Friday, May 28, 2004
By Steve Muench
When a new coach takes over, he must decide between changing his schemes to fit the personnel he has inherited or installing his preferred schemes and asking the existing personnel to adapt.
Bill Belichick and his assistants in New England -- most notably offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel -- are a perfect example of a staff willing to adjust schemes to take advantage of the players on the roster. Belichick is best known for his creativity on defense, frequently using different alignments and moving players around just before the snap.
However, the biggest factor in New England's two Super Bowl wins over the past three seasons may have been Belichick's influence on Weis and their combined flexibility on offense.
After failing in his previous head coaching stint in Cleveland, there was pressure on Belichick to win right away with the Patriots, and he didn't exactly hit the ground running. New England finished 5-11 in 2000, Belichick's first season, then lost the first two games of the 2001 season, as well.
QB Drew Bledsoe sustained a chest injury during that second loss, forcing Belichick and Weis to turn to Tom Brady, a very different type of quarterback. Brady's evolution into an NFL star is well-known, but without the willingness of Belichick and Weis to adjust their scheme to take advantage of his contrasting strengths, things might have turned out very different.
When Tom Brady took over, the Patriots adjusted on the fly to play to his strengths.
Brady doesn't have Bledsoe's arm strength, but he is more mobile, gets rid of the ball quicker and is more accurate on throws underneath. So New England started using more three-step drops and moved Brady around the pocket. This took advantage of Brady's accuracy, helped hide the fact he didn't get great velocity on his deeper passes and helped an offensive line that lacked great pass blockers.
In addition, the Patriots have shown they aren't afraid to use players in unorthodox roles or line them up at several different positions. Dan Klecko saw playing time at nose tackle, fullback and linebacker last year. He isn't an ideal fit at any of the three positions, but he does certain things well at each of them, and New England will move him around to help keep defenses off balance.
Of course, Belichick is unique in that most head coaches don't continue altering schemes once they have had success. While most players head into their weekly meetings to iron out wrinkles, Patriots' players go into those meetings eager to find out what new scheme Belichick has cooked up. This keeps the team interested, and opponents off balance, but it also requires intelligent players who can adjust on the fly.
While Belichick, Weis and Crennel certainly deserve credit for being flexible, it's important not to overlook the fact the Patriots had more college graduates on their roster last season than any other team. Belichick and vice president of football operations Scott Pioli understand the need for intelligent football players in order to implement multiple schemes. Other teams might have had more talent than the Patriots in recent seasons, but not many can boast a more intelligent and cohesive group. This is why the Pats continue to emphasize that aspect of the scouting process more than most other front offices .
Plenty of other coaches in recent seasons have had to decide between adapting to existing personnel or installing their favored schemes. Here's a capsule look at a few situations and how they've worked out so far:
When Tony Dungy arrived before the 2002 season, he left offensive coordinator Tom Moore and his system pretty much alone and instead set about fixing the defense by installing the cover-2 he had used in Tampa Bay. Two seasons later, the Colts were in the AFC title game. Dungy is an excellent teacher who helped the veterans he inherited make a smooth transition to the new scheme, and Indianapolis added rookies capable of contributing in the scheme right away. Dwight Freeney, for example, has quickly developed into one of the most explosive pass rushers in the league.
It sounds simple, but it takes a commitment from the entire organization. With the high turnover in coaches today, some teams aren't willing to sign players that fit a particular scheme, because there may be a new scheme in place the following year. If the front office didn't put its faith in Dungy and bring in the players he needed to run the cover-2 effectively, it would have taken him a lot longer to turn the defense around.
Bill Parcells is well-known for his brutal honesty when dealing with players and his ability to handle the media. Flexibility is definitely not the first word that comes to mind when his name is mentioned, but he showed great versatility when he took over the Cowboys last year.
Parcells prefers a physical front seven that has the size and strength to play a two-gap style of defense. It quickly became clear to him, though, that Dallas didn't have the personnel to do that. Rather than force the issue, Parcells retained defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to continue using the one-gap scheme his players were used to and suited for. The Cowboys' finished first in the league in yards allowed per game and was a big reason they went to the playoffs in Parcells' first season.
Denny Green is off to a strong start in Arizona, but he knows his defense is a long way away from where he wants it. Although he'd like to play man-to-man coverage, he'll play the cover-2 instead because his roster lacks quality man-to-man cover corners.
On offense, Green will spread the field and take some chances downfield, like he did in Minnesota. But drafting Larry Fitzgerald and spreading the field doesn't mean this will be a pass-heavy attack next year. The strategy also serves another purpose.
Green knows his offensive line is much better at run blocking than pass protection. The problem is, every Cardinals' opponent knows that too, and last year the team consistently face eight-man fronts designed to stop the run and pressure the passer. With Fitzgerald in the lineup and the passing game spread out, the opposing safeties will be forced off the line, which, in turn, will open up the running game.
Green isn't making drastic changes offensively, but he still is tweaking things to take advantage of his team's strengths.
The Bears will install a one-gap, cover-2 defense under Lovie Smith, who coached under the Colts' Dungy in Tampa Bay. To make the transition easier, they used six of their eight draft picks this year on defensive players. Smith's defense stresses speed and swarming to the ball. To get his players ready, he has implemented a tougher conditioning program, and several players already have shed weight in favor of explosiveness.
Smith could have success with the Bears, but it will take time to implement his defense. That's not always a luxury afforded coaches in this league. As a first-time head coach, without the kind of track record Dungy brought to Indianapolis, Smith needs to hope the Bears will be patient and supportive while he installs the system and tries to turn things around.
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