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A Hogs Haven Exploration of Michael Lombardi’s “Gridiron Genius”

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Miami Dolphins v San Francisco 49ers

About a week ago, when it became apparent that there was going to be a fair amount of “sheltering in place” in the near future, I decided to order a book from Amazon that I had been eyeing for a bit: Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Building Teams and Winning at the Highest Level, by Michael Lombardi. Lombardi has been affiliated with 3 Super Bowl winning teams (though he is no relation to famed coach Vince Lombardi), and has worked under two of the best coaches in NFL history, Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick. He also served a stint working for the Raiders, under Al Davis (and alongside Brucifer).

In Gridiron Genius, Lombardi shares the lessons he has learned from several of the games’ greats as well as providing some of his own insightful commentary on team building after having spent over 30 years in the league.

Rather than a full review of the book - which is easily worth the $12 or so it cost online (even cheaper from your local library!) - I’m going to focus on the elements of Lombardi’s work that are most relevant to the Redskins (and Ron Rivera’s) current team-building exercise, as well as the specific mentions of Redskins’ coaches and players in his book.

Branch Rickey, the legendary, visionary baseball man, had a saying that perfectly defines the often misunderstood value of NFL coaching. “Luck,” Rickey used to say, “is often the residue of design.”

The Walsh Years

Lombardi’s first position in the NFL was in 1984, when he was 25, serving as a scout for the 49ers, where one of the benefits of his job was getting to chauffeur Walsh around in his Porsche wherever he needed to go. As part of those commuting sessions, Walsh passed along tons of his wisdom to Lombardi, which Lombardi shares throughout the book.

Walsh was a big believer in the business and leadership philosophies of Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, who the author Tom Peters (a management guru who Walsh loved) often referenced in his speeches. “The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind,” Hock said. “But how to get the old ones out.”

Recall, this was a coach who rolled out a revolutionary new approach - the West Coast Offense - in the late 1960s where the idea of the forward pass had been to that point “considered a bit cowardly.” In San Francisco, Walsh wanted coaches - many of whom ended up being younger coaches - who bought into his broad philosophy, but weren’t so inculcated into old school approaches that they could innovate within his framework

We’ve yet to see exactly what Rivera has in mind, but on the defensive side of the ball, there’s good reason to believe that he and Jack Del Rio are of a similar mind. On offense, Rivera is familiar with Scott Turner from his time in Carolina, but the reality is that the next one will be Turner’s first full season as an offensive coordinator. We’re told that Turner will shift the offense from Jay Gruden’s West Coast system to an Air Coryell approach. It will be fascinating to see what elements it shares from his father’s (Norv’s) offenses of the past, and what unique innovations he adds.

Tennessee Titans vs Oakland Raiders

In 2002, [Rich] Gannon was named the NFL’s MVP after leading the Raiders out of nearly a decade of mediocrity and back to the Super Bowl. I was with the Raiders staff at the time, and remembering how Walsh (in 1987) had spotted Gannon’s talent in an instant that day in Indiana, I couldn’t help but wonder just how many potentially great quarterbacks have wasted away in the wrong system.

Walsh had an uncanny eye for players that fit his scheme. Players that many other evaluators routinely overlooked or couldn’t see for their potential. He passed on Gannon at the 1987 Combine, but primarily because he had his eyes on Steve Young, the “disastrous running QB” for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Gannon - eventually plugged into a West Coast Offense with Oakland - was able to play top tier football once he was used properly. Walsh’s career was epitomized by using the right players in the right ways.

In 1985, for instance, he made the tough - and unpopular - choice to push wide receiver Freddie Solomon into retirement to make room for Jerry Rice. As much as Walsh loved his players, the team always came first. In Walsh’s mind, thinking of his players as human beings first meant only that he was obligated not to let them twist in the wind until he came to a resolution.

Walsh called this the 3 F’s of decision making: Firmness, fairness, fast.

Walsh, like Belichick after him, was single-mindedly focused on the culture of his team. To that end, he did what he needed to do to keep his team great, whether that involved moving on from Joe Montana - one of the greatest QBs of all time - before he completely dropped off, for Steve Young - a unproven commodity who Walsh pursued over the unanimous recommendations against it by his staff - because he knew Young was a perfect fit for his system.

