Friday, May 4, 2018

More (and lasting) Damage from the Josh McDaniels Fiasco

A lot of fans were upset and confused when the Colts cut NT Johnathan Hankins a couple of weeks ago. The reason given by General Manager Chris Ballard was that Hankins was not a fit for the 4-3 defensive scheme they're moving to. 

Fans with good memories were confused by this as we know that Hankins played in both the 3-4 and the 4-3 while with the NY Giants.

This article addresses that question and a few more that I have not seen asked elsewhere.

Everyone knows the story by now: Josh McDaniels interviewed with the Colts during the playoffs, got the job, the announcement was delayed by league rules until after the Super Bowl, then he changed his mind and the Colts moved on.

Those of you that have followed fairly closely probably know that before the McDaniels flip flop, that the Colts even went out and hired some of his preferred assistant coaches.  

And the Colts, class organization that they are, honored those contracts.  

And this is where the whole thing goes off the rails.

To fully explain, we'll have to go back and look at what Chris Ballard did the previous season. For the purposes of this article, we'll be focusing solely on the defensive moves.

These are the veterans on defense that Ballard brought in previous to last season:  

  • DE/DT Margus Hunt: Hunt is a excellent athlete with limited experience, basically a project player. All of his previous experience was in the 4-3. 
  • NT Johnathan Hankins: Hankins had played in both the 3-4 and the 4-3 with the Giants.
  • DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard: Sheard came from New England where he played defensive end. He was brought in to play OLB for the Colts.
  • DE/OLB John Simon: Simon came from the Texans and has only played in the 3-4.
There were a couple of other signings (Spence, Bostic) but they are not important within the scope of this article.

Defensive rookies drafted:

  • S Malik Hooker: Ball-hawking safety in the mold of Ed Reed. 
  • CB Quincy Wilson: Good sized CB with primarily bump and run man to man cover skills. Seen as weak in off coverage. Primary fit would be a bump and run pressure defense, similar to what Seattle and Baltimore (and Pagano) run.

Again for the purposes of this article, we'll just focus on these players and not the ones drafted in later rounds. 

Now, some of you more advanced fans out there probably looked at these moves before last season and wondered if these guys were a fit for Pagano's attacking style 3-4 defense. Hunt, Sheard, and Basham sure didn't seem to fit.

Most of us believed that Pagano was a lame duck who would be replaced after the season, and some of us concluded that Ballard was getting a head start on the 2018 season by acquiring players who would fit into the scheme he actually preferred and planned to move to: The 4-3 front with cover 3 on the back end.  

In his first few months on the job, I heard Ballard mention this scheme a few times in passing, which immediately got my attention.  

So, what does this mean? Well, the following players that the Colts acquired prior to the 2017 season are a perfect fit for the exact scheme that Seattle runs: Johnathan Hankins, Al Woods, Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Malik Hooker, Quincy Wilson, and Tarell Basham.  

It seems to me to very clear that Ballard was fully committed to moving the Colts to a 4-3 cover-3 scheme in the style of the Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons.  

But Ballard has now stated that we'll be running a 4-3 Tampa-2 style defense for this season and into the future.

So what changed?  

Josh McDaniels, that's what.  

The Colts signed Matt Eberflus away from Dallas to be their defensive coordinator, because that's who McDaniels wanted. (Note 6/5/2019): Ballard has since said some things that infer Eberflus was HIS guy)  

And Matt Eberflus is a Tampa-2 coordinator. 

Now don't get me wrong, Eberflus is considered to be a very sharp and up and coming defensive coach - Dallas had gone out of their way to incentivise him to stay as the possible heir apparent to Rod Marinelli.  

So, now that the Colts have switched to a different scheme than originally planned - they have a few players that were acquired that fit, and several that don't have a precise fit in this defense.   

Apparently Ballard wanted McDaniels so badly that he was willing to discard all of his plans for the defense that he presumably had been thinking about for years in preparation for his first GM job.

Players acquired last year who are scheme fits for the Tampa-2:

  • Margus Hunt: Perfect penetrating DT
  • Jabaal Sheard: Near perfect fit for the LDE
  • Tarell Basham: Good fit for LDE

Players acquired last year who are bad scheme fits for the Tampa-2:
  • Johnathan Hankins: (who has been cut)
  • Malik Hooker
  • Quincy Wilson
  • Al Woods
  • John Simon: (his best fit is for weakside OLB in the Seahawks scheme)
This is where we discuss Johnathan Hankins, who played in both the 3-4 and 4-3 with the NY Giants. He was their #1 free agent signing in 2017 and he really played up to his contract, providing stout run defense and adequate pass rush.

