I ended part one of "Learning a Lesson from LeGarrette" with the (perhaps controversial) claim that Blount's poor rate of production was not for the most part a result of his own skills - which I suggested are certainly better than most tend to believe - but was chiefly a product of external factors, the largest of which was Schiano himself.
With that premise established, it's time to do a little myth-busting around Blount, since we need to understand what Blount is and isn't capable of, and what he did or didn't do on the field, before we can say to what extent Schiano effected his game. I realise that it's a pretty unusual claim to make, to label Blount a "Victim of Schiano", but I feel that it's a fully justifiable position to take. No doubt, those who disagree will do so primarily on the grounds that Blount's skills declined in 2011, with last season being just the natural continuation of that process - meaning Schiano's effect, positive of negative, would only have been minimal. For that reason, this part of the article is devoted to an analysis of the only tool that can accurately determine how good or bad Blount really was in 2011 - gamefilm; to quote Buccaneer great Warren Sapp, "the eye in the sky never lies" - and I believe the 'eye in the sky' shows Blount's form was actually improved in 2011 from his rookie campaign, if anything.
To give a little background as to why I'm such an advocate of Blount: following a disastrous end (well, middle-and-end) to the 2011 season, I, like many Buc fans, could not for the life of me understand how a team that showed such promise the previous year had managed to deteriorate into such a pathetic excuse of a football team by the following December. The Buccaneer fanbase was torn into many factions who each held different factors responsible for the teams' woes – with LeGarrette being one of the most contentious topics discussed on message boards and Twitter alike. I did not begin with Blount, however, but with the team as a whole; taking advantage of NFL.com's 'Game Pass' service (the international version of 'Game Rewind', which I gotta say is an incredible feature to have and I would strongly encourage ALL football fans to buy a subscription if they can possibly afford it), I started to watch every single snap of every single game, and break down on my Twitter account what every player did on every play.
I won't lie, I lost a fair few Twitter followers in those 24 hours – especially those who weren't into football – but I like to feel I gained something of a reputation as someone who knows his stuff as a result; more importantly, I felt like it was something that had to be done by someone, as there were too many questions that needed answers. Unfortunately, I didn't realise that there's an hourly or daily Tweet limit, and ended up in 'Twitter jail' the next day. That spurned me to set up a blog where I could post my break downs of every single snap.
Of course, I underestimated just how long it took to explain every single action of all twenty players on the field – just charting players' actions, like Football Outsiders or ProFootballFocus do, would have taken up enough time, but to then write a detailed explanation too? Life's simply too short – and I abandoned that ambitious project after just the first half of opening game. Instead, I decided to focus on individual players, a much more modest undertaking, in response to someone asking me if there was any explanation on tape as to why Mike Williams regressed in 2011. Indulging my horribly obsessive side, I went through every snap Williams took as a pro, simply noting what he did on each play and explaining why he did or didn't catch a pass thrown his way (you can click on that link above to read through both the Williams and Blount breakdowns, but I can tell you I'm probably never going to update that blog again so don't expect anything new on there any time soon, or ever).
As I was going through the tape of Williams, the Buccaneer fan base was being divided into two distinct camps over the fast-approaching 2012 draft, which over time became to be known as "Team Trent" and "Pro-Mo", depending on whether they wanted Trent Richardson or Morris Claiborne with the fifth overall pick (in retrospect, we should have had a "Barron Bunch"). I was a staunch proponent of the "Pro-Mo" school of thought, and to back up my arguments, I decided to follow the Williams breakdowns with a similar series looking at every snap Blount took in 2011 – except, in order to make my position even stronger, I went beyond noting what Blount did, and on every play gave an explanation of what Blount did well or badly on the play, what alternative options were presented to LeGarrette and why the path he picked was the right or wrong one. (This was, however, before the NFL introduced the All-22 and endzone camera angles on all plays – offering them only on touchdowns, interceptions or particularly notable plays, so all those breakdowns are based on broadcast angles only)
Now, as the draft came and went and the Buccaneers had a shiny new back in Doug Martin, there was obviously less of a 'need' for my breakdowns, and as for the explanations they were taking me far, far longer than the Williams ones did with the added commentary, so I stopped doing them after the Week 10 match up against the Texans, covering half of the 14 games Blount played in that year (the Titans game mentioned on that blog refers to the opening preseason game of 2012, NOT the game against the Titans in 2011). With the entire team collapsing soon afterwards, I feel that those seven games give me a pretty solid understanding of Blount's game – and to say the least, I was surprised by what I actually saw once I focused on the entire picture.