Rivera seems to be taking a page from this playbook so far in his dealings with Trent Williams. He apparently told Trent that he was under contract, and he was looking forward to seeing him play this year. When Trent objected to his contract terms, Rivera dealt with him fairly and quickly, giving him the opportunity to seek a trade as long as the terms were satisfactory to the team. Firm, fair, fast is the exact opposite of what we saw with Trent last year. He has just recently taken this tact with Quinton Dunbar as well.

The Draft

Lombardi tells several great draft stories in the book, particularly about his time in San Francisco, and has a very cool tale about how the team keyed in on Charles Haley (their 4th round pick in the 1986 draft) by virtue of Walsh giving him a key set of physical traits (6’4” with long arms, great feet, and an explosiveness off the ball) he needed in a pass rusher in his defense. Recall that the 5 time Super Bowl champ and HOFer, Haley, was drafted out of tiny James Madison in an era where scouting was far less thorough than it is today.

If everyone in the NFL is missing out on half their draft picks, the only way to increase your odds is to get more picks, especially in the second to fourth rounds, where you generally find the best values (cost versus talent). It’s simple math, but it’s amazing how few NFL minds understand it.

It is amazing how few NFL minds understand it, and how even fewer fans seems to, even with the best minds in the business repeatedly telling us about it. Hopefully Kyle Smith has internalized this lesson completely.

Washington Redskins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The NFL procurement system is designed to favor the losers, as poor records earn higher draft positions. But in the draft, those teams are looking for immediate help, players who can make an offense or defense better now. What they are not looking for are players whose skill sets can be honed over time on special teams. This lack of interest in that kind of player creates a variance in the market for those looking for, well, let’s just call it “special” talent.

Here Lombardi is basically endorsing the notion of taking the long view with the draft, and in a respect, privileging “best player available” over drafting for need. As he says, the bad teams try to plug players in that they think can immediately make a difference, likely guys who have plateaued in their development. Better teams look for players who are still on an upward trajectory, and who, by earning their stripes on special teams, can ultimately evolve into better players, at a lower cost in draft capital. A guy like Troy Apke (or perhaps even Terry McLaurin, who accelerated right through the development period) has the potential to exemplify this approach.

Offense

New York Giants v Washington Redskins Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Old schoolers think establishing the run is a quarterback’s best friend. But what kind of friend is a third and long when everyone in the stadium knows you have to pass the ball? In truth, conservative play calling is a quarterback’s worst enemy. The best thing an offense can do for its quarterback is to throw on traditional run downs so that the QB doesn’t have to deal with obvious passing situations. Throwing the ball makes running the ball easier, and that’s how Walsh succeeded with the Bengals [where he first developed the West Coast Offense].

In Washington, we just endured a season that was an object lesson in the failure of the simple-minded thinking above. The Redskins, particularly under Bill Callahan, led the league by a longshot in rushing on first down, and Dwayne Haskins Jr. was brutalized as a result. Some couched it as an attempt to protect Haskins. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with NFL analytics apparently knows about it, but we also now know Callahan didn’t realize the team had analytics’ staff. We can only hope Scott Turner doesn’t have to “get these old thoughts out” of his head.

Quarterbacks have to be slipped into systems that best feature their skills. Very, very few players can make a bad fit work. Too often, though, teams think that the players make the system rather than the other way around. It sends them hunting for a guy with obvious tools - a gun for an arm, mobility - around whom they think they can build an offense.

The passage above seems obvious enough, though it does conjure painful memories of Doug Williams’ “I don’t do the scheme thing” gaffe from a year ago. That he wasn’t immediately restructured out of personnel acquisition after that comment speaks to where the culture and focus were then.

In any case, it’s particularly relevant to Dwayne Haskins. Both Walsh and Belichick were able to take QBs who were underwhelming prospects coming onto their teams (Montana was a 3rd round pick; Young a failure with the Buccaneers; and Brady a 6th round pick) and plug them into their schemes to become among the best QBs of all time. It’s for this reason that I have little doubt that Belichick with be able to parlay Jared Stidham (or perhaps some Day 2 pick this year) to guide the Patriots to continued success. These coaches weren’t looking for the “best QB in the draft.” They were looking for the best QB for their system, and they found them with remarkable consistency. Is Haskins the best QB for Turner’s scheme? Perhaps only he knows.