The reason that the Giants didn't resign him was that he was not a great fit for the type of 4-3 scheme that their current defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo favors. So Hankins's tape seemed to show a decline in his play, whereas it was really a scheme fit issue.  

Hankins was originally drafted to play in former Giants Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's "break but don't bend" 4-3 scheme, and he excelled until the Giants fired Fewell and replaced him with Spagnuolo.

So, the reason that Hankins was signed was that he was a scheme fit for Pagano's 3-4 and was a projected fit for a DT in a Seattle style defense. 
In this example, Hankins would have been the 2-GAP DT 

And how was Hankins a scheme fit for the defense that Seattle runs? In Pete Carroll's cover-3 scheme, the most of the defensive line plays one gap, with one defensive tackle playing two gap. That two gap position was to be filled by Hankins, with Al Woods being the backup.

Now let's talk about Malik Hooker. Hooker was seen as a generational talent as a free safety in the Ed Reed / Earl Thomas mold. He was seen as a perfect fit for defenses that required the FS to be the primary cover deep guy who either supported corners locked in bump and run man coverage (Pagano's scheme) or corners in bump short zone coverage. In both schemes, his primary responsibilities are coverage, with the SS on the other side playing closer to the line.  

This is in contrast to the free safety's role in the tampa-2. In this scheme, both the FS and the SS drop straight back near the hashmarks and their responsibility is mainly the outside thirds of the downfield passing area:

The middle linebacker is responsible for the middle of the field. Both the FS and the SS are primary parts of the run defense and have very specific gap responsibility.

So, in a tampa-2, both safeties need to be rugged tacklers, while they have a lesser range requirement as each only covers a third of the field, whereas in the cover-3 they often are asked to cover 3/4 or even the entire deep passing area. Also safeties in the tampa-2 require less instincts as their decision making process is pretty rigidly dictated by what the offense does.  

Everything I just said makes Hooker a complete non-fit for the cover-2, and really, a great waste of talent. This would be like having Aaron Rodgers running the Tim Tebow offense. Sure Aaron could do it, but do you really want him taking all those hits and not using his supreme arm talent?  

On top of that, the increased responsibilities in the run game may take a toll on him physically. Basically he is playing role that Bob Sanders played. 

One of Hooker's issues coming out of college was his poor routes to tackle runners, but I didn't see any issues with this during his rookie year, so that improved with coaching.

And how about CB Quincy Wilson? Wilson was a polarizing player around the NFL as he was seen to only be a good fit for teams that ran bump man coverage. Didn't play much zone in college. Basically he was a good fit for either Pagano's defense or Seattle's.  

As a cover-2 corner, he is a little taller than you normally see. He also is not "squat" like you see in most cover-2 corners. In the cover-2 (reference the above diagram), the cornerbacks are primarily responsible for tackling outside runners and for the short passing zones on the outside third of the field.  

Some of you may remember when the Tampa Bucs acquired CB Darrelle Revis. Revis was a top echelon downfield coverage guy and Tampa was running a tampa-2. It was a disaster.  

Now I'm not saying that Wilson will be a disaster as a cover-2 corner, as he is younger and presumably more coachable that Revis was. But his physical skills and body type are not the ideal fits you would expect from a high draft choice. This tells me that in this scheme his ceiling may be sharply limited.

The conclusion from all this is that due to the chain of events from the attempt to hire Josh McDaniels, the Colts put themselves in the position to where they will likely never get full value from their 1st and 2nd 2017 draft picks. 

To me it is clear that Ballard never considered the possibility that he would hire anyone other than a cover-3 guy.

Everyone (including the Colts organization) is saying the Colts dodged a bullet when McDaniels jilted them, but it is more like they were hit but the bullet went through and through and they'll just have a limp for a while.  

The costs to all of this:

  • Potential loss of value their 1st and 2nd round picks on the 2017 draft (almost certainly the Colts would have picked different players had they known they were moving to the tampa-2)
  • Damaged the career prospects of Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson by forcing them into roles they are not suited for
  • Wasted the money signing Hankins (did the Colts really need him to win four games?)
  • The Colts are stuck with a defensive scheme that is not the one favored and planned for by team management
  • The Colts rebuild and the progress of the defense will be held back as they almost have to play these guys based on what they have invested.

I feel that there is little chance of Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson signing a 2nd contract with the Colts, and honestly I think they both should be traded at this point - while they still have value. After a couple of years playing in a scheme that does not fit them they will look like busts.  

I feel that the events described in this article represent a black eye for Chris Ballard and it all should have been handled much differently. I still love the guy and I think he is very good at his job - but this all was handled very poorly.

How they got stuck on McDaniels enough to upset their careful planning is a mystery for the ages.

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