Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Reservations With the 3-4: Did We Learn Anything From the ZBS?

You need only check the Packer blogosphere to find that all the intrigue in Packer Nation is who will be our next defensive coordinator. Right now, the frontrunner (if you subscribe to the credibility of Unnamed Sources) is former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan.

Mike Nolan, I have little problem with. While there are some out there who will see him as a McCarthy crony, most people don’t go from a head coaching position to a coordinator position without getting some respect. Even Mike Sherman went from Packers’ HC to the Texans’ O-Line coach, but was also given the tag of Assistant Head Coach. If Nolan is the man, I don’t see him as a “yes man”.

McCarthy is also an offensive guy. The tinkering that he was regarded for his first couple years all came on the offensive side of the ball: working with protection schemes (extra TE in the backfield), adding wrinkles to the ZBS (pulling the guards), implementing a five-WR set. He seems to be comfortable giving the defensive coordinator a wide berth to implement his scheme, and isn’t nearly as hands-on with that side of the ball.

You certainly didn’t see him calling the defensive plays from the sideline, did you?

So, if Nolan is the guy, so be it. He certainly brings credibility from his days as the Ravens’ DC, and most of us would see him as an immediate upgrade from Bob Sanders and his tired Bates scheme.

However, I am officially stating that if McCarthy allows the implementation the 3-4 scheme in sudden and dramatic fashion, he will sign his walking papers. He will not have learned from his mistakes.

And that mistake was implementing the Zone Blocking Scheme in 2006 along the offensive line. History could repeat itself this offseason.

Why was the change to the ZBS a mistake, at least the way it was implemented?

Schemes and trends in the NFL are cyclical.

What comes around, goes away, and comes back years later in a repackaged form. We all remember the Packers trying to run the 3-4 in the grand old days of Ezra Johnson. There were a lot of teams that were still running it then, but by 1990, the 3-4 had almost completely disappeared from the NFL.

So, when a couple of teams re-introduced it in the late 90s, adding the wrinkle of the zone blitz, it was something new and unconventional. It caught offensive lines and offensive coordinators by surprise. And, those offenses had to face it several times in order to even really begin scheming to counter it.

Remember when you heard about the Steeler zone blitz as the end-all be-all? You don’t hear that anymore, because now, while many teams utilize the zone blitz, offenses have learned to scheme and deal with it as well as they can.

The ZBS is exactly the same story: Denver pioneered the scheme back in the 90s, and caught defenses by surprise. However, since then, coordinators have learned to counter it. They must have, since the Packers would have completely duplicated what Terrell Davis used to do, right?

In fact, several teams (like the Falcons) have adopted and dropped the ZBS as a scheme since the start of the new millennium. It’s not fresh, new, or catching-everyone-by-surprise anymore. Like any other scheme, it comes down to mano-y-mano, me vs. you, and executing the play effectively…but as a scheme, its not necessarily any more effective than a power run scheme.

I said then and say now: why jump on the bandwagon long after everyone else is doing it? That’s what McCarthy did with the ZBS, and by the time we got it going, defenses knew how to counter it. Sure, the 3-4 seems to be working well for many teams in the NFL in 2008, but the more teams use the 3-4, the more offenses are going to get experience in countering it.

By the time the Packers fully implement a 3-4, chances are it will be no more effective than a 4-3. You don’t want to be the last one following the trend, you want to be the first one to pioneer it.

If the Packers switch to the 3-4, they will be just another team trying to run a scheme, and like it or not, schemes don’t win championships…especially if you are running a scheme that the other team is prepared for.

Personnel Skill Sets

A quick look around the Packer discussion boards will give you the bad news about switching to a traditional 3-4. As a scheme, it requires three big ol’ hogs up front, and two outside linebackers that can rush the edge and fall back in coverage.

The Packers have been built on the idea of a 4-3, and several key players would have difficulty making a transition to a 3-4. None of our defensive linemen are prototypical 3-4 guys. Pickett isn’t a true nose tackle (a la Gilbert Brown), and Aaron Kampman and Cullen Jenkins don’t have the bulk they need to play the ends. Yes, Jenkins is a superb athlete, and Kampman’s never-quit-attitude will serve him the rest of his career.

But the point is, the Packers will likely be drafting and looking for players who have a certain skill set, leaving some of our present-day best players open for trade or in diminished roles. Not smart.

In our linebacking corps, we would expect that Nick Barnett might be able to take one of the inside positions, and Brandon Chillar may be able to take either an inside or out position, but both Brady Poppinga and AJ Hawk are miserable in pass coverage, and neither made much of an impact rushing the quarterback this past season, either.

Because we have four well-paid linebackers on the roster, it is assumed that makes for an ideal switch to the 3-4, but because of the skill set involved in a traditional 3-4, our backers may also find themselves open for trade or in diminished roles, while we look for the "right talent" to fit the scheme.

