Mike McCarthy threw me for a little bit of a loop at Fan Fest this past weekend, a loop that almost made my heart sink. While sitting next to Ted in an interview with Larry McCarren, he was asked if he had any concerns about the switch to the new 3-4 scheme.
“Nah,” he said, “I expect it to go as well as the Zone Blocking Scheme did.”
I repeated this to myself, as well as the Zone Blocking Scheme did. This raised a couple of red flags for me in regards to how this transition may be taking place. The first and foremost concern has to be whether or not McCarthy has a clear, objective view of how successful his zone blocking scheme really is.
Of course, he’s not going to come out, at Fan Fest, following a 6-10 collapse last year, and publicly claim that the Zone Blocking Scheme was a miserable failure. And, it isn’t a miserable failure, though sometimes, you wish it was.
If it was a failure, it would be far easier to change it up and move on. But the ZBS has been a struggle, an ongoing work in progress, a search for positives amidst a flood of concerns. The Packers don’t even run a pure ZBS, utilizing sweeps and pulling guards…compensating for the lack of success the pure ZBS showed early on.
It is now 2009, and we are entering Year Four of the ZBS. Draft picks have had time to mature and develop, and the scheme has had more than enough time to ferment. You must remember we are now only five years removed from perhaps one of the most dominant offensive lines and running games the Packers’ organization has ever had.
Remember the U-71? Big, bruising, straight-ahead blocking that opened holes for a special runner named Ahman Green…a relative unknown before being acquired in trade from Seattle, and went on to become one of the best backs in Packer history.
The problem with McCarthy’s comment is it makes me think that the switch to the 3-4 isn’t going to be a monumental success or a complete failure…just a continuous mediocre process complete with catchphrases like “pad level” and “gap control”.
Since it was Mike who brought up the comparison, here is my list of parallels between the ZBS and 3-4 that I am nervous about.
The schematic change is a reactionary move made to a once-successful squad that had an off year due to injuries and departures.
As stated above, the Packers’ offensive line was second to none in the first half of this decade. Ahman Green rushed for 1000 yards every season from 2000 to 2004, and at its pinnacle, rushed for 1,883 yards in 2003, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
Mike Flanagan claimed that they would come to the line of scrimmage and tell the defense exactly what play they were running and where Green would be running it. And then, they would execute it successfully.
This was a squad that didn’t need a lot of tinkering, just proper replacement of parts.
In 2004, there was a slight drop-off (the rushing game finished 10th overall in the NFL), but was still one of the more respected and feared in the NFL.
Amidst all the furor of the Mike Sherman demotion and Ted Thompson’s cap clearing efforts, the running game all but disappeared in 2005. But, this was not due to the scheme no longer working. Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera were let go in free agency and not adequately replaced. Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, and Tony Fisher all suffered injuries. The offensive line was rightfully seen as a concern. While it did fall to a bottom 10 unit in 2005, it wasn't the scheme that made it so.
However, when new coach Mike McCarthy entered 1265, he made the call to switch to a trendy scheme that would require a skill set that wasn't exactly the trademark of the guys on the roster. The media and fans clamored for a free agent or an otherwise upgrade in talent, particularly among the guards. Instead of replacing the parts and continuing what had worked previously, the entire scheme was changed.
In a similar vein, the Packers’ defense wasn’t all that bad before last year. Now, don’t get me wrong…I’ve been critical of how the defense has played and been utilized for several seasons now. But the stats don’t make the case that it has been a poor defense.
Starting in 2006, McCarthy’s first year, the Packers have fielded some pretty respectable defensive units. In 2006, the Packers finished with the 12th-ranked overall defense in yards allowed, but 25th in points allowed. In 2007, however, the Packers improved those rankings to 11th overall (yards) and 6th overall (points).
If there were concerns going into 2008, defense wasn’t likely to be one of them. Oh, certainly, we were a little thin on the defensive line and we hoped that we would find a safety ready to step up, but this was a strong defense. In fact, McCarthy stated in August that he wasn’t too concerned about any potential struggles Rodgers might face at the quarterback position because “this team is predicated on the defense”.
Well, we all know how that worked out. A free-fall to 20th (yards) and 22nd (points) and the derision of a fan base praying for Rodgers to outperform Brett Favre in New York, repeatedly let down by his defense.
But was this a schematic issue, or like the offensive line in 2005, a squad hurt by departures and injuries?
The departure of Corey Williams might seem insignificant, but as thin as the defensive line quickly became, Williams would likely have been a rather welcome teammate last year. The cutting of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila also was a loss of veteran leadership along that line.
