The Best Offensive Minds
SAN DIEGO — Football always seemed like war to Mike Martz. Not the carnage and loss—those don’t compare—but the strategy. Calling shots with the big-picture view of a general, he loved the way offensive football felt like moving 18th-century battalions into the right position to stun the opposition. Attack and counterattack.
Fitting then, that his favorite book isn’t one of the Lombardi biographies or the spiritual tome My Utmost for His Highest, sitting within arm’s reach on the auburn desk inside the basement office of his San Diego home. It’s 1776, David McCullough’s telling of the bloody birth of the United States. Of particular interest to Martz are the military exploits of the Revolutionary War’s most famous general.
“I kind of thought I knew George Washington and his career,” he says. “But the author wrote this book so personally. Washington never buckled, and if he did, nobody ever knew about it.
“The thing I really admire is he was always a step ahead. Even though it might have hurt him, the emotion of losing New York, you have to find a way to get back in the fight. That’s a lot like football: Take the emotion out of it and fix the problem.”
Three years removed from his last coaching gig as the Bears’ offensive coordinator, Martz, 63, spends most of his days in his three-story home, which sits on a hill in a cul-de-sac neighborhood overlooking the coast. His office is just big enough for a desk and a few dozen mementos that tell the story of a football life.
There’s a framed photo of his grandfather’s 1902 Yankton High football team, which won South Dakota’s state championship. (Martz keeps a vacation home in South Dakota, where he was born, and has made a hobby of photographing its cascading mountains and snowscapes.) There’s a game ball from a 2002 win over the Raiders, the Rams’ first victory after losing Kurt Warner and five straight games to start the season. There’s a signed bat from Stan Musial, the baseball Hall of Famer who lunched with Martz when Martz was the head coach in St. Louis. Authentic NFL helmets, given to him an equipment manager friend in 2000, line the ceiling. There’s a sun-bleached Super Bowl XXXIV replica trophy from 1999, Martz’s first season as the Rams’ coordinator.
After 38 years of coaching, Martz’s legacy boils down to the Greatest Show on Turf, the record-setting offense he engineered with coach Dick Vermeil and quarterback Kurt Warner in St. Louis. They were innovators who introduced the new concepts they dreamed up on napkins and notepads, picking apart defenses with the likes of Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.
I’m meeting with him in his basement, seeking the answer to a broad-sweeping question: Who are the NFL’s new offensive pioneers?
“There was a time in the league when people were really creative, but that’s gone,” says Martz, picking through a pile of game-film DVDs that coaching friends and former protégés have mailed him. “There are a few guys who really know what they’re doing and are trying new things—or just putting a twist on old things.”
Martz entered the NFL in the early 1990s, as Buddy Ryan’s zone blitz or “zone dog” concepts were giving offenses fits. Watch any VHS tape of an NFL game from that decade and you’ll see two receivers releasing on third down, sometimes with tight ends and running backs held in to block—an unthinkable and downright boring tactic by today’s standards.
“At the time, defense dominated football,” Martz says. “Offense didn’t have an answer for zone dog, so they just brought in more guys to block. It was frustrating. Defense dictated the game. We tried to flop that.”
“Playing defense is about rules,” Martz says. “If you understand their rules, you can put them in bad positions ... when you know the defensive rules and you don’t take advantage of them, you ought to be fired.”
Martz’s answer was to vary personnel groups, creating mismatches by running the same play out of five different formations. He and his offensive contemporaries began emphasizing pre-snap motion to identify coverages and defensive plans. Soon enough, offenses began dictating the game. The 2000 Rams set an NFL record with 7,335 yards from scrimmage, surpassing the 1984 Dolphins’ mark by nearly 300 yards. (The Rams’ mark has since been surpassed by the 2011 Saints and the 2013 Broncos.)
Using the numbers system for offensive play-calling handed down by Don Coryell, which is still in vogue with a handful of coaches, Martz came into his own as a game-planner and a play-caller just as the Rams accidentally discovered Warner, a former Arena league quarterback who turned out to be one of the greatest passers in a generation.
Twelve years and two Super Bowl appearances later, Martz resigned from his coordinator job in Chicago after the 2011 season, citing philosophical differences. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler later suggested the game had passed him by. Martz, who declined to speak about Cutler, says the opposite. Part of him wants another shot. A larger part of him is happy just watching the occasional game tape.
As he loads up the first DVD, Martz takes one look at the Broncos’ offense and the Colts’ defense and sighs.
“You know what’s funny?” he says. “I just realized I don’t know half these guys’ names anymore.”
What he recognizes these days is great coaching.
The three names Martz wants you to know—Adam Gase, the Bronco’s offensive coordinator; Mike McCoy, the Chargers’ head coach; and Mike McCarthy, the Packers head coach—are the types of game-planners and play-callers who make him long for the action on Sunday afternoons.
Adam Gase — Matchup Nightmares
Martz uses a clicker to go through Denver’s season-opening win over the Colts. We watch every play two or three times, an old habit for the coach. On Mondays after games he might have watched the tape four times—by himself, with the coaches, with the quarterback, and, finally with the offense.
