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‘It Hasn’t Been a Disaster’

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The NFL’s Holy Grail

Are you ready for a total information overload? Plus, breaking down the sources of offseason news

The Holy Grail of football information has arrived. After years of teasing football nerds, the NFL announced last week that it will be making the All-22 “coaches’ film” available to the general public as part of the Game Rewind package on its website. For a mere $70, fans will finally be able to watch football from the most insightful, telling angle available, albeit only after the games have been completed. And contrary to what you might hear, it’s not going to bring the NFL down in a misinformation riot.

For the uninitiated, the All-22 film is designed to show what all 22 players on the field are doing on every given play, something that the traditional sideline angle from television fails to achieve.1 HDTV and the move to wide-screen aspect ratio televisions have made the sideline angle more palatable, but it’s impossible to truly gauge certain aspects of plays from that sideline angle. On many passing plays, the routes of the wide receivers and the drops of the defensive backs will take them off the screen, preventing even a knowledgeable fan from identifying what sorts of coverage or route combinations are being run until an appropriate replay has been shown. Everyone agrees that the most important perspective in football is from the quarterback, but the traditional sideline angle of television coverage doesn’t let us see what the quarterback sees; it lets us see what the people in the expensive seats can see. That made sense in a world with square televisions, but no longer.

The NFL, however, has been extremely protective of that All-22 film. Until this change in policy, the only public-facing outlets that even aired the coaches’ film were a pair of shows on ESPN (NFL Matchup) and the NFL Network (Playbook). Otherwise, unless you were a programmer on Madden or a media member within driving distance of the NFL Films offices in New Jersey, access to the All-22 film was off-limits. The league periodically teased fans with access to the vaunted game tape — it made coaches’ film available with Game Rewind for a few selected highlights per game during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and conducted surveys asking subscribers how much they would be willing to pay for coaching tape if it did become available — but the league said as recently as November that access to the tape was “a long way from becoming a reality, if ever.”

Why was the NFL so hesitant to release the All-22 film to the public, you ask? Well, you’re not going to believe how silly its excuses were. According to the Wall Street Journal, one was that the tape represented “proprietary NFL coaching information,” which is absurd on its face. Every NFL team has access to the same All-22 tape. It’s not as if there’s a team in the NFL or in another league that’s going to get some competitive advantage by releasing the camera angle to the public. The real reason why the NFL hasn’t released the tape before now is summed up by a quote by Charlie Casserly, the CBS analyst who previously worked as the Texans’ general manager and once voted against making coaches’ tape available to the public as a member of the league’s Competition Committee. From that same WSJ piece:

Casserly, a former general manager who was a member of the NFL’s competition committee, says he voted against releasing All-22 footage because he worried that if fans had access, it would open players and teams up to a level of criticism far beyond the current hum of talk radio. Casserly believed fans would jump to conclusions after watching one or two games in the All 22, without knowing the full story.

“I was concerned about misinformation being spread about players and coaches and their ability to do their job,” he said. “It becomes a distraction that you have to deal with.” Now an analyst for CBS, Casserly takes an hour-and-a-half train once a week to NFL Films headquarters in Mt. Laurel, N.J. just to watch the All-22 film.

Before I get into how silly that is, let me first say that Casserly’s not alone in expressing that sentiment. I’ve heard similar arguments from administrators, players, and even writers around the league over the past several years, and there’s at least some validity to what they’re saying. It’s extremely, extremely difficult for the layperson to break down the All-22 film without making mistakes. The intricacies of pre-snap adjustments and the many avenues to change a route or a coverage on the fly on both sides of the ball make it extremely difficult to accurately gauge what a player’s genuine responsibilities are on a particular play.

As an example, consider a center on a typical running play. His job, per the playbook, might be to chip the defensive tackle and assist the right guard in temporarily occupying him before getting to the second level and blocking the middle linebacker, creating a lane for his running back to go through. If all goes well, it’s easy to see that the center did a fantastic job. In real life, though, the defensive tackle might do a great job of occupying the two linemen, the center might never get to the second level to perform his second assignment, and the middle linebacker might shoot the gap to make a play behind the line of scrimmage for a loss. If you don’t know the playcall, how can you know whether the center’s job was to get to the second level and block the middle linebacker or whether it was simply to double-team the defensive tackle? I know of one NFL team that wanted to grade every offensive lineman in football before free agency by having its personnel break down every play and grade the offensive linemen on their performance. What they found, though, was that even trained football eyes are unable to reliably break down what each lineman was supposed to do on every single play without guessing far too frequently, as they would have to do on the play above. They abandoned the project.

