I had to love this quote from the game manual that came with my copy of Madden 11:
GameFlow allows players to pick plays like a true NFL coach. By matching plays to situational game plans, plays can be tailor-picked automatically for each down.
Throughout this article, we will be using a touchdown drive that came in the first quarter of Denver's first game against the Kansas City Chiefs on November 14, 2010. In that game, the Broncos won the coin toss and elected to receive. Their opening drive ended in a touchdown. Kansas City ended their first possession with a punt that gave Denver a first down on their own 18-yard line. The Broncos proceeded to march 82 yards in 9 plays -- running 4:37 off the clock -- to score their second touchdown of the day. Denver ran the ball 5 times for 49 yards (a 9.7 yard per carry average) and passed the ball 4 times for 33 yards (an 8.25 yard per attempt average). They recorded 4 first downs and did not have a single pass fall incomplete. Great stats, a great drive and a wonderful feeling to see our Broncos go up by fourteen points on a division rival.
If only it were that easy. What Madden does not let you in on is the fact that on any given offensive down, there are three decisions must be made. I would assume that these are generally laid out prior to the game as part of the game plan, but certainly some of the "chess match" strategizing that goes on during a game influences the decisions as well. The three components that must be put into place for each offensive down are: The Personnel Package, The Formation and The Play.
Take a Jump with me and see what these three components are and how they're used together.
Yet, if we stop there, we rob ourselves of the chance to see some of the deeper intricacies that led to that drive being a success. The coaches and players were able to use Personnel Packages, Formations and Plays effectively on this drive. Let's take a moment and look at these three components: Personnel Packages refers to the players who are put on the field in the hopes of generating a favorable mismatch with the defense. Formations refers to the way the players are aligned on the field prior to the snap in the hopes of disguising what the offense is about to do. Plays refers to what the players do after the snap in an attempt to move the ball towards the opponent's end zone.
Some of you may be familiar with the name of Pat Kirwan. Kirwan was a coach who moved up through the high school and college ranks to eventually land a job in the NFL. He spent time as a scout for Arizona and then Tampa Bay. He worked his way up from a role as a defensive assistant with the New York Jets to becoming the Jets' director of player administration. Kirwan has suggested that fans use a two-digit system for tracking the personnel packages used by a team on any given play.
Kirwan's system is based on the recognition that on every play, six of the eleven spots will be filled by the offensive linemen and the quarterback. What will vary is the number of running backs, tight ends and wide receivers used to fill in the remaining five slots. Kirwan's numbering system using two digits to note how many running backs and tight ends are on the field on any given play (with the automatic assumption that the remainder of the five spots will be filled by wide receivers). Thus, a 00 package has no running back, no tight end and by default five wide receivers. His system looks like this:
|00||0 RB, 0 TE, 5 WR||11||1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR||21||2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR|
|01||0 RB, 1 TE, 4 WR||12||1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR||22||2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR|
|02||0 RB, 2 TE, 3 WR||13||1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR||23||2 RB, 3 TE, 0 WR|
|10||1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR||20||2 RB, 0 TE, 3 WR|
(RB = running back, TE = tight end, WR = wide receiver)
In the case of the touchdown drive we are using as our example, the Broncos used an 11 package once, a 12 package five times, and a 21 package three times. In the order of the drive, Denver went: 12, 21, 12, 21, 21, 12, 12, 12, 11. Thus we can see how the Broncos used three different personnel packages on that scoring drive. They did not, however, use the same formation each time they ran a personnel package.
Simply put, the formation is the way the players line up for the play on the field. Where did the RB line up? Was the TE on the right side or the left side of the offensive line? Where were the WRs at the start of the play? These are all determined by the formation that has been called. In a team's playbook, these formations have their own unique names. For example, if you look at a playbook on Madden 11 (I don't have access to a current NFL playbook to cite as a real life example), formations have names like Ace or Y-Trips. I do not know what the Broncos under Josh McDaniels/Mike McCoy chose to call their formations.
I'd like to offer a quick aside about the concepts of "strong side" and "weak side" when talking about NFL football formations. I always used to the think that the right side of the offensive line was the strong side and the left was the weak side. This is not precisely correct. Strong side and weak side are most commonly used to refer to where the TE lines up. In a formation with a single TE, the side of the offensive line on which he lines up is the "strong" side while the opposite side is the "weak" side. Thus, if the TE lines up on the right end of the offensive line, the right side is the strong side. If he lines up on the left end of the line, the left side is the strong side. In formations where there is either no TE, or more than one TE, the strong side becomes the side with the most players on or just behind the line of scrimmage while the weak side is the one with the fewest players on or just behind the line of scrimmage. So, if the personnel package is a 12 with one TE on either end of the offensive line but with both WRs on the left side, the left side is the "strong" side.