We’re on a hunt for the coaching identity of Adam Gase, the Broncos’ 36-year-old coordinator. He began as a scouting assistant in Detroit in 2003 under Steve Marriucci and worked his way up to quarterbacks coach by 2007, the last of Martz’s two years as offensive coordinator with the Lions. After two seasons in Denver, Gase is arguably No. 1 on the unofficial list of head coaching candidates for 2015.
Martz hones in on one particular run. With 9:28 left in the first quarter, Montee Ball runs off tackle for four yards. No big deal, right? Watch again. There’s motion on the bottom of the screen. Gase knows from his film study that it’s de facto policy for the Colts to drop the strongside safety into the box when the offense is in a bunch formation, and to retreat the weakside safety. So he motions a receiver into bunch, and Manning immediately calls for the snap.
Ball takes the handoff with both safeties out of their ideal positions; one is even retreating away from the play. If Ball had made it beyond the first level, he had nothing but open field.
“This is big,” Martz says. “Playing defense is about rules. If you understand their rules, you can put them in bad positions.”
The Broncos have had problems running the ball, ranking 27th in the NFL in yards per game. Some of that falls on Manning as a play-caller. But Martz also sees it as a symptom of inexperience. Gase only sprinkles in the occasional zone-blocking run. “If you want to run zone-running plays, you have to do it over and over again. You have to have reps,” Martz says. “Twenty years ago it was difficult to evaluate quarterbacks because they might have thrown 120 times a year. Now it’s 450. You used to be able to evaluate running backs. Now that’s switched.”
Where Gase thrives, though, is in the passing game.
Second quarter, 6:50 remaining. Martz recognizes an old standby: 288 special, so named by Coryell. Two receivers run identical posts on the left side of the field, hence ‘88’.
On their way to winning Super Bowl XXXIV, Martz ran this exact play on the Rams’ first snap of their divisional-round victory over the Vikings in January 2000. Isaac Bruce took the inside post route 78 yards for a touchdown. On the Fox broadcast, John Madden exclaimed, “He did it!” So confident was Dick Vermeil that he told the broadcast crew they would run 288 on the first play. In the aftermath, Madden drew it up as only he can.
The Rams got the play from Norv Turner, who at the time “used to run the heck out of it,” Martz says. But Gase runs his own tweaked version of 288, which demonstrates his ability to create mismatches. On this play against Indianapolis, Gase positions his best pass-catching tight end, Julius Thomas, in a three-point stance, and a blocking tight end as the wing. Thomas will cross the field and the face of the defense.
Consider these contingencies:
A) If the Colts are in man defense, Gase and Manning know the linebacker will cover the tight end on the inside while the better-qualified safety will check the wing, because most offenses position the more agile player as the wing. Julius Thomas would then be covered by linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. No-brainer.
B) If the Colts are in a Cover 2, Manning will try to look off one of the safeties and throw the open post.
C) If it’s Cover 3, Thomas might still be open underneath, and you can always check down to the running back.
The Colts were in man coverage, and Thomas beat Jackson (of course) for a 35-yard touchdown.
“As a coach,” Martz says, “you have to have an answer for the quarterback so he knows where he’s supposed to go with the ball against every coverage. If Thomas was the wing, the safety would cover him. But by sticking him inside, now that linebacker has him. The safety wants to cover, and it’s logical for the safety to cover him, but he’s told not to.
“That, by design, is outstanding. It’d be easy to put him on the wing, but Adam knows the defense’s rules. All the little details work out really well. Very few people do this.
“They’ve got good players, and he knows what to do with them. He puts guys in position to have success. It would be easy to do the same stuff over and over, but each week he’s going to create.”
Mike McCoy — Deciphering Defenses
My trip to San Diego included a conversation with Mike McCoy on the progress of Philip Rivers. It was McCoy who had impressed upon Rivers in 2013 the value of what some call the dink-and-dunk: As a quarterback, read almost everything in the passing game from low to high, rather than from high to low. Asked how many quarterbacks would be better in that sort of offense, McCoy said, “All 32 of them.”
Martz’s offenses were never so patient, but in the Chargers head coach he sees football’s best offensive mind, saying, “I think right now he might be the best head coach in the league.”
Martz pulls up San Diego’s signature win of the season, a dethroning of sorts of the Seahawks in Week 2.
“Here’s how they won this game, and it wasn’t a fluke,” Martz says. “Real low risk, didn’t ask Rivers to hold the ball long or throw it down the field. Just run downhill on these guys. A team like Seattle that does a lot of stuff on defense, they can stunt themselves right out of the running game.”
During their opening drive, which resulted in a field goal, the Chargers lined up in a left-heavy formation, got set, and then abruptly shifted to the right, sending Seattle’s defense into disarray. The result: a four-yard gain off tackle.
Here’s what the Seahawks’ defense looked like just before the ball was snapped:
“Whether it’s a good play or a bad play, he’s got them on their heels,” Martz says. “To get three yards on these guys is tough in the running game. No. 93 doesn’t even have his hand on the ground and he’s getting ear-holed at the snap.