And it is exactly that attitude that frustrated me from the start of the ZBS experiment. The ZBS tends to move away from the big “hogs” that are commonplace in a traditional blocking scheme, and finds a place for the tweeners that are more quick and technical. Many of the players drafted by Thompson along the line have fallen into that description: “would be a good fit for the zone blocking scheme”.

Why? Because they weren’t solid players in a traditional scheme. And as we have continued to struggle to find a fit along our offensive line, shuffling players back and forth as we tinker with the ZBS, the Packers may well find themselves in a serious situation next year with the departure of Mark Tauscher and the possible departure of Chad Clifton.

The Packers have a corral full of linemen, but precious few of them have established themselves as solid starters, much less stars. And when Thompson got rid of Mark Wahle and Marco Rivera (understandable), he didn’t have much of a plan in place to replace them (not understandable). He began a slow, methodical process of drafting guys with tweener talent to fit the scheme. And when a rookie fifth round pick in 2008 (Josh Sitton) was on his way to playing in front of nearly every other draft pick Thompson had picked over the previous three years, we realized that slow methodical process had no guarantees.

Why did Mike Shanahan develop the ZBS? Because it worked with the talent that he had at the time…he developed the scheme to fit the talent that was on the roster, not the other way around. When McCarthy adopted the ZBS, some of our most solid veteran talent (Chad Clifton comes to mind) didn’t fit the “mold”.

Look, our defense was poor last year. But does it really make sense to get rid of or minimalize the talent of players like Kampman, Jenkins, Hawk, and Poppinga simply because we want to move to a scheme we hope will work? Or does it make more sense to change the scheme to place the talents in the best position they can to use them effectively?

We’ve already been down this path with the offensive line. We jumped in with both feet and decided we’d find the talent for it later. Without our veteran tackles in 2009, the OL appears to be on very shaky ground.

Time, time, time.

Any transition takes time. After Wahle and Rivera were let go, the Packers seemed stagnate for a season, waiting for talent to replace them. Anyone remember Adrien Klemm and Wil Whittaker manning the interior for the Packers in 2005? And after that miserable season, Thompson’s next response was to start drafting rookies, knowing full well that they would take several seasons to grow into the type of players that could solidly play the position.

Thompson isn’t the kind of guy who is going to go out and throw money at free agents to fill holes. As much as we wish it might happen, do we really think Julius Peppers or Albert Haynesworth are coming to Green Bay, after signing monstrous contract that eat up cap space?

Even if Thompson takes off his gloves and dips into the free agent market, the Packers are limited with how much they can do. There will be draft picks to sign, including a top 10 pick and two third rounders. Greg Jennings is going to earn a top-5 receiver contract. And Rodgers is going to be costing us about the same as what Favre used to. Trading players like Al Harris or Aaron Kampman will bring cap accelerations to boot. The Packers don’t have unlimited cap room to burn.

And even if they did, it is doubtful that Thompson would break from his credo and burn it all to bring in a ton of players this year…and that is what you would need to make the 3-4 work right away, because we don’t have the right talent to make it work.

Do you honestly think that Thompson will break the bank to bring in the talent needed to win this year?

The point? Mike McCarthy doesn’t have that kind of time. He was able to get away with the lack of talent and production in 2006 because of the comparisons to Sherman and that the talent was better than in 2005.

McCarthy has just fired almost his complete defensive staff, his special teams coach (“retirement”), and his strength and conditioning coach. Yes, he has an immunity idol from the 13-3 season that lets him survive this year, but that isn’t going to last long. Many of us would assume that if McCarthy fails to hit at least .500 next year, his job is in serious jeopardy.

So why would he commit to such a serious overhaul of the defensive scheme, one that will likely take a long time to come to fruition? Despite his “Fireside Chat” last week that he believed in this team, the players, and his approach, firing that many coaches makes us believe that the pressure is on.

Are we going to be listening next season, bobbing our heads up and down, if he tells us we have to be patient with the transition to the new scheme if it is performing no better (or worse) than the 2008 variety? Nope. He had a cushion in 2006 to transition the entire team over. In 2007, he eliminated his own cushion, a victim of his own success.

McCarthy doesn’t have the time. Period. He is going to be expected to improve this team and this defense drastically in 2009. He has essentially admitted he screwed up at least six hires back in 2006, and those guys all took the fall for the 2008 season.


If we hire Nolan, and he is dead-set on transitioning to a 3-4, my passionate plea would be to do it slowly, over time. In other words, we shouldn’t be using the 3-4 next season except in situational plays, like you use the nickel or the 3-3-5. McCarthy needs to recognize that you have to work with the talent and mold the scheme around them, not the other way around.

Hopefully, Nolan (or whomever) is open to that, and he is able to work with guys like Kampman and Hawk and get them wherever they need to be in a scheme that makes them and the entire defense successful. As Thompson works over the following years to bring in talent that fits a 3-4, the process is more an evolution than a transformation.

As Packer fans, we’ve learned our lessons with jumping on a bandwagon with a scheme, and thinking it will magically change us overnight, regardless of the talent. For the Packers’ sake, I hope McCarthy has learned his lesson, too.

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