Stop Making Sense: A Post-Super Bowl Conversation with Eric Stoner (BeauxJaxson)

Matt Waldman shares a post-Super Bowl LIII conversation he had with RSP fam-contributor Eric Stoner that, as Stoner often does, brings the goods. 

The game itself was not entertaining. It was an ode to the fundamentals. While not stimulating, it proved to be refreshing.

It was refreshing in the way sobriety is for a bing alcoholic. We all “drank” too much. We needed this.

– Mark from Madison, WI from “Ask Vic [Ketchman]

Stoner: Vic Ketchman will forever be my spirit grandpa. Hightower and Gilmore played their asses off. Great defense is not always sacks and turnovers. I feel bad for Wade Phillips and the Rams defense.

Waldman: The Rams confused Brady, too. The Patriots defensive game plan forced more errors than the Rams’ plan. Folks want to blame Goff but we’ll get to that later because it is a simplistic conclusion and often rooted in a couple of plays, especially when one of them was arguably a bad no-call that could have tied the game late.

Stoner: The Rams mostly played a great game on defense. Ray Ratto was dead-on about the Patriots with the important exception of his final sentence below.

[Belichick] has known more ways to win a game than most of us have learned to watch on, and with every trend int eh sport going toward offensive pyrospectaculars and playbooks powered by dilithium crysals, he decided to force-feed America a three-hour tutorial on Chuck Noll and Don Shula and George Allen and Bud Grant. It was the early 1970s, and you were there.

It is a lesson America didn’t enjoy and one it will hate all the more in years to come, but Belichick, who has adapted to changing mores in the sport as much as any coach, dragged us all by our slackened eyelids back to a time when we though presidents didn’t come worse than Richard Nixon and sports was designed solely as a lesson in denial of pleasure and a repudiation of style.

This was him saying, “This is a game you’re too young to remember, but I’m not, and I know how to make you sit at this table and eat it until it’s gone.”

“You’re goddamn right. Every other coach is like: “this is the scheme we use” and Belichick is like: “this is the scheme that this situation calls for.” How can no one else get this?”

Stoner: I see this criticism all of the time. It’s valid on some level, yes. I also think people underestimate the amount of knowledge necessary to do this. It’s like what you wrote in your “Can He Make Music,” piece. You need to be able to speak the language of whatever country you’re in and ALSO need to know how to communicate things lost in translation on the fly.

Waldman: I know scouts who understand less scheme than I. And to think a coach trained in one language can adapt to another so fast is not realistic. I wish I were 20 years younger and had the kind of time I had 20 years ago, too.

Stoner: Ray Ratto’s Deadspin piece is great, you’ll like it a lot. I keep going back to the Pepper Johnson piece, too. Especially when he said Bill literally signed Mike Vrabel just to pick his brain on LeBeau’s defense.

And nobody else really does that, LMFAO!

Going back to the scheme, it’s not just about knowing where the X’s and O’s are supposed to go.  The techniques for each can be so different. Adjustments are so different.

You know this but the example of zone versus gap have WAY different micro-adjustments just in the angles you take to reach the second level. Let’s look at stretch versus one-back power.

What blow ups both of these plays? A strongside, tilted nose tackle and weakside linebacker gap exchange.

These are WAY different rules to simply run the ball to the strong side and this is just for the offensive line, not the backs. Now imagine every team using vastly different terminology for this shit!

Waldman: Good point.

Stoner: Then you have to teach the technique. A scoop and a double-two LB has way different footwork and second-level aiming points. Then only after considering the scheme and technique, consideration of the opponent’s personnel creates even more changes.

Does your opponent have a stud nose tackle? If so, you need to cut him down because he’s going to hold up the double team and well never reach the linebacker.

Is the nose tackle soft? Then we can ride him the direction he wants to go.

Are the linebackers slow? If so, we can double the nose and put him in the lap of the linebacker.

Guess what? All of this goes out the window if the defense decides not to really run this NT-WLB gap exchange.

All of these considerations are all focused on just one offensive adjustment to the most common defensive adjustment used against the two most heavily used run plays.

That’s a lot of shit to know and that’s high school football 101 knowledge versus an extremely basic even front.

Waldman: Football is an elegant game. There are so many elements at play but fans are continually trying to simplify and second-guess what’s happening. When I listen to a lot of analysts these days, their analysis often sounds like:

“We understand that there are a lot of variables to take into account…yadda, yadda, yadda…but seriously, my emotional reaction to one play outweighs all of those variables and I have stats to back it up!”

You’ve taken us in the weeds with one in-game adjustment that’s fundamental to almost all levels of football but there are folks out there who don’t understand this when they criticize a team for not altering its zone blocking scheme to account for a back that it had little intention of using this year who is better at gap.

They aren’t seeing that it’s a consideration of the demands on  5-7 players versus 1.

Stoner: I get why so many teams run zone instead of Gap. The rules for Zone are more consistent play-to-play for the offensive line. Gap schemes require a lot of memorization simply from the volume of options. Every run play is trying to accomplish something a little different.