“Anytime you can get a defense just a half a step off, you’ve got a leg up on them.”
A testament to Seattle’s defense, the Chargers had less than 70 rushing yards in their 30-21 win. Most of the offensive production rested on Rivers and the passing game. At the beginning of the next drive, the Chargers’ formation caused Seattle’s linebackers to betray a careful disguise.
Antonio Gates motioned inside from the right, and nobody on defense moved a muscle. That’s by design: Carroll and Quinn want the passer to think he’s playing against a zone, but it’s really a man defense with rules that say the strongside linebacker covers the slot receiver and the safety covers the second receiver from the sideline.
“Seattle’s whole thing is disguising the coverage and beating you at the line of scrimmage before you recuperate,” Martz says. “That’s how they won the Super Bowl.”
The hope is that a five-man rush can get there before Rivers figures it out.
But the Chargers’ pre-snap alignment gives Rivers a glimpse of Seattle’s scheme. Because the running back is to the right of the quarterback on the three-receiver side, linebacker Malcolm Smith lines up over the center. Though he doesn’t want to betray Seattle’s ruse, Smith also doesn’t want to get beaten on a route to the strongside flat. “Rivers recognizes this,” Martz says, “and you don’t figure that out without being prepared and having a very specific understanding of how the defense will react to your sets.”
Rivers knows it’s man coverage, and he also knows linebacker Bobby Wagner is responsible for Antonio Gates, who catches the ball 15 yards downfield.
“Know the man coverage beater on every play,” Martz says. “The first thing he’s looking at is the linebackers. If they’re out of position, he’s not even looking downfield. He’s checking down. That’s too easy.”
Mike McCarthy — Understanding Tendencies
Great football tickles Mike Martz. Outstanding audibles make him squeal. Well-drawn-up plays send him into man-crush mode.
“You want to talk about a great coach?” he asks. “Check out Mike McCarthy.”
His level of preparation is what stands out the most. We watch only 30 seconds of Green Bay’s Week 5 victory over Minnesota before identifying something special.
On first-and-10 near midfield, Rodgers recognizes a defensive alignment and checks to a run off the left guard. Eddie Lacy takes the handoff for 29 yards, setting up a Packers touchdown.
“This is a run check. See the two tackles, outside shade on the guards? You never have that unless it’s third-and-long. It’s probably going to be a double plug up the middle by the backers. So you check to this run, and if he gets through there, there’s no scraping linebacker. You’ve got to look at a lot of tape and really understand the defense to know that’s going to happen.”
The ensuing touchdown was an eight-yard flip to Randall Cobb, who has 922 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns through 12 games. Says Martz, “I tried to get Chicago to draft him, but they said, ‘No. Too little, not really a receiver.’ ”
We skip ahead to Rodgers’ 66-yard touchdown bomb to Jordy Nelson, who beats safety Harrison Smith with a double move to the post. The play appears to be a masterly combination of ability, planning and execution. Martz explains the concept of boundary coverage. When the offense is on a particular hash mark, the wider side of the field is known as ‘field.’ Some coordinators will ask one safety to cover the short half, and two other players to split the larger ‘field’ in half.
“This cracks me up. McCarthy knows that when he’s in a certain personnel, [Vikings head coach Mike] Zimmer will leave the safety on the short side of the field responsible for half the field with the safety and the other cornerback responsible for the other half. His stat guy is telling him that.
“He runs play-action to give Jordy Nelson time to execute the double-move,” Martz says. “The receiver on the bottom runs a dig, because McCarthy knows the safety will bite on it. That leaves Jordy Nelson and No. 22 [Smith] all alone back there. Any safety back there might not be able to cover that.
“This is what it’s all about. When you know the defensive rules and you don’t take advantage of them, you ought to be fired.”
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Retired NFL players talk about struggling to find what comes next. After his last coaching gig, Martz got an immediate answer: television. He worked as an analyst for Fox for a year but found the work impersonal and the workplace fractured by politics.
The idea of getting back into coaching is enticing, and he has no shortage of friends still in the business. Of the 22 players who started during his senior year at Fresno State, 17 went into coaching. (Martz was a tight end.) There are consulting offers to be had, similar to Al Saunders’ role in Oakland. But being the experienced voice that chimes in with advice doesn’t appeal to Martz. Eventually, he’d want to run the show.
“I think about going back all the time,” he says. “But you can’t just kind of go back. You’ve got to go back and do it right.”
For him, that would mean going to a team that values innovation around a traditional dropback quarterback.
“Personnel guys fall in love with a guy who can make plays with his legs,” Martz says of quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III and Michael Vick. “You tell a personnel guy, ‘OK, your job depends on whether he can win games for us, and if you’re telling me he’s going to win us games by running the football, you’re nuts.’ Then they start having second thoughts.
“Your quarterback has to be a terrific passer first. See the field, make good decisions, and then throw it straight. That’s where RG3 fails. He wants to hold onto the ball when he should let it loose. You can’t cloud up the fact that this game is still played by passers.”
It’s something that Gase, McCoy and McCarthy know better than anyone else.