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The Boy Who Cried ____
Posted By ChiefsWarpath.com On December 10, 2008 @ 9:10 pm In Commentary | Comments Disabled
Those of you who know me know that in the past year I have become an avid reader. I made it part of my life’s goal to read all the great literature I had skipped by being so well-versed in Cliff’s Notes all through high school. I try to cover as much stylistic ground as possible, reading everything from philosophy to classic literature to historical nonfiction to poetry, and so on. For this week’s (belated) game review I found myself turning to one of Aesop’s fables.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf is one of Aesop’s best known. Even non-readers know its moral well: “Even when liars tell the truth, they are never believed. The liar will lie once, twice, and then perish when he tells the truth.” This statement (and maybe the title itself) will probably errantly lead a few of my readers to believe I am about to embark on a tirade about Herm the Liar. I’m not. In that fable, however, there is a secondary lesson that I find applicable to our beloved team: the natural reaction to rote repetition and predictability.
On offense, Herm is The Boy Who Cried Pass. That’s a radical departure from his former self. His game philosophy has always been run first, pass second (or punt second, pass third), which is not at all atypical for a defensive coach. Prior to 2007, when the run game failed him altogether, his career high for passing attempts per game was 31, set in 2002. Last year he upped that number to 35.2. 35.2 is certainly high, but not even high enough to get him in the top ten. Given that the shift was performance and personnel-driven rather than a paradigm shift in offensive philosophy, most fans rightly believed him to still be a devotee to the run-run-pass game plan.
On the surface this still appears to be true. Taking the numbers from the past seven games, starting in New York with the installation of the shotgun, Tyler Thigpen has attempted 225 passes. Add in Quinn Gray’s eight attempts in the Buffalo debacle and that puts the number at 233. That comes out to 33.2 attempts per game. That’s a fair number–even a conservative number. The issue is that those 233 attempts are balanced out by a paltry 166 running plays, or 23.7 attempts per game. Last year’s season average was 23.9. I doubt there is a single Chiefs fan who would state that our running game hasn’t improved dramatically (anybody remember the fearsome onslaught of Gilbert Harris running behind lead blocker Kris Wilson?). So why are we running less often? It’s the shotgun, right? You can’t run as much in the shotgun spread, right?
Wrong. Seattle ran the shotgun with considerable success throughout the 2007 season. For them the decision to run the shotgun was, as it is for us now, personnel-driven. In their case it was driven by the ailing feet of halfback Shaun Alexander and the failing neck of fullback Mack Strong. Without their characteristic power running game, coach Mike Holmgren felt it necessary to lean more on the talents of his quarterback and wide receivers. Still, the team executed 26.9 rushing plays per game (17th in the league) and posted 1619 yards (20th)–pedestrian numbers indeed, but high enough to balance the pass and force defenses to continue to respect their ability to move the ball in more than one way.
For this revamped 2008 Kansas City offense, however, there is no balance. Furthermore, the numbers don’t tell the real truth. 36 of those 166 running plays were made by quarterbacks (mostly Thigpen–Gray has just one). A limited number of those were actual quarterback keepers called by somebody on the sideline. Most were not. For the sake of presentation, I’ll make the assumption that 25% of those 36 quarterback runs were called as such. That translates to 139 designed running plays in seven games, or 19.9 attempts per game. The flip side of that is that the other 75% of those 36 quarterback runs were not designed running plays, but rather failed passing attempts. That ups the number of called passing plays to 260, or 37.1 per game.
The resultant important figure is this: the offensive playcalling is a 65/35 split favoring the pass. Numbers like that have kept Detroit at the bottom of the barrel for the better part of a decade. Championships are not won like this. Winning franchises are not built like this. Numbers like this break quarterbacks and offensive coordinators and brand wide receivers as failures without ever being given a fair shot to develop in a normal, natural manner. Herm may see this new pass-heavy offense as a means of simplification to help bring along his new young stud, but in truth it can only serve to hurt him. As teams get more and more tape on the system, defenses bite less and less on its traps.
Furthermore, with Mark Bradley injured, Thigpen is once again without a reliable third target. Tony Gonzalez has 23 receptions in the past three games–a disconcerting number even for a future Hall Of Fame tight end. More disconcerting, however, is how many of Thigpen’s incompletions are targeted at Gonzalez. Throwing to any single target 15+ times per game, often into double and triple coverage, is a surefire way to guarantee diminishing returns on expanding effort. Without returning some semblance of balance to the offense, I can all but guarantee that Thigpen will begin to struggle mightily. We can only hope The Boy Who Cried Pass gives this a little consideration in the coming weeks.
On defense, The Boy Who Cried Pass, formerly known as The Boy Who Cried Run, is The Boy Who Cried Zone. Unfortunately it’s been a few years since any team ran a dominant Cover 2. Nowadays Cover 2 no longer looks to be even moderately successful. As with any passing fad scheme, the league as a whole has cracked the code and knows how to beat it. It remains a viable change of pace, but as the basis for a game plan it is a failing proposition.
It’s not surprising that The Boy Who Cried Pass is one of the last diehard adherents to the failing fad. As Tampa Bay’s defensive backs coach under Tony Dungy in the late ’90s, he was a key component to the installation of the system’s most famous incarnation. As a system that relies heavily on superior feats of athleticism, intellectual capacity, and intensive game preparation from cornerbacks and safeties, it plays heavily into all of his natural inclinations.
Unfortunately it doesn’t play into any of Gunther Cunningham’s inclinations. He’s an aggressive, hard-hitting linebacker’s man who would rather call a blitz than eat dinner. Too bad he doesn’t get that opportunity. Presently the blitz is missing in action, and in the rare case that it does make an appearance it’s almost always in the form of a basic corner blitz. There are no intricate, elusive dropback schemes that play to the strengths of the faster pass rushers. Instead, the rudimentary, unchanging alignment of the front seven allows offenses to quickly neutralize Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson on nearly every down. The new wild card is Jason Babin, a hybrid DE/OLB who has demonstrated past success as a pass rusher, but, like Hali, is more effective as a complimentary player. Like Hali, he was borderline 2nd round talent who bore all the expectations of having been a 1st round pick. Like Hali, he unduly fell out of favor when he struggled after being moved to a different position in his 3rd year. Both would likely be effective if Gunther had the freedom to unleash them. It appears that, at least for now, Gunther does not have that capacity.
Adding more to the illogical nature of The Boy Who Cried Zone’s adherence to the Cover 2 is the aforementioned requirement of superior athleticism, intellect, and preparation on the part of the defensive backs. A big part of what made the system work in Tampa is that all four starting defensive backs were heady ballhawks who understood receivers’ routes and knew how to follow a quarterbacks eyes. Kansas City doesn’t have the guys for the job. The all-rookie cornerback corps might stun us from time to time with those superior feats of athleticism, and all reports are that Brandon Flowers is a film room warrior, but how many times are we going to be subjected to seeing Brandon Carr give up a big play while playing softer coverage than even Dexter McCleon? Bernard Pollard is nothing more than a hitter, Carr is a quitter, and Maurice Leggett, impressive as he has been, is as unpolished as a twenty-year old pawn shop wedding ring. One cornerback and one free safety does not a backfield make. Running a Cover 2 with this bunch makes no more sense than would running a 3-4 with our front seven. Therein lies my one and only defense of Gunther Cunningham: if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.
Given that we’re guaranteed a losing season and another high draft pick, and given that the last three games are inconsequential, I would like nothing more than to see The Boy Who Cried ____ throw up his hands and cry submission to the will of his coordinators (except Mike Priefer…. Fire Mike Priefer). Let Chan run his voodoo trickery. Let Gunther run his bizarre blitzes. Just for once, remove the constraints and just see what happens. In the case of the offense there is little that can be changed at the moment to improve upon a product that, as it stands, is pretty good. The further development of Thigpen in the offseason, the addition of a new lineman and the re-instatement of a relatively new one who has earned a starting job several times over, and the rediscovery of a successful running game can return this offense to glory. The defense, on the other hand, can improve drastically right now. Put Derrick Johnson back at WILL and bring some pressure from somewhere other than the line every once in a while, and I’ll bet we could double our sack total by the end of the season. We’d still be the worst in the history of the league, but at least we’d be in double digits.
I still maintain my undying faith in the athletic capacity of the majority of the players who suit up in the red and gold every week, and that faith will not diminish. This is a good team that has been badly managed, and when The Boy That Cried ____ finally cries Help!, we’ll start winning games again. To that I cry Please!
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