Sunday, April 30, 2017

The 1966 Miami Dolphins and the 46 Defense

By John Turney
Credit: Sports Illustrated
It's been said that the NFL does not invent anything it just recycles old concepts. We are not sure that is 100% true but there are certainly many aspects where that concept is true. One such occurrence is the Dolphins used of what was later known as the 46 defense fairly regularly in their inaugural season.

George Wilson was the new franchise's head coach in 1966 and he had a long and powerful career in the NFL from a player (1937-46) and as an assistant coach (1949-65) on the offensive side of the ball. Over that span, it was certain that he'd seen everything in terms of what NFL defenses did.

He chose as his defensive assistants Tom Keane as defensive backs coach and play caller, recently retired player Bob Pelligrini as the linebackers coach and Les Bingaman as the defensive line coach. Keane was a former player and had been a defensive coach in the NFL before joining the Dolphins staff. He, too, would have had lots of experience seeing various offensive and defensive schemes and had a working knowledge of how to employ them.

In 1966 he turned to what would have then been known as the "Eagle" defense which got its moniker from the Philadelphia Eagles in the early 1950s which was usually a 5-2 (five lineman, 2 linebacker defense).

In the early 1950s, there were various defensive fronts used by various teams. The 4-3, as a base defense for most of the teams, was still a few years away and NFL teams used  5-3, 5-2, 6-1 fronts and spaced those players in a variety of ways.

Here are the New York Giants in their famed 6-1 Umbrella defense. The two outside players were still called ends, though they are in two-point stances and if we were to consider them linebackers (and they did have pass coverage responsibilities) it would be a 4-3 defense and even more technically a 4-3 overshift since one of the tackles is shaded over the outside shoulder of the guard/inside shoulder of the tackle which in today's general terms would be a 3-technique.

In this still the Giants defense (on far side) in a 6-1 only it is an even front, with two "3 techniques".

Here are the Browns in a standard 5-2. The tackles, as they were called at the time, we head-up on the offensive tackles, what is now known as a 4-technique. It resembles a 3-4 defense of more recent years.

Here is another screenshot of the Browns in for all intents and purposes is a 3-4, just imagine the DEs being called outside linebackers and the DTs being called ends.
Here is the Eagles defense of that era, as one can see they have a player over the center (Zero technique) and two 3-techniques. that is the feature that was unique when Greasy Neal invented the alignment. And to this day, many coaches still call the 3-technique an "Eagle tackle".

It is, here, a seven-man front (a 5-2) but a safety could be walked up to create the so-called 8-man box.

1966 Dolphins
In 1966, film study shows that a good percentage of the time the Miami Dolphins used this front, both as a 7-man and 8-man front. Sometimes they would align with it, other times they would stem into it (stem is to the defense what a shift is to the offense, it simply means lining up in one spot and moving to another, pre-snap).

Here are a couple of screenshots:

As can be seen above there is a zero technique and two 3-techniques. The right end is actually linebacker Wahoo McDaniel with his hand in the dirt. Frank Emanuel is the middle linebacker and number 53 is Tom Erlandson who is on the tight end. Outside of him, out of the shot, is left defensive end Ed Cooke.

A complete film study would be required to pinpoint how well the Dolphins did in this front and how often. But from seeing quite a bit of film, we'd estimate it was at least 10-15% of the time, maybe more. Perhaps Tom Keane chose to use it based on his experience seeing it from a defensive perspective or maybe the opposite is true. Perhaps George Wilson faced it and thought it served a purpose. 

Sadly, none of the coaches are around to ask. Les Bingaman had a heart attack on the field during a 1969 game, collapsed and nearly died (actually he DID die but an adrenaline shot injected into his heart revived him). He later succumbed to heart issues in 1970. Wilson, Keane and even Pellegrini have also passed on. Perhaps in due time, we can connect with some of the players who are still with us and we can get more information.