With that being said, let’s get back to Casserly’s sentiment from the WSJ piece and why it’s an invalid argument. His concern, as expressed in the article, is that improper analysis of the tape will lead to fans jumping to conclusions and acting irrationally, and that misinformation would be spread as a result. To that, there is only one response: Have you ever spoken to an NFL fan before? Actually, no need to limit it to fans, since they’re not the only ones who spread misinformation or take things out of context because they don’t know what they’re talking about (or care to get it right).

Remember, this is a league where fake character concerns about RG3 are leaked before the draft and real ones about Ryan Leaf are ignored, where a single outcome is still used to determine whether the process that went into a fourth-down decision was right. Where we credit DeSean Jackson for fumbling a punt and then running for a 65-yard score2 and ignore Omar Gaither taking out three players with one block on the same play. Where there are nearly as many running backs (11) as offensive linemen (13) on the Top 100 Players3 list that the players themselves — the ones who should truly appreciate line play — vote on. Where we still base legacy-defining, multimillion-dollar decisions on the idea that two guys holding a pair of chains making close to minimum wage can run in a perfectly straight line onto and off of the field. So when Casserly and his ilk say that they’re worried about misleading information being used to analyze a player’s worth or a team’s performance, I can’t fathom how they don’t perceive that exact transgression to be a customary part of NFL tradition and lore.

No, opening up the All-22 film to the public will not be the NFL’s equivalent of Pandora’s box. There will absolutely be fans who totally misread the information and use it to create false judgments of players, which will be nothing new. Well-meaning scribes like me will screw up sometimes, too, which is also nothing new.4 The really exciting opportunity with the All-22 film is going to come from the people who are actually well versed in X’s and O’s and capable of breaking down coaches’ film into meaningful pieces of information that previously didn’t exist. That’s exactly what’s happened in basketball, where access to video created new analysis opportunities for smart, talented people outside of the game like Sebastian Pruiti, my colleague here at Grantland. And although I’m obviously biased, I’m really excited to see how the already fantastic work of fellow colleague Chris Brown will evolve and grow with access to NFL coaches’ tape, too.5

And there will be others, too, who turn to writing and sharing information by virtue of being able to break down and talk about coaches’ film. There’s a low-level college football coach out there right now who is going to be a fantastic football writer in five years solely because this tape is publicly available. In the long run, as much as the NFL wants to deny it, we’re going to be smarter fans because the All-22 film is finally ours.

The Detector

The Detector, of course, analyzes the offseason story lines and narratives thrown into the public consciousness by players, coaches, and anonymous team sources. T-shirts and oversize plush toys for this favorite of feature gimmicks are on the way. But let’s not waste time bragging! The Detector’s barking and — what’s that? — the Bro Alarm has been set off! That can only mean one thing …

Story: Rob Gronkowski’s ankle is “great”
Source: GRONK
Reliability: Take it to the bank. When reporters cornered Rob Gronkowski at a charity golf tournament on Monday and asked him how his surgically repaired ankle felt, Gronkowski responded in his traditionally terse fashion. No, he didn’t pump his fist for 30 seconds, but we all wish he had. Instead, Gronkowski said it was “great” and offered no further details.

Is it a little troubling for Patriots fans that Gronkowski failed to say that he would be ready for training camp? Maybe. Reportedly, though, the surgery Gronkowski had in February to repair his torn ankle ligaments was arthroscopic and only required a 10-week healing period. The team then expected Gronkowski to be ready for Organized Team Activities (OTAs) in May, but the All-Pro spent the sessions on the sidelines with trainers instead. That fact suggests Gronkowski is a couple of weeks behind in his routine, but it’s safe to say that the Patriots wouldn’t have given him a contract extension last week if they had seriously pressing long-term concerns about his ankle.

And yes, Gronkowski did have glowing things to say about his ankle in February before he hobbled through a disappointing Super Bowl. The difference between then and now? The standard rehab timeline for Gronkowski’s injury in February suggested that he wouldn’t be ready for the Super Bowl, and he really wasn’t. The standard rehab timeline for his surgery says he should be ready in plenty of time for training camp in July. At this point, there’s no reason to think otherwise.

Story: Ndamukong Suh no longer taking plays off
Source: Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham
Reliability: Nil. It all seems so simple in the offseason light. Take an often dominant yet inconsistent player like Ndamukong Suh. Tell him to “stop taking plays off,” as if the idea somehow hadn’t occurred to Suh before he turned 25. Unleash a player who gives every ounce of energy he has on every single play upon the league, producing some sort of unholy career season. If only they told every player to never take a play off!

