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The Package Play and NFL’s Long Awaited Evolution


The NFL is a big business, a 10 billion dollar business to be exact. They have a product that Americans cannot get enough of which has lead to handsome profits for both the NFL as a whole and the individual teams. Even the hapless Raiders are worth 825 million.

This extreme wealth and the generous revenue sharing means that every team outside of Detroit turned a profit in 2012. While this is great for the owners it fostered a conservative culture that is extremely resisted to change and innovation.

Now, I’m sure many of you don’t care about the financial state of your favorite team, and why would you. But you do care about the play on the field and that is exactly where the conservative nature of the NFL can be seen.

Owners that are turning a profit year in and out are inherently resistant to change and it has trickled down into every aspect of their organizations. General Managers rely on the same player evaluation metrics and coaches aren’t pressed to develop the next wave of offensive schemes. Instead of evolving the NFL has become comfortable doing things the way they have always been done.

When you compare this to the NBA or MLB, where bad teams lose money, it’s obvious why those leagues have evolved and accepted change: they have to in order to survive.

But the NFL is beginning to adapt, not because of financial reasons, but because of the rule changes that favor passing and the influx of forward thinking college coaches. These coaches have cut their teeth in the NCAA, where the talent and resources are uneven and the less fortunate teams have to push the envelope in an attempt to stay competitive.

The hyper tempo, 4 wide spread sets that are ubiquitous in college football are challenging and out performing the traditional 21 personnel offense that ruled the 20th century. And this change is beginning to seep into the NFL.

In the mid 2000s the Wildcat, invented at Arkansas, burst onto the NFL scene with the Miami Dolphins. In 2012 the zone read took the league by storm with the play of 3 promising young quarterbacks, RGIII, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.

Last season the package play burst onto the scene fueled by the hiring of Chip Kelly and Doug Marrone from the college level. The package play—a single play with multiple actions built in—was created by Marrone at Syracuse in 2011. It encapsulates the new offensive philosophy based upon gaining a numerical advantage.

Let’s look at what makes the package play so hard to defend. In Week 1, the Eagles ran multiple package plays and forced the Washington Redskins to defend 4 separate actions, something the Redskins failed to do.

Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 14:44, 2nd and 4 at the PHI 26, Redskins 0, Eagles 0

Offensive Personnel: 3 WR (DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant, Riley Cooper) 1 TE (Brett Celek) 1 RB (LaSean McCoy)

Formation: 3 Wide Shotgun Open

Offensive Concept: Package Play

Defensive Scheme: Cover 4

Package1

Package2

Package3

package

Here we can see how the package play puts the defense in a bind. The actual play is quite simple, or at least the components are, but the multitude of options puts the defense in a no-win situation. It’s simple math, if the defense overreacts to one option with more defenders, the offense goes the other way.

On this play the Redskins did just that, overplaying the outside handoff to McCoy and the bubble screen to Jackson. This left Celek wide open down the seam for an easy 22 yard gain.

Simply put, the defense is forced into multiple decisions at a rapid pace; most teams that run package plays operate out of the no huddle. The offense can easily capitalize on the mistakes made by the defense facing multiple actions at once.

After the Eagles shredded the Redskins, many pundits were quick to point out that Kelly’s offense and the package play only worked because they had an elite running quarterback. While Michael Vick is the best rushing quarterback in the history of the NFL, his injury gave Nick Foles and the Eagles a prime opportunity to see if this new wave offense was truly reliant on a running quarterback.

Let’s look at how the Eagles proved the package play is an adaptable scheme that could excel even after Nick Foles took over in Philly.

Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 0:44, 1st and 10 at the PHI 46, Raiders 3, Eagles 7

Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (DeSean Jackson, Jeff Maehl) 2 TE (Brett Celek, Zack Ertz) 1 RB (Bryce Brown)

Formation: Trips Shotgun Open

Offensive Concept: Package Play

Defensive Scheme: Man 1

InsideHandoff1

Insidehandoff2

InsideHandoff3

InsideHandoff4

Insidehandoff2

Here we can see the package play and zone read are not reliant on a running quarterback, just the threat of running from the quarterback position. The difference is that Vick forced defenders to stay on the backside of a zone read because he could legitimately hurt them on the quarterback keeper; however, Foles forces them to hesitate, which turns out to be good enough.

