As anybody familiar with college recruiting knows, sometimes you’ll chase athletes rather than football players without knowing yet how you’re going to use them. You do this because they are so athletically gifted that once you figure out what to do with them, you know they’ll have an impact on your football team.
It’s called The Planet Theory. First coined by the late New York Giants executive George Young, who reasoned that there are only so many people of a certain physical stature and athleticism walking the planet, so when you have a chance to get one, you take it. Initially, the Giants applied this attitude towards big men, targetting super-sized athletes and valuing them more than some teams because they were a rare breed, but these days the theory is applied across the board as teams look for super athletes who can provide an advantage over their rivals.
The NFL Athlete
High schools live for the gifted athlete that can help them win at a level where one player can carry a program. Colleges recruit athletes, figuring they can decide later where the player belongs on the team and coach him to play the position, but very rarely does it happen at the NFL level. In the big leagues everybody is an athlete, and the technique required to play each position is so well refined that it is rare that a player can supercede that with athleticism and rely purely on his physical gifts. But the NFL loves playmakers, and every now and then a guy comes along that doesn’t fit any conventional mold. You need to get the ball in their hands, and it doesn’t really matter how. Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez are the NFL’s answer to the college game’s “athlete”.
Both players may be used in a variety of ways for the same reason, but they owe their success to different things. Harvin is one of the best athletes in football. He is sudden, explosive, fearsomely strong for his stature, and able to separate playing receiver, or hit holes and exploit gaps with his burst as a runner. He has the speed and quickness to take the ball to the house at any time, including on kick returns, and the Vikings are just trying to get him as many touches as possible without skewing their passing game to only feeding Harvin. Speed kills in the NFL, and as long as that is the case, speedsters like Harvin will always find a role. It just so happens that Harvin has some additional traits to his speed that allows the Vikings to line him up as a running back and not fear his ability to take the pounding.
A Unique Blend
The Patriots have devised ways of using Aaron Hernandez that are proving equally successful, but for slightly different reasons. Hernandez is not the fastest player on the field, nor is he the strongest, or a physical monster like Rob Gronkowski, but he is an unusual blend of those traits such that it makes him uniquely between positions. The Patriots can at any time play him in one of three spots on offense: wide out, tight end, or running back. The league’s complete dependency on personnel packages and substitutions makes that very important.
You only have to go back to football in the 1970s to find essentially the same 11 guys on offense playing the same 11 guys on defense for every snap of the game. The personnel stayed the same, and by and large, the formations stayed the same too. Ron Jaworski, in his book The Games that Changed the Game, explained that “Any deviation from that approach came as a complete shock to the opposing team.” then gave an example: “Our Rams team was playing the Miami Dolphins in the Orange Bowl, and L.A.’s coaches put a wide receiver named Ron Jessie in the backfield as a running back. Miami’s defense was so stunned that it was forced to call a time-out as if to say, “What do we do?””
What was so radical at the time has become the operating standard for today’s NFL, players move around the formation all the time, and nobody has a coronary trying to defend it, but there are still ways to exploit the status quo. Because of the ever increasing specialization in the NFL–nickel corners, third-down running backs, two-down linebackers, pass-rush specialists–you can catch a team with the wrong personnel package on the field, if you can convince them to treat a player as one thing, and then use him as something else. The Patriots have become masters at this.
Players like Danny Woodhead (who can line up in the backfield and run the ball or out wide and release into pass patterns with equal ability) and Aaron Hernandez force opposing defenses to make a decision on how they are going to treat those players before they line up. Do they treat them both as receivers and call in a nickel or even dime defense? Do they treat them as a running back and tight end–part of a heavy run formation–and send on the run-stuffing defenders? Whichever the defenses chooses, the Patriots are capable of moving them around and changing the alignment to exploit the mismatch.
Hernandez played significant time as a tight end, a wide out, and a running back in the backfield last season as the Patriots shifted him around to try and force favorable match-ups with defenders. Moving tight ends into the slot and back is commonplace in the NFL today, with a new breed of athletic, receiving tight ends providing advantages against coverage just by their presence, and that’s exactly how Hernandez started this season. The trouble is that his ability to run block was extremely poor, even by the standards set by today’s receiving tight ends, so there was little incentive for a team not to treat him as a receiver. Even if the Patriots lined him up tight and ran the ball, the defense wasn’t at a disadvantage because his blocking was so bad.
So New England changed tack: when they saw teams treating Hernandez as a receiver, instead of aligning him in tight and using him to block against smaller defensive backs, they would put him in the backfield, and have him run the ball. Hernandez may not be much of a blocker, but he is tough enough to run the ball into contact or hit the hole with power, and more than athletic enough to make people miss with the ball in his hands.
Versatility Put to Use
Hernandez may not be a traditional running back, but nor is he simply a tight end or a wide receiver with the ball in his hands. He forced 23 missed tackles after the catch in 2011′s regular season, 10 more than any other TE, and half a dozen more than any receiver. The Patriots may not know exactly what he is, but they know they want him carrying the ball, because good things will happen.
In the first half of the season, Hernandez was only aligned as a running back six times, and had just a single rushing attempt, but from Week 8 onward, it became a far more regular occurrence, and he ended the season with 58 snaps at HB (including playoff games) and 13 carries. No team was subjected to this look more than the Broncos, who saw Hernandez receive six carries from 23 snaps at HB over their two encounters. The two games against Denver were a masterclass in game plan scheming from New England. They were able to force the Broncos to their nickel defense with their offensive personnel, and then run the ball against a team that then had their best run defender (Brodrick Bunkley) watching from the sidelines. Denver was never able to catch up to a team that was one step ahead from the outset.
That kind of versatility meant that Hernandez didn’t play more than 35.5% of his 1051 snaps last season in any one position (slot), and no more than 216 snaps in any position on a specific side of the formation. He spent more than 300 snaps each in the slot, as a wide receiver on the edge of the formation, and as an in-line tight end in addition to the 78 snaps he spent in the backfield (his 58 snaps at HB plus 20 aligned at full back).
While The Planet Theory still holds weight in today’s NFL, those super athletes are becoming harder and harder to find, so teams have modified the theory. The league’s ever increasing specialization means that the key to unlocking a defense can come either from finding an athlete that no single defender can match up with physically, or otherwise find an athlete that can transcend a single-position role and force a defense into the wrong personnel grouping before the snap. If an offense can do that on a consistent basis, they have the cutting edge that everybody is looking for. Aaron Hernandez is the best example of that player, but if teams have been watching the tape this season, there are going to be a lot more looking for their own version of the new NFL athlete.