Evolution and the NFL

One of the most fascinating aspects of the NFL to me is that it is always evolving – both on a micro and a macro level. It can be as small as an in-game adjustment to a specific play or player, or it can be as large as a change in philosophy or scheme.

But here’s the dirty little secret about evolution: it’s always playing catch up.

In terms of evolution, our bodies are still adapting to the stresses of the environment from multiple generations passed. As humans, we have parts of our body that are pretty much useless but our evolution is still slow to get rid of them. Now, with the supersonic advancement of technology in the last 50 years, it’s believed that the evolution of our bodies and beliefs are farther behind than ever before, simply because we cannot adapt fast enough.

The same can be said for teams in the NFL. There’s no better way to examine this than through a real life example.

In 1981, the New York Football Giants selected a young linebacker named Lawrence Taylor with the 2nd overall pick in the draft. Taylor, as we all know, became a menace and created major issues for quarterbacks and offensive lines. He typically lined up standing somewhere over the left tackle. As “LT” terrorized left tackles all over the league, teams began searching for their own versions of Taylor. The havoc that Taylor, and wannabe-Taylors, wreaked caused offenses to begin finding ways to protect their most valued asset: the quarterback.

To help protect the QB, teams began adapting to West Coast Offense philosophies as well as placing a larger emphasis on the left tackle position. Coaches and team executives began looking for guys that they could put out on an island and block guys like Lawrence Taylor without having extra help. They quickened the passing game and shortened drops to help get the ball out faster to aid in the blocking of players like Taylor.

Once the left tackle became such a prominent position with such a high emphasis, the overall play at the position got better. The position became known as a “cornerstone” position where teams felt they needed an upper-echelon player to even be able to compete consistently.

Lawrence Taylor had caused the left tackle position to evolve into one of the most important in all of the NFL. When that happened, defenses then began looking for ways to get to the QB without having to go against such great left tackles. The easy answer: send pressure everywhere else. And this is where the evolution stands today.

Defenses today aren’t afraid to send blitzes from anywhere – including the safety and corner position. In fact, it’s now one of the criteria that scouts are now evaluating cornerbacks on – how well can he blitz off the edge? Defenses are even moving their best blitzers over to the left side of the defense (over the right tackle) because the right tackle is typically larger, slower, and less athletic than the left tackle. In the past, right tackles were considered more run blockers than pass blockers and were drafted as such. Defenses saw the weakness and are taking advantage of how slowly offenses are evolving to this tactic.

Evolution is always playing catch up.

However, this week we saw a couple of examples of teams realizing that the left tackle position has now become over emphasized. The best example is that the Jaguars decided that drafting Joeckel and playing him at right tackle was just as beneficial as playing him at left tackle. They realized that the gap between the importance of the left tackle and right tackle position isn’t as great as the general opinion would have us believe. They’re evolving faster than everyone else.

It’s important in the NFL to notice trends as they’re happening and react with immediacy. Just in the last few years we’re seeing shifts into spread offenses, more wide receivers, no fullbacks, tight ends that function as gargantuan slot receivers, two tight end sets, taller and longer cornerbacks, added emphasis on a capable 3rd (nickel) cornerback, and slowly we’re seeing a touch of three safety sets on defense. All of this is in response to something else. Defenses are getting lighter and faster to help fly to the ball and take up more space in coverage. Eventually offenses will begin putting an emphasis on being able to power run (some already are) to combat those lighter defenses with more DBs on the field.

Part of the respect that I have for Bill Belichick is his ability to stay ahead of the curve – or ahead of evolution. He’s setting the pace, not adapting to it. The Patriots were one of, if not THE, first to drop the fullback position, go with primarily two tight ends, use one as an h-back and “Joker” type of player, and now he’s figured out a way to establish a power run game out of three wide receiver sets with Ridley, Bolden, and Vereen. So while the Jets are still trying to figure out how to defend two tight ends at once, Belichick has already moved on to figuring out a way to attack them in a different way.

If teams can recognize the lag of evolution and make a concerted effort to seek out trends and beat other teams to the punch, they’re setting themselves up for sustained success. Otherwise they’re just reacting to the pace of other teams and playing catch up.


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