Philadelphia Eagles News

Lawlor: On and off the field, change remains constant in the NFL

Doug Pederson was the starting quarterback for the Eagles in 1999. He is now the team's head coach. Would Pederson the player recognize the team he has built as the coach? Football is a constantly evolving sport, so there are more than a few things that would have Pederson the player scratching his head.

Pederson lined up under center most of the time. The player directly behind him was fullback Kevin Turner. Think about how those elements have changed. Quarterbacks now are primarily in the shotgun. Lining up under center is something you mix in to keep defenses off balance.

As for a fullback, the Eagles don't have one. They aren't alone in that regard. The base formation in the NFL is now three wide receivers, one tight end, and one running back. There are some teams that still keep a fullback around, but those players spend more time on special teams than on offense.

Defenses have had to respond so that means playing three cornerbacks most of the time. Gone are the days of seeing all three linebackers on the field at the same time for a majority of the game. Offensive coaches focus on the passing game so defensive coaches have to focus on stopping the passing game.

The NFL has been a passing league for a while. It took longer for the passing game to become dominant at lower levels of football. The Air Raid offense has now taken over high school and college football. When I was a kid, Oklahoma threw a handful of passes a game. There were times when they might not throw at all. In the last two seasons, OU quarterbacks combined for almost 9,000 yards passing. Think about what an extreme shift that is.

NFL teams are now passing more than ever. Football has really changed in the past 20 years. In 1999, Duce Staley ran the ball 325 times. The Eagles didn't have many weapons, but the plan was still built around feeding the ball to a workhorse back. In Pederson's tenure as head coach, no running back has even had 175 carries in a season. Not only do you throw more, you spread the ball around in the running game.

Positional requirements have changed. Running backs need to be skilled pass-catchers. They used to just catch screen passes and other short throws. They need to run good routes and be able to get open down the field. The running back might shift to the slot or even out wide. You need to move players around to try and create favorable matchups.

That puts more pressure than ever on linebackers to be able to cover. Think about what you've seen from the Eagles in recent years. They drafted Nathan Gerry, a safety from Nebraska, and moved him to linebacker. They signed Kamu Grugier-Hill, whose college defensive coordinator thought was an NFL safety, and put him at linebacker. Both guys have good cover skills. The team signed free agents Paul Worrilow and L.J. Fort. Both linebackers run well and are better in coverage than against the run.

In order to find safeties with good cover skills, the Eagles have looked for cornerbacks to move inside. Avonte Maddox played corner in college and saw some time at safety last season. Everyone in the back seven must be able to cover.

One way offenses counter all the speed on defense is to add bigger receivers. Three of the Eagles' top five receivers are 215 pounds or more. Back in 1999, the biggest receiver was 209 pounds. You definitely need speed (DeSean Jackson), but having big receivers is another way to deal with tighter coverage. Even when a receiver isn't open, he can still be open. We've seen Alshon Jeffery make some really impressive catches when he was tightly covered.

Back in 1999, we had never heard of Sports Science. No team studied players the way that just about everyone does now. There wasn't a strong focus on nutrition, rest, and recovery. That is all standard today. The evolution of Sports Science has really impacted the game. Players are playing longer than ever. Jason Peters is 37 and remains one of the better left tackles in the league. That would not have happened in the past.

Teams now understand the importance of regularly checking on players. Does the guy need a day off? Is he sleeping enough? Is he getting enough fluids? Players used to hate missing reps. They wanted to do it all, show how tough they were. Now teams and players work together to keep guys in peak condition.

Teams used to be very wary of players above the age of 30. Those guys would wear down and you would be stuck with a high-priced veteran who just wasn't as good anymore. That has changed. Age is just a number. Teams are willing to keep older players around and players can continue performing at a high level. The football world keeps waiting for Tom Brady or Drew Brees to slow down, but it hasn't happened yet.

Imagine talking to Pederson the quarterback and telling him the team would be going for it on most fourth-and-short situations. He would look at you like you were crazy. Analytics have definitely changed the game of football. Pederson has been aggressive on fourth downs since becoming the Eagles' head coach and it has helped the team tremendously.

It is one thing for a numbers guru to write a report that says a coach should go for it. That's great in theory. Putting that into practice when it goes against everything you've been taught your whole football life is very different. The coach has to embrace that. The front office has to embrace that. The players have to embrace that. This isn't easy.

Pederson bought into the idea of going for it on fourth downs. He had the backing of the front office and Pederson got his players to really buy in. They loved the idea. That helped the Eagles win some games in 2017 and then there were some key fourth-down conversions in the Super Bowl. The Eagles don't hoist the Lombardi Trophy without going for it on fourth down.

Technology has changed a lot in the past two decades. Teams can now get unbelievable amounts of information. Coaches can watch very specific plays instantly. No more film or video tape. We live in an on-demand world and that's also true in the NFL.

At its core, football will always be about blocking and tackling. You still need to protect the ball and be good in the kicking game. The basics remain the same. It is crazy to think about all the changes that have happened in and around the game. The Eagles have embraced those changes and that's how they've been able to continue winning.

It will be interesting to see where the game is 20 years from now. One thing we know for sure, the game will continue to evolve.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Eagles Message Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. You can also find his work at IgglesBlitz.com where he is the site's editor.

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