Defense

I pulled the passage below because I thought it was so simple, yet so brilliant. I would like to think this approach has been broadly adopted throughout the league, but I have no particular reason to believe it has. I would be very curious to hear from folks in the comments as to how common a practice it is.

[Belichick] personally breaks down every offensive player to understand his strengths within the team’s scheme. Then he moves around the defense’s talents to best serve the system he has created for the week. Most teams put their best corner on the best receiver. Naturally, Belichick does the opposite. As he did with the Colts, he doubles the best receiver with his second and third corners so that he can line up his best corner against the second-best receiver and create two match-up advantages.

The Belichick Years

Lombardi spent time with Belichick both with the Browns and the Patriots and he goes into tremendous detail as to how the greatest coach of all time has had the most sustained success the league has ever seen, and the lengths it takes him to retain that mantle. Like Walsh, it started with building a winning culture, and with establishing that no individual player, regardless of how talented, is above the needs of the team.

Emphasizing special teams toughness helps instill the “all in” vibe up and down the roster. That was why Belichick ruled that virtually every player must contribute to the various special teams units.

Indianapolis Colts v New England Patriots Photo by Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images

After Belichick used his linebackers to rough up Peyton Manning’s receivers in the 2004 AFC Championship, in order throw off his precisely timed routes, Colts’ GM Bill Polian, a member of the NFL competition committee, took retribution. The following season, NFL officials were instructed to enforce the illegal contact rule more strictly. It didn’t matter.

In the current era of intricately timed passing offenses, disruption remains the key. But Polian made sure that playing defense beyond the 5-yard grace area, especially against rhythm passing games, would be much more difficult from then on. It didn’t matter that Polian was only thinking about his Colts when he led the charged to enforce illegal contact and help hurry-up offenses and intricately timed passing schemes. Suddenly the scales were tipped towards the passing game, and further rule book tweaks just put a thumb on that scale.

Belichick being Belichick, though, he didn’t complain or whine or lobby the competition committee. He rebuilt his own offense using the rule change he inspired and won 3 [actually 4] more Super Bowls with it.

For me, this passage, perhaps more than any other, reflects Belichick’s genius. Can there be any doubt that he already has staff working on (if not already having completed) an analysis of the impacts of the recently executed CBA on team building?

“To Live in the Past is to Die in the Present”

Joe Gibbs Resigns As Head Coach of Washington Redskins Photo by Larry French /Getty Images

Whether the Patriots have just won the Super Bowl or not, the first thing Belichick does is wipe the slate clean. One of his favorite sayings is, “To live in the past is to die in the present.” It’s why you see no Super Bowl trophies as you walk through the players’ entrance and why all the photos from the previous season are removed as soon as the season is over. That clean slate demands a trip back to basic principles and fundamentals after an detailed examination of the current process.

One of the most encouraging things Ron Rivera did in his earliest days with the team was choosing not to have the team’s Lombardi trophies on display at his introductory meeting. Once emblematic of the pinnacle of the team’s achievement, they have, for the past several decades, been routinely rolled out to cast a distracting glare at those who would otherwise be focused on the team’s (and owner’s) pathetic ineptitude. Those trophies are mileposts in a land that no longer exists. It time to construct some new ones. Move forward.

Redskins References

Lombardi has several Redskins relevant passages in his book. The one below is from his section on leadership:

A recent very high draft pick was dinged by his college teammates. Check that. They flat-out hated him. They refused to attend his private workouts, for heaven’s sake. But the team that drafted him chose to ignore all that, and today most of the teammates he’s had feel exactly the same way his college teammates did. Trust me, injuries are not the only reason Robert Griffin III has had such a hard time finding a job.

Though I wasn’t surprised by the story, I was shocked by the revelation that RG3 was “hated” by his college teammates. That the team blew years’ worth of draft capital, against the advice of a Nobel prize winning economist, AND it was done in the face of the Rose Bowl Parade-worthy assemblage of red flags is simply astonishing and depressing. Let’s hope that’s behind us.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Lombardi has worked for two of the best coaches in the game. Some might argue THE two best coaches in the game. Nevertheless, he gives incredible respect to Joe Gibbs, essentially casting Belichick as the defensive yin to Gibbs’ offensive yang.