But the injuries? Count them up: Atari Bibgy, Nick Barnett, and Cullen Jenkins were all critically important players out much of the year with injuries. Al Harris missed a series of games mid-season. Players expected to provide depth also missed extended time: Aaron Rouse, Justin Harrell, Kenny Pettway, and Jeremy Thompson. Three other starters, AJ Hawk, Ryan Pickett, and Charles Woodson, each played through the season with painful injuries that, at times, affected their play on the field.
But, even more important than that, was the coaching schism that appeared to be dividing the coaching staff and the players. With the elimination of Bob Sanders and much of that staff, it would appear that such a schism should now be over.
So, again, the problem with last season’s defense wasn’t with the scheme, but like the ZBS, with missing players from the previous season’s strong squad.
The 3-4, like the ZBS, is a scheme predicated on the talent available, not the other way around.
Like the Zone Blocking Scheme, the Packers are implementing a scheme without having the talent on the roster that traditionally makes that scheme successful. This is a major coaching concern on my part: good coaches look at the talent that they have on the team and tailor their schemes to maximize what they can do. And this is how schemes end up getting started.
The Zone Blocking Scheme, made up of typically smaller offensive linemen, is designed to maximize the talent of "tweeners". When it was popularized by the Denver Broncos in the late 1990's, it was in defiance of the status quo in the NFL at the time.
In the 70's, 80's and early 90's, the typical offensive line called for huge men...in fact, I can recall article after article citing how much bigger offensive linemen were getting each year. These huge hogs opened the running lanes for the power running backs and provided protection for the expanse of the passing game over this time period.
Bigger was better. If you were an offensive lineman coming out of college in the 1980's and you were less than 300 pounds, you better be planning on eating a lot of KFC and spending a lot of time in the gym. By the mid-90's, you needed to be pushing 320.
Perhaps the apex of this was the dynasty Dallas Cowboys of the early 1990's: the huge offensive lineman opening the door for Emmitt Smith, giving oodles of time for Troy Aikman to pass the ball.
But Mike Shanahan found something to do with all those not-so-huge guys and make it work. He
implemented a scheme that didn't require huge, sustained blocks, pulling guards, or anything else that was dependent on having more mass than the guy in front of you. It was simple. Quickly block all one direction, have the extra lineman lay down a cut block, and instruct your running backs to aim one direction and make one cut.
Thus, the zone blocking scheme was born: a scheme born out of necessity, given the talent that the Broncos had. Shanahan found a scheme that worked with the lighter, less massive lineman that he had. He coached them well so they could execute it consistently, and utilized running backs that also had the particular gifts to make it work: they didn't have to have Barry Sanders' elusiveness or immense power. They just had to find the crease, make one cut, and keep running.
But, the Packers (like several other teams, including the Falcons) looked at the scheme and felt that if they implemented it, they would be able to take street free agent running backs and turn them into All-Pros. But, they didn't have the talent on the roster that was be considered prototypical for running it. Chad Clifton has struggled with the ZBS, and the guys drafted by Ted Thompson are still struggling to turn this unit into anything near as dominating as the Broncos unit.
So ineffective was the ZBS in its first season, that Coach McCarthy started running a hybrid with pulling guards and extra blockers in the backfield, plays he continues to run today.
The rebirth of the 3-4 is, in essence, a mirror of the ZBS, if not in response to it. When most NFL teams phased out the 3-4 in the early 80's, it was because of the size of the offensive linemen and the opening up of the passing game. Defenses needed to keep their lines large, but also able to place more pressure on the quarterback. The linebackers needed to spend less time as regular rushers and more time in run support and in coverage.
And so it went for over a decade. Defensive linemen also grew, and defensive ends grew more athletic. Rushing specialists were invented, as guys like Charles Haley and KGB became disruptive presences on third down.
But, as offenses began to use the WCO, it took away the advantages those prototypical 4-3 linemen had over traditional offensive schemes. The misdirections a West Coast Offense used took defensive linemen out of the play. Add into that the Broncos use of the the WCO and the ZBS, andthe traditional 4-3 needed to adjust. Defenses looked for ways to get their front four smaller, more athletic, and the word "tweener" began to creep more and more into Draft Day discussions.
The 3-4 was adopted by several teams as a way to create that way to battle the short passing game and zone blocking schemes adopted by more and more teams, but oftentimes, it was done by teams who had the talent already on the roster. The need for stout defensive lineman took those rush specialists and moved them back to the linebacker roles.
It makes sense that if you have that kind of talent on your team that you would make such a change to a 3-4. The transition would be relatively painless, because you are taking the talent you have and maximizing it with the scheme. But to simply switch to a scheme without having the talent places the cart before the horse.
I can't help but concern myself with the number of soft spots we have on our roster. Aaron Kampman is going to be out of position at OLB. The other linebackers are going to have to figure out who can play the stout run stoppers on the inside versus the power rusher at the other OLB spot. Where does AJ Hawk fit? How about Nick Barnett?