The Dolphins were not the only team to employ this, but again, it was rare in our view, based on some fairly extensive study.

Other pre-'1985 Bears 46' Uses of the Eagle
In 1971 and 1972 the Saints would use it. They tried it in the game that the Rams Willie Ellison gained 247 yards rushing. Here you can see the easy-to-spot "3-0-3" front or "Eagle front:
This is a shot from 1971. Usual left defensive end Rich Jackson moves to the right end and right end Lyle Alzado moved to nose tackle and Carter Campbell come off the bench to play left end. Tackles Paul Smith and Dave Costa stay ar their normal position, but both aligned as 3-techniques.

Outside Cambell at left end is a player forming the "bracket" on the TE and there are linebackers on the second level over the tackles making this identical to the 46 defense.

Here is a screenshot of the 1975 Vikings using 5-defensive linemen with Alan Page over the center in the Eagle front, this was a year before Buddy Ryan became the defensive line coach there
The fifth linemen is Bob Lurtsema playing over the guard, which was Page's usual spot. 

Here are a couple more examples these from 1975—again the year before Buddy Ryan arrived in Minnesota, again with the center and both guards covered and here with the in-and-out techniques on the tight end with the eight-man front—

Throughout the time from the early 1950s to the early 1980s and even recently, teams would achieve the "Eagle" or double-Eagle look from a 4-3 defense my simply having the middle linebacker step up and put his hand in the ground in front of the center, between the two defensive tackles. The late-1950s-1960s Bears did it quite often with Bill George with his hand in the dirt between the tackles. 
That was the most common way we saw of covering the center and both guards, but that was merely the middle part of the defense, without the way the tight end was covered as in the Saints shot above and as the 1966 Dolphins did and how the Buddy Ryan Bears of the 1980s did it.

Here are some examples of that from the 1966 Redskins, 1975 Bears, 1968 Rams, and 1965 Chargers—
Sam Huff (#70) is over the nose and the guards and center are covered. Also there is inside out alignment on the tight end

The following defense is what George Allen called "51" defense. His "46" defense was similar to a standard 4-3 under shift in that the linebackers a shifted away from the tight end but the linemen are in an even front, not an odd front like a typical 4-3 undershift. The Allen "46" is not at all what Buddy Ryan called the "46" which creates a bit of a heteronym.
Here you see all the elements of the 46, the center and both guards covered and the tight end (far side)
with inside and outside coverage). 

Here are Allen's 1965 Bears with MLB Dick Butkus sneaking up and putting a hand in the dirt and there is the
inside-out on the tight end (John Mackey)
Here are the 1965 Chargers with the center and both guards covered.

In this shot, Roger Brown is out of frame but is lineup over the left guard and Lamar Lundy is
the outside or "O-Man" as George Allen's playbook called him.

Here are the 198 Rams with a 5-man line, the center is covered by Reggie Doss and the guards are covered by Mike Fanning and Phil Murphy. On the wings are Jack Youngblood and Cody Jones. If Youngblood were standing in a two-point stance it would be identical to the Bears 46 defense.

The 46 Defense
In 1980, of course, Buddy Ryan revived the double Eagle look, gave it a name, and it became a phenom in the mid-1980s as the Bears used in 1984-85 about 40% of the snaps and won the Super Bowl in 1985. If Ryan used it before 1980 we have not seen it. In 1978 he did experiment with a 3-4 defense, he called "Okie" but it was short-lived. In 1979 it was predominately a 4-3 defense with the usual over- and under-shifts.
Here it is in 1980 with Doug Plank #46 walked up to create the 8-man front. It is his uniform number that gave Ryan's version of this defense its name. 

In this screenshot the 46 is a 5-man line since strong side rusher Al Harris has his hand on the turf, as does the weak side rusher, Mike Hartenstine #73. Alan Page is the nose and Dan Hampton and Jim Osborne are the 3-techniques. Otis Wilson is on the instep of the tight end, a position Wilber Marshall would play in 1985 with Wilson playing where Al Harris, #90 is, only using a 2-point linebacker stance.
Here it is in 1984, with the tight end on the right side so the linebacker combination is on the right, As you can see Wilson and Harris have changed positions since 1980. (In 1985 Harris and Bell #25 held out and Marshall and Dave Duerson stepped in and the defense didn't miss a beat).

One note is that the 3-technique is tighter with the Bears (and 1966 Dolphins) than with the 1950s Eagles. The actual playbooks we've have seen often call for the players over the guards to be head-up or a 2-technique but it seldom shows in the games we've seen the defenders are almost never head-up but in the 3-tech.

Here is the 1981 iteration of the 46. Todd Bell (#25) is playing one of the linebacker spots and Len Walterscheid is in Plank's position. 
Once the Bears had success with the defense, other teams followed and tried it. By the late 1980s, all teams seemed to use it to some degree. The 3-4 teams would simply shift (sink) their defensive ends from over the tackles to over the guards. The 4-3 teams would do what the Bears did and shift their linemen to the appropriate spots.

Here are the Rams, in 1982, using it against the Bears. Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood is "reduced" or "sunk" to a 3-technique over the Bears right guard and Mike Fanning is the zero technique and Cody Jones is the right-side 3-technique.
In 1988 Fritz Shurmur (who was the Defensive Coordinator in the above still) used the 46 Defense, though he called it the Eagle defense and used 5 linebackers because the Rams had injuries among their line and had plenty of solid linebackers. The nose was, at first converted college defensive lineman Mike Jerue but when he was injured Fred Strickland was the nose, or "nose-backer". He would stem from the zero technique to an inside linebacker position and when he did that Shurmur referred to it as the "Hawk" defense.
Kevin Greene and Mike Wilcher are the outside rushers, Larry Kelm in on the instep of the tight end on the near side and the only two defensive linemen are in 3-technique position. The Rams used it a decent amount but it was never their base defense, which was a two-gap 3-4. However, outside of the Bears and Buddy Ryan-era Eagles, the 1988-91 Rams likely used it the most. The Rams also liked to employ a linebacker heavy nickel/dime scheme in that era which would use, at times, only one and even no defensive lineman since Fred Strickland and enough size, strength, and quickness to rush from a defensive tackle position as did a linebacker named George Bethune.

The Eagle gap responsibility page from Fritz Shurmur's playbook on the 5 linebacker defense.

 After Ryan left the Bears they cut down on its use from approximate highs of 40% in 1984 and 1985 to perhaps 20% in 1986-89 or so. Again, seeing all the games and charting them is the only way to find the exact numbers.

One final shot, again it's the Rams, this time in 2013. Jeff Fisher's defense called this 'Cheat' with usual right defensive end Robert Quinn in an "Eagle" defensive tackle position, though it's a 4i (inside shoulder of the tackle) rather than a 3-technique (outside shoulder of the guard) and Chris Long has moved from left end to right end and Alec Ogletree is essentially the stand-up end/weak-side rusher in this instance.
Credit: NFL Replay
If fans ever want to see the golden age of the 46 they can watch almost any game from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Our guess is that almost all teams in those games will use the Eagle/Bear (46)/Cheat or whatever they called it in every game.

It is used to this day, almost all teams will use it if their usual run defense is not doing the job and the three inside blockers being 'covered-up' discourages runs to the middle. However, smart quarterbacks will usually try and check out of a run and try to throw against this 8-man version and thus the game of cat and mouse continues as it has since the 1950s Eagles, to the 1966 Dolphins to the 1980s Bears to 2017.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Rush Linebackers

By John Turney
Cornelius Bennett began his rookie season late due to a holdout. He was drafted by the Colts but did not sign. He was involved in the Eric Dickerson three-team trade and ended in Buffalo. He played in eight games and recorded 8.5 sacks and forced five fumbles. It was as impactful a season as a rush backer could have. (Lawrence Taylor had 9.5 sacks in 1981 in 16 games). Bennett played more of a hybrid role, some as a traditional 3-4 linebacker, some as an inside linebacker and usually was the left defensive end (opposite Bruce Smith) in the Bills nickel defenses.
From 1982 to present
Mario Williams had been moved to OLBer in 2011 and was off to a good start before he was hurt and missed the final 11 games. He was also a defensive end in the Texans nickel in a hybrid role in Wade Phillips's defense.