During our example drive, although the Broncos only used three different personnel packages, they used nine different formations:
|1||12||Directly behind QB||1 on the left, 1 on the right||2 on the right|
|2||21||RB/FB in offset I to the right||1 on the right||2 on the left|
|3||12||RB directly behind the QB||1 on the left, 1 on the right||1 on the left, 1 on the right|
|4||21||RB/FB in offset I to the left||1 on the left||1 on the left, 1 on the right|
|5||21||RB/FB in offset I to the left||1 on the right||1 on the left, 1 on the right|
|6||12||Shotgun with RB to the left of the QB||2 on the right||2 on the left|
|7||12||RB directly behind the QB||2 on the right||2 on the left|
|8||12||RB directly behind the QB||2 on the right||1 on the left, 1 on the right|
|9||11||RB directly behind the QB||TE on the right||2 on the right|
So we can see how the Broncos, although they only used three different personnel packages on the drive, gave the Chiefs' defense a different look for each of the packages as well as a different look on each play. For example, in the five 12 packages: in two cases the TEs were split to either end and in the other three instances they were both on the right side, while the WRs were split to either side in two cases, both on the right in one instance and both on the left in the remaining two. Thus, we can see how the formations are designed to disguise what will be coming in the play by not giving the defense a repetitive look.
This is what the players do after the snap. As TV watching fans, we typically only see where the ball goes. We don't know the names of the plays nor precisely what each player's assignment is. Madden gives plays names like "Power O" and "PA CTR Waggle." Are these what the Broncos call their plays? Probably not. The play names are important to the players, however, since that is what lets them know what they are to do after the snap. As fans, we're stuck with seeing the result of the play.
We've already noted that on our example drive, the Broncos used three different personnel packages and nine different formations. Out of those, they ran six different plays: two runs off right tackle, two short passes to the left, a WR reverse to the left end, a short pass to the right, a short pass to the middle and two runs into the middle of the line. They both mixed up the order of their plays and used them in a manner designed to give the offense some rhythm. The order was: run, pass, run, pass, run, pass, run, run, pass. Denver used those six different plays to travel eighty-two yards for their second touchdown of the game.
When we put the three components together we see this:
|1||8:56||1-10-DEN18||12||Behind QB||1 left, 1 right||2 right||Run Right Tackle||9|
|2||8:25||2-1-DEN27||21||Offset I Right||1 right||2 left||Pass Short Left||13, 1stD|
|3||7:51||1-10-DEN40||12||Behind QB||1 left, 1 right||1 left, 1 right||WR Reverse Left||19, 1stD|
|4||7:26||1-10-KC41||21||Offset I Left||1 left||1 left, 1 right||Pass Short Right||8|
|5||6:54||2-2-KC33||21||Offset I Left||1 right||1 left, 1 right||Run Middle||9, 1stD|
|6||6:22||1-10-KC24||12||Shotgun, Left of QB||2 right||2 left||Pass Short Left||6|
|7||5:45||2-4-kC18||12||Behind QB||2 right||2 left||Run Right Tackle||11, 1stD|
|8||5:04||2-7-KC7||12||Behind QB||2 right||2 right||Run Middle||1|
|9||4:23||2-6-KC6||11||Behind QB||1 right||1 left, 2 right||Pass Short Middle||6, TD|
Denver did a good job of mixing up their personnel packages and plays. They used a 12 package to run, then a 21 package for a pass. They went back to the 12 package for a second run and followed that with another pass out of a 21 package. On their fifth play, they came out with a 21 package -- the defense may or may not have assumed they were going to pass again, but the Broncos chose to run this time and it paid off. They did the same thing on the next play, trotting out a 12 package (which they had used to run the previous two times they used it) and ran a pass play. Denver came right back to the 12 package on the next two plays and both were runs. The one time they used an 11 package, they passed out of it for a touchdown.
It must be noted, however, that once the personnel package is on the field, once they have lined up in their formation for the play, and once the play is called and the ball is snapped, everything falls upon the shoulders of the players to successfully execute the play. Otherwise, all of the game planning, the putting in the different personnel packages, setting up the different formations and calling different plays goes for naught.
When looking at our example drive: On the first play, if Kuper, Harris and Graham fail to block their guys towards the sideline, if Walton isn't able to slip a defender to move out to take on a LB, if Beadles doesn't pick up the defender released by Walton, if the blockers fail to hold their blocks throughout the play, Moreno does not gain nine yards. On the second play, if Royal doesn't come across the field and screen two defenders off Thomas, chances are there would not have been a completion. Eddie Royal doesn't pick up nineteen yards on a reverse if Quinn and Thomas fail to block their men on the third play. If Gaffney doesn't turn around right when he did on the next play, Orton's pass would have hit him in the back since it was in the air before Gaffney turned. Moreno's second run fails if Beadles and Larsen don't push their assignments to the sides. The bubble screen on the next play is a fail if the offensive linemen don't get upfield to block. The next run was made successful by great blocking and Moreno breaking a tackle . . . well, you get the idea.
We can see, then, that there are three essential components which go into setting up a play. These three components are designed to create advantageous matchups, disguise what is coming and ultimately move the ball towards the opponent's end zone. In the case of the highlighted drive, the pieces came together and the team found success. In other cases in 2010 one or more of the components failed and/or the players did not successfully execute the play.. Hopefully 2011 will see a return to a more consistent level of success.