September 16, 2014
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New schemes can’t negate football’s roots

Maybe it’s fantasy football that does it. Maybe it’s the fact that the NFL is a league built around its quarterbacks. Maybe you can trace it all the way back to the forward pass and follow incremental steps to where we are now.

Whatever the reason, it seems our perceptions of the game of football have shifted. Three yards and a cloud of dust? It’s been left in the dust. Football is high-flying these days, full of fast-paced offenses that can’t be slowed down. It’s about skill players – how talented they are, how fast they are and how much they can help our fantasy teams, which not coincidentally know nothing of offensive lines and little of defense.

At least, that’s what we think football is about.

But perception is not always reality.

At every level, from the NFL to college football to high school football in the smallest state in the union, teams are proving that pedal-to-the-metal spread offenses are still only one part of the game. And maybe not even the most important part.

You can throw it around, push your team to the cutting edge of football strategy. But you better be able to do the same things football teams have done since the days of leather helmets, or it won’t matter much.

As high school teams in Rhode Island get set to open their seasons, they’ll be putting that lesson on display again. In each of the last two years, teams with high-powered offenses have made the headlines in the state’s highest division. Bishop Hendricken has won the championships.

It’s not as black-and-white as new school vs. old school, but it trends in that direction. The Hawks have won three straight titles thanks in part to their ability to play defense, control games and turn max effort into stronger blocks and more crushing tackles.

They are not the only ones. Alabama has become the nation’s premier college football team without a whole lot of sizzle. The Crimson Tide bring in the best athletes, stick religiously to a system of execution and consistency – and win.

In the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens – the same team that brought us Trent Dilfer as Super Bowl quarterback – proved last season that you can still win the old-fashioned way, even in an era owned by record-breaking quarterbacks.

Of course, you can win the other way, too. Cam Newton was so good in 2010 that it didn’t much matter what else Auburn did. The Saints and Drew Brees were unstoppable in their Super Bowl run.

But the steady trend to spread offenses is not some magic elixir.

Football is still football.

Sure, the best teams can do everything – score at will and then stop you. But in many cases, the nature of spread offenses necessarily impacts other facets of the game. Teams built for marching down the field may have a tendency to stall in the red zone, when there isn’t much room to march. Teams that use a no-huddle attack and squeeze in more plays than their counterparts also set up their defense to run more plays, and the results are not usually good. When’s the last time you saw a high-octane offense and a dominant defense? They’re almost mutually exclusive.

We’ll see how it plays out on Rhode Island football fields this fall. The stage is set and so are the actors. Cranston East has the best skill players in the state – a talented quarterback, an explosive running back and a next-level talent at wide receiver. The ’Bolts are also strong in the trenches and they have a head coach who knows fundamentals. They may be the rare team that can do it all – and it may just be their year.

But the defending champs will be lurking. The Hawks have some skill of their own and some questions in the areas that have been their trademarks. The offensive line returns only two starters and the front seven on defense brings back just one. If the Hawks have their way, though, they’ll still be a team built around defense, toughness and a powerful running game.

If the two meet with everything on the line, the offense vs. defense showdown will be a battle of strength on strength. It’ll also be another battle of football perception.

We’ll see what the reality is.

William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and williamg@rhodybeat.com.


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