The NFL just celebrated its 100 year anniversary at this year’s Super Bowl, featuring the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams. Over the course over those 100 years, we’ve seen plenty of changes and adjustments made to “America’s Game”. Whether these changes came from the full integration of teams in 1946, the NFL and NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreements over the past 50 years or the addition of their thirty-second NFL team.
The one aspect of the game that has stayed its course is the copycat nature of the NFL. Over the course of time, there have been new ways of succeeding in the NFL. With the popularization of the forward pass in the ’50s and ’60s by Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, and Joe Namath. The implementation of the “West Coast Offense” by Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, which incorporated a zone running scheme that was set up by a flurry of short passes and motions by the wide receivers. Running backs were also used heavily in this offense as receivers.
The “46 Defense” used in the mid-late ’80s by Buddy Ryan, Mike Ditka, and the Chicago Bears was erased from the NFL because of the “West Coast”. The “46 Defense” employed a similar style to the “4-3 Defense” but also utilizes the linebackers more often to put pressure on the quarterback.
In all instances, we saw opposing teams try and mimic these innovations but fail to have the same success. In today’s league, we can see a couple of similar scenarios currently unfolding before our very eyes. One example and probably the most talked about is every team trying to find “the next McVay”. This, of course, is referring to the great young mind of the current head coach of the Los Angeles Rams and former offensive coordinator in Washington, Sean McVay. He is sometimes referred to as a “wunderkind”, partially for his ability to make offenses and more specifically quarterback’s look exponentially better than they have in the past, specifically Jared Goff. But more importantly, he’s shown the ability to disguise his best play calls in just a handful of formations.
One of his constituents in Washington, Kyle Shanahan, son of the aforementioned Mike Shanahan, who is best known for his brief stint in Atlanta, where he was able to implement this style of offense and create one of the best units we’ve ever seen with Matt Ryan at the helm. He is now currently based in San Francisco where he will go toe-to-toe with McVay and company for many seasons to come with his “young prodigy” at quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. Bringing the “West Coast” system back its birthplace seems like such a fitting spot.
One coaches brain I was able to pick came closer to my neck of the woods. At C.W Post which is located in Greenvale, NY, offensive coordinator Brian Hughes developed a juggernaut over the last 22 seasons he’s been there. Under his control, the Pioneers have had multiple record-breaking seasons. He said, “as times have changed, so have I”. He told me that he is constantly looking to “up the ante” there and find new wrinkles he can add in to make his team more explosive and unpredictable. “Keeping the defense on their toes is the easy part, getting your players to buy in and learn how is the struggle”. It seems like a struggle worth continuing, because he coached the Pioneers offense to 42.6 points per game, a tough feat in any division. When asking him what he thought with the nature of “copycat football” he said “I think it’s because people are attracted towards success. So much that they become enamored with it and want a piece of it for own.
On the defensive side of the football, we’ve seen teams copy Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks with their “Legion of Boom” defense, which helped dominate their conference for most of the 2010s and resulted in two Super Bowl appearances and one win. Specifically coming from in the house, with the former defensive coordinator of Seattle Dan Quinn bringing it over to Atlanta, which helped them build a Super Bowl contender of their own.
Another defensive mind that came out of this coaching tree was Gus Bradley. Bradley is currently working as a defensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Chargers but is more known for his work with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team nicknamed as “Sacksonville” was one of the most historically great defenses in NFL history. They allowed just under 17 points per game and collected 55 sacks which was second in the NFL that year.
Innovation in football can come in many shapes and sizes. Over the last few weeks while writing this I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a Dave Cohen, assistant defensive head coach and defensive line coach for the Wake Forest University Football Team. He along with head coach Dave Clawson have built a very strong defensive unit down in Winston-Salem North Carolina. So strong in fact that they held the sixth overall pick in this years draft, Daniel Jones to just 145 yards passing and seven points.
Coach Cohen credits this defensive success to himself and coach Cowens with their 4-2-5 system. Coach Cohen said that “this system has been with coach Cowens since he was coaching at Fordham University”. He went on to mention that the reason why they use this system is that “it gives us incredible flexibility and tons of speed to match up against their opponents”. Playing in the ACC is a tough matchup for anyone. Having to go up against the likes of Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, and Daniel Jones is incredibly hard to do week in and week out. I also asked him about what he thought when I said “copycat football” and he said, “it’s a part of the game, people see success happen and want to replicate it so they can enjoy it”.
Transitioning over to the managerial side of football, we’ve seen teams over the past couple of years decide to take the same route the LA Rams and Philadelphia Eagles. This being the plan of putting yourself in position to draft a young quarterback at the top of the draft and surround him with as much talent as possible. Easier said than done, but in today’s NFL, QB’s make large sums of money compared to their contemporaries. So it makes complete sense to draft a young quarterback who can be the face of the franchise right away and spend the rest of your teams’ cap space on stud players at various positions to surround the QB to help him succeed as much as possible and as soon as possible.
Examples of teams who have done this lately include the Chicago Bears, who drafted Mitchell Trubisky in 2017 and just recently traded for and then paid Khalil Mack the most money ever given to a defensive player in NFL history.
Another team who has adopted this philosophy is the New York Jets, who selected USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold with the third overall pick in last years draft. This offseason they made it a mission of theirs to use almost all of their cap space, which started out at about $97 million. They spent a large chunk of their cap space on star running back Le’Veon Bell, who sat out last season, now former Baltimore middle linebacker C.J Mosley and a shifty slot receiver in Jamison Crowder, formerly part of the Washington Redskins.
Recently I had obtained a job working with ESNY.com. A relatively small aggregated sports site for New York teams. I thought it might be a good idea to interview my boss, Robby Sabo as he interviewed me. I asked him what he thinks about the state of football and its copycat history. He said “It’s very interesting. We’ve all heard of the cliché “history tends to repeat itself”. I’m old enough to remember how dominant that 49ers offense was back in the day and I can tell you that regardless of the flashy plays you see by athletes today, it’s all the same.” He went on to explain that what is “quite surprising” is the aspect of how teams are generally building their teams these days. “It used to be that teams had their own specific makeup and way they would conduct themselves, but nowadays we’re starting to see somewhat of a blueprint for how teams are choosing to operate”.
Football is such a timeless sport. If I could compare it to something, it may be society. Always changing with the times and constantly having to get readjusted once a brand new wrinkle gets thrown its way. While at the same time absorbing this change and becoming one with it. Football has its faults, just like society and it may never be perfect. Renowned author and book critic Anthony Brandt once said “ The key to success is often the ability to adapt”.