The first thing I looked for was confirmation that I was right in arguing Blount was nowhere near the running back he was too often portrayed as – by which I mean he absolutely disproved the increasingly negative portrayal of him that had by this point been lapped up by the professional sports media, which in turn resulted in an even wider-spread dissemination of this entirely incorrect conception of Blount. Watching his 2011 season, I knew I was entirely justified in arguing why Richardson would have been a waste of a pick as I had full conviction that Blount had (and has) both the skills and, most importantly, the football intelligence to be a starting running back – albeit one who could definitely benefit from a complementary back (and even advocated taking Martin in the second round to fill such a role).
I highlight Blount's unquestionable football smarts as it is perhaps the biggest knock on his game – and completely unfounded. There was no trace of the idiot meathead who doesn't know a play gap from his elbow or is utterly lost in pass-protection (a lie that was even perpetrated by one of his team-mates, though as I shall go on to explain there was, perhaps, another reason this particular player was so ready to publicly point the finger at LeGarrette). Rather, Blount on tape is an incredibly savvy running back who clearly has studied, and fully understands, the playbook.
Caught up in a Twitter argument about Blount during the 2012 season between a few different accounts (as so often happens on the social media site), I brought up this particular nugget to counter someone who spewed the same old "Blount doesn't understand what's in front of him" nonsense. One of the other Twitter accounts in this argument completely agreed – that belonging to former Buccaneer defensive end Stephen White, who the more astute Buc fan recognises as being one of the most knowledgeable and insightful gamefilm analysts on Twitter, and whose Monday morning breakdowns of the previous day's Bucs games during the season (which, I must admit, was the main source of inspiration for my own breakdowns) are essential reading for any Tampa Bay fan who wants to understand what actually happened during the games, rather than relying swallowing whole whatever spin the traditional sports media wants to put on a game (seriously, if you're not following Stephen on Twitter, what's wrong with you? Go follow!)
Anyway, White went above and beyond what I was saying – not only did he argue that he understood what was happening in front of him, he actually claimed that Blount possesses better vision (or the 'BCV' rating for you Maddenites) than Doug Martin. That original tweet appears to be lost in the annals of Twitter mentions past, but for this article I tweeted Stephen asking if he remembers making that statement during the season. Not only did he remember the claim – and confirm that he still believes that it's the case – he clarified that this was not a knock on Martin per se (and that, though Martin's vision was not great early on in the season, it did markedly improve over the weeks) but rather it was a case of just how good Blount's vision is that despite Doug's vision getting better as the season went on (and I don't think many have a problem with the level to which the Hamster's vision has developed) it still doesn't match up to LeGarrette's.
@sgw94 Stephen, you may or may not remember this but I recall you tweeting out during the season that Blount actually had better vision than— Gur Samuel (@FredTheGur) March 21, 2013
@fredthegur yes I remember it and I still believe it but Martin got better as the season went on. You could tell they were teaching him to— Stephen White (@sgw94) March 21, 2013
@fredthegur go straight ahead instead of looking for home runs but some of his cuts early just...weren't good.Give me a Minute— Stephen White (@sgw94) March 21, 2013
@fredthegur while Blount has flaws his biggest asset is his vision so its not some huge knock on Martin, but he did need to improve his.— Stephen White (@sgw94) March 21, 2013
Indeed, I believe that a testament to Blount's vision is borne out through my own breakdowns, and that while he did on occasion choose the wrong option when presented with multiple potential running lanes, the same is true of all backs, and he picked the best available option far more often than those who haven't studied tape would have you believe.
