that all quarterbacks are 'scheme' players and must offer a skillset that is complementary to a given offense. Would Drew Brees be Brees without Sean Payton's scheme? Would Tom Brady be Brady without Belichick's scheme? Would Montana or Young be Hall of Famers without Bill Walsh? A lot of attention goes to the quarterback position because ultimately they're the most important cog in the wheel, but it's true that all quarterbacks must operate within a schema and much of that is dependent on other players doing their jobs. One positional group that is of obvious importance to that execution are the wide receivers.
It's a position that requires a lot more than many people believe - for most teams, it's not simply a matter of running crisp routes and catching the football, though that is difficult enough in of itself - it's a position that requires quick decisions, on-the-run diagnostics of the defense, knowing hundreds of route combinations, which routes work best against which defenses, and knowing which routes to run in which sets and personnel groupings and splits and quarterback dropbacks. It requires physicality and quickness to get off the jam and not get re-routed too badly by the corner or safety. Then agility, hand use, footwork, speed in and out of breaks and an internal compass to know your depth and position on the field come into play. Only after all this, when the receiver is where he's supposed to be and the football is on its way to their location, does a good pair of mitts come into the equation.
On Monday, Doug Farrar of Yahoo!'s Shutdown Corner put together a very interesting column on Chad Johnson's struggles in the New England Patriots' offense last year and ultimately - and this is something that Johnson has admitted to - his issues and career lows in receptions/yards came down to him not knowing, well enough anyway, the multitude of option routes a receiver must know and execute 40-50 times a game in Belichick's offense. When to run them, where to go, depths to reach, defenses to run them against, splits, formations, personnel, field position, quarterback dropback steps - as said, these variables all come into play.
In that piece, Farrar also passed along some quotes from Seahawks' receivers coach Kippy Brown, and it shed some light on what the Seahawks are doing on offense - which is super interesting from my perspective because this type of thing isn't overly obvious or visible when watching the tape when you're not in the huddle or aware of the play-call.
"Most everything we do has an option to it," Brown told Farrar. "There are very few routes that are what we call 'run-it' routes -- those are routes that stay on, no matter what. Usually, you have a 'conversion' of some kind."
Brown went on, "Now, routes I've been associated with that are called options are normally slot routes. Guys in the slot will do certain things depending on how [the defense plays] you. We do our share of those. In the West Coast offense, an option route could go either way -- a lot of people call it a 'jerk' route -- where you go in, set the linebacker up, and then go either way. It depends on the terminology, and what you want to call an option route, but in our offense, nearly every route has a conversion. If they do this, you do that."
The first thing that comes to my mind when hearing this is the obvious disadvantage going into last season in that the Seahawks were installing Darrell Bevell's offense, with his terminology, sets, formations, tendencies, etc, without an offseason and with very limited reps. I think many people, myself included, grossly underestimate the need for practice reps between quarterback and receiver to sort these types of things out and 'get on the same page,' to reference an expression that's thrown around a lot. The Seahawks had a short training camp and the preseason to work out thousands of intricacies and nuances that go into any offensive playbook, particularly one that's heavily dependent on receivers running option routes.
"That's why you give them clues and parameters in what they're looking for," Brown explained. "You have to make it clear-cut, so there's no confusion, and you know that the quarterback and receivers see the same exact thing. You're better off not having a bunch of conversions [if there's confusion], and we have some routes that 'leave home' no matter what. We run it, and if it's not there, we go somewhere else with the ball. It depends on who you're playing with and what they can handle, whether it's the quarterback or receivers. That's meeting rooms, walk-throughs, pre-practice -- it takes a lot of time to get everybody on the same page, especially when you have as many plays as we run."
Not only do players need to learn the playbook, know their routes, splits, motions, etc when it comes to all the different play-calls, they need to know what to look for from the defense in each instance and react accordingly. This is a big reason that the learning curve for most receivers coming into the league is several seasons long - typically, only do the elite of the elite manage to have great impact in their first season. It's why I was so flabbergasted hearing talk of cutting Golden Tate last year - remembering that this is a guy that came out of college known as an extremely raw route runner. Not only does Tate have to learn the offense, learn the system, and learn the option routes, he has to refine and polish his route running and technique. This takes time, for most receivers coming out of college.
Said Kippy, "They have to learn the system first; then, they have to learn the conversions. And then, we haven't even talked about splits, and depths of routes ... what do you do versus press coverage? What do you do versus soft and off coverage? There's a lot that goes into it."
All this makes it that much more impressive that Doug Baldwin was able to do what he did last year. The fiercely competitive, Stanford-educated undrafted rookie receiver managed to break onto the team and not only see reps, but lead all receivers in receptions and yards, playing largely out of the slot, a position that requires a lot of "conversions". This ability to learn conversions was also illustrated by Farrar during the season when he pointed out the mentoring influence of veteran Mike Williams on the Seahawks' young receivers. In the Seahawks' 30-13 win over St. Louis on Monday Night Football Week 14, Baldwin had two targets, one catch and four yards in the first half. He finished the game with seven receptions for 93 yards and a touchdown. The difference between halves?
"Mike has really helped expand my knowledge of the game, and of coverages," said Baldwin at the time. "When we came in [the locker room] at halftime ... I couldn't read the coverages in the first half, to be honest with you. But Mike sat down and talked with me, and we were able to get a feel for what they were doing. It really helped out."
Not all teams use such a heavy dose of option routes. The San Francisco 49ers, as Chris Brown of Smart Football and Grantland pointed out last year, ditched 'sight adjustments' altogether from their offense, and it paid dividends for a team that was facing a similar situation to that of the Seahawks. New staff, new terminology, something like the 6th or 7th offensive coordinator for quarterback Alex Smith.
Brown explains (and expounds):
"A "sight adjustment" by a receiver refers to the concept that, if a defense blitzes, the quarterback and receiver must both - on the fly and after the snap - recognize it and adjust routes accordingly. For example, if the receiver's original assignment was to run, say, 12 yards upfield before breaking outside, when he saw a blitz he might instead run five yards upfield and then break inside on a quick slant, presumably away from a man-to-man defender or to a spot left open by the blitzers. The theory behind this is sound: You simply must have answers against the blitz, and you need receivers to break off their routes to give the quarterback someplace to quickly pass the ball. If they don't blitz, however, you want to throw downfield (or so you think). Again, this is all great in theory."
He continues, "Here's the problem: Players have to make sight adjustments after the snap, in the cognitive mist of a few seconds of action. The quarterback is in a decent spot to read the defense's intentions - to the extent that he can identify the likely blitzers and potential coverage. Receivers, on the other hand, are aligned to the perimeter and can't see more than a few players in front of them. They also happen to be sprinting once the ball is put in play. This is not to say that sight adjustments can't work, but they're certainly difficult to execute, and when they go wrong terrible things happen: Receivers run hot routes they shouldn't, or don't run them when they should; passes go sailing to empty patches of green; interceptions are frequent."
Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL QB, apparently came up with a solution to this issue. Said Brown, back on November 10th when the Niners were a surprising 7-1, "the 49ers ditched sight adjustments. But they still need an answer for the blitz, right? Harbaugh has one. If you want your team to throw the ball downfield, you must keep extra players (two running backs, a running back and a tight end, etc.) in pass protection to buy time for your receivers to get open."
Of course, this gives the defense an advantage in numbers, and it's part of the reason the Niners downfield passing game wasn't something to really write home about (Smith had 41 completed passes of 20+ yards, 19th in the NFL). Over the offseason, of course, they've added Randy Moss, the prototype deep threat of his generation, to help improve this part of the offense. A.J. Jenkins and Mario Manningham too. When the Niners wanted to run with less than seven or eight players in to block, Harbaugh apparently built in a 'hot' route to every play - one receiver would run a shallow cross or out route to give Alex Smith an automatic check down. Smith ended up with only five interceptions on the year - the fewest for any quarterback that played in 16 games, and I'd wager that a big part of that was the fact that the Niners went with a less complex offense than most.
Regardless, when it comes to the Seahawks' offense, it doesn't seem likely they'll go this route. And, the Niners' success doesn't really mean that any given team going that route would even be worthwhile - option routes are around because there are always holes and vulnerabilities in every defense and these routes aim to exploit them.
Pat Kirwin explains in his book "Take Your Eye Off the Ball":
"If the corner is in "off and soft" coverage - this means the cornerback is going to be dropping back, possibly into a Cover-3 Zone (three defensive backs each covering one-third of the field deep), which creates opportunities for routes to open underneath the coverage."
""Off and inside" is soft man-to-man coverage. This will take away quick inside routes, like the slant that Jerry Rice ran all the way to Canton, but is vulnerable to quick outs -- which are tougher for the quarterback to complete."
Kirwin continues, explaining how to diagnose the defense.
"Before the snap, the receivers looks for clues in the alignment of the corner. Don't forget-- the cornerback is trying not to tip his hand, so he may be baiting the receiver and the quarterback into thinking he's playing one coverage when he's really in another. Gamesmanship goes both ways on every play of an NFL game."
"It's the post-snap read that a receiver gets the true indicator of what the defensive back is going to do. If the cornerback lines up 7 or 8 yards off the line of scrimmage and is aligned with the receivers' outside shoulder, it might look like 'off and soft' to the receiver. But, the receiver can't be sure until after the snap, when he'll see the cornerback backpedal and reveal his deep coverage principals. The receiver then immediately must decide whether he's going to run a post, a deep curl, or something in front of the deep coverage. That decision will depend on another factor -- the drop his quarterback will be taking, something the receiver must always be aware of."
"If the play has called for a three-step drop, the receiver knows he must choose a short pattern, such as a slant, fade, or stop. If the quarterback is in a seven-step drop, the slant won't work since the receiver will be accross the field before the quarterback is ready to throw."
Kirwin explains that this means the receiver has about twice as many steps to work with as the number of steps involved in the drop-back.
"If the quarterback is in a seven-step drop, the receiver has 14 steps to worth with. He could drive downfield 14 steps and run a skinny post or a stop-and-go. He could drive for nine steps, run the next three to the post, and then the last two back into a curl. If the quarterback is dropping three steps and he reads 'off and soft', the receiver might run six steps, where he's guaranteed 10 yard of separation and will have only one man to beat in open space after catching the ball."
It's been famously pointed out that the Seahawks brought Tarvaris Jackson in because he knew Bevell's offense and the transition would be easier in a lockout year if the team had a quarterback that knows the playbook conversions and the intricacies involved. Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson now face that challenge and that shouldn't be underestimated. Receivers like Ricardo Lockette and Kris Durham face a tough learning curve to seeing the field and this is why the Seahawks will likely utilize veterans like Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu in their offense. Deon Butler is still in the picture. As could be expected, a lot goes into being a receiver in the NFL and when coaches or analysts talk about playing the position it's important to keep in mind it involves much more than just running routes and knowing the playbook.