Kevin Greene was a nickel rusher in 1987 though he'd also spell Mel Owens and Mike Wilcher, the starting 304 outside linebackers. Owens, in 1988, was a big part of the Rams "Eagle 5 LBer defense" playing, essentially the spot Wilber Marshall played when the Bears used their famed 46 defense.

Otis Wilson and LaMarr Woodley were on pace for possible career highs in 1987 and 2011, respectively. We included all seasons that projected to eight sacks or more. Some may have been enough to be a Pro Bowl season for the respective players, some not, depending on the competition year-to-year. Urlacher, of course, was a middle 'backer and Adalius Thomas was a multi-role player for the Patriots. Chad Brown made the list twice, in 2002 and in 1995. With the Steelers, he was unique as a rush backer. He'd play inside linebacker in the base and right defensive end, with his hand down in their nickel. Johnie Cooks was supposed to be a Lawrence Taylor-type player, but never measure up to those lofty-standard (who did?) although he had good seasons in 1983 and 1984.

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Defensive Backs

By John Turney

During this project, we learned quite a bit, but one specific thing was we'd not noticed that Mel Renfro (1967), Larry Wilson (1965), and Lem Barney (1975) all missed significant time. All three had good interception totals and all three DID make the Pro Bowl. As did Ed Reed in 2010 and Sean Taylor in 2007 but those two we knew about. Wilson and Renfro were on pace for double-digits in picks. We'd also never noticed that Bobby Bryant missed four games in 1969.
Atop this list is Kirk Collins a player who earned a starting position in 1983 after a couple of years playing special teams and some dime back. He picked off five passes in four games and while returning one 58 yards he pulled a hamstring. While being examined by doctors, routinely as it happens, a tumor was discovered in his throat. That turned out to be malignant cancer and it ended his season. And his life. In 1984 the Rams wore a sticker of Collins's number on their helmets as a tribute to him. Had this odd turn not happened he may have been able to reach double-digits in picks if he'd pilfered just five more over the next 12 games. Likely teams would have thrown away from him as he established his bona fides so he may not have had the opportunity, but teams kept throwing Lester Hayes's way in 1980 so who knows?

Jeff Fuller only played six games and was a hybrid nickel/back linebacker type player. In those six games in 1986, he picked off four passes and had 2.5 sacks. It would have been great to see a sub- defense player making those kinds of plays for a full season. He was on pace for 11 interceptions and 6.5 sacks.

Chuck Allen was a linebacker and if he'd finished the season on the same pace he'd established in 1961 he'd have totaled 9 picks which would be a record for linebackers. (In this exercise we grouped defensive backs and linebackers together).

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Defensive Linemen

By John Turney

Certainly, we cannot know what Antwan Odom might have done had he been able to finish the 2009 season. We are not suggesting he would have reached the 21½ sacks he was on pace for, but we are suggesting that had he played in the final ten games he likely would have sacked opposing quarterbacks with enough frequency to warrant a Pro Bowl selection. Would he have had 12? 15? More? Eight sacks in six games a five-sack game against Aaron Rodgers was causing Odom to gain some national attention. However, an Achilles injury scrapped all those possibilities and ended Odom's career, though he came back in 2010 he was not the same and he was released by the Bengals and no other team signed him.
From 1982-present
Robert Young is in the same boat as Odom. He had a fast start in 1993 and then a knee injury finished his season. Again, it's not likely Young would have had 18½ sacks, but certainly, double-digits were possible. He came back in 1994 and started all 16 games and had 6½ sacks, fewer than the season before in ten more games. In 1995 he lost his job to Kevin Carter and was relegated to a backup role and got a shot with the Oilers in 1996 and he started the entire season and had 4 sacks, It seems 1993 was his chance to break through but a knee injury ended that.

