Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

NFL Systems

Every time an airliner crashes, some wannabe comedian asks, “why don’t they make the whole plane out of the black box stuff?” Everybody hates that guy. But at the risk of getting one of the many wedgies he so richly deserves, I have to ask, Why doesn’t every team have a “system?”

For instance, a rival sports opinion site (which you should not visit) has this to say about the Philadelphia Eagles: “[Quarterback Nick] Foles’s interception rate should still be low — he’s a relatively safe quarterback and [Coach Chip] Kelly’s system avoids the sort of late-scanning-the-field interception that the likes of Michael Vick excelled at — but he’s going to throw more than one interception each month.”

That’s my emphasis, but it should be the Philly city council’s. You know, as a public health measure. Eagles fans once drove Santa Claus off the field in a hail of boos and snowballs. How many rage-induced strokes could’ve been avoided by installing Kelly’s system back then?

Or take the Denver Broncos’ famous “zone-blocking” scheme, the one a seemingly endless procession of undrafted nobodies followed to 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Or Bill Belicheck’s none-dare-call-it-a-system system in New England. No, not the one that involves video cameras and covert operatives; the other one, where the entire stadium knows it’s going to Welker over the middle and he’s wide open anyway. Even my beloved Texans ran a highly productive NFL system there for a while (before Gary Kubiak swapped the playbook for the August 1988 issue of Nintendo Power magazine). Why doesn’t every team do this?

My theory is: psychology. I’m not a shrink and I don’t play one on television, but I’d guess elite athletes are as exceptional mentally as they are physically. Like fighter pilots and stockbrokers, pro athletes make their living by making complex decisions faster than everybody else. For normal folks like us, “exuberant self-confidence” is at best a slight bonus and at worst a crippling character flaw; for them, it’s a job requirement. So what happens when the personality traits that propelled them to the top crash into what Freudians call “the reality principle?”

According to the experts at, “the reality principle strives to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. The reality principle weighs the costs and benefits of an action before deciding to act upon or abandon an impulse.” If we stretch the meaning of “social” to include “the world inside the playing field,” the problem becomes clear. Anyone who makes an NFL roster has been, pretty much by definition, the best player on every team he’s ever been on. He trusts his body, his reflexes, and his instincts in a way most of us probably can’t even imagine. But, and this is the heart of the matter, so does everyone else on the field, and some of them are better than him.

How does one handle that, emotionally? That’s where the “system” comes in.

The way sports pundits use the term, a “system” is a way of maximizing the strengths of inferior players. That’s why “systems” are so often associated with no-name schools from also-ran conferences. When Mike Leach developed the “air raid” at Texas Tech, he was doing it with leftovers: the kids who couldn’t catch on to the back end of the roster at big time programs. They had their “reality check” and accepted it. The kids who played for those schools, by contrast, always considered themselves pro-caliber talent. LSU and Alabama, for instance, each had nine players taken in this year’s NFL draft; the Tigers and the Tide don’t run “systems” because they don’t have to.

When those players make it to the pros, though, they learn the hard truths of gimmick scheduling. Even the toughest SEC slate includes home dates against Directional Tech and Bovine University. In the NFL, even the practice squad guys were all-conference. They don’t all have Ryan Leaf-esque meltdowns, but lots of highly successful college players have, shall we say, difficulty with the transition.

If I’m right, a “system” in the NFL depends not so much on the coach, but on having players who can accept their limitations, and play within them. Nick Foles apparently can; Michael Vick evidently couldn’t. Since Vick is such a polarizing figure, though, let’s look at another example: Kordell Stewart. “Slash” was a good college quarterback, but pro scouts didn’t think he’d make it as an NFL quarterback. The Steelers wanted to make him into a wide receiver, and he was well on his way to becoming a good one… and then circumstances changed, and he went back under center, becoming a competent if unspectacular NFL signal caller. Or consider former Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown. A pretty good receiver, Brown was famously pressed into emergency duty as a nickel corner in 2004, where he was second on the team in interceptions. Richard Sherman of the Seahawks made a similar transition in college.

The key factor here is not athletic talent. Rather, it’s mental toughness. For every Kordell Stewart, there’s an Eric Crouch. Guys who can handle the reality check excel; guys who can’t throw the Heisman pose at their ex-teammates as they’re cleaning out their lockers (as Crouch reportedly did after being let go by Green Bay). The best coaches, I imagine, are the ones who excel at getting their charges to understand, and accept, their place in the grand scheme of things — i.e., “the system.”  The worst ones, then, would be the coaches who simply try to get the eleven best – or, at least, the splashiest – individual contributors and throw them all on the field at once (a.k.a. “the Jerry Jones school of personnel management”). “Sports psychologists” don’t have much of a reputation these days, but maybe it’s time to give the whole idea another look.


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