Evolving and Implementing the Zone Read: Part 1

This will be part of an ongoing series on the merits of implementing a zone read scheme into the Titans offense.  The purpose is to identify the interests, problems, and risks involved with installing this offense in the NFL.

Let's begin this series with the most important question.  Why do I think the Titans should implement a zone read/spread scheme?

This team's philosophy is broken.  It's Fisherball.  We're built around ball/clock control and dominant defense.  It doesn't work here.  That's not to say that it can't work.  It's just not what the current personnel is designed for.  This front office needs to stop looking at Vince Young as a liability, and start looking at the stress he and CJ can put on a defense when the offense is built around their strengths.  That aside, it would be vastly more difficult to build a top 10 defense than it would a top 10 offense given the pieces currently in place.  Fisher has only been able to do that once in the past 10 years, and it took arguably the best defender in NFL to get him there.  And, as you'll see below, it's difficult to win a Super Bowl without a top 10 offense or defense.

All that aside, let's take a look the past 10 Super Bowl teams (winners in italics)  and their respective DVOA rankings.

 

Year Team Offensive DVOA Defensive DVOA Team Offensive DVOA Defensive DVOA
2000 Ravens 23 2 Giants 8 12
2001 Patriots 11 13 Rams 2 5
2002 Raiders 2 9 Buccaneers 20 1
2003 Patriots 14 2 Panthers 18 10
2004 Patriots 3 6 Eagles 9 16
2005 Steelers 8 3 Seahawks 1 15
2006 Colts 1 25 Bears 18 2
2007 Patriots 1 12 Giants 18 14
2008 Steelers 21 1 Cardinals 15 23
2009 Colts 6 16 Saints 2 14

Total Avg 10.05 10.05 Winning Avg 12.1 8.1

 

 So what do we take from this.  A couple of things:

1.  In the past 10 years, only two teams have won a Super Bowl without a top ten offense or defense (2007 Giants, 2001 Patriots), and only one other team has made it to the Super Bowl with out a top ten offense/defense (2008 Cardinals).  That tells me that, in general, you need to excel at one or the other.  Expecting to excel in both is not reasonable, only three of the 20 teams have been in the top ten in both categories.  Being just slightly above average at both doesn't usually get it done.

2.  Winning teams are trending more towards being offensive minded.  One of the things that pops out in this data is that among Super Bowl winners, defensive DVOA has a higher ranking than offense.  As we look closer, you'll notice that it's a tale of two halves. 

From 2000-2004, average defensive DVOA ranking among Super Bowl winners is 4.8 (7.6 among all 10 teams those years).  During that same period, average offensive DVOA ranking among winners is 14.2 (11 among all 10 teams).

From 2005-2009, average defensive DVOA ranking among Super Bowl winners is 11.4 (12.5 among all 10 teams those years).  During that same period, average offensive DVOA ranking among winners is 10 (9.1 among all 10 teams).

Successful teams are becoming more offense-centric.  It's what the league wants.  Shoot outs=Exciting games=Tickets=Advertising, etc.  That's not to say that defense isn't important.  The trend indicates that you'd still like to have a top 10-15 defense.  However, as I said earlier, I think it will be tougher to build a top 10 defense, than it would be to build a top 10 offense with our personnel.

With that all that said, follow me through the jump for why I specifically think that the zone read offense is the way we should be headed.

Put simply, there are two effective ways to build a team.  Draft and sign players that fit your system.  Or, find players that you feel are the best talent, and adapt the scheme to them.  We're in a gray area that lies somewhere in between.  We don't really have an identity.

Vince Young is still a polarizing figure.  Everyone has an opinion.  The one that we can all agree on is that he has a unique skill set.  In my eyes, the front office has a decision to make.  Take the blue pill, cut Vince Young, and pretend this experiment never happened.  Or, take the red pill, fully commit yourself to Vince, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

 

477931___red_pill___medium

via www.sxc.hu


At this point, I don't think there is much of a choice.  This defense isn't going to be dominant next year.  And, the offensive personnel (read Vince Young) aren't meant for the current offensive system.  I see little downside in implementing this offense in the sense that 4-12 vs. 8-8 are virtually indistinguishable to me.  Deep playoff runs are the goal.  Everything else is just noise.  I'd rather take a big risk, with a large upside, than continually doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  So, enter the zone read experiment.

Why is this offense in particular beneficial to the Titans?

