A couple of days ago, Football Outsiders linked to an article by Matt Waldmann from 2011 titled "Losing Your Football Innocence." In the article, Waldman offers up ten points on how to watch football with a more critical eye. One of the thoughts that struck me was what Waldman wrote about former players and what you can learn from them.
Listen to ex-players: There is a great deal you can learn about the game from ex-players analyzing tape or discussing techniques and concepts of their position. I have learned a ton just from watching pregame shows. Who better to learn from than former NFL starters – many with Pro Bowls on their resume?
The way Steve Young once described how footwork bridges the mental and physical sides of football was one of the more insightful pointers I’ve seen. Cris Carter made a great presentation on the way receivers should use their hands. Merrill Hoge’s film break downs of blocking schemes on running plays are frequently excellent.
Don’t fall into the trap of letting an ex-player’s personality, speech, or other on-air tendencies annoy you. There are definitely personalities I enjoy watching more than others, but what I’m seeking is information. Why should I discard gems from knowledgeable players because they have difficulty enunciating a word correctly or they have incorrect grammar?
Even better than listening to ex-players is listening to current players describing the plays they were involved in, which is exactly what we had an opportunity to do when Tony Romo talked in detail about his TD throw to Witten during the post-game press conference on Sunday.
What we'll do for the rest of this post is go through what Romo said word-for-word and see how that fits with the game tape that we have.
The play we're looking at is from the Cowboys' seventh drive. The score is 28-0, the Cowboys had started their drive on their own 25-yard line, and nine plays later they find themselves in 2nd-and-11 on the Colts 25-yard line. The Cowboys are lined up in a "Shotgun 02" formation.
The Shotgun 02 (0 RB, 2 TE, 3 WR) is one of the reasons why the Cowboys have been so successful recently on second downs. Some commenters have argued that they "hate" the empty backfield that comes with this formation, because there is no doubt whatsoever what the playcall will be: the Cowboys will pass. Still, the formation is very hard to defend, as Bob Sturm explained in the Dallas Morning News two weeks ago:
There was a time, not so long ago, when an empty backfield meant a blitz was coming and then possibly a sack. But, under Linehan, the Cowboys love doing this and love using 2 TEs to one side with a WR, then Beasley and Bryant to the opposite side so they can combo their routes together to put major conflicts on the 2 DBs and safety that generally follow them.
On Sunday, the Cowboys lined up in the exact formation Sturm describes, with Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley on the right side, and Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar lined up with Terrance Williams on the left side. Here's how Romo begins to describe the play:
Tony Romo: We had three what we call seam or go routes on one side. We actually had four, total, on the routes. We had another receiver doing a different type of route – I don’t want to explain too much.
Terrance Williams, Gavin Escobar and Jason Witten are all going to run seam routes on the left side of the field, which means they are basically going to run straight upfield towards the endzone.
Seam routes are often used to outrun a defensive back and, once behind the defender, to catch a pass and run untouched into the endzone (if the safety isn't there to stop you).
In this case, the Cowboys are using the seam routes on the left to clear out space for Jason Witten, by drawing one of the safeties over to the left side of the field. If this works, it would leave the receiver with a shorter route (Witten) in one-on-one coverage, because the safety will move towards the deeper players. You can see how the seam routes have developed below:
Williams is the deep man and Escobar is not far behind. The safety (not in the picture) has already begun backpedaling towards the left side to provide help over the top against Williams and Escobar. Witten ran into the DE and then released upfield, which is why he is not as deep as the other two.
Tony Romo: I saw the pre-snap look and knew I might have it late.
Here's what Romo sees prior to the snap.
The Colts are in a nickel formation, but instead of the more conventional 4-2-5 (4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB), they've kept an extra linebacker instead of a lineman and are in a 3-3-5 formation. This is a direct response to the Cowboys' Shotgun 02, as the Colts feel they're better off with an extra guy in pass coverage than an extra pass rusher. For Tony Romo, this means a couple of different things:
- The Colts are only going to rush three, so he may have more time to throw, and can afford the luxury of keeping an eye out for a route that may be a little slower to develop ("I knew I might have it late").
- Williams and Escobar are both matched up against corners, while Witten is lined up against a linebacker.
- If the safety on the left side of the field covers either Williams or Escobar (whoever is the deep man), Witten will be in one-on-one coverage against a linebacker.
But Witten is not Romo's primary option. His first and second reads are Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley on the right side of the field.
Tony Romo: I ended up going from Cole to Dez and over to Jason on the play, and just reacted to where the safety was
Here's some visual evidence for how Romo went through his progression:
Immediately after the snap (picture sequence is from left to right), Romo briefly glances left in the direction of the three seam routes. It's not clear to me whether he's actually looking for a target or trying to look off the safety on the right side of the field. In any case, that look left is nothing more than a brief glimpse as he turns his attention to the right, where Bryant and Beasley are running their routes.
Romo looks at the developing routes and actually puts his left foot forward to step into the throw (third picture), just as Beasley separates from the covering linebacker. But there's something Romo doesn't like about the look he's getting, and given that he has oodles of time with just three men rushing, he tuns back left, just in time to see that Witten is about to get behind the linebacker and that the safety has moved back and to the left.
Tony Romo: You can’t turn and go from the right and then come back to the left and throw it on the seam unless you know the safety on Witten’s side is going to be wide – and he did, he went wide
The receivers on the outside did a great job making him have to respect that, and the defender wasn’t looking. So if the defender’s not looking, I always felt like the guy’s not covered, just because he’s not going to have a chance to make a play on the ball.
When Romo sees that the linebacker is turned, he throws.
Now it becomes a simple qustion of velocity, parabolic arc and ball placement: Throw the ball in such a way that Witten can catch it, but without hitting the defender in the head - not really much of a challenge for the guy who leads the league in completion percentage.
Tony Romo: So even though the kid was close, in the vicinity, his eyes weren’t really in a position to make a play.
All Witten has to do is look back and make the catch, which he does.
The entire play took six seconds from the snap to the TD, which doesn't sound like a lot. But when you listen to Romo explain the play, you understand that there's a lot that goes into making such a play look routine.
Coincidentally, Romo broke Troy Aikman’s team record for career passing yards with this touchdown pass to Witten. Said the always eloquent Witten:
"That was a heck of a throw."