Learning a Lesson from LeGarrette (Part Four): Victim of Schiano

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

In the fourth part of "Learning a Lesson from LeGarrette", I look at the huge difference between Blount's play in 2011 (as covered in part two) and 2012, proposing a theory as to why Blount's play fell off so much (an extension of the encourager and enforcer theory proposed in part three), and looking at other players who may have had their level of play restricted by the composition of Schiano's coaching staff.

[NB: I will ask you to bear in mind the warning I prefaced this entire series with: like any article written by someone outside of the Buccaneer organisation, or without a source from within One Buc Place, this article is of course based on speculation - but it is reasonable speculation, based on game tape, quotes from players, and yes, copsychology (or what you Yanks would call 'pop psychology')]

And so, into the final two parts of this series of articles (it was going to be one part, but thought 5,500 words might be too long for a single entry). I'd like to pick up where we left off at the end of part two - Blount, despite the popular narrative perpetrated initially by a coaching staff desperate to save their own skin, unquestioningly repeated by a large majority of the sports media (despite the fact that the coaching staff they quoted clearly were collectively in the possession of terrible judgement) and inseminated into the mind of the Buccaneer fanbase, actually played damn well in 2011 (despite the accusations of some teammates, which I suspect was more a case of the teammate in question covering up for being a terrible, terrible run blocker), and improved in several areas compared to 2010. In this penultimate part, I will describe what, on the field, Blount did differently in 2012 than in his first two seasons in the league, and propose a theory to explain this change, while then in part five looking at what potential ramifications of this theory could have for other players on the Tampa Bay roster.

Here we have LeGarrette Blount, a player who may not be a 'complete' running back, but who has been an explosive runner, has shown improvement year-on-year both as a pass catcher and pass protector, and is possessing of excellent vision when it comes to reading the play and finding running lanes; yet, because he is not a 'complete' back, he would never do for a coach who has decided he wants one bell-cow, as Schiano had. Doug Martin is drafted highly, and despite the preliminary training camp depth charts and initial preseason games, it is clear to everyone that Martin will be surpassing Blount as the starting running back - but why was Blount not made a greater part of the offense? It seems to me there are two primary reasons someone might suggest:

  1. Blount didn't show enough with those carries he did receive (or in training) to warrant a greater part of the offense

  2. Schematic/philosophical stubbornness on Schiano's part

In my opinion, both are valid - which may seem surprising, as I'm sure many of those who have read the preceding articles would think that the first reason would be one I am in denial over. Not so. As stated previously, I feel that nothing is more telling about a player than gametape, and the gametape for Blount in 2012 is a hugely mixed bag, almost the dictionary-definition of inconsistency. Of course, it's very clear from the tape that many of Blount's runs that came to only relatively marginal gains were not helped at all by miscues by the offensive line; yet the most confounding aspect of Blount's play in 2012 is the vision I so lauded in part two.

Simply put, it appears that he only attempted to use that vision on occasion; he would only sometimes scan the field to see where play gaps and cutback lanes were opening up, or even keeping his eyes ahead of him to watch for assigned holes being plugged by defenders. On a few runs throughout the season (especially early on), he did display the vision that made him so good in 2010, and was just as much a part of his game in 2011 - yet far too often, he made bad decisions, or would lower his lid as he hit the line of scrimmage, which naturally would make him unable to see what was going on in front of him, let alone anything that might have been opening up on the backside or out wide. Vision, though, is instinctive, and while it can be improved, Blount had more than displayed the kind of natural instincts and on-the-fly analysis that marks the best running backs. That vision cannot disappear, no matter how it may have appeared that way at times. It can, however, be ignored by the player - and it is that which appeared to be the case in 2012.