So Blount's vision, his ability to decipher a play when he has the ball in his hands and recognise the best option in front of him, is unassailable – unless, of course, you believe Martin's vision is terrible too – but one of the other common accusations that many hold as an indicator of his lack of football knowledge is this notion that he is 'lost' or 'useless' in pass-protection. Unlike the knocks on his vision, I can at least understand where this myth comes from – thought it still remains an incorrect assertion to make, at least partially. As a rookie, Blount was often lost in pass-protection, and there is one particular play that is often brought up from his rookie season: the away game against Atlanta, Mike Peterson came unblocked off the edge to sack Josh Freeman, the only sack of the entire game by either side, while Blount remained in the backfield, unmoving, looking up the middle of the field when it was clear that Peterson should have been Blount's man.
What most people fail to recognise, however, is that players grow and develop over their careers – yes, Blount did whiff on that play, and others, as a rookie, but he messed up as a rookie, one who wasn't even on the roster until a few days before the season. Many, or more likely most running backs would equally struggle in similar circumstances during their rookie campaign; but since that first year in the NFL, Blount has never (at least, never once during the first half of 2011) been out of position in pass-protection. That is not to say that he has always succeeded in pass-protection – he hasn't, and it is a part of his game that I'm sure if he's being honest even LeGarrette himself would agree he needs to improve on to reach the next level in terms of being a complete back.
The key thing, though, is that his success rate in pass-protection since the start of the '11 season, which is probably a little over 50% success, is not a result of him failing to understand what his assignment is in pass-protection, he very clearly knows where he is meant to be and is always in good position. Likewise, he cannot be criticised for a lack of 'want-to' when it comes to pass-pro; unlike some running backs who would always bail out of a 'read' protection assignment (i.e. stay in on pass-pro to check with his assignment, and only if the relevant defender doesn't blitz does the back run a route out the backfield) rather than stay to check their assignments *cough*Lumpkin*cough* or might deliberately whiff on a defender if it's a particularly fearsome rusher, Blount always went to block his target without fail. His issue, then is one of technique, and only one of technique – and even then, that tends to be far more indicative of failure on behalf of the coaching staff (a Raheem Morris-era positional coach not ensuring his players has a sound array of basic fundamentals? Who'd have imagined that!)
My main criticism with Blount's pass-pro technique is a heavy over-reliance on cut-blocks, something that as a generality I'm against not just for running backs, or pass-pro, but for any player in any situation (unless maybe backside linemen on the outside zone). Cut-blocking is in my mind a cheap tool that has more downsides than upsides, and can pose a health risk to both the player performing the cut-block and especially the player on the receiving end. A cut-block always ends with the offensive player on the ground – and if he's missed, that means the defender he was responsible goes through untouched. If he connects, there's no guarantee that the defender will go down, or can't get back up in time to effect the play. Even if the cut-block is executed successfully, the offensive lineman is still on the ground, meaning he's either left a hole for an additional defender to come through (whereas in a successful stand-up block, such a defender would generally have to find a different cap to attack), or on a run play he's created a pile on the ground that can effectively plug up the intended hole, causing a busted play.
Its only valid application in my opinion is in the aforementioned outside zone, or if the defender is so unbelievably fast that there is no possible way any lineman could have ever got to such a defender – otherwise, using cut-blocks either suggests too poor technique on the part of the lineman to win the one-on-one with his assignment, or else is a purely malicious act intended to actively damage (or at least to scare the defender into believing he's at risk of damage) an opposing player. I like to believe this latter motive is a rare occurrence in the NFL, but I can tell you first hand that in the amateur British leagues it happens way too often – and I'm sure that at least one lineman in the history of the NFL wanted to leave a mark on an opponent (I refuse to coach my linemen to cut-block for these two reasons especially – if you're cut-blocking, then I've failed to coach up the lineman's technique to a good-enough standard).
