Stop praising NFL coaches for adopting college football tactics

Stop praising NFL coaches for adopting college football tactics


Sam Ehlinger
Photo: Getty Images

The NFL finally trying college offenses and mobile QBs after snubbing its nose at them for decades is like praising your child for going diaper-free at 25 years old. Not only was it long overdue, but the negligence is concerning. All of these NFL writers love to tout the innovation from this new generation of coaches like football hasn’t been played on Saturdays longer than it’s been played on Sundays.

Even when an NFL GM would take a risk with a quarterback who didn’t fit the 6-foot-4 statuesque pocket passer mold, they’d still try to force a round peg into a square hole of a system, and then blame the player for not being one of like 40 guys in the history of the league who’ve been able to win a Super Bowl while staying within the confines of the pocket.

There have been ways to scheme receivers open or make defenses play 11-v-11 in the run game for decades, and while the triple option or wishbone offenses aren’t going to work verbatim in the pros with those levels of athletes, the principles can be applied. Daniel Jones didn’t look like an NFL player running whatever the fuck Joe Judge called. However, under Brian Daboll, the Giants have used a mix of read option and run-heavy roll-out packages to fit his strengths.

He’s not durable or elusive enough to carry the ball as much as Lamar Jackson, but New York has found a way to get easy yards in the QB run game off of play-action that’s more than just naked bootlegs. (Though the bootlegs did work relentlessly against the Bears in the first half of that game.)

Look at the way the Atlanta Falcons are staying competitive by using Marcus Mariota in a way that values his arm and legs. Arthur Smith’s team is 12th in the league in scoring despite a bottom-six offense yardage-wise.

The Colts are moving on from Matt Ryan, who might be the king of outdated software under center, in favor of the more mobile Sam Ehlinger, and it’s way overdue. Indy is in the middle of the pack as far as total offense yet 30th in points per game. Atlanta is fourth in red zone scoring percentage, putting six on the board 68 percent of the time, while the Colts are tied for 22nd, only converting 50 percent of their trips inside the 20 into TDs (via TeamRankings).

That has a lot to do with the running game, the pressure Mariota puts on defenses to account for everyone, and trying more than a five-wide QB draw. That call only works when you have a team on its heels, or Josh Allen.

In absolutely no way am I saying Ehlinger is the answer, especially if Frank Reich uses him the same way as Ryan with the assumption that he’ll make plays with his legs when the protection breaks down. Ideally, every quarterback will go through his progressions before taking off, and only use mobility when necessary. That’s a disservice to their athleticism though.

Jalen Hurts isn’t out there running Baltimore’s system. When Philly does call run plays for him, they’re sprinkled in to keep opposing teams guessing and honest. It’s an added layer of “Oh shit” that you don’t realize is happening until Hurts has already broken contain and is five yards downfield.

Jones had 107 yards on the ground against Jacksonville, and a lot of that came due to the Jags’ fear of Saquon Barkley. While no one expects Dimes to leave a safety gasping for air in the open field like Lamar, I’ve been watching less mobile guys get loose on those same keepers in college for more than a decade.

It’s frankly embarrassing that NFL franchises are just now realizing that they can pick and choose specific college plays as opposed to the full-fledged system. You don’t have to give Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer the keys to the organization to try read option or pass-happy tactics. However, you should always explore aspects of successful offenses. If it’s well designed, NBA coaches will use a side out-of-bounds play regardless of what level of basketball it came from.

And the amount of irony in Ehlinger being the face of the Colts’ pivot to a “scrambling” quarterback is off the charts. He was an effective runner at Texas and had some productive seasons, even amassing 661 yards in his junior year. That said, I would never describe him as explosive.

If we’re now going to start experimenting with malleable playbooks that can conform to the curvatures of any quarterback’s frame, it’s time to start doing that with every signal-caller, and not telling him to change positions. It’s easier to score in college football for a variety of reasons — the hashes are wider, the competition is worse, etc. There are also a ton of creative minds who tailor their offenses around who’s under center.

It’s not fucking rocket science, so the NFL shouldn’t be getting flowers like they cured cancer.



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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.