John Lynch: The Decision, Part one

John Lynch: The Decision, Part One

This is a four part article that will be taking a look at one of the best safeties to ever play the game, John Lynch. A decision about his retirement looms, and its ripple effect will be felt throughout the Broncos organization as everything from the Free Agency period to their potentially strong, 8-pick draft will be shaped and altered by whichever lot he tosses into the murky pool that is the Broncos' defensive future. Will it be the decision to retire, leaving $2 mil on the table? Will it be the decision to return, possibly having to accept less playing time and risking injury?

MHR's own Hoosierteacher took some time to look at the John Lynch situation with me, and provided some of his excellent knowledge and analysis of not only Lynch but of the difficult and oft misunderstood nature of the position he plays. We will be getting his take on the situation throughout this series.

Part One will be a look at John Lynch the player and the safety position in general, heavily commented by HT’s analysis, and will look at what Lynch has done for the Denver Broncos since signing in 2004. Part Two will take a more in depth look at John's performance through the 2007 season, a campaign that saw the Denver Broncos post only their second losing season under Mike Shanahan while fielding one of the lowest ranked defenses in the NFL.

Part One

When Denver traded Champ Bailey for Clinton Portis after a 2003 season that saw Portis post yet another 1500+ yard rushing effort and over 1900 total yards, it seemed like they had defense as a major priority. After acquiring Marco Coleman and Raylee Johnson to man the defensive line after losing Bertrand Berry to free agency, and drafting outside linebacker DJ Williams with their first round pick, it became obvious. And one of the final deals they pulled off during free agency that year was to sign the 11 year veteran safety, John Lynch.

A three year contract that worked out to around $3 million per year was the vote of confidence that Lynch was looking for, as he had many strong teams, including the Patriots and Colts competing for his services. The Colts, in fact, had signed Lynch before Denver, but Dungy gave Lynch permission to continue courting other teams, on the grounds that the Colts would probably not be able to pull together the deal when it was all said and done. The Jets were a strong suitor as well, with the close personal relationship Lynch had with then-Jets coach Herm Edwards. What was it that had all of these great organizations vying to sign an 11 year veteran who had, admittedly, lost a step of his never-exactly-blazing speed?

Hoosierteacher: "In Tampa Bay Lynch played strong safety in the "Tampa-2" system. He was the slower of the two safeties, but known as a powerful, heavy hitter. He played a deep zone opposite his free safety partner.

Lynch liked to play the "near inside perimeter" of his zone. This means he would set up or move to the portion of deep zone closer to the middle of the field and closer to the defense. This often placed him in an ideal place to crunch receivers and tight ends coming over the middle of the field for passes.

As an excellent tackler who rarely missed an open field tackle, Lynch could be counted on to stop even the biggest running backs. He excelled in covering the standard tight end, who is slower than a receiver but big enough to plow over most defensive backs. His reputation as an intimidator was cemented after several bone crushing hits left opponents unconscious or slow to get up. This is what most people see when they see Lynch."

Widely regarded as the least significant of Denver's free agency moves of 2007 season, the critics of John Lynch would point to his decreased speed or Tampa Bay's drop-off from SuperBowl Champion to 7-9 also-ran, and the wholesale revamping of their defensive roster, whose purge saw the likes of Warren Sapp, Nate Webster and Lynch dropped. But they seemed to be ignoring Lynch's hallmark traits, leadership and intelligence, both qualities that improve with age.
HT:"Lynch was more than what most people saw. In Super Bowl 37 Lynch was the on field defensive coordinator. He had worked closely with Tampa Bay coach Gruden on studying Gruden’s previous team (opponent Oakland Raiders) to the point that he actually knew the play schemes of Oakland nearly as well as Gruden himself. On the field Lynch would call out assignments to his teammates well beyond the typical adjustment calls made by a middle line backer. From a coach’s perspective, Super Bowl 37 was won because the defense read the offense more than any other factor in the game.

The first thing I notice about John Lynch is his intelligence. Most fans can recognize physical attributes in football. They notice speed, they notice a bone crunching tackler, they notice great hands, or they notice other qualities. But a coach can sometimes see something special in a player that many fans might not see. And when I watch John Lynch start to move as the play is snapped, I always see him correctly anticipating the offense. I don’t say this lightly, and I’ve said it before on the pages of MHR: John Lynch has more "football intelligence" than any other defensive player I can think of. It has been his strongest trait, and it is the trait that earned him a Pro Bowl reputation."

Denver saw this, and it was this knowledge, which prompted Denver's urgency in pursuing Lynch. In a division with Larry Johnson, Ladainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, Lynch was needed for both his ability to hit hard against the run, and to intimidate through the middle and in the seam. Lynch stated openly that he wanted to return to the Superbowl, a goal that seemed to be within Denver's near-term grasp. They succeeded in signing him, and soon Lynch came to work for Larry Coyer. But it turned out to be more than just a change of scenery.

Many things changed for Lynch, not the least of which was his position on the field. Under Coyer, Lynch moved from his traditional position of strong safety to the role of free safety. But what exactly is the difference? HT explains:

The role of the free safety

There are many roles for each of the two safety positions, and these roles depend on the systems they are utilized in.

The free safety is commonly the fast safety and is the true "goaltender" on a team. His combination of speed and his ability to make open field tackles make him the "last line of defense". The term "free" is debated, but most coaches I know ascribe the term to the fact that a free safety is almost always zoned deep, and thus "free" to do what he wants; "free" from the assignments placed on the other defensive players. Thus he needs to be smarter than the average player, because he needs to see the play unfold and react accordingly.