Here is the dirty secret about the NFL, though: Every player takes plays off. And it’s a good thing. Yes, there are max-effort players who will insist that they give every ounce that they have until the whistle blows on every single play, and there are undoubtedly some guys out there who actually come close. But those players take time off, too; the only difference is that they take time off on the sidelines by missing a play or two as opposed to doing so on the field. If you don’t believe me, Packers second-round pick Jerel Worthy, a mammoth defensive tackle in the model of Suh, said the same thing after the draft. Other players will admit as much privately.

The reality is that it’s not productive for Suh to go all out on every single play. Suh is a freak athlete, but he’s 307 pounds. If the Lions could really convince Suh to go at 100 percent on every single play, what they would get is a very tired star defender in the fourth quarter every week. If the Lions want to get more out of Suh on each individual play, they should spot him more and give him a few extra plays per game on the sideline. And if they do that, all it will take is one touchdown on a play where Suh’s standing on the sidelines to get the Lions to put him back on the field. So you can safely file this one under “irrelevant.”

Story: Mark Sanchez struggles at minicamp
Source: ESPNNewYork.com
Reliability: It’s just minicamp! Rich Cimini notes that Mark Sanchez went through minicamp on the Bad Sanchez side of the bed:

While on the subject of Sanchez, he didn’t have an efficient minicamp. Yes, it’s a new offense and, yes, his receiving corps was banged up, but there were times when he didn’t seem comfortable throwing the football. Minicamp stats are virtually meaningless, but I’m going to give them anyway — 11-for-29, with four sacks and three near-interceptions.

Oh boy. Now, Cimini — one of our favorites on the Jets beat — is right on all counts here. Sanchez is outside of the Brian Schottenheimer offense for the first time in his career, Santonio Holmes had a hamstring issue, and the Sanchize is otherwise working with rookies and castoffs at wideout. He had every reason to struggle during camp and did, but the most important fact is that little sentence before the numbers: “Minicamp stats are virtually meaningless.”

Cimini’s being too kind in suggesting that they’re merely virtually meaningless, though. Minicamp stats are one of the many types of statistics that should be taken out back and shot. They actively detract from our knowledge of the game by masquerading as something with meaning or purpose. When was the last time you saw an article on a breakout player after the season that quoted his minicamp statistics from the previous year? Or a team choosing to cut a high-priced veteran because he only averaged 2.5 yards per carry in May? Paying statistics like these any sort of credence only serves to create false preconceptions about a player’s progress (or lack thereof); we would be better off not paying them a single moment of thought. Nothing is materially different about Mark Sanchez’s future because he went 11-for-29 in minicamp. Heck, nothing would be different about Mark Sanchez’s future if he went 11-for-29 in Week 1 of the regular season. Cimini’s not saying that Jets fans should think otherwise, but there are undoubtedly some who will see those figures and start worrying about Sanchez’s viability in 2012. They shouldn’t. Those numbers mean absolutely nothing.

What are some other football statistics that should never, ever be brought up again? Thought you’d never ask. Here’s two to finish us all off for the week:

Any sort of practice or workout statistics for quarterback accuracy. A good rule: If nobody’s trying to hit a quarterback in anger, that quarterback’s statistics do not matter in any way, shape, or form. Who cares if a quarterback can go 38-for-40 during his pre-draft workout when there’s no defense on the field? If the statistics really mattered, why wouldn’t he just take the fake snap and run forward for a touchdown? Heck, he might even make the pre-draft workout Pro Bowl team that way! And nobody really thinks that a quarterback wearing a red “No Contact” jersey without any fear of getting hurt in practice goes through his reads and makes the same sorts of decisions he makes against the real opposition on game day. Even preseason statistics are grossly subject to context and whether a player was playing against (or with) the first-string, the second-string, or the camp bodies. When it comes to judging how a player looks outside of a meaningfully competitive game, it’s far better to trust the eyes of a scout, coach, or beat guy than the numbers.

The distance from which a kicker was hitting field goals in warm-ups. Again, warm-ups don’t accurately resemble game conditions to the point where this information carries any meaning whatsoever. As you might suspect, the snaps are frequently better and the timing is often perfect when there’s no rush bearing down on a center, placeholder, and kicker. That process makes field goals easier to convert, and all a kicker needs to do is hit a couple from long distance for the broadcast to note that the guy was booming them in from 57 or 58 during the pregame. And on the flipside, pregame kicks don’t carry the adrenaline and excitement that a meaningful kick during the actual game does; what’s to say that a kicker can’t feed off the frenzy of the crowd and add a few extra yards to what he was producing before the game? Throw in the fact that weather conditions can change in the hours between pregame warm-ups and a crucial fourth-quarter kick, and there’s no reason to ever take that barometer of a kicker’s range remotely seriously.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell