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Some Clarification is in Order: Problem Solving

Mike Holmgren once helped answer one of the biggest problems in football, and now his solution paved the way for running backs like Sproles, Bush, McCoy and Westbrook. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Mike Holmgren once helped answer one of the biggest problems in football, and now his solution paved the way for running backs like Sproles, Bush, McCoy and Westbrook. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Now it's not too often I spend the whole first half of an article discussing a topic that isn't directly related to football, but last season I had a few discussions with friends both here on Mile High Report and back at home. It comes down to understanding and recognizing problems and then once we realize the real issue, we will begin to know how to solve it. So let me begin by telling a story I once heard:

In a multi-storied office building in New York, occupants began complaining about the poor elevator service provided in the building. Waiting times for elevators at peak hours, they said, were excessively long. Several of the tenants threatened to break their leases and move out of the building because of this.

So what is the problem here? It seems like it's that the elevators just take too long.

Management authorized a study to determine what would be the best solution. The study revealed that because of the age of the building no engineering solution could be justified economically, the cost was just too high. The engineers said that management would just have to live with the problem permanently.

Some of you may have heard this story before, awesome and since this isn't in real life you can't ruin the ending for anyone else. But for those who haven't heard it, what do you do in this situation?

Continuing the Story

Let's hear how the story ends:

The desperate manager called a meeting of his staff, which included a young recently hired graduate in personnel psychology…The young man had not focused on elevator performance but on the fact that people complained about waiting only a few minutes. Why, he asked himself, were they complaining about waiting for only a very short time? He concluded that the complaints were a consequence of boredom. Therefore, he took the problem to be one of giving those waiting something to occupy their time pleasantly. He suggested installing mirrors in the elevator boarding areas so that those waiting could look at each other or themselves without appearing to do so. The manager took up his suggestion. The installation of mirrors was made quickly and at a relatively low cost. The complaints about waiting stopped.

This solution arose because someone understood the real problem wasn't that the elevator rides were too long, he understood the problem was boredom. Now had this been 100 story building, this solution may not have worked, people tend to only look at themselves for a limited amount of time before growing self conscious. But for shorter elevator rides, it worked. It alleviated the boredom. This is also how elevator music came to be, people complained elevator rides were too long but adding music helped soften the awkwardness of standing next to someone. This is why hotel and apartment managers enhance lobbies with plants, television monitors, music, and posters that announce upcoming events. Disney and other amusement park operators have learned that guests will complain less about long waiting lines for popular rides when signs inform them of the remaining wait time.

Now this story likely isn't true, and has multiple origins, but it serves our purpose of helping us understand the real problem to get a real solution. The way we find the real problem is to ask questions that build on what we already know:

Complaint: The elevators are too slow.
Question: Why is that a problem?
Answer: It makes me wait.
Question: Why is that a problem?
Answer: I don’t like to wait.
Question: Why is that a problem?
Answer: It bores me.
Question: Why is that a problem?
Answer: I’ve got more interesting things to do.

But How Is This Football Related?

Let me tell another story:

It involves a NFL front office. The team was a team that wanted balance on offense but couldn't run. They tried everything, inside, outside, but it just didn't work. The team struggled and soon many free agents wanted to leave.

Problem? It seems to be the teams rushing attack sucks.

The front office looked for solutions, they knew their line wasn't very good, could they upgrade it? No, there were not enough draft picks to fix that in one years and the players would take time to develop, years. How about a back who can play without a great line, like Barry Sanders? No, players like that don't become free agents. There was no real economical solution without altering the teams identity. This looked like a long term problem.

What could this team do? You could wait the 3-4 years to build up the line and then play, but your current RB's may be too old by then. You could try and draft every RB who seems like he's the next Barry Sanders, but that would take away resources from the rest of the team, what to do?

The coaching staff called a team meeting to discuss ideas. A young assistant coach raised his hand. This coach wasn't focused on how to improve the run game, but on the fact that because they couldn't run the ball opposing defenses didn't respect the run. Why, he asked himself, was this a problem? He concluded that because the opposing teams didn't respect the run game they could send extra blitzers or drop more players into coverage. This made the quarterbacks life very hard. So this coach decided the real problem wasn't the lack of run game, it's that opposing defenses could do whatever they wanted. To solve this the coach suggested using running backs in the screen game or on short slant routes to supplement the run game. By doing this opposing teams couldn't blitz 5, 6 or 7 men since the quarterback had a quick release target and they also couldn't drop their corners and safety in deep zones otherwise the shorter routes would eat them up. The team did this, opposing teams were forced to adjust, and the team's desired goal was achieved.

This is the story of a real team, kind of, and a real assistant coach, or coaches to be more specific. Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid took the basis of the West Coast offense they learned from Bill Walsh but after examining a theoretical team and problem in the NFL one off-season, they sat down and tried to find solutions. After spending nearly the whole off-season looking at this, they came up with this solution. They broke their thoughts down to these laddering questions:

Complaint: We can't run the ball.
Question: Why is that a problem?
Answer: It makes it hard to pass the ball
Question: Why is that a problem?
Answer: We lose control the field of play
Question: Why is that a problem?
Answer: The defense can blitz and drop into coverage whenever they want

Holmgren and Reid had found the real problem, it wasn't that they couldn't run the ball (though that was true) it was that defenses could do what they wanted without fear. These two had seen running backs and fullbacks used as receivers before, but it had never been a key part of an offense. Both coaches when they took jobs at new teams (Seattle and Philadelphia respectively) went out and got backs who could catch the ball and made this a primary feature in their versions of the West Coast offense. Brian Westbrook was one of the players who helped remake the running back position into the position we see today with players like Ray Rice and Matt Forte. Now if Brian Westbrook had been asked to only run, his career would have been much less impactful or successful, and if Rice and Forte were only runners they would still be solid players, but not the power houses the are. Shaun Alexander, a top tier runner in his right, was also a fantastic pass catcher for Matt Hasselback and the Seahawks. There is a reason rookie Doug Martin might take the job in Tampa Bay from LeGarrette Blount, who is a great runner, it's because the Bucs line is horrible and having a back who can catch the ball would help quarterback Josh Freeman. The same reason Ray Rice overtook Willis McGahee in Baltimore (though I'm not complaining now that McGahee is here) and Forte overtook Benson

*It should be noted Mike Martz helped develop a similar idea as well during that time period, which he used very effectively with Marshall Faulk, though his was based out of the vertical, Air Coryell offense rather than the West Coast*

In today's NFL, it's common place to see a team that has a questionable line use their running back more as a receiver, and it's roots are found in the solution Andy Reid, Mike Holmgren and Mike Martz found.

Using What We've Learned

Now I'm not advocating this offense or anything, merely trying to make the point of knowing how to recognize the real issue. Too often as fans we like to merely point out an issue without digging into why it's an issue. Take the Broncos defensive issues last season. The Broncos got blown out a lot, we all know that, but after we do some digging we found the issue of the blowouts wasn't founded on the defense, rather it was, in large part, the offensive turnovers. This can be applied to a number of problems facing the NFL, if we just break it down.

So as we face issues in the 2012 season, because there will always be issues, remember this article when you are writing your game reviews, remember to try and dig a bit deeper and try and find the real problem rather than saying "Man McGahee and the run game sucked" or "Our corners couldn't keep coverage to save their life." There is always more to the story.