Vince Young and Chris Johnson.  It's the most obvious.  These two were tailor made for this sort of offense.  Because of his speed, the goal for CJ will always be to get him into space, or to the edge.  It's what the zone read is designed to do.  A typical, pro style offense is great for a runner like Lendale White.  It allows them to get a full head of steam when they hit the hole.  For a back with CJ's accelleration, it's wasted time.  He accelerates faster than any D-lineman or linebacker in the league.  Why not exploit that mismatch as much as possible?

As for Vince, running out of the shotgun is where he's comfortable.  It allows him to be a playmaker.  The read offense would open up his game.  It forces the defense to account for his legs on every single play.  That's a lot of added stress on the entire defense.  Even if that stress only means a half a second pause, it's enough for Chris Johnson to tear off a big one.  For more information on why this offense would work for Vince, rewatch the 2006 Rose Bowl highlights and remember that's all NFL caliber talent on defense.  (Side note: That's not meant to be a case study on why the zone read will work in the NFL.  Only to illustrate how Vince's skill set works in that sort of offense.)

Talent Evaluation.  Moving to a zone read scheme gives a distinct advantage in the NFL Draft.  The emergence of the spread in the college ranks has made talent evaluation much more difficult.  It forces front office personnel to examine players strengths and weaknesses in an offense vastly different from their own, and project how that player would fit into their system.  Running the spread would allow us to evaluate players in a system that is a closer fit to our own.  It also gives us the benefit of finding value late in the drafted or even undrafted in players that don't have what fits into a traditional NFL system.

Fluid transition from college to the NFL.  Currently, 48 teams run some form of a spread offense in college.  That's 40 percent of all college talent that is currently being brought to the pros and having to completely relearn a new system.  Obviously, the offenses wouldn't be exactly the same to ours, but transitioning to a different type of spread offense would be vastly easier than learning completely new offensive concepts. 

Texas Tech's Wes Welker comes to mind.  The guy couldn't make the Chargers roster as a rookie, and ended up signing with the Miami Dolphins.  During his first two years, he could barely find the field.  In year three, he posted decent numbers, and was arguably the Dolphins best receiver.  But, he didn't even get close to the top 25 in any significant category.  In 2007, Welker was traded to the New England Patriots who had recently implemented the closest thing to a spread offense in the NFL.  Since then, he's lead the league in receptions two out of three years (the other year he finished second).  I think if you could have brought him into a spread system to begin with, that production would have come much quicker.

For those that haven't read it, check out Outliers by Malcom Gladwell.  It's a great read with this fundamental conclusion:

In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

Gladwell found that across all types of industries (music, technology, sports, etc.), the people who were considered the greatest in their field had ten thousand hours of practice.  Now let's assume that an average high school athlete practices for one hour a day, and then two hours a day once they get to college.  That's 4,380 hours.  If during all that time, he's been operating in a spread system, much of that time has, in a sense, been wasted once he's required to re learn a new offense.  Finding a way to capture the most of those hours would be beneficial to any team drafting players.  There's a reason that a big deal is made every year about quarterbacks that run a pro style offense in college.  The transition is easier.  Why not adapt our offense for the talent coming in?

Success.  The spread has had success at every level. Some form of the offense has been implemented into the majority of successful high school programs in the country.

As for college, it doesn't require much explanation.  Nearly every top ten offensive team in the past 5 years has run some form of the spread.

We saw the "air raid" type of spread with the 2007 Patriots.  In 2008, the "wildcat" became the new fad.  For those that don't know, the wildcat is a glorified zone read with a jet sweep mixed in and without the threat of passing.  The reason it worked in both instances?  Personnel.  The players were made for those two offenses, just as our players are meant to run a zone read spread.

It's a powerful concept.  With the fundamental personnel (VY/CJ), this offense could develop into an animal the likes of which the NFL has never seen.  The upside could be huge.

Best I can tell, the largest reservation that this front office would have is that it's unconventional.  There's risk.  But, when you've got job security like Jeff Fisher, why not give it a shot?  You're not going to win a Super Bowl next year with the current scheme.  So be bold.  Ask Bill Walsh how going against the grain worked for him.  If you fail, so be it.  Start over in 2011.  If you succeed, I think the rewards could be historic.

Part two of this series will take a closer look at the basics of the zone read offense, it's evolution, and the new wrinkles that are constantly making it more difficult to defend.

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