Sometimes the free safety is used in other roles. The term for a blitzing free safety, in coach speak, is "monster". When the free safety assists a cornerback in covering a dangerous receiver, he is said to be "on double coverage". (The receiver himself is "in" double coverage). The most common assignment other than playing a deep zone is playing one of the many other zones on the field based on what the offense shows. At the pro-level, most free safeties are assigned to the zone they will cover on a play by play basis. The most elite free safeties make the adjustment themselves, and then adjust further within their zone as the play starts.

When caught against a three receiver set, the free safety may go into man coverage against the slot receiver. This often depends on the match up in terms of personnel, as well as the capabilities of the strong safety, and the system approach of the particular defense.

The primary defensive role of the free safety is to prevent long pass plays. A common theme taught to high school free safeties is to "keep the entire play in front of you". In other words, don’t let an opposing pass eligible player get behind you. Cover the deepest threat. Drills often focus on running backwards, so that the free safety can watch the play unfold as he back pedals to stay between any receivers and the goal line. For this reason, good eyesight is a must. A free safety that can read the eyes of a quarterback from such a distance is a valuable asset.

On occasion a run play will blow by the front seven. Now the free safety must close the distance and bring down a runner who is likely bigger than he is. For this reason, the good mechanics of tackling are a must.

Many fans would love to see a free safety with good hands for interceptions, but this is not a must. Given his role as "last line of defense", it is a dangerous prospect to go for an interception. If the attempt fails the opponent may get the ball. Even if the ball is tipped it may go to the wrong guy. Because of their unique role, many free safeties are coached early on to bat down the ball. Higher schemes found in college and the pros allow for more athleticism and judgment by the player to weigh the risks. In the pros, good hands are considered icing on the cake.

The role of the strong safety

The strong safety is another matter altogether. In some systems he is indistinguishable from the free safety. He is typically the slower of the two but more physical. He still needs speed, but not as much as a free safety. He should be able to keep up with most, but not all receivers in the League.

His assignments vary widely. The strong safety lined up on the strong side by tradition (the side that the tight end on the offense lines up on). This is almost always on the offense’s right and the defense’s left. He is not called the "strong" safety because he is stronger than the other safety as many might think (though the description is generally correct).

He may cover half of the field in deep zone while his partner covers the other half. He may be assigned to cover the tight end, depending on the type of strong side outside linebacker the defense employs. He may be used in zones based on research of the opponent’s "down and distance" tendencies. He may be assigned as a "spy" (the term for a player assigned to cover a rushing quarterback). He may be assigned on double coverage. He may also be called on to act as an additional linebacker, turning a 4-3 defense into a 4-6 look (but probably with more of a 4-4 approach than a true 4-6 approach). He may also be a blitz option.

The strong safety is an interesting animal. He is typically the "lesser" of the two safeties in terms of zone coverage (the heart of the safety position), but is also more versatile. Teams generally take a player to be a free safety, and the "ideal" safety gets the "free" spot. It is odd to think that the "strong" position is often the "second place" position, but there is no shame in getting second place. The player that is the strong safety is typically more suited to play the position anyway.

Coyer's defense would eventually fall apart, as the unique system he was employing, a "Man-show blitz" scheme began to look slow and overworked. Never a speedster, Lynch was put in a position, as HT notes above, where he was to rely on his speed, rather than his hitting prowress and strength. But as Lynch had done in so many other situations, he compensated with his intelligence.
HT: "Knowing he was "free" at safety to choose a zone, Lynch was trusted to read plays and place himself on man where the play was developing, or zone where he felt it might go. Lynch shared leadership duties with middle linebacker Al Wilson. While the safeties are typically too far back to assist their teammates in reading the offense, the Show Blitz often allowed the safeties to be close enough to communicate with their partners on the defense. Often, Lynch would cheat up close to call out information to his teammates and then drop back to his assigned area.

Perhaps the most amazing trait about Lynch was his ability to read an offense almost as well as a defensive coordinator, but to do it at game speed. Out of breath, bruised, sweating, and jogging to his position, Lynch would have seconds to see what was coming and adjust to it."

In short, Lynch answered the call. In his first two season under Coyer (2004, 2005) he doubled his career sack totals from his previous 11 years, playing up tight in Coyer's aggressive scheme and found his way into two of three consecutive probowl appearances for him. Denver saw its defense return to dominant form, recording its first shutout since 1997, ranking 3rd overall and 5th against the run, but all that came to a halt as 2006 wound to a close. Coyer's system had been exposed and teams had adapted to Denver's aggressive system, and Denver had no way to adapt back, as long as Coyer remained at the helm. A highly talented secondary and a defensive line that had been through 22 personnel in 3 years meant that a call would have to go out for a new defensive coordinator, one that could build a strong line based on strong principles, and do it in time to capitalize on the window of opportunity left to an elite secondary.

In 2007, Jim Bate's and his vaunted "run-contain system" arrived in Denver. Lynch, who had seen his contract extended in 2005, and who admittedly would soon be playing year to year, knew he would return to the team for the 2007 season, hoping to see the defense return to its strong form, and himself returned to the playoffs. Then and now, he had "unfinished business."

In Part Two we will take an in-depth look at John Lynch's play and the unique circumstances surrounding the 2007 campaign.

Thanks again, and much credit to HT for his helpful analysis and knowledge in preparing this series. More to come soon, so stay tuned...

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