The 2016 NFL Draft is in the books, and I have to say, it has to be one of the weirder ones that I can remember.
I mean aside from all of the ridiculousness involved with Laremy Tunsil, most of the media projections on dozens of prospects just seemed completely off. Now it is true that no matter how many sources they talk to (or tell people they talk to) or however much film they watch (or say they watch), nobody ever really knows just how the NFL draft boards are stocked. These teams do a ridiculous amount of research, as they should given the stakes and the money involved.
And it's easy to talk about how dumb the NFL can be (and again, it's easy because it's true) on a bevy of topics when it comes to talent evaluation. That said, far be it from me to pass on the low-hanging fruit. Last week, some comments from Pete Carroll caught some attention regarding the offensive linemen coming out of college football:
"The style of play is different," Carroll said. "There will be guys that we're looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They've always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we've seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They're not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.
"It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn't find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn't even a play in the game. It's hard to evaluate what a guy's gonna be like. We learn to, but it's not he same as it's been."
These comments echo some from Carroll's offensive line coach, Tom Cable, last year. And of course, there's the now yearly refrain from the league on how spread offenses in college make it way too hard to properly identify the best college prospects.
Even after we get past the general absurdity of the NFL complaining about what amounts to a free minor-league system, the NFL has never exactly been what you'd call "good" at finding new quarterbacks. Before the "spread" era of college offenses the league wasted first-round picks on the likes of Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler, Jim Druckenmiller, Ryan Leaf, Cade McNown, Akili Smith, David Carr, Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey, Kyle Boller and J.P. Losman -- nearly all of whom came from "traditional" offenses, or at least schemes that the NFL would prefer to the likes of Baylor or Ohio State that don't "translate" to the NFL.
And I don't doubt that Carroll is telling the truth when he says that many offensive linemen aren't being taught the same things. Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak praises fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins for having more of a background congruent with what the Steelers would like to run.
There's definitely a teaching issue here, there's no doubt about that. But it's the NFL that has it.
College coaches are allowed 20 hours a week to work with their players. What the modern offensive approach has become about, as much as it is "the spread" or "creating space" etc..., is efficiency. Smaller playbooks, runs and passes combined into one play -- these are all just ways to streamline a playbook so that on-field practice time can be spent focusing on precision and execution. Other strategies help to either accentuate talent advantages or hide talent deficiencies. Two things that are much less prevalent in the salary cap/common draft era of the NFL.
What's funny is that NFL teams relied on a similar approach for years modeled on the style developed by Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins: small number of plays, run out of multiple formations. It was easy to teach and even easier to master, to the point that most quarterbacks through the 60s and 70s called their own plays. It still exists with the Tom Brady Patriots (as detailed in that link) and the Peyton Manning Colts ran a fairly scaled-down playbook themselves.
But most of the NFL remains well...kind of stuck, quite frankly, in the mindset of the Bill Walsh West Coast offense.
There's no question Walsh's precise, timed approach to the short passing game revolutionized the NFL in the 1980s with the San Francisco 49ers, to the point that just about every assistant coach that ever shook his hand was able to get a head job in the 1990s and 2000s.
But as much as Walsh is hailed as a genius for figuring out that the quick slant to Jerry Rice was a money play, it was his approach to creating a game plan that really changed football. The attention to detail of scripting plays, both as a way to establish the tenor of a game as well as situationally, while attacking defenses meticulously at every level from the way the line protected to the very footsteps of the quarterbacks and wide receivers.
In the man's own words from his book "The Winning Edge,":
"The 'West Coast Offense' still amounts to nothing more than the total attention to detail and an appreciation for every facet of offensive football and refinement of those things that are needed to provide an environment that allows people to perform at maximum levels of self-actualization."
Walsh took play calling out of a quarterbacks hands, but replaced it with a system designed to have an answer for the defense available on every play. When you read about insane play-calls like "ace slot left halfback right 200 scat sprint right zebra check slant thunder," that call details every single assignment on the play, and every single one of those assignments can be changed at the line with a check.
That amount of detail contained in those play-calls led to the rise of 3-500-page playbooks, and an offense that has often been said to take as many as three years to truly master.
For a point of reference, as of 2014, the average NFL head coach's tenure lasted 38 months, or slightly more than three calendar years. Plus, in the last five years seven different coaches failed to make it even that long -- Tampa Bay and San Francisco each fired their coaches after just one season in the 2015 cycle. According to the NFLPA, the average NFL player's career is about three years, with quarterbacks extended to just beyond four years.
Why in the hell would any coach still want to run an offense that takes three years to master? If you're lucky enough to even last that long, the odds say you'll just be turning over your quarterback anyway, even if he does "master" the offense.
Walsh is undoubtedly one of the smartest minds the game has ever seen, and teams will always borrow from his offensive teachings. And as much as his offense changed the way the NFL viewed the passing game, let's not forget that he had some pretty remarkable talents running those plays in San Francisco. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, John Taylor and Roger Craig could make a lot of offenses work.
Walsh was known as a relentless control freak, a man who made himself so sick trying to control every facet of the game that burned out halfway through a Super Bowl season. Even still, I would imagine the man himself would even admit that some 30 years later it's okay to try to find new ways to do things. Streamlining, simplifying the way colleges have. After all, NFL players are training better, physically, than they ever have, and while there's less organized practice time the expectation that they are constantly working to improve, mentally and physically, is still the same. If a quarterback doesn't have a lot of experience working on drops from center, TEACH HIM. If an offensive lineman has mostly worked out of a two-point stance, TEACH HIM. The NFL spent decades transitioning college players from the Wing-T or the Wishbone to the Pro-Set.
There will always be issues finding quarterbacks -- the NFL is the top one percent OF THE TOP ONE PERCENT of football players. The defenses are faster and the coverage windows are smaller and there will always be a limited number of players that can accurately make the throws that pro quarterbacks are asked to make. There's only handful of offensive linemen that are big enough, strong enough, quick enough and nasty enough to work on the line of scrimmage, receivers that can separate, defensive backs that can cover, so on and so on. And NFL playbooks will always be bigger and more complex than what they are in college, because likewise the luxury of a professional football player is that the game is his job.
But nobody should be stuck on one way of doing something. The NFL has been stuck on one way of teaching the game for 30 years, and that's their problem, not college football's.