NFL is ultimate copycat league
Imitation is sincerest form of flattery in pro football
NFL head of football operations Troy Vincent pounded his fists on a conference room table and smiles.
"We are a copycat league, you bet," he said. "If Peyton [Manning] and Philip [Rivers] and [Drew] Brees and [Tom] Brady are doing something that's good, then go out and try to do the same thing."
Easier said than done if you don't have such star quarterbacks. But Vincent's point is well taken.
Vincent, a star player for 15 pro seasons and former president of the players' union, recognizes that trends always will be a part of the sport.
Some burst on the scene and then fade quickly, like the wildcat or alternating QBs, for example. Others — the zone blitz, the nickel back — have staying power.
In 2014, there will be plenty of plagiarism between the lines, on the sidelines, in the coaching boxes and even in the marketing departments.
The no-huddle offence has been a part of pro football since John Unitas pretty much invented the two-minute drill. It normally was reserved for late portions of halves and games. It's running rampant through the league now, its popularity buoyed by the record-smashing seasons Manning and Brady recently put together.
Super Bowl-winning quarterback Phil Simms, now an analyst for CBS Sports, feels it's here to stay.
"Faster offence will be a part of the NFL," Simms said. "What was a talented offence from 10 years ago is so much less so now because it is harder to run the ball."
Simms believes teams will pass more than ever, combining that with the no-huddle.
"We'll be seeing out of these offences all these screens, trying to tire out key defensive players," he said. "That's a matchup the offences can win and it is almost a must by an NFL offence to have."
Simms feels offences need to do something different because "you won't win 17-13 anymore in the playoffs. And what's unique? Well, go as fast as you can."
Rich Gannon, the NFL's most valuable player in 2002 when he led the Raiders to the Super Bowl, thinks the faster pace will affect the ones calling plays.
The traditional system of relaying a play or formations from the co-ordinators to the quarterbacks or defensive leaders is endangered, Gannon predicts. So is a quarterback calling just one play.
"Years ago, offensive co-ordinators were trying to guess right," said Gannon, now an analyst for SiriusXM NFL Radio and for CBS.
"They would find a set of plays based on preparation during the week and on their knowledge of the percentage defences did certain things."
That's changed, Gannon says, and modern offences need a quarterback who can adjust on the line.
Denver, New England, New Orleans, Green Bay, a few others — they don't have to worry. Other teams will continue searching for a quarterback who has a great arm and the intelligence to make the right call as the play clock is ticking.
"We'll be seeing quarterbacks call multiple plays in the huddle," Gannon said. "When they get to the line, they use the play that fits.
"It's not an audible. But it's the quarterbacks being given the freedom they need to get into the right play."
"There is only so much you can do differently on the field," Vincent said. "So who gets the edge might depend on who is willing to let technology become a positive."
While the NFL is allowing teams to use tablets on the sideline for everything from play calling to reviewing what just happened, not everyone is readily embracing it. Vincent senses that some coaches entrenched in the past might not make a smooth switch. Until, that is, they recognize that an opponent is getting a competitive advantage from the technology.
"We've seen things copied through the years, from traditional lineups to the run-and-shoot to the zone blitz to the wildcat," Vincent said. "Now it will be in technology, sorting through information quicker, using it for practices, schedules, scouting."
Teams are learning from each other when it comes to such areas as in-game entertainment — player introductions, cheerleaders, game day hosts, even the music — merchandising, ticketing and stadium development.
A club planning a new home or renovating the existing one typically uses comparisons of other stadiums.
"Teams share their best practices and the league encourages such information sharing," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting firm SportsCorp and a close observer of league business.
"Because in most non-field operations the teams do not compete, they are generally happy to share information and copy each other openly.
"Of course, there are a few teams that are trailblazers and innovate more than others. But often the safest approach to job security for team executives and managers is to mimic what other teams are doing.
"And so they do."