First thoughts on free agency

Jairus Byrd good! Chris Williams bad! Okay, now that we’ve gotten those two out of the way, let’s move on to the ugly. Just a quick thought about one team’s inexplicable move that I feel reveals a limit on their ceiling…

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to release Darrelle Revis rather than continue to pay him $1 million a game to be one of the best man-to-man cornerbacks in the NFL. To be sure, $16 million a year is a lot of money, and none of it was guaranteed, which makes the move pretty cost-effective if the Bucs have plans for that money. (They’ve already spent some of it signing Alterraun Verner to take his place.) That said, more than the release that concerns me is the thinking behind the release.

When the Buccaneers hired Lovie Smith as head coach (before hiring a GM), some of the chatter around the hiring took the tone of: “Lovie runs a Cover 2, but one of his best1 defenders is a highly paid man-to-man corner. How will he adapt?”

The response to this from some writers and reporters was “Lovie actually ran a variety of coverages in Chicago; he’ll adapt to having Revis there.” Most of us didn’t want to hunt down all-22 footage of Smith’s Chicago years, and wouldn’t have known what to look for if we did2, anyway, so we took this at face value.

Then a few days ago, Smith said the Tampa Bay roster “wasn’t set up with our systems in mind,” and the rumors they would move Revis began. When they couldn’t find a suitable trade partner, they released him Wednesday afternoon.

One of the few intangibles I firmly believe is important to a coach’s success or failure is flexibility. In the NFL, roster space is scarce and exceptional talent more so. If you have an exceptional talent under contract, you need to find a way to make the most use out of it. If you have a preferred scheme you run that doesn’t quite fit him, adjust your scheme until it does.

I am skeptical of any coach who comes in and immediately gets rid of talented players. I am reminded of Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels each coming into a job and immediately trading away their two best offensive players (as well as giving away a high draft pick in their first year there). Now, granted, those moves had more to do with petty problems of ego than with scheme problems, but even so: I’m reminded of the Eagles signing Nnamdi Asomugha and then completely misusing him (although his tank may have been empty at that point, we’ll never really know because of their reluctance to use him to do the one thing he does best). I’m reminded of Jim Mora Jr. attempting to run a Walsh West Coast offense with Michael Vick in Atlanta. I’m reminded of Dallas deciding to hire Monte Kiffin and switch to a 4-3/cover-2 scheme on a roster obviously built with 3-4/man personnel, and immediately challenging the record for most defensive yards allowed in a season.

Revis was paid a lot of money, but he had also proven to still be an excellent cover corner after his ACL injury, and he was going to be one year further removed from that. He possesses a rare and valuable skill set. If Tampa could use that money to sign someone else who was equally as good at something equally as important, I would be more forgiving of the move, but there’s nobody on the market like that.3

I am concerned that this move demonstrates that Lovie Smith is not a creative or flexible coach, which means he is leaving enormous value on the table.  Think of the league’s best coaches: Bill Belichick is known as a defensive wizard and came up running the New York Giants’ feared 3-4 in the 1980s, but how many different defensive fronts and schemes has he run over the years? (For that matter, how many different offensive schemes as he run with the Patriots?) Sean Payton’s offense is primarily thought of as Drew Brees throwing to Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, and Marques Colston, but Graham and Sproles weren’t on the Super Bowl-winning team. Payton has adjusted his offensive systems to take advantage of his best players and of in-game mismatches. The Ryan brothers became famous for their 3-4 defenses, but we’ve seen both of them run hybrid defenses in recent years as the talent available dictated.4 It’s Moneyball: Find talent that is undervalued by traditional methods of thinking, then maximize it on the field. Smith’s approach to roster management is what makes the Moneyball approach possible for other teams.

Not for nothing, Smith had some stubborn offensive coaches in Chicago as well. Mike Martz insisted that every pass play should have five receivers (well, occasionally four), that five- and seven-step drops should be the norm, and that Greg Olson was not a legitimate receiver but Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox were. He refused to adjust his route combinations despite the talent available, and he refused to adjust his protection even though Jay Cutler was getting killed, and that’s why he got fired. (And that’s why he hasn’t had a coaching job since. The game passed him by and he didn’t adapt.) And it didn’t help that Mike Martz insisted guys like J’Marcus Webb and Lance Louis were legitimate offensive linemen.

Now, to be fair, there is something to be said for a proven coach who can run a quality scheme that guarantees a baseline of success. Smith’s record in Chicago was 81-63, and after his first season, he never won fewer than seven games. For a team that just suffered through the Greg Schiano era, that’s got to look pretty nice. But getting any team to the next level requires some creativity and ingenuity, because you have to deal with the limitations of roster sizes and salary caps, and so you have to find extra value somewhere. If you can’t figure out how to use a top-three player at one of the game’s five key positions5, you may not be able to figure out how to extract extra value in other areas of the game, and that makes it hard to be better than average.

1 – His best defender is probably Gerald McCoy, but both Revis and Lavonte David have an argument. ^

2 – I mean, we could have put Needle on the case pretty easily, but most pundits don’t have that kind of guy handy, let alone most fans. ^

3 – Those players almost never make it to market, which makes it bizarre that Revis will be on his third team in three years. ^

4 – The best example of all may come from the college ranks: Gus Malzahn won the national championship at Auburn with an offense built around Cam Newton’s running ability and big arm, then came out of nowhere this year to make it to another championship game with an offense built around Tre Mason’s running abilities. The offenses themselves almost couldn’t be more different– Malzahn did whatever was necessary to play at the highest level possible. ^

5 – Quarterback, left tackle, #1 passing option, edge rusher, and man-to-man cornerback. ^

3 comments on First thoughts on free agency

    1. But I think they couldn’t work out a trade in large part because it was clear Tampa wanted to get rid of him one way or another. Revis was overpaid, but not by enough for it to be worth jettisoning him. Like I said, though, what bothers me isn’t the money involved but the fact that the decision seems to have been made because of the head coach’s narrow and rigid concept of schemes.

      1. He ended up signing for 25% less than his Tampa AAV and less than half the 2014 cap figure he would have had, which suggests his trade value was zero (or close to it).

        I see what you’re saying re: schemes, but I’m not sure you’re giving Lovie enough credit. They did run more cover-1/man schemes towards the end of his Bears tenure. This was a pretty unique situation, where they could walk away from an overpaid contract at no cost. I don’t blame them for doing so given how many other holes the team had, but ultimately I think it’s fair to judge this move by what they do with the $16 MM instead.

        The Bucs’ move that makes no sense to me is paying substantial money to a 35-year-old career backup instead of riding with a second-year guy who had a solid rookie season.

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