Mark Gastineau, in 1988, was having a comeback season of sorts when he abruptly retired. He said it was because his fiancee had cancer. Gastineau was leading the AFC in sacks with seven in seven games at the time (he'd only had 6½ in the previous 25 games) and the Jets were pleased with his performance. The poof, he's gone. There were rumors that he'd tested positive for steroids and that a suspension was looming, though never proven in terms of a specific test in 1988 but Gastineau has admitted to steroid use during his career. To be fair, Gastineau was not alone in steriod use among NFL linemen in that era. 

Osi Umenyiora and Cameron Wake have garnered plenty of honors in their career and 2011 and 2015, respectively would have added one more Pro Bowl to those honors had they not been felled by injuries.

We've listed some other potential Pro Bowl-type shortened seasons, though not all were dominant they held reasonable chances for post-season honors.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Quarterbacks

By John Turney

As a follow-up to the running back post we now add recent quarterbacks. To qualify a quarterback had to average 220 yards a game and start a minimum of five games. We are posting a table of the top 20 (sorted by QB passer rating) and added in Andrew Luck's 2013 season.
(Click to enlarge)

Josh McCown has his 2013 season with the Bears and his 2015 Cleveland Brown season on the list at number one and number 15. Bill Nelson, the Steelers QB had some really good numbers. We tweaked his W-L record and it would have been nice to see what he might have done in a full season.0

Aaron Rodgers's 2013 season would have likely been a typically great season and it should be noted that Brian Griese's 2000 season did result in a Pro Bowl selection.

Marc Bulger was very good in 2002 filling in for Kurt Warner. Not only did he put up numbers he was highly rated by Pro Scout, Inc as a "high blue" for his efforts. Trent Green, in 2000, also filling in for Warner also put up excellent numbers but didn't garner the wins that Bulger did.

Dan Marino's 1993 Achilles tendon rupture stymied what was likely going to be a typical Marino season. The same can be said of Carson Palmer's 2014 season.

Dave Krieg's 1983 partial season was very similar to his 1984 full season. Kreig was not injured, he came off the bench to lead a solid Seattle team to the playoffs and one game away from the Super Bowl. Dan Fouts missed six games in 1983 and like Griese was voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers. Sam Bradford was off to a good start in 2013 when he tore his ACL for the first time. He tore it again in 2014 and was shipped off to Philadelphia.

The final 20 is rounded out by Phil Simms, Kurt Warner and John Kitna. For comparison sake, we added Andrew Luck.

We will be taking a closer look at this and adding players who had good half-seasons in the era where it was not common to average 220 or even 200 yards a game. It will take more than a quick search on Pro Football (who we thank for their tools) due to some QBs playing in 14 games because they were the holder but only quarterbacking in, say five. (Think Sonny Jurgensen)

So, we will do further posts covering the "dead-ball" era in NFL passing. One note is that it shows how special Bill Nelson's partial 1966 was, to make it onto this list.

Here are the rest who average 220 yards a game or more, again, sorted in order of passer rating and with the projected 16-game totals.
(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Lost Pro Bowl Seasons: Running Backs

By John Turney
Art by GL
Sometimes a player gets off to a tremendous start to an NFL season and then sustains an injury mid-season and that season, remarkable as it may have been, is lost to history. Other times a player may be able to join a team late in the season, perhaps they had been injured the previous year and are healthy for a stretch of a season. These seasons rarely result in a player getting post-season honors like All-Pro or Pro Bowl and for good reason, it's almost always better to chose a player who played the majority of a season than someone who played less than two-thirds or who played half.