(A quick note: some may wonder on what grounds I claim to assume what Blount was or was not seeing on a given play. Simple: if you've ever played football, you'll know that helmets force on you 'tunnel vision', the sides of the lid really restricting the peripheral vision. Getting a good view of the field does necessitate much more head movement than looking around without a helmet does - it's why players should always be keeping their head on a swivel [I'm looking at you, Chad Clifton]. As a result, you can get a very good idea of what a player is or isn't looking at by watching the angle of the helmet - and when it comes to telling how much of the field a running back is looking at when deciding which playgap to attack [especially in zone running plays, with inside zone having been the most used play of the Buccaneer rushing attack for a few years now], looking at the player's helmet is a good indicator)

Too often, Blount dropped his helmet when hitting the line of scrimmage, hoping that the blocking would fall just right; too often, Blount would only scan a small portion of the field in front of him, when there were more defined, well-blocked or simply more wide open running lanes on the backside or out wide to the playside; far too often, Blount appeared to be playing with a lack of confidence and conviction, pausing and stuttering in ways he hadn't done since early in his rookie season, leading to a lack of momentum going into defenders and resulting in plays not going for as great a gain as they could or should have.

On occasion, Blount would still display that vision, finding the backside crease and exploding through for large gains, but it happened too rarely and too inconsistently, and as the season went on, the proportion of Blount's carries swung decisively away from plays that either succeeded, or failed as a result of bad blocking (with Blount making the correct decisions from an X's and O's standpoint), and swung decisively towards Blount not using that vision, not seeing what in previous seasons he would have seen.

When watching Blount run, the thing that comes to mind is a phrase used by Stephen White in an old post on his blog "Passing on the Game", in a link he sent to me to illustrate Martin's relative lack of vision (growing out of the conversation embedded in part two). The phrase was not in relation to Blount, but rather Erik Lorig; yet, it certainly appeared applicable far too often to LeGarrette in 2012: he looked as if he were running the plays as they were drawn up in the playbook. It absolutely seemed to be the case for Blount in 2012; as a generality, when a player lowers his helmet as he approaches the line of scrimmage, especially in the inside zone (as that is point when a running back should be looking backwards across the line, trying to spot the cutback lane opening up), then that player is running to the hole that's drawn up in the playbook, not the hole which will come open when the play is actually run on the field.

How on earth does that happen - an instinctive runner with fantastic vision fighting against his urges to slavishly stick to drawings on paper that may not have any relevance to the reality of the situation? It's the kind of thing you see with inexperienced players - rookie linemen, for example, used to seeing all the plays in their playbook drawn up against a 4-3 front, being completely lost when coming up against a 3-4 team. Inexperienced running backs running the inside or outside zone will often stick to the gaps identified in their playbooks and never look for a cutback lane, despite those cutbacks being the thing that makes zone-run plays work; or in man-power plays, running backs will run into the back of their blockers because they will not realise that the initial playgap is plugged by, for example, the DL shifting from an over to under front, or a linebacker showing blitz and coming down to the LOS. These are literal 'rookie errors' - yet ones that Blount committed on multiple occasions last season. Why would this occur?

(Be warned: at this point, it gets very much into speculative territory)

Even Stevie Wonder could see that there was a culture within the Buccaneer organisation, fostered by Raheem Morris and his encourager-only coaching staff, that needed not just replacing but annihilating; complacency toward playing bad football is simply unacceptable. It is clear that the team needed a disciplinarian to take charge - an enforcer, if you will. Schiano has obviously had some success, with his 7-9 record in 2012 surpassing most (realistic) people's expectations (even though, in light of where the Bucs where at heading into the first Falcons game, the season still felt like a disappointment to many in the end). Still, one can't expect every college coach to come into the NFL to have as dramatic and total a turnaround as Jim Harbaugh had in San Francisco (Pete Carroll only had his first winning season with the Seahawks just this past year), and a three-game improvement was definitely a mark in Schiano's favour, and to some is a testament to the foundation he has laid by bringing in his own culture. Yet, what culture is it that he has brought in? One of discipline, of enforcement, yes - but I would argue one of fear.