In Blount's case, I do believe it's the former – a lack of technique; in fact, there was one game in 2012 (I must apologise, the exact game escapes me) when Blount was left in to pass protect, he did go for a stand-up block but was bull-rushed back into Freeman. Clearly that needs to change, but to me the answer, for all the reasons stated above, is not cut-blocking (the biggest reason Blount had such an average success rate in pass-pro was that his cut-blocks were often too early, allowing the defender to sidestep him or push him aside as he was going down) but simply a case of improving his technique, teaching him to sink his hips as he steps into a block so he can come up underneath the pads. The good news, however, is that he has shown both the comprehension to learn what are often complex pass-protection schemes and the mental desire to attack his assignments – all he needs is the technique.
So, Blount has great vision with the ball in his hands, and is limited in pass-protection but with more than enough grounds to believe he can be coached into a capable back for pass protecting. He does a good enough job at receiving, too, if not too much is asked of him – you might not see him on down-field wheel routes out the backfield, but your basic flat and drag routes he is more than capable of, and though he did have some drops, Martin was very guilty of this too (yet everyone seems to forget that he was a dropper), he still had shown enough to suggest he could have a role as a receiver out the backfield too, even if that is not his strength. Let us be honest, he will almost certainly never be a do-all back in the NFL – but there aren't many.
Even Adrian Peterson is not a true do-all back, in that he is a solid but unspectacular receiver and an average at best in pass-pro (do not get me wrong, there is no-one who comes close to All Day when it comes to running the ball, but when you look at the totality of the position and its responsibilities, he is not as strong across all three areas as, say, Ray Rice); but his relative (note: relative) shortcomings in the other aspects of being a running back doesn't stop him being the best player of last season.
Doug Martin is a do-all back, a guy who perfectly fits the mould of what the position will be for the upcoming decade. LeGarrette Blount doesn't have the physical tools to be the same running back, but he absolutely has the tools to be a solid contributor, even a starter in the NFL, but unlike Martin (who can be a true bell cow), Blount will be best served as part of a committee approach. The model you might want to think of is that which the Falcons ran the past few years – Michael Turner as the workhorse ball-carrier, used sparingly in the pass game, and with his shortcomings shored up by having Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood or, later, Jacquizz Rodgers take over in certain situations. This is not a bad thing – far from it; Martin is a truly special talent who does not come along every year, and more and more teams in the NFL understand they do need a platoon of running backs to man the position, and Blount would make a huge addition to any such platoon.
"But wait, Gur", I hear you ask (yes, I can hear you asking me – you shouldn't have left your microphone on), "if Blount has such good vision, and would make a valuable part of any team's running back corp, why wasn't he used more? And when he used, why did he perform at a level so far below what you say he is capable of? Hell, you quoted his 2012 stats yourself, that's nowhere near what a starting-calibre running back should be producing, are you full of crap or what?". Well, firstly, there's no need for insulting me, dude. Seriously, uncalled for. Not cool. Secondly, you do raise a fair point – if Blount is the running back I say he is, he should have been playing a much higher rate of production than his 2012 numbers suggest.
That is, if Blount was an emotionless robot who did everything he should on paper. Sadly, he is not a robot, or similarly insentient being; there is a human factor, and this factor more than any other explains why LeGarrette played the way he did in 2012. Blount is clearly a man who is driven by emotion – just ask Byron Hout; and in such people, their mental state can radically change their demeanour, and if it it does so negatively, it can result in not just football players, but any person failing to reach their potential. So what factor could have so infiltrated Blount's mental state as to cause him to fail to be the back he could have been?
You guessed it. Schiano – or rather, coaching. Coaching can completely transform a player – for the good (look at Roy Miller, or Quincy Black before the injury) or the bad (LeGarrette). But 'coaching' is too generic a term – to get to the heart of the matter, I would like to share with you my theory of coaching, a theory which can explain the success or failure not just of the Bucs, or of football teams, or even sport, but of almost any structured area of society, from teams to organisations to government. The theory of the Encourager and the Enforcer.
In part three, I'll be setting out in full this theory, two roles that are universally replicated in almost all organisations - you'll recognise the personality types from your own lives, that much I guarantee. This theory is one that I feel not only explains successful coaching regimes, but also why some coaching regimes fail - and will illustrate that particularly with examples from Buccaneer history - and potentially serve as a warning to Schiano.
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