Here is a table of some seasons that fit the above profile. We went back to the 1960s and will do a separate post about the pre-1960 era at some point. The highlighted column is the respective player's yards projected to a 16-game season. Also note that three of these—Gale Sayers, Floyd Little and Barry Foster all WERE Pro Bowl selections for their seasons on the table.

Priest Holmes and Edgerrin James were off to potential career years in 2004 and 2001 when felled by injury. Ricky Williams was on pace for a 2000-yards-from-scrimmage season in 2000. Terrell Davis was on pace for a 1400-yard season in 2001 and Billy Sims's devastating knee injury in 1984 was the end of his career. Fred Jackson, in 2011, might have cracked the 2000 total yard barrier as well.

One historical question:  Had Jim Braxton not been hurt in 1973 would O.J. Simpson carried as heavy a load as he did and not gained his 2003 yards? Braxton was off to a fabulous start averaging 4.6 yards a carry

we cut this list off at 75 yards rushing per game, so the season total would project to 1200 yards. Certainly, there are lots of seasons that would likely have been 1000-yarders by running backs had we cut that off lower. Maybe next time we'll do that.

Hat tip to Pro Football Reference for the search engine that helped in this project.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Lions Show Their New Uniforms for 2017

By John Turney
Credit: Detroit Lions website
Last week the Lions unveiled their new uniforms. We have not had a new uniform in the NFL for a couple of years so it's fun to take a look at these.

They are not offensive in terms of colors or numerals (fonts, see Buccaneers) or lettering telling you who they are (see Cleveland Browns). But there is enough wrong to give them a passing, but not a good grade. To us, they are a "C".

The blue, which is supposed to be "Honolulu blue" according to Lions tradition looks different. With Internet photos, it is sometimes a trick of lighting and digital photography but the old uniforms test out as a "moderate blue". The new ones test out from a color sample to something with more of a turquoise hue.

It will be hard to compare until we can see both on the field. Here are the 2003 uniforms on the day of their release and the new once released last week. Maybe you cannot see a difference in color. We can.
As far as design what we don't like is the Northwestern stripes on the helmet and pants. It just has never been done and doesn't work for us.

The all-grey alternate is like the Seahawks alternate. As long as it's seen only once in a while, it's fine but if it ever became a full-time road uniform, it'd be a problem. Just too boring, not enough contrast to be interesting.

The grey numerals are italicized and are okay, but not special. The grey numerals are good, showing a link to the traditional past. The Lions have often had silver numerals on uniforms, those, along with the Honolulu blue are the trademarks of the Lions.

The uniforms, according to the Lions release are the Nike Vapor Untouchable uniforms and weigh just 20.4 ounces and repel water and have improved ventilation. Lions tight end Eric Ebron said the uniforms feel "fantastic.”

As usual, Nike's website has a news release and here is the takeaway—Nike was instructed by the Lions to "pay respect to the tradition and the heritage of the team but do it in a modern way."

It seems over the years we've heard that a lot. Sometimes it rings true, others it doesn't.

Again, kind of a "meh". Nothing bad. But not great. As we said. These are a "C".

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Last Players To Not Wear Facemask

By John Turney

In 1990s Don Daly's and Bob O'Donnell volume The Pro Football Chronicle reported that Jess Richardson was the last pro football lineman to no wear a facemask. It was reiterated by Helmet

Hall of Fame flanker Tommy McDonald was the last position player to go maskless.
1968 in his final season with the Browns

There have also been some players who were part-time positional players and full-time kickers or punters.
Bobby Joe Green

Pat Studstill
Lou Michaels wearing Bobby Layne's maskless helmet for kicking.
Garo Yepremian with the Lions

Wayne Rasmussen was a holder and defensive back who wore this just to hold

The last player, in our opinion, was Toni Fritsch in 1971. I remember photos from the 1972 NFL Publication Prolog that documented it: