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All New York Jets fans know that 2012 wasn’t a vintage year for offensive production. And most are equally aware of the fact that the franchise can only solve that problem by blowing up the roster and getting shot of Mark Sanchez, Shonn Greene, Matt Slauson and so on. But wait. Maybe I use the word ‘fact’ when really I should say ‘media-driven hype’ because – as we’re about to see – sometimes common wisdom isn’t quite as wise as the newspaper men might like us to believe it is.
But before we start looking at the real reason why the Jets’ trademarked ground-and-pound (and the Sanchez-led passing game that depends on it) crashed-and-burned last year, let’s remind ourselves of the fact that much like chess, the outcome of a football game generally depends on the people who move the pieces as much as it does upon the pieces themselves. This truism is what first set me to thinking about how the Jets running game had suddenly degenerated from being adequate enough to secure back-to-back AFC Championship appearances to being the, if-you’ll-excuse-me, butt of cheap jokes throughout the league.
Cast your mind back to the time when offensive coordinator Tony Sparano and his chief henchman, offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo (left), first arrived at the New Meadowlands amid fanfares and proclamations that their new ‘Power Running Game’ would revitalize the Jets’ flagging ground attack. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it – power running? In actual fact it’s no more or less powerful than any other kind of running scheme – it simply sounds as if it is. So let’s refer to it instead by it’s slightly less deceptive name and call it gap-blocking.
Now, throughout the years when the Jets’ rushing game was at its peak under former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and line coach Bill Callahan, zone-blocking schemes were the order of the day. This revelation in itself begs a couple of important questions, namely: In terms of execution, how similar is one scheme to another, and can somebody who’s effective as a zone-blocker be equally successful in a gap-blocking schematic? Let’s dig a little deeper…
The basic difference between the two is that in gap-blocking, linemen will be assigned to block a certain defender one-on-one and the running back will look to exploit a predetermined lane (or hole) through the defensive line. In zone-blocking schemes on the other hand, each player is told to move in the direction of the play and double-teams are formed against the opposing linemen. Then when a defender is taken out of the play or “washed down”, one of the double-teamers will come off him and look to make a second-level block on a linebacker or safety. Meanwhile, the ball-carrier is left to make a read on where the best running lane is.
In terms of the differing types of personnel that are required, because zone-blocking relies on linemen double-teaming defenders, strength and size are not terribly important. What’s far more useful is a combination of agility and speed so that the secondary blocks can be made against the smaller but more slippery linebackers and safeties.
Gap-blocking requires the exact opposite of these attributes – linemen in this kind of scheme benefit from having the size and strength that’s required to shunt defenders off the line of scrimmage in a man-to-man confrontation.
In summary, then, not only do zone-blocking (Schottenheimer/Callahan) and gap-blocking (Sparano/DeGuglielmo) differ massively in a schematic sense, they also demand entirely different types of personnel. Yet all of this seems to have been lost on the 2012 Jets, because for reasons best known to themselves, they opted to switch from zone to gap-blocking whilst maintaining almost exactly the same front-five lineup. This was hardly a recipe for success.
But the greatest madness of Sparano’s scheme centered on running back Shonn Greene (below, right). The man known to fans as ‘War Machine’ is a classic example of a runner who is suited to one kind of scheme and one only. Effectively Sparano could not have done more to mismanage his number one back.
Zone-blocking demands what’s generally referred to as a ‘one-cut runner’ – somebody who is powerful, disciplined and capable of running downhill (ie going to the ground while at the same time driving through tackles). It’s also essential that he has excellent vision as he’ll be required to flow in the direction of the play and then cut back to exploit any holes that open up. Agility and speed are not really factors because he’ll always find himself running through areas that are congested by defenders AND linemen who are making their downfield blocks. He cannot be an egotist who thrives on big plays – on the contrary he must be a team player who’s happy to collect 80+ yards per game in 4-5 yard chunks. Greene has all of these qualities in abundance.
But to succeed in a gap-blocking scheme such as the one that Sparano implemented, a back must have explosive speed out of the backfield so that he can quickly hit the pre-designated point of attack, and use his elusiveness to evade would-be tacklers at the line of scrimmage. Then, once he’s downfield, he can take advantage of his speed and agility to capitalize on the open space by spinning and juking past unblocked defenders. Anybody who has watched Greene play football for five minutes should know that he is probably the last running back in the NFL who could be said to fit that description.
So why did Sparano commit to a gap-blocking system, and where do the Jets go from here? Well, the simple answer to the first part of the question is that it’s what he’s always done; cats don’t bark, dogs don’t meow, and Tony Sparano doesn’t run zone-blocking offenses. So in many ways the responsibility for this mess lies with former General Manager Mike Tannenbaum – the man who hired him in the first place. But the issue runs much deeper than that, and it highlights a significant problem that the Jets must resolve going forward, namely that whoever replaces Tannenbaum must be able to compensate for coach Rex Ryan’s almost complete ignorance of offensive strategy. Essentially Sparano’s hiring was an institutional failure, and that must never be allowed to happen again.
In terms of how to resolve the situation, the Jets have to do one of two things – either a) they replace Sparano with an offensive coordinator who is familiar with the zone-blocking scheme (my personal prayer goes out to Norv Turner, although realistically I’d be happy with somebody like former Raiders man Greg Knapp, left), re-sign Greene, and return to the ground-and-pound of old, or b) they abandon Greene to free agency, hire somebody with an ideology that’s similar to Sparano’s (Mike Mularkey would fit the bill) and look to rebuild both their offensive line and running back corps.
Fortunately it appears that the most sensible option is also the more likely one: Because of the current cap calamity in Florham Park it would be suicidal for the Jets front office to waste cap space and draft picks on rebuilding two areas of the team that were never really broken. And while Greene’s style of running will always make him unpopular with fans, the stark reality is that he is both perfectly serviceable and incredibly cheap (his average salary over the past 4 years has been just $663,750 per annum – by way of comparison, Reggie Bush’s earnings have averaged out at $4.9M per annum over the past 2 years).
Drawing to a conclusion, the Jets’ 2012 campaign was an almost unmitigated offensive disaster, but fortunately a quick off-season autopsy identifies the cause of death quite clearly. If the situation is to be remedied then it can only be realistically done so via a return to tried-and-trusted principles – any other kind of fix would just be inviting more disaster further down the road.
Over the next few weeks we will have some idea of where the franchise is heading when owner Woody Johnson announces who his offensive coordinator will be in 2013. Then, when the NFL carousel moves to Radio City in the spring, we’ll get an even better indication by looking at which areas the new General Manager chooses to rebuild.
The 2013 off-season is set to be a critical point in the development of the New York Jets franchise, and the two key decisions of who to hire as General Manager and offensive coordinator will almost certainly dictate whether the next 3-5 years see a recovery or an even deeper nosedive.
The past season, it seems, was nothing more than an appetizer for the real drama which is yet to come.