Monday, June 10, 2013

A Brief History of 12 Personnel

I was going through my notes to see when we really started talking about one of the latest trends to the NFL and you will be interested to know that not so long ago - as late 2008 - we as football fans associated 2 tight ends on the field as a running posture, formation, and personnel group.

This is because the NFL did, too.  The Cowboys had their elite #1 tight end in the form of the great Jason Witten, and that seemed to lock down that spot rather comfortably from the first draft of the new Bill Parcells regime. The premise of putting multiple tight ends on the field at the same time was a great way to cause mass confusion down on the goal-line when the defense adjusted to your personnel substitutions by sitting on the run, only to have your QB pull the ball back and then lob it to your blocking tight end who is standing all alone in the shadow of the goal post.  It was sound tactically to assume that a man who was a blocker was always going to block.  Remember, what is now basic football, was still being figured out in 2010 when the New England Patriots took Arizona's Rob Gronkowski in the 2nd round and Florida's Aaron Hernandez in the 5th round of that draft.

Before that, others had tried it, but nobody had married the idea as a major part of their attack that proved as effective as the design had hoped.

Locally, Jason Garrett had seen the future, and he tried to make it happen before the Patriots ever did.  As early as 2008, it was clear what he was thinking, and although it never fully was realized, looking back, his position as a bright offensive mind seems safe in the retelling of the evolution.

Dan Campbell made a living in Dallas (2003-2005 as one of Parcells' 1st signings) and the NFL for a decade, without ever catching more than 22 balls in a season.  He was there to provide you with what amounted to a 6th offensive lineman.  He could block and pass protect, and if you forgot about him, he could hurt you with a rare reception that would make you pay.

As far as receiving tight ends, if you drafted one, you were often doing it to either replace the one you have or just providing insurance because asking Dan Campbell to be Jason Witten for the year in the event of a big injury would be a very bad situation.  The Cowboys drafted Anthony Fasano in the 2nd round of the 2006 draft, but at the time, Fasano was simply seen as a more dynamic #2 behind Witten than Campbell, who was getting older and wasn't exactly cheap.  Campbell went to Detroit and Fasano started to learn behind Witten.

Fasano never exceeded anything Campbell did in Dallas statistically, as a 2nd round pick he never caught 15 passes in a season for the Cowboys in 2006-2007, and thus was traded to Miami (back to Parcells) before the 2008 draft for pennies on the dollar.  But, during his tenure with Dallas, it seemed that when Witten and Fasano were on the field together, there was nothing exotic going on tactically, that was intended to do anything more than what was being done back in 1995 with Jay Novecek and Eric Bjornson.  2 tight ends meant either a running play, a maximum protection situation, or a surprise attack in short yardage for a dink and dunk.  The same as it ever was - which is why many of us were confused with using resources like a 2nd round pick on a guy like Fasano who was never asked to do much that Campbell wasn't asked to do.  It really made little sense.

But, now, after admitting that Garrett had little plans for Fasano and trading him back to Parcells and new Dolphins coach Tony Sparano (who was in Dallas from 2003-2007), the Cowboys needed a 2nd tight end again.  This time, with yet another 2nd round pick investment, the Cowboys reeled in the very intriguing Martellus Bennett, a giant of a specimen, from Texas A and M.  At 6'7, over 250 lbs, and very interesting speed, he seemed like nothing that resembled a backup tight end.  He seemed destined to ultimately replace Jason Witten if he ever achieved his topside or if Witten started to decline over time - both reasonable possibilities by 2010.

However, what none of us saw was a rather new idea being discussed and conceived in the coaches meeting rooms where they were attempting to design an offense that deployed multiple tight ends who were weapons in their versatility.  They were not blocking tight ends or 6th OL men, they were dangerous matchup issues who would ultimately give defenses fits.  They could block, but they were receiving threats who played a style that if you dared to put a linebacker on them in coverage, they would run right past them.  But, if you decided to try a safety or a nickel corner, they would simply run a 10 yard route and then like a power forward boxing out for a rebound, they would turn and use their body to keep a smallish DB on their back, make the catch, and move the chains.  That was taking candy from a baby and a great alternative to a slot receiver who was a smaller target and a player you would never ask to block much.

This offense was not designed for simply short yardage spots.  If they could make this work, it would be all-purpose and all-situations, just as effective on 1st down as 3rd and goal.   It would hypothetically require the defense into a classic conflict situation where there was no correct remedy.  It would force the defense's hand in personnel, and whatever they choose, the offense would exploit the opposite.

If you loaded up to stop the run, Garrett could flex out Witten and Bennett as slot receivers and you would be undermanned to stop 2 TEs and 2 WRs outside.  But, if you switched to nickel or even dime (6 DBs), then, Garrett could motion both Witten and Bennett back next to the tackles and have what amounts to 7 "bigs" on offense (5 OL + 2 TEs) against 5 "bigs" on the defense and pound the rock with a Marion Barber-led power running game.  It is a beautiful grouping as you literally can go 50/50 in your play-calling from under center on 1st and 2nd down.

In 2008, the Cowboys ran the offense a bit, but they were just stretching their legs.  In the offseason between 2008 and 2009, there was plenty of discussion about how this might be the next big thing - a proper replacement idea for Terrell Owens going away - getting Witten and Bennett both on the field at the same time and making up for lesser personnel at Wide Receiver with superior personnel at Tight End and accomplishing similar things but with a different method.

