A recent sportingnews.com article by Vinnie Iyer brought out a principle that was first noted by our very own hoosierteacher. It bears on Coach Nolan of San Francisco, Jamie Winborn and on the Denver Bates Experiment. From HT’s brilliant article on the 3-4 defense (find it here):
The truth is, any defensive coordinator can run a 4-3 or 3-4 indifferently. While coaches have preferences, they more often defer to what they have available. If the team could go either way, the coordinator is probably going with what he is more comfortable with.
What's better, the 3-4 or 4-3?
Don't get in the mind set of "better" when thinking about formations and systems. They are different, and do different things.
There are a lot of good players in the league, and a lot of good systems, but they don’t always match. When Coach Mike Nolan took over the 49ers, he wanted to do two things. The first was to get away from the West Coast offense, despite having none other than Bill Walsh as a special consultant. That may not have been completely sound. 4 years and 4 offensive coordinators later (Mike Martz, late of Detroit, will be the 4th this season) they found that they had the personnel to run the West Coat offense well but changed away from it and are still changing their personnel to ‘fit’ the new approach. Alex Smith is probably on the way out. Granted, he had a shoulder injury that has affected his game, but often seems to suffer most from confusion, a bad thing in your field general. Imagine if Cutler was forced to learn 4 systems and playbooks in 4 years and was forced to work away from his own strengths and towards the strengths of the constant new systems. He might survive, but would he thrive?
The second thing Coach Nolan wanted was to install the 3-4 defense, which, as HT points out, can be a very effective approach. The Broncos Jamie Winborn was the 1st casualty of this process. Despite essentially firing Jamie Winborn after only two games and losing a solid, motivated player with a great locker room approach and work ethic, a decision that was said to shake up the team emotionally, Coach Nolan is still trying and so far failing to force this system three years later. Patrick Willis, their tremendous young LB, would probably thrive in the classic 4-3 defense where he can roam and chase ball carriers. The 3-4 might not be as well adapted to him. Coach Nolan is talented and knowledgeable far beyond me and I respect him greatly, but he seems to have come afoul of HT’s axiom above. Bates did the same thing here in Denver. It happens a lot around the league.
Said Vinnie Iyer of sportingnews.com,
“Simply put, there is some pretty good young talent in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Nolan and new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, despite their respective game-planning acumen, don't offer the right formula so the team's best players can carry the team from rebuilding to contention.
“As for the defense, Nolan will again attempt to make the 3-4 work. A head-scratching move, however, was adding former Bengals end Justin Smith, who has played only in a 4-3. It seems like outside linebacker Manny Lawson would be better suited at 4-3 end opposite Smith, where he can rush the passer from a more traditional edge spot.”
Sports Illustrated’s Dr. Z, in his article on Winborn, noted,
"That's one of the big problems in the NFL, over-coaching," says a personnel man who likes to remain anonymous because of his repeated anti-establishment views.
"They forget who their players are. They lock people into systems that are much too complicated and then pat them on the back because they can understand them. Meanwhile a kid like Jamie Winborn goes back to the bench, and how can you justify it, after the game he had against the Giants?" (See: Hardscrabble Scramble, Oct 2, 2002 cnnsi.com, by P. Zimmerman, AKA Dr. Z.)
I have to conclude that is what happened with Jamie Winborn. The Broncos may have lost much of the 2007 season to a similar error, but that’s where the similarity ends.
While there was a lot of understandable prognostication in the media about the Broncos shake-up this offseason, I’d have to say that this showed one of Shanahan’s strengths - he learns when he goes astray. When he makes an error, he rectifies it. Bates is gone, Slowik is still with us after three years, has moved up to a position that the players have wanted him to have and if the results for that coach are good, we may be quickly out of the woods that the Bates experiment put us in. Bowlen and Shanahan saw the problem, moved to fix it. Slowik and Shanahan are agreed to playing Broncos defense with the type of players that have been successful for us in the past and why players like Jamie Winborn are going to be able to fight for a job and sparkplug our special teams.
And, on offense, Shanahan has apparently delegated more authority to open up the playbook for Cutler. JC and Co. are going to be sticking to the things that have worked and worked well for the Broncos, but have been given a green light to expand their plays now that Jay has the experience to move forward, as well as an LT to protect him while he does – a measured approach to achieving a better result.
I think these two areas point out the difference between the two clubs right now. And that is why we are going to see a major difference between them as the season unfolds.
Notes: I noticed that Jamie W. is listed from 230 to 242 lbs in different sources. Since MHR listed him at 242, I’m in full agreement. Please forgive a recent misprint - His contract is for roughly 4 million over 2 years rather than 1 with additional bonuses of about 1.7 million possible.