With the outside defender hesitating and the bubble screen action occupying 3 defenders, the Eagles had 6 blockers for the 6 defenders in the box. That allowed Bryce Brown to burst into the second level untouched. He ultimately broke the deep safety’s tackle and turned a simple inside handoff into a 32 yard gain.

Last but not least, let’s look at how the package play can take advantage of defenses that overreact to the zone read by throwing the bubble screen as the Bills did against the Chiefs.

Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 0:44, 1st and 10 at the PHI 46, Raiders 3, Eagles 7

Offensive Personnel: 3 WR (Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods, TJ Graham) 1 TE (Scott Chandler) 1 RB (Fred Jackson)

Formation: Trips Shotgun Open

Offensive Concept: Package Play

Defensive Scheme: Man 1

Screen1

Screen2

Screen3

screen

This play highlights the bind that the package play can put on defenses, in particular individual defensive players. First Jeff Tuel reads Tambi Hali crashing down on the outside handoff and pulls the ball out for the quarterback keeper off the zone read. Once outside of the pocket, Tuel forces a decision out of Marcus Cooper, either stay outside and provide help on the bubble screen or step forward and take away the quarterback keeper.

Cooper stepped forward shifting the numerical advantage from the quarterback keeper to the bubble screen. A simple backwards dump off and the Bills had the ball in their premier wide receiver’s hands with two blockers for the two defenders in front of him.

Ultimately, that is what the new spread philosophy boils down to, evening the numbers for the offense. On a traditional run play it is 10 offensive players versus 11 defenders as the quarterback simply turns and hands off the ball. With the zone read the numbers are equal as the offense forces a defender to account for the quarterback.

The package play simply takes this principal a step farther by providing multiple actions for the quarterback to pick from. Through the three examples above, you can see how the package play allows the offense to attack where the defense is numerically weakest.

Better yet, it allows the offense to do this after the snap. This has two profound impacts on the offense and the quarterback. First, the offense gets to react to the defense. While that might sound obvious, in more traditional plays the offensive play was more or less set at the snap. If the defense overloaded one side with a zone blitz the options were limited. With a package play, the offense can simply attack the overload blitz by targeting the area vacated by the blitz.

Second, it limits the need for a quarterback to be able to read defenses pre-snap and audible accordingly, a difficult thing to do at the NFL level. Without the burden of pre-snap reads the package play effectively makes the quarterback position easier.

In today’s NFL, simplifying an offense is particularly important because young quarterbacks are being forced into the line up in their rookie year. Ten years ago it was commonplace for a rookie quarterback, even a high draft pick, to begin his career as a backup learning the trade for a season or so behind an established veteran. Now, rookie quarterbacks, even 2nd and 3rd rounders, are being thrown into the fire as Week 1 starters.

By utilizing the simple and familiar package play teams are accelerating the quarterbacking process. Just look at the Bills last season, they started two rookie quarterbacks and one 2nd year quarterback, two of which were undrafted, and somehow maintained a middle of the pack NFL offense. The package play and its simple numeric decisions are a big reason why Marrone and Co. could hang on despite the lack of experience at the quarterback position.

But it would be naive to think of the package play only as a set of training wheels for young quarterbacks. The use of the package play in Philly and Buffalo was so effective that some of the top offenses began incorporating the scheme into their playbook, most notably Peyton Manning and the record setting Broncos.

broncos

The fact that elite offensive minds, like Peyton Manning, are noticing and incorporating the package play is a tell tale sign that it’s here to stay. It is simply an alternative way of attacking the defense that has flipped the offense to defense relationship, allowing the offense to react to the defense and giving the offense an advantage.

This shift is part of a larger movement in the NFL where teams are actively thinking outside of the box in an attempt to gain an edge. The hiring of innovative coaches like Kelly and Marrone has certainly accelerated this mindset. The success of the package play and other schemes provides hope for more innovative moves in the traditionally conservative NFL.

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