MHR University - Brian Dawkins; The Delta Force of the Safety Position

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Let me start off by sharing a bias I have.  My favorite NFL player through history (who was not a Denver Bronco) has always been Brian Dawkins.  That he is now a Bronco seems almost like something out of an old "Twilight Zone" episode.  My favorite all-time player now a Bronco?  I wish it had happened years ago when Dawkins was in his prime.  But I won't complain.  Those of you that have known me for awhile also know that the safety position (free safety in particular) has always been my favorite.

Here's my CliffsNotes opinion on the signing:

  1. Dawkins is not only the best safety to have ever played the position, he was so superhuman that he caused a major shift in how the position has been viewed by coaches.
  2. At the same time, Dawkins is not the player he used to be.
  3. However, like Lynch before him, his abilities even after age is factored in are well beyond what most teams could ever hope for in the position.

For the Xs and Os on what Dawkins has done for the safety position, read below the fold...

Safeties - Defensive Leftovers

When Brian Dawkins first hit the field, the position of "safety" was one of the so-called "unskilled" positions on the defense.  The position went to players who weren't fast enough to be cornerbacks, couldn't tackle as well as a linebacker, and were considered the "leftovers" on the defensive squad.

That isn't to say that there weren't terrific safeties before Dawkins.  Some safeties brought heavy hitting to the fore in the middle of the field, intimidating receivers and TEs unlucky enough to be routed there.  Some safeties made their name by providing coverage almost as good as a cornerback, but without getting the prime coverage-assignments that corners get. 

The star during the birth of football was the linebacker (heart and soul of the defense).  As the passing game gained prominence, the cornerback shared distinction as a vital weapon.  Defensive linemen have always been the foot soldiers in the trenches that allow the other positions to shine, and coaches (if not fans) have always had a passion for the trench.  While fans watch the quarterback and where the ball goes, coaches (for the most part) are focused on the line of scrimmage when they watch a game.  In other words, the safety was relegated to a few big hits, perhaps a rare interception, and the boring role of saving the big play.  (Think about it.  When a safety drags down an opposing ball carrier, the mood of the fans and the coaches is, "Damn; we blew a lot of yards!" instead of "Hooray; we stopped the touchdown!")  Safeties were just glorified goalies on the gridiron.

Then along came Weapon X. 

Brian Dawkins by Jason's World.

Weapon X

On the field, Dawkins showed a skill set that revolutionized how the position of safety is played and schemed.  Dawkins was the rare athlete that could do it all.

  • Speed - Dawkins could sack from the deep Free Safety position (known as a monster blitz) without cheating up to the line of scrimmage.  This meant that he covered a long distance in a short time, got through the blockers, and hit his target.  Dawkins was getting sack numbers not meant for safeties.  (Defense average in 2008 = 2.8 / Dawkins = 3.  And this is when Dawkins is 35, past his prime).
  • Range - Due to his Champ Bailey-like "turn/swivel" hip ability, Dawkins was all over the field, getting tackle numbers not meant for "the last line of defense".  (Defense average in 2008 = 28.3 / Dawkins = 64!  And this is when Dawkins is 35, past his prime  )
  • Power - In his off time, Dawkins was training in mixed martial arts before most of us had even heard of the sport.  He didn't compete (you don't risk your multimillion-dollar career on such things), but his trainer thought he would have been a champion.  Dawkins used a lot of his martial arts training to aid his leverage in shedding blockers, as well as focusing his energy for hits.
  • Football Awareness - John Lynch has been considered one of the smartest players in football, making up in smarts what he lacked in speed.  Dawkins, like Lynch, studied hard.  He had to.  So good was Dawkins that the Eagles were able to use a 46 defense (one safety) because Dawkins' speed and smarts allowed him to cover the field like no one else could at the modern pro level.  (The 46 is schemed to allow for one safety and is a run stopping system / formation.  It would seem antithetical for the modern NFL.  Nevertheless, Dawkins helped his Eagles get to 5 NFC Championship Games with his play).
  • Hands - More on safeties and interceptions follow in this story.  Suffice it to say that at age 35 (2008 season), Dawkins managed 3 interceptions in a scheme not designed for him to play underneath receivers.  Imagine the possibilities!
  • Oh yeah, I almost forgot.  Brian Dawkins can fly (see photo below).

In short, Dawkins had the speed and agility to be anywhere on the field, allowing him to be in on almost any play.  He had the power to get there through blockers.  He had the technique and strength to bring down bruising running backs.  He had the intelligence to read the offense.  And he brought a lot of pain to a lot of ball carriers in the process.  But most impressive, he became the anchor for his defenses, as a friggin safety!

Fans noticed him right away.  Jersey sales went up, as did commercial endorsement offers.  But coaches sat up and took notice, too.  Perhaps safeties were more than just "lesser corners".  Perhaps the collegiate level could start looking for players with skills to do more than just guard the deep plays.  Perhaps a new type of safety could be created.  High School safeties could hold their heads a little higher.  College safeties could ask for better contracts.  And so came a new generation.