Belichick’s simplicity first ruse on defense was inspired by Washington Redskins Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. Gibbs was a masterful offensive tactician, with a scheme that featured a power running game that won 3 Super Bowls under three different QBs, none of whom are household names. (Think about that next time you’re engaged in one of those best-football-coaches-of-all-time debates). His offense appeared complex on first glance, but when Belichick broke it down, he found it all could be reduced to 13 base plays (3 runs, 10 passes). Gibbs believed, as Belichick does, that repetition breeds execution. All those basic Redskins plays, however, were executed out of (and disguised by) myriad formations, looks, shifts, and personnel groupings that turned 13 vanilla plays into 130 complicated and mysterious plays.

Contrast his emulation of Gibbs with this story of George Allen that he uses to demonstrate an inverted application of the “Eisenhower Principle,” that “there are two kinds of problems: The urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” The idea being that a leader has to know how to prioritize decision making.

George Allen, the former Rams and Redskins coach, was legendary for his obsessive and sometimes destructive attention to what the Kennedy’s would have called the easy stuff. As the story goes, Allen wanted to save time during lunch by making the players’ cafeteria more efficient, so he devised a method that split the soup line into one for players who wanted crackers and one for those who didn’t. Yes, crackers. Urgent? Well, to the hungry guys at the end of the line, maybe. But important? Come on.

Final Takeaways

At the end of the book, Lombardi distills his career lessons in professional football management (and life, really) down to the five ideas below:

Culture Comes First - You can have the best game plan (or strategy or tactics), the best team (or product or service), and the best players (or engineers or salespeople), and you may achieve short-term success. But if you haven’t created an underlying ecosystem of excellence, short-term success is all it will ever be.

From the moment he stepped in Redskins Park, Ron Rivera emphasized that changing the culture was his top priority. We all remember having been told the team had a “damn good culture.” We all knew it was a lie. The culture was terrible. Rivera has set a new tone: “We are going to come out and say ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ We’re going to ask our players to do it a specific way. If you do it our way and we win, the praise is yours. If we do it our way and we lose, it’s my fault. I will take the responsibility. See these shoulders? They are big enough.”

Press Every Edge All the Time, Because Any Edge May Matter Anytime - The great ones understand that a focus on details is crucial, not because they know what will matter when, but because they don’t.

I don’t think we’ve seen enough of the new regime to make any sweeping comments here yet. Though I will say that so far in this free agency period there seems to be an impressive attention to detail. Many of the hires over the last week have been under the radar players with, potentially, significant upside.

Systems Over Stars - Obviously, I have seen some stars up close in my day: Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Tom Brady. But superstar is the second way I would describe each. The first is “superb system guy.” Talent matters, but willingness to buy into the program matters more.

In just a couple of months, we have already seen Rivera assert himself with the team’s stars, putting Haskins on notice that he is expected to set up into a leadership role, showing a willingness to move on from Trent (and Dunbar), and franchising Brandon Scherff. There is very little doubt that players who fail to buy into his vision for the team would be moved along.

Leadership Is a Long Term Proposition - Devotion to the process has to matter more than chasing the score. True leaders always value sustainable success over quick fixes. Much as empire builders such as Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos have ignored the quarter to quarter earnings game, dynastic coaches ignore all distractions - fan pressure, media scrutiny, player grumbling - once they are convinced that a decision is right for their team.

In his Combine press conference, Rivera offered the following: “One of the things I talked about was trying to build a sustainable, winning culture. You know, we had a little bit of that going for awhile in Carolina. We had a five good year stretch. Unfortunately, we weren’t able, through attrition, we weren’t able to continue that. But, that’s the starting point.” Rivera wasn’t able to sustain success in Carolina, and he seems to have been sufficiently reflective about it to have some theories as to why. Given near absolute power with the Redskins, one has to suspect he will strive to make his success more durable here.

You’re Never Done Getting Better - Greatness over time is in direct correlation to growth over time, and growth over time requires finding new ways to do the same old things. Real leaders, real achievers, real champions are never done learning.

Here again, we have reason to be encouraged by Rivera’s actions. Shortly after having been fired by Carolina, Rivera was interviewed by Peter King. King asked him what he had learned in his nine seasons as head coach of the Panthers. Rivera gave a thoughtful reply, much of which consisted of laying out the lessons he - like Lombardi - had taken from Belichick’s approach to the game. Humility and a willingness to a change and adapt in the face of adversity, those are some of the hallmarks of strong leadership, and Rivera appears to have them in spades.

Do we have our own Gridiron Genius? Only time will tell.