Waldman: Right. And for the backs, Gap is diagnostically easier on the back because the line is handling the diagnostic burden while Zone is more conceptually demanding for the runner because the scheme is designed to be easier for the line.

“The Goff is, has, and will always be trash” takes are flying all over the place, but Brady also got stifled. This was not as much about the quarterbacks performing poorly as much as it was about the coaches having the opposing offenses figured out.

Goff’s performance is a product of a staff that didn’t adjust.

Weeks ago, I wrote about the Lions-Rams game as the watershed moment that the opposition was figuring out how to play the McVay scheme.

“These methods—in addition to the physical play of receivers in a bunch set, which you’ll see a little later in this column, is valuable intel for upcoming opponents on ways to slow Sean McVay’s offense. Goff is a good player against pressure but he’s more Brady-like than Mahomes. He’s a better thrower on the move than Brady or Matt Ryan — he’s actually significantly above average in this area.

The line was not handling twists and stunts well and when you force a quarterback to make quick post-snap reads while his line is struggling, it deteriorates the quarterback’s game to the point that he’ll begin making mistakes on simpler plays due to effects of the overall confusion and punishment.

Like Brady, he has an excellent feel for smaller adjustments so he can maintain his base and fire away.

Still, there’s a line between greatness and failure that occurs when pressure is too intense for a pocket quarterback. The Lions frequently took Goff to this place.

The Bears, Eagles, and Cardinals have the pass rushers to challenge the Rams in similar ways. Expect the Bears and its secondary to pose a worthwhile challenge. The Eagles could do the same if its secondary can get healthy.

The Cardinals will need to generate more consistent offense to have a chance. If Mitchell Trubisky returns and his Jekyll-Hyde tendencies don’t emerge, the Bears could seriously challenge the Rams’ offense.

The Lions limited Goff to 207 yards a touchdown, an interception, and a fumble lost. The Bears could make it another disappointing week for the Rams’ passing game (which means count on only one receiver to produce — likely Woods) and if the Eagles secondary gets healthy, Goff could wind up a fantasy playoff disappointment. Monitor this closely.”

The Rams haven’t adjusted to Post-Thanksgiving football and that falls on McVay. Getting on Goff for this is myopic.

Stoner: I agree. This game comes down to a really bad performance by Sean McVay — it was bad planning, bad game management, and McVay didn’t stick to his own offense.

If Bill gives you something — in this case, the jet sweep — he is daring you to run it 10 times in a row until he stops it. Bill knows you won’t try it because offensive coordinators and good quarterback are often impatient.

Waldman: The Seahawks knew Peyton Manning would be too impatient to nickel-and-dime his way downfield in its Super Bowl matchup. They gave Julius Thomas to Manning early, betting that physical play against Thomas would lead to mistakes and Manning would begin forcing the ball downfield.

It’s exactly what happened and the Seahawks stifled and blew-out one of the most prolific offenses in football history.

I bet Mike Shanahan would have run his stuff 10 times in a row. Marty Schottenheimer would have, too. Of course, that was a different era where overthinking for style points wasn’t as prevalent in football.

Stoner: It all started with the “I bet the Bills won’t use Thurman Thomas enough to win.” They want to make it look pretty.

Waldman: People-pleasing behavior is a killer.

Stoner: And it’s baffling how McVay thought he could just line up his guys up and run his five plays and win by out-executing New England for four quarters.

People keep picking on Goff for not playing well down the stretch but EVERY quarterback outside of Russell Wilson faded down the stretch. Post-Thanksgiving != September football.

The thing is that fantasy-stats Twitter isn’t necessarily wrong about their beliefs. Their ideas work out in theory and in practice for a few reasons, but mostly before Thanksgiving.

The offense has an advantage over defense early in the season, which is also part of the reason they care most about the sample size being larger during that time of year. There’s time during this span to correct mistakes, it’s hotter outside, and the no-huddle works better in these conditions.

Post-Thanksgiving, everyone is tired and has seen all your shit, so there’s more emphasis on execution. While the rules are tilted for offense over the course of a season, the physicality, imposition of will, and letting other teams make mistakes is more effective when we move into the single-elimination scenarios of December and January.

Waldman: If you examine yards per attempt among the top 15 quarterbacks between Weeks 1-11 and Weeks 12-17, this observation holds up.

As I’ve written about in the past, football is awesome because it’s an intellectual, intuitive, physical, and emotional game. However, if you lean too much on the first two, the last two can bite you in the ass. You’ll be rationalizing about why you didn’t have an answer for getting punched in the mouth while you’re holding an ice bag on your lip. No one is listening to you explain why your strategy was good in that condition.

Stoner: Exhibit A…

[Matt’s note: Don’t get hooked on the sequence. The point is it happened early in the game to set the tone.]

The Pats ran the Landry 4-3 because even though McVay’s offense is a “West Coast Scheme” they have no quick game. And the quick game is a good method of attacking a run stopping defense. Wasn’t it also what killed off Buddy Ryan’s 46?

Waldman: Yes!

Stoner: Well, well…

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