The Modern Safety

Today's safeties are specialists.  Few can do it all, but they generally aren't meant to.

The basic responsibility of the safety remains to cover the deep zones.  Any breakdown of the defense can lead to quick points, and the safety remains the last guardian of the end-zone.  But within that classic role, specialists have arisen.

Some safeties are in the mold of the former Redskins safety Sean Taylor, ripped from us not long ago.  Using speed as his main focus, young Taylor played over coverage to assist corners in man coverage.  Often, he could take a receiver himself and allow the corner to switch into a zone, blitz or double coverage.

Some, like Lynch, were more like a fourth linebacker, but with a little more speed.  Not able to handle receivers in man-to-man, Lynch would hover like a spider in his zone/web.  Tough enough to bring down running backs (and he often did), Lynch didn't break up a lot of passes like a Taylor, but instead positioned himself to time his hit with the reception.  As a result, four things could happen:

  1. The receiver went nowhere at the very least.
  2. A fumble happened.
  3. The receiver became more tentative, bobbling more balls as the game wore on.
  4. The receiver wore down from the multiple blows he took as the game progressed.

A very few safeties have excellent hands for interceptions, ie. Troy Polamalu.  As fans, we love any defensive back (corners and safeties) who can intercept.  But intercepting is really not the prime focus of a safety.  A blown attempt at an interception by the "last line of defense" can lead to a touchdown for the offense.  As defensive coordinators, many coaches desire a safety who can bat down a ball or make a tackle.  A bobbled interception can go into the hands of, well, anybody.  But there is the rare specialist that can catch when it's pretty much a sure thing, and some schemes (such as Pittsburgh's LeBeau Zone Blitz) allow for multiple players to charge forward while others drop back (sometimes even linemen and safeties) allowing an exceptional safety to "jump a route" and get the ball.  Hands are just icing on the cake, but icing sure is nice!

Schemes began to rely heavily on the safety, much in the same way the defensive line affects the game with little in the way of glory.  Take safety Bob Sanders away from the Colts, and their Tampa-2 defense implodes.  While the specialists have always been there, coaches started looking at building plays around what the specialists could do, instead of just leaving the safeties on an island to pick up whatever scraps they could.  The Eagles, for example, built the defensive system around the safety.  Other teams didn't go to such an extreme, but they did start evaluating the position more heavily than in the past, as well as adjusting game plans and plays to allow for more safety inclusion.

This led to game-changers like Sanders, Reed, Polamalu and others becoming household names.

Dawkins Today

Dawkins is 35.  That's pretty old for a position that places an emphasis on speed, isn't it?  But Dawkins, like Lynch before him, has value in Denver.  The management must see it, since they signed him to a five-year contract.  How will Dawkins fare in Denver?

First, Dawkins is an incredible specimen.  While older than most players, Dawkins is a workout nut.  He is in better shape than most players a decade younger than him.  Dawkins augments his team training with personal training, and this may rub off onto his teammates.  Yes, he's 35.  No, he's not the dominant player he was.  But the real point worth focusing on is "is he good"?  He remains better than most safeties, and that's what matters.

Second, the scheme in Denver is not going to be built around Dawkins to the extent that it was in Philly.  I expect Dawkins will have less opportunities to blitz, for example.  But he is being brought to Denver for two reasons:

  1. One, he is a vocal leader and a veteran presence, and that's something a defense in transition needs - a fire starter. 
  2. Second, Dawkins' value is in his athleticism.  Making the radical change from 46 to 3-4 won't impact Dawkins like it might affect other positions.  As a safety, he'll be given assignments and occasional special plays, but he'll make things happen in his own sphere of influence regardless of what he is assigned to do.

So what is Dawkins' value to the team moving forward?

I expect he will have a leadership role on the defense.  He'll be a motivator, and perhaps the "enforcer" (within proper boundaries) that the team has been lacking in the locker room.  I also expect that he won't be the superhero he's been in Philly, but I also believe that fans will enjoy what they see.  Dawkins isn't a long-term solution, but he should definitely buy the team time to build an effective defense. 

Most of all, I expect Dawkins to make the players around him more effective.  Corners will have the over-coverage to take chances without great risks.  The run defense should show immediate improvement because Dawkins will play a major role in keeping blown-plays down.

In the transition stage that is this year, we will see a lot of new faces.  Those new players, as well as the present players, are going to adjust to yet another scheme and (God save us) an overhaul in terminology.  With new nomenclature, the entire defense could struggle.  They also have to go through the process of gelling with each other.  A strong leader in the locker room like a Dawkins can soften the impact and speed the process along.  The learning curve for the entire defense is mitigated with Dawkins, who can help to cool locker-room feuds as well as push his teammates to play and learn with more intensity.

Older?  Yes.  Past his prime?  Sure.  But like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, this is one old man that bad guys just aren't going to want to line up against.

(Additional reading on the role of safeties from Milehighreport.com)

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