"My way or the highway" is a hardline stance, but one that is justified in certain situations, especially when setting out protocol for the future. I have no problem with that - Kellen Winslow II didn't like 'toes on the line'? Ship him away. Dezmon Briscoe cares more about reality TV and 'baby mama drama' than attending OTAs? Bye bye Briscoe. More than justifiable moves - but they have an effect. No doubt, of course, that was Schiano's intent - to send a message to the locker room - but actions, no matter how well-intentioned, have consequences. Yes, it keeps players' metaphorical toes on the line, but it puts the figurative fear of God into them too. Remember, Schiano publicly called out Blount very soon after being hired; when Martin was drafted, the writing was on the wall for LeGarrette. A running back on a one-year deal, who came into the NFL undrafted and didn't make the 53-man roster of his initial team, who is clearly not 'the guy' for his head coach, and has no real guarantee of job security; to suggest that fear for his place on the roster didn't at least play some part in Blount's mental state last season would, I believe, be undervaluing the psychological aspect of sport.

Remember this, too: one of the common accusations levelled at Blount is that he 'dances in the hole', looking for an open running lane rather than hitting the playgap with conviction. It's not entirely unwarranted on occasion, but it is not in anyway a regular problem with Blount - typically, he is does (or at least, did) play to one-cut-and-go, at least until he's through the hole (let me tell you, if he didn't juke and evade once he's into the hole, the Bucs offense in 2010 and 2011 wouldn't have done nearly as much as it did [and it didn't even do that much in 2011!] - the blocking in both years was frankly shocking, and forced Blount to juke and stretch more than he would have had the blocking been competent as a whole). Again: this is speculation, as generally every single article in the blogosphere is, but a player does not lose his natural god-given instincts in an off-season; you do not lose vision to spot running lanes through analysing the play in front of you. There is no logical reason whatsoever why Blount would stop looking back across the play for space, as he had done so effectively in his first two seasons, and just lower his head and trust that the play will unfold exactly like it's drawn up in the playbook. So, I challenge any of you - why would a player suddenly lose the ability to use his best natural abilities, unless for some psychological reason? The nature of the psychological reason is up for debate, but in my opinion? Blount was fighting his natural instincts to conform to what the playbook shows, precisely because he has garnered a reputation for deviating from the hole drawn up in plays, and with no real semblance of job security beyond the season, in order to mentally keep his 'toes on the line'. If you make it clear enough to players that it is "my way or the highway", then you run the risk of them sticking so rigidly to the highway that they miss their turnoff (to extend the metaphor).

In case it hadn't been made clear, let me state explicitly: these articles were never written with the intention of persuading anyone that Blount should still be the starter, or get a majority of the carries - how could they be, when it's a view I don't hold myself? Further, these articles aren't even trying to make a case for Blount to be a bigger part of the offense in 2013.

That last sentence will, no doubt, have raised some eyebrows, but it's true. Blount might have played a larger part in the offense in 2012, but to me, there is no point in making a case for Blount to be any part of the offense in 2013 - I fully believe that ship has sailed. While it was DJ Ware who was released after Brian Leonard was signed, the two are completely different styles of back; at best, Blount may be given the opportunity in camp to compete with Leonard for one roster spot, but with the new addition's history with Greg Schiano, and his ability to play fullback as well, I really don't see Blount winning a spot on the final 53-man squad - assuming he isn't traded before then.

So why bother wasting my time and yours with a five-part article, coming in at over 13,000 words, about a player who I don't even think will be wearing pewter come September?

A better question: isn't it at all curious how a running back with the potential and, more importantly, the vision of Blount, can be turned into an inconsistent player, his play filled with flaws and, yes, very rarely displaying that vision that he was so evidently blessed with in previous seasons, over the course of a single off-season? And isn't it at also worth considering if the factors that led to this being the case for one player may also be the case for other players on the roster?

In the concluding installment of this series, I will attempt to extrapolate these factors that I speculate have effected Blount, and look to see what they could mean for other players on the roster - including #5

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