The Most Obvious Secret in the NFL

It may be the most famous analogy about team building in NFL history. When asked about why he was leaving the New England Patriots, Head Coach Bill Parcells infamously stated: “They want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries. Okay?”

I remember the quote very well, but for some reason I was never quite able to agree wholeheartedly with Parcells’ view on team building and the choosing/use of ingredients. It was close to what I believed but I couldn’t quite fold it into my own beliefs and accept it.

Much like the head coach and coordinator positions require different skill sets, so does picking out talent and coaching it. Being proficient at one does not qualify proficiency at the other. Parcells’ statement seemed to assume that it did.

In a discussion about the importance of coaching versus talent, I was hit with this:

“A coach is like a carpenter and the players are his tools. A master carpenter knows exactly how to make the most of any tool he has.” [Link]

Nailed it.

In the NFL, much ado is made about talent on rosters. The general assumption is that the more talented team will win the game. Yet every weekend, teams that are clearly less talented, triumph over teams that they should have no business beating. If it were as simple as “talent wins,” we’d have no use for clichés like, “Any given Sunday;” or “On paper [Team A] was the better team, but that’s why they play the games.”

So where is the disconnect?

The carpenter and how he uses his tools. The coaching staff and how they use their players. Scheme is the most obvious secret in the NFL. A team is the product of its scheme, not its players.

Just as a carpenter wouldn’t use a screwdriver as a hammer, coaches shouldn’t use players in ways that don’t fit their strengths. Yet every Sunday we watch coaches misuse talent. A lot of the time we don’t even realize it. We see a player struggling and just assume it’s a lack of talent. The screwdriver is still good as a screwdriver, it just looks ineffective when used as a hammer.

The latest and most obvious example of this is in Kansas City. Defensive Tackle Dontari Poe drew the ire of Chiefs’ fans for his mediocre play last season. He was asked to perform duties that didn’t fit his skill set and it made him look like an average player at best. He “flashed” talent at times but never played at a consistently high level. That is, until a new coaching staff installed a new scheme and started using their drill as a drill and not as a hammer.

A new coaching staff and a competent QB has the Chiefs looking like a completely different team this season, and has driven them to the only undefeated record in the NFL. To steal another Bill Parcells quote, “You are what your record says you are.” Right now, the Chiefs have the best record in the NFL. In April, the Chiefs had the first overall pick in the NFL draft, symbolizing the worst record in the NFL last season.

Andy Reid and his staff are master carpenters. They have properly identified their tools and are using them properly. They aren’t asking their average-armed QB Alex Smith to throw at targets 20 yards downfield. Instead, they ask him to use his excellent short-to-intermediate accuracy to hit receivers in stride in those areas and let their athletes excel in space. They aren’t asking phenomenally talented pass rushers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali to drop into coverage on half of their snaps. They’re asking them to do what they do best and get to the passer and cause disruption in the backfield.

This isn’t an overhauled roster in Kansas City. On defense, the Chiefs are starting 8 players who started last year. The 3 new additions: Mike Devito, Akeem Jordan, and Sean Smith. While all 3 of these guys have played well this season, none of them were considered major superstars in free agency. Last year, the Chiefs finished 30th in defensive DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. Through week 6 of this season, the Chiefs are ranked 1st.

Same tools. New carpenters. New scheme.

The Chiefs are a shining example of how to use talent to its strengths and the positive results that produces. If you’re looking for an example of how not to use talent wisely, take a trip to stormy Tampa Bay.

There were extremely high hopes for the Buccaneers to have a similar defensive turn around to what the Chiefs have had this season. Tampa Bay added All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson and the best cornerback in the league (sorry, Richard Sherman), Darrelle Revis.

Revis built “Revis Island” by moving all over the formation in New York to follow the opposing team’s best weapon. With tight man coverage, Revis eliminated offenses’ most threatening player and created what I call “The Revis Effect” – essentially adding an extra defender for the defense.  The thought was that Tampa and Defensive Coordinator Bill Sheridan would use Revis in much the same way he was used by the Jets.

Unfortunately, Sheridan has decided to use a clamp as a tarp.

In Tampa, according to universally respected film guru and NFL Films producer Greg Cosell, Darrelle Revis was used in only 2 snaps of true man coverage, with no safety help over top against the Philadelphia Eagles in week 6. This is a good representation of the entire season of Revis’ use. There were even reports that Revis was unhappy with his tarp coverage, instead of being allowed to clamp down on the opposing team’s best offensive weapon.

As a result, the Bucs have been torched by team’s best wide receivers. DeSean Jackson caught 6 passes for 64 yards and 2 touchdowns. Larry Fitzgerald collected 6 receptions for 68 yards and a TD. Just this Sunday, without Julio Jones and Roddy White on the field, Harry Douglas caught 6 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown. In the first half. As a comparison, in his last full season as a New York Jet, Revis allowed 1 touchdown. All season.

A tool is only as good as the carpenter using. Scheme is the way that a coach uses the tools at his disposal. Parcells may not have been allowed to pick his tools, but he sure knew how to use them. A roster full of talent that isn’t being used properly is a waste of good tools.

But I shouldn’t have to say this. It’s the most obvious secret in the NFL.

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