And the line has Ryan Pickett trying to play the very stout NT position when he was, by most appraisals, not nearly as stout as he should have been in a 4-3 last year. And nearly all the other DE's are too light for the needed size that a typical 3-4 DE will need.
If you are glass-half-full, that the Packers will have a lot of evaluation to do and try to get everyone in the right spots to make this scheme work. If you are glass-half-empty, you could almost make the case that the Packers need to upgrade (or, perhaps for a better term, switch) the talent at nearly every position spot along the front seven to make the scheme work at its best.
And if you are in the middle, you have to admit, one way or another, the 3-4 scheme is far from any guarantee of success if the talent isn't already there.
We can't count on Ted Thompson for any infusion of talent to accelerate the scheme change.
This isn't necessarily a cut on Thompson, but it is quite simply a matter of fact. If Thompson isn't going to break the bank to bring in Steve Hutchenson to help the transition along the offensive line, he certainly isn't going to break it to bring in Chris Canty or probably even Julius Peppers.
I wonder how McCarthy feels about that sometimes. I mean, he makes a switch to a new scheme that really requires some specific talent to make it work, and he gets nothing more than a slough of mid-round draft picks to work with instead of veteran talent and leadership.
We saw it with the ZBS. After the cap-clearing year in which Rivera and Wahle were replaced with guys named Whittaker and Klemm, the Packers did not invest in any veteran talent to come in during 2006, instead bringing in three linemen in the draft, and supplementing with more draft picks in subsequent seasons.
This is not to say that building through the draft is a bad idea. Certainly, stockpiling good players is a smart way to go. But when you are trying to build towards a schematic change, it is a good idea to have some folks who have had experience playing in it at an NFL level, even if they are backups. The Packers have been shuttling Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, and Tony Moll around for three seasons now, and while the three can't be classified a collective failure, neither are they solid successes.
Mediocrity. Rookie offensive linemen usually take three years to even see if they will even develop into NFL starters, often even first-rounders. Last year, it appeared that had he not been injured in the preseason, a rookie taken in the sixth round (Josh Sitton)would have started over all the veterans previously drafted at guard.
Now, as McCarthy announced his switch to the 3-4, I should have known better than to think he was going to invest in a player like Canty or Burnett to come in and provide an immediate infusion of talent that would accelerate the transition. As huge names turned into big names, and big names turned into sort-of-familar names, Thompson has continued to lead us to believe that there will be no immediate veteran upgrades.
This means we will likely be looking at the draft again to get any scheme-specific talent. Listening to Thompson speak at Fan Fest, he emphasized that he felt that the guys on the roster should be able to play within any scheme.
"Football players are football players at the end of the day," Thompson said. "The 3-4 is a basic scheme alignment in our base defense but our good football players will be good football players in this. That's the whole thing, whether it's drafting or free agency or trades or retaining your own guys, you just want to get as many good football players as you can and that will take care of itself."
If you accept that teams adopted the ZBS or the 3-4 defense to maximize the talent they had on their teams, then you have to question Thompson's statements just a little bit. Pickett is a good player, but is likely to be exposed when you ask him to essentially do the job of two men in the middle. The flaws of AJ Hawk and Brady Poppinga have to be considered when placing them in a new role that might make them more prone to glaring errors.
Thompson also mentioned that he doesn't want to sign players just to simply throw them on a pile, just to say he has more players. This must mean that in the free-agent pool, there were no players worth the money that would then be a "good football player" for this team.
It means that the infusion of talent will likely come from the draft. And we only have one first round draft pick, so you can probably guess that we will need to wait several seasons before we know if the mid-round picks will even develop into that upgrade of talent.
The Dom Capers Factor
The difference, some folks have mentioned, is that we have Dom Capers. And, perhaps even more importantly, we do not have Bob Sanders. And I will be the first to admit the following:
* From what it is looking like, the Sanders-led coaching staff last year was splintered and not at all a good work environment.
* Dom Capers brings instant credibility, and if you are going to be transitioning to a 3-4, I can't tell you how happy I am that we at least have a veteran coach with head coaching experience.
That stated, we also have to use caution and remind ourselves that Dom Capers is not God. We have no idea how well Winston Moss and Capers will get along. We have no idea if Nick Collins and Tramon Williams are going to raise a huge stink about their contracts. And we have no idea of all the players will return at full strength from injuries, or not be suspended for having a ton of codeine in their car, or not get suddenly old over the offseason.
Yes, it sounds pessimistic on my part, but that's not my point. Look, I love the Packers, like McCarthy, and am excited about Dom Capers. But I'm not excited about a scheme switch that seems trendy and that we have to shoehorn our present talent into positions, hoping it works out.
And if it works out like the ZBS, as McCarthy suggests, we may be waiting several years before we see whether or not the 3-4 actually was a good idea.