We make it complicated sometimes.
With all the talk of schemes and formations and philosophies and coaching trees and combine workouts and practice reps, we often overlook that games and seasons in the NFL come down to having more players on your team that can win more plays than the guys on the other team.
And the ability to win a play usually comes down to a very simple thing: One team had a better player on a lesser player more often on a particular Sunday.
When LaDainian Tomlinson leaks out of the backfield and is 1-on-1 with a linebacker, that's the matchup the San Diego Chargers want. Or Dwight Freeney on an overmatched left tackle. Or Terrell Owens on an injured corner. Or Tom Brady against inexperienced safeties. Or Devin Hester attacking a punt coverage team. A lot goes into setting up those plays. A lot goes into teams protecting themselves from getting caught in those alignments.
But the search for mismatches is a constant drumbeat.
"That's what this game has become about: matchups," says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, who won a Super Bowl as offensive coordinator with the Steelers. "Especially with the different personnel groups and different styles of offense and defense, it's constant. When you match up, you need personnel that can handle the people they are facing to have a chance to win. It's become more of a chess match and you’re trying to get your best chess pieces to compete."
Whisenhunt cites the proliferation of the zone blitz as a prime example. That exploits blocking mismatches. The counter to the zone blitz is the spread offense. That makes the defense declare who's rushing the quarterback and who’s in coverage and isolates players on the perimeter.
Teams need to populate their rosters with players who can carry out these schemes. Yet at the same time, they need to guard against having too many players with specialized skills that can render them useless on too many Sundays when their skills don't match the opponent.
Depth and specialization are constantly pulling on the same rope. They are, at times, at cross purposes. And NFL coaches and general managers are always wary of how their schemes fit their players.
But as the game evolves with bigger, faster players and more technological advances that help teams scout their opponents to look for weaknesses, finding favorable matchups is a high priority.
"Bill Walsh was a real proponent of it to the point that I remember that specifically about him," Colts coach Tony Dungy says of the legendary 49ers coach. "Him and all the guys who came from that Joe Gibbs, Don Coryell-atmosphere had that attitude of, 'We’re gonna get this guy on that guy in that situation.' I think we do that much more than we used to."
On both sides, Dungy points out.
"Dwight Freeney plays right defensive end for us, but sometimes if we see a right tackle we want to work on we'll try and get that matchup, absolutely," he agrees.
The attitude of "we do what we do" is not as prevalent in the NFL as it once was. The best teams are able to change week-to-week depending on opponent. The New England Patriots, as Dungy points out, may have one week where they feature a fleet of linebackers and safeties prominently and leave some defensive linemen inactive. The next week, against a power team, those defensive backs may be sitting and the defensive linemen are back in.
"It's about having an identity and answering the question, 'What will you try to be?'" he explains. "There's a number of free agents or draftable players out there that are good football players, but we don't want them on our team, while on another team they can be very successful."
Which is what often leads to the schism that develops between coaching staff and personnel people, says Raiders coach Lane Kiffin.
"Head coaches and coordinators have special players who fit their systems but don't fit other systems," says Kiffin. "When you see issues arise between coaches and a GM, that’s where the conflict is. It isn't just a difference of opinion. Sometimes a GM wants to get certain guys but those guys aren’t going to fit all systems if you change coordinators. That's why you see issues with specialized people because specialized people fit into different systems.
"If you change head coaches and offensive systems (in Oakland) half our offensive linemen are a waste. So you put money into this offensive line (running a zone blocking scheme) that will be wasted if you change systems because they're not big enough, not powerful enough to run another system, And vice versa. When we got here, there were guys who didn't fit our system we needed to get rid of. It's on the GM to weigh everything," says Kiffin. "The problem (with specializing) you run into is schemes. As a GM are you protecting the organization for who's here now or who's here in the long run? Are players the best players or the best system fit? That to me is one of the hardest things to answer, 'How far can you go with specializing on a team?'"
CSN: Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has been contacted by police investigating a possible homicide in North Attleboro, Mass. Hernandez is not believed to be a suspect but a rental car in his name is connected to the death.
2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
Latest from ProFootballTalk
Video: Football from NBC Sports
Police search Patriots player’s home
Police in Massachusetts searched New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez after a body was found near a car that was rented in Hernandez’ name.
Check out some of the NFL cheerleaders from across the league.