When it comes to diagnosing an NFL play, observers have limitations

Dec 10, 2015, 10:39 AM | Updated: 11:51 am

What players and coaches know and what viewers observe are two very different things, Danny O&#8217...

What players and coaches know and what viewers observe are two very different things, Danny O'Neil writes. (AP)


The play looked so straightforward.

A defensive tackle ran through Seattle’s offensive line unblocked, a failure as surprising as it was obvious. Seahawks left guard Justin Britt looked to his right while futilely extending his left arm as the Vikings’ Brian Robison ran past him, forcing Russell Wilson to throw the ball away for an incompletion and then take a whack for his trouble.

Throw in an assumption from the press box, dip it in a vat of sarcasm and you had the recipe for an observation that was as insulting as it was ignorant.

That’s what I wrote after the Seahawks’ third play of their second series on Sunday.

I was wr …

I was wrrrroooo …

I was absolutely, unequivocally, undeniably wrong.

Robison wasn’t Britt’s assignment on the play. It was someone else who didn’t hear the protection assignment because it wasn’t echoed to him before the snap. The fact that the play was nullified by a holding penalty on Minnesota doesn’t erase my mistake.

I say this not to beg for forgiveness or to publicly shame myself or in some Catholic fit of guilt to exhibit the depth of my regret. It’s not to apologize for being a jerk on the Internet, either. I’ve been one way too often to start backtracking now, and besides, I figure that if I mock myself on Twitter as often as I mock others it will all even out in the end.

This is about explaining the gap between the results we see on a given NFL play and the underlying reasons for those results. It’s the gap between what players and coaches know and what the people who observe the game – whether it’s media members or fans – think they know. And actually, it’s really not so much a gap as a canyon.

This is my 11th season of covering the Seahawks on a daily basis, and I am simply not capable nor qualified to give you a definitive explanation for why a specific play failed. Not only that, I’m suspicious of anyone else who claims expertise in that regard.

This is important to remember because today’s football fans have more access to information and replays than ever before. In fact, for the second consecutive year you can pay the NFL something like $80 and get access to the coaches’ footage that shows everyone on the field – the All-22 in NFL-speak – and see exactly what the coaches see when they appraise the reasons for a play’s success or failure.

There is a whole corner of today’s NFL coverage that speaks with authority on exactly what occurred on a given play, which is undermined by one simple fact: No one outside the team’s coaches and players can say for certain either what a player is asked to do on a specific play or how he is asked to do it. It’s all guesswork. An analyst can say what they think happened, but they don’t know. Not unless a coach or player tells them, and if you’ve ever listened to an NFL coach’s press conference you probably have an idea of just how hard it is to extract information about who goofed up and why.

This is not to diminish the efforts of reporters seeking to provide explanations. Heck, I try really hard to understand not only what I’m seeing, but why the play is unfolding in a particular way. The problem is two-fold: A reporter is playing catch-up, trying to learn in years the knowledge that coaches and players amass over a lifetime. The other issue is even more intimidating: You don’t know what the players are being coached to do.

To state definitively why a play failed would be like taking one bite of a elaborate meal and then state how the chef screwed up without knowing any of the specifics of the recipe or preparation.

In lieu of explanations, you have observations. Write what you see. That was one of the first instructions I received as a cub reporter. And while that’s certainly a good starting point, it can lead to the kind of mistakes that get made.

Go back to the play in question here. It was third-and-4 for the Seahawks, with Wilson in the shotgun. Britt is in his first season at left guard. His job was to look back at Wilson to see when he was ready then tap center Patrick Lewis to signal the timing of the snap. Robison was the closest Vikings lineman to Britt, but as the ball was snapped, Britt looked to his right while extending his left arm into Robison’s path.

Here’s a screenshot from Nathan Ernst (@Nathane11), whose weekly catalog of plays is an invaluable resource for Seahawks fans:

So what happened? Well, the most straightforward explanation is that Britt didn’t step into the path of the defensive player who ended up menacing his quarterback.

It’s also an erroneous explanation, something that was impossible to know in the press box at that time. There are plenty of former offensive linemen who may have thought the explanation was a little more complicated than Britt ignoring an obvious threat to his quarterback. Probably other analysts, too, who have a sharper understanding of the nuances.

But no one could know for sure. They’d be doing exactly what I was doing in the press box: Making educated guesses on what they thought occurred without any real way of knowing. The difference was that I chose to take my observation, dress it up with some condescending sass and Tweet that sucker into cyberspace.

It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong. Left tackle Russell Okung still has a hand-written note from me hanging in his locker. That’s from six years ago when I wrote that he allowed a linebacker to rush outside of him to his sack. Again, Okung was the closest player. Again, that linebacker wasn’t his man.

I’m certainly not proud of that error, but I’m not ashamed of it, either. I recognize that in covering and analyzing a sport as complicated and secretive as football, there are going to be times where you think know what happened, but in fact you have no idea.

But as eager as we are to point out the shortcomings of players, it’s important to recognize our own limitations as observers. And in this case, not only was I snide, but I had no idea what I was talking about.

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When it comes to diagnosing an NFL play, observers have limitations