Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Retreat of Scheme and the Return of the Matchup

Philosophy is a word thrown around in the VMAC with a regularity never before seen. It has come at the expense of a word fans still throw around, but coaches in Seattle rarely do any more: Scheme.

And both words carry such different connotations that accurately portray the people promoting them. A philosophy expresses personal thought, belief, and independence. What you think about my philosophy matters nought to me if I believe enough. Maybe that is why Pete Carroll has lately begun to look like a cult leader in his attire. Is there a hemp shirt in the Seahawks Pro Shop?

Scheme, that is a very different idea. It is me fooling you, conning you, planting one thing in your head and doing another. It is schematic, indicating very specific parts for a very specific machine.

Now that is a very real part of football. It always has been, and always will be. But certain teams rely on scheme more than others, for a variety of reasons, both fiscal and personnel related, with varying degrees of success. Indy, for instance, gets away with a poor offensive line built around Peyton Manning's quick release, and a smaller, quicker 4-3 defense built around the fact that they expect that offense to secure an early lead. Think about that for a second. How much more scheme-specific can you get than a defense built around the quarterback?

But there is a problem with schemes. As a central doctrine in football, they can be exposed by a solitary enemy: the matchup.

In the above example, in Indianapolis, just how useful does that defense and offensive line become without Manning under center? In my opinion, Indy instantly becomes a very vulnerable team. Maybe even a very bad team.

As Seattle fans, we have spent years being indoctrinated into the cult of scheme. This is why the adjustment to a more matchup-styled team is, to say the least, perplexing. We look at players and wonder if they fit the scheme. Are they West Coast quarterbacks and receivers (a euphemism for weak-armed brainiacs behind center and receivers who can't block or run deep routes), is he a 4-3 end or a 3-4 backer, does this guard have the feet for zone blocking... and understandably so. We could get into a debate about the degree to which various coaches and administrations relied on scheme to fool defenses, but suffice it to say that by the time we arrived at Tim Ruskell and whomever he towed along with him, we had arrived at the pinnacle of schematic reliance instead of matching up personnel.

Tim Ruskell would be in the Hall of Fame if it had a wing for failure, under the "I Believe in Scheme Over All Else" section. I think he truly believed that a precision West Coast game could negate a lack of size and/or game-changing speed at wide receiver, that zone blocking could make up for a lack of talent on the line, and that talent at linebacker makes up for a deficit of talent on the defensive line. Particularly on the offensive line, it is apparent he bought into the old Alex Gibbs mantra about being able to turn a garbage man into an NFL lineman with enough zone blocking principles and the ability to cut block. Don't even get me started on what he thought the secondary's role should be; just know the word "physical" isn't in the description.

Truth be told, Ruskell tried to build the Indianapolis Colts without the elite quarterback. He ignored that he could not line his 22 guys up across from that Sunday's 22 opponents and create difficult physical matchups with enough frequency to regularly win games. He believed in the scheme more than the matchups. Even the big moves he made with free agents and trades, draft day or otherwise, were mostly centered on guys who were scheme fits but couldn't win physical matchups. Deion Branch? T.J. Houshmanzadeh? The player Ruskell sought were not bereft of talent, but they hardly made defensive coordinators lose sleep.

Mike Holmgren, on the other hand, believed to a greater degree in matchups vs. scheme, and we owe our greatest successes as a franchise to that. The man-blocking offensive line he built dominated their one-on-one battles. If Big Mike had possessed a better head for evaluating talent, Seattle would have presented physical matchup problems at nearly every position on the offense. Koren Robinson and Jerramy Stevens were attempts to do just that. Holmgren also tried to build a dominating defensive line, and if not undone by the early erosion of Marcus Tubbs' knees and a reliance on signing veterans who only had a year or two left in their bodies, he might have.

Point is, Holmgren was a big believer in winning the one-on-one matchups in the trenches on both sides of the ball. In the cap era, this has been a proven formula. Mike's secondary notions were more about scheme, however, with a heavy reliance on a zone system. The very notion of zone defense is to avoid too many individual matchups that can be exploited for big plays, essentially keeping the game in front of you and forcing the offense to play lots of mistake-free football. (Note from Brandon: Unfortunately, elite offenses are typically very good at doing just that.) Most salary-cap era teams have at least one area of the team that is a salary-cap bastard child, and with Mike it was the secondary.