Of course, it looked good on paper when I spent time writing about it back in August of 2009 both here and then again here.  Here is what I said back on August 7, 2009:
I think that is the cat and mouse game that will be played. But, as we know, the defense only has to be wrong once and they pay dearly. With Bennett and Witten, I think they can load up the line, but if they get beat once, they will lose their nerve and play more conservative. You must bracket those TE's from running down the seams. If you do not, I think it will be an easy 20 or 25 yards.

If you guess right, you are golden. But that is the beauty of "12" over almost any other personnel grouping. There is no way to pre-snap read the tendencies of the offense. It is almost a perfect 50/50 group. With Deon Anderson out there, you lean run. But with Witten and Bennett, you honestly have no idea. And with 2 WR's also on the field, you better leave your safety high. If you do, then the Cowboys can run it. Also, we saw plenty of 80 and 82 at the "F" back last year, too. There are so many options that a defense has to respect.
Easy, right?  Well, not so much.  They did have success with "12" in 2009, but not in the traditional sense of Bennett being a huge receiving threat.  The team passed for 9 yards per attempt in this group, but it wasn't because Martellus was running for another touchdown.  It was more because they were a running dominant team in 2009 and much of it happened with 2 TEs on the field.

Below is a list of "12 Personnel" usage for the last 5 seasons.  This includes every single situation where they were in "12", including shotgun situations and it does not break down run versus pass.  It simply sets a baseline for this idea that "12" is going to be the base offense in 2013.  At its high water mark to this point, with a rather large amount of conviction, the most they ever ran "12" personnel was 31% of snaps back in 2011.

YearTotal Snaps -Yards12 Personnel Snaps -Yards% of Total Offense in 12 Snaps-Yards
2008979 - 5512201 - 100120% - 18%
20091146 - 6982320 - 222228% - 32%
20101026 - 5821201 - 96621% - 16%
20111007 - 6011317 - 217831% - 36%
2012   1042 - 5987185 - 102217% - 17%

We can break it down further, as you know I will.

First, let's look at 12 personnel from under center.  This defines any time there is 1 RB and 2 TE on the field, regardless of where they are in the formation.  We do this because it is all the information the defense has when they send in personnel.  Formation is deployed AFTER personnel is declared, and therefore there must be a distinction between the two.

This does not count "22" personnel (2 RB, 2 TE) a running look that is very difficult to do successfully, but the 2009 Cowboys did great at it.


YearTotal Snaps12 Personnel Run 12 Personnel Pass
2008170 77 - 396 (5.14 per)93 - 460 (4.94 per)
2009193 91 - 373 (4.09)102 - 918 (9.00)
201015377 - 308  (4.00)76 - 463 (6.09)
2011224 98 - 420 (4.28)126 - 1055 (8.37)
2012   14365 - 251 (3.86)78 - 516 (6.61)

Remember, there are some personnel variables to consider.  2010 was the Kitna year and John Phillips was gone throughout with his ACL injury.  2012 was the year Martellus Bennett was gone altogether.  You can see how the success in 2010 and 2012 was poor, and that when you try 65 runs and get nowhere, you aren't going to keep running your head against the wall.  Bennett was a fine blocker and therefore his absence hurt the offense, even if you have no fantasy football regret for cutting him loose.

But, look at the run/pass balance in snaps.  It often favors the pass, but not by a huge margin.  It should hurt the defense in both ways and that keep the linebackers and safeties guessing.  If you can do that, your play has a much higher possibility of success.


Here are their attempts at 12 personnel in shotgun over the last 5 seasons:

YearTotal Snaps12 Personnel Run 12 Personnel Pass
2008312 - 8  (4 per play)29 - 137 (4.72)
2009127 9 - 34 (3.77)118 - 897 (7.6)
2010485 - 24 (4.8)43 - 171 (3.97)
2011939 - 52 (5.77)84 - 651 (7.75)
2012   421 - -1 (-1.00)41 - 256 (6.24)

As you can see, this is not a very large part of the offensive attack, so we should assume that "12" as base will not mean "12" in shotgun very often unless Gavin Escobar is everything that Bennett wasn't.  He will never be the blocker that Martellus was, so their hope is that he is the receiver that every team is looking for in this package.  

In the end, as long as Jason Garrett is this team's offensive architect - and regardless of who is actually calling the plays, we are led to believe that it still will follow the blueprints that have been installed back in 2007 by Garrett, we should assume that they will always be rotating personnel groupings every snap.    Therefore, how much does the "base offense" play?  33%?  50%?  It is very difficult to conceive it being higher than that.  If it did, why would you spend a premium pick on a 3rd WR if he is not going to play?

Now, they are going back to the future.  It might seem that in 2013 they are 4 seasons behind the Patriots, but this seems to have been Garrett's idea all along.  If nothing else, the drafting of Gavin Escobar to try a 3rd tight end in the 2nd round of the last 8 drafts proves they are stubborn and determined to get it right in 2013.  

We will see how Bill Callahan and Escobar help make all of this happen.


Unknown said...

ever heard ofthe ACE FORMation the Redskins used it to control TOO TALL Jones and Jim JEFFCOAT in the mid tonlate 80's!!!

shortfilmsin said...

I really liked this,Many Skills used as well. I Love it.

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