The current management in Seattle seemingly has an even more matchup oriented approach. Scheme has taken a back seat to bigger, stronger, faster. Of the 11 possible match ups on the field at any one time, can I win the majority on this play?

Think about it. As Seattle fans, we were essentially told that zone blocking allows lesser offensive lineman who possess a little quickness to still create an effective running game. Smaller, weaker, quicker - as long as those fellas work together and cut block the holy hell out of opponents - was going to be the scheme. Some draftniks would examine players to be sought by Seattle only in this context. "He isn't a zone blocking guy, so no use scouting him" was the parameter used.

Look at the accumulation of line players Seattle has right now and tell me that idea is still in effect. Hell no. Sure, there are zone blocking principles in play. But this is a line based on the ability to win individual matchups even if the zone precision is lacking. This thought process is refreshingly simple, and allows coaches, scouts, and management to seek players, not player types. Within certain limits, of course. Pete may like his cornerbacks bigger because then they can press and more successfully disrupt timing while forcing quarterbacks to make harder throws, but the days of the 6'6" cornerback are a long way off, just as the days of the 5'9" cornerback are apparently long gone. Pete Carroll and John Schneider might like bigger, stronger, faster, and sometimes even smarter as guidelines, but Al Davis is not moving into the VMAC, not yet. Schematic fit still matters a little.

Look across the roster, and you see a team building exercise that's not as scheme dependent as it was in the past. It is incomplete, and has serious holes at the moment, but the direction is clear. A team with the intent to win individual matchups like we are seeing now has quite possibly not been seen in Seattle since the Knox days, and I for one am excited to watch it unfold, win or lose.

And losing with frequency is a very real possibility. The defensive line is incomplete, having players who are either big or fast, but not many who are both. The big press-oriented secondary is an unknown quantity. The team's new salary-cap bastard child, the linebackers, are a unit in flux. On offense, the matchups look much rosier, but there is as of yet scant evidence of a Seattle quarterback capable of exploiting all those matchups. And some of the players who might dominate someday are inexperienced to the point that they won't presently win matchups that they will in future seasons.

Anyway, if you have read this far, know that my intent is not to inject a more sober look at the Seahawks into anyone's preseason giddiness, or to point at a falling sky. In fact, I plan to do some game by game breakdowns where we will point out some of these matchup issues, and maybe shed some light on just how successful we have been at exploiting them or how our opponents have done the same.


  1. Anyone who thinks matchups aren't key should ask themselves why so many of our opponents seem to be targeting Kelly Jennings.

    He's not our only weak link, but he is perhaps the most obvious one.

  2. Really good article. I agree with everything you presented. I look forward to seeing the results from a greater emphasis on physical tools vs. only character.

  3. I'm glad Scott wrote this. When Carroll first started announcing his preference for size and speed, "over-reliance on tools" is the first thing I thought. That's what Al Davis is known for. It's not just height that rules in the NFL; indeed, some of the best cornerbacks are shorter than 6 feet, and some of the tallest lack the fluidity to be starters, precisely BECAUSE of their height. It's skill, technique, and intelligence that ultimately win in this league.

    But I don't see any reason to think that Carroll lacks scheme and is blindly salivating over tools.

  4. Jameson Konz. Aaron Curry. Golden Tate. Three examples of skill players who lack game skills. So,yeah, as you point out, PC is not unaware that athletic ability without football instincts are next to useless. Nice to get bigger and faster, though. Smarter -- that's the one that's not so measureable.

  5. The small, fast scheme players have gotten us to the playoffs, but we need bigger, matchup players to get us *through* the playoffs. Why? Because of Soldier and Lambeau Fields, and other open stadiums in the north in January.

    Remember Green Bay, January, 2008? We were up by 14 points within the first five minutes of the game. Then it snowed. We lost 42-20. Their stout players held their ground. Our fast guys slipped and fell.

    The only way small and fast gets us to the Super Bowl is if we can win home field advantage with our regular season record. With big matchup players, we have the chance to win on the road in bad weather.