By: Shawn Williams
Football is constantly evolving. To be the last man standing, teams innovate new methods to stand out, and above, the rest. Whether it’s improving equipment by utilizing progressive technologies for player protection or founding an analytics department in hopes to discover statistics and formulas that may outsmart the competition, teams will explore the depths of their imagination to secure creative ways to be the best.
No longer are there simple “Home and Away” uniforms. Pro sports teams now have a myriad of game day wear to attract consumers to their sexy brand apparel. Offensive Coordinators of yesteryear prided themselves on ground and pound strategies, using tiresome run games to set up the pass. Succeeding the extinction of those philosophies was the birth of the strong-armed pocket passer, like Dan Marino, Joe Montana or Troy Aikman. Along came Michael Vick, and the “scrambler” was the hot new toy. The defenses could only do their best to adapt to new penalties that catered to the money-making stars on offense. A high scoring game means more viewers, and that means new T.V. deals. Now owners can lace their pockets with revenue surplus, and the players benefit from increasing salary caps.
Like everything else in history, the game was blessed with brilliant minds to blaze new paths. Bill Parcells, lauded as one the coaching G.O.A.T.s, rose to icon status being widely considered as a football savant.
Known for stubbornly refusing to attend college football’s Senior Bowl, he made the surprising decision to finally attend in 2009, to scout one particular player; West Virginia’s QB Pat White. Parcells interest in the undersized, but athletic, prospect was of course due to the possibility of finding a new style of a running/passing hybrid, in the likes of today’s Kyler Murray, that may be able to revolutionize the game, yet again. He drafted White in the second round of the 2009 draft, unfortunately the vision didn’t become reality, however Bill had the right idea. He was just ahead of his time. Timing is everything.
Bill Belichick, with the help of the Tom Brady, won six Super Bowls by creating unique systems that maximized the potential of players through specified roles. He stayed a step ahead of everyone for two decades. Belichick built a cultural foundation of “team first” so unbreakable, even a prima donna like Randy Moss fell right into place. His utilization of two hyper athletic tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) was a matchup nightmare that haunted NFL defenses. His schemes and talent provided an unsolvable algorithm to the rest of the league. Teams countered best they could, copycat programs were built and dismantled seemingly overnight. His knack for finding valuable discarded talent or discarding expired talent at approximately the right time will forever be one of his greatest calling cards. Belichick is a man that can’t be replicated. His enormous coaching tree is vast but littered in fallen branches that couldn’t bear the weight of their mentor. The DNA of “The Patriot Way” just can’t be cloned.
Now, Chiefs HC Andy Reid has tight ends playing wide receiver, and receivers playing running back. Football has evolved into a kerfuffle so chaotic it’s hardly a shade of its former self. The ghosts of legends past must be rolling in their graves.
Enter Brian Flores, a unique mentee of Bill Belichick. Charging into year three of Coach Flo’s tenure in Miami, he has his team on a path of sustained success and has exceeded expectations the two years prior. See, what Flores looks to have discovered, the secret that eluded the Belichick-ians before him, is that success cannot be achieved through duplication, rather it’s anticipatory adaptation and precise innovation.
Teams like the Patriots of yesterday, or the Chiefs of today play a game of mismatches, putting players with versatile skill sets in untraditional positions to put the average, or even above average team in a compromising situation that has become incredibly difficult to outlast.
This, this will be the era of “Position-less Football”.
While much of the NFL has begun to come to this revelation, subtle signs have foreshadowed Flores’ early awareness of the changing winds. In his inaugural season, Flores made waves decimating his team of talent, signing street free agents to pro contracts, and directing veteran players to unfamiliar positions. While most onlookers saw only madness and questioned Miami’s motives so harshly that they accused the team of creating health hazards for their players, there was guided methods buried deep in undertone.
Take ex-Patriot cornerback Eric Rowe. Most opinions felt that Rowe was just a castoff brought in because of his familiarity with Coach Flores. He was really just an afterthought, until he was inserted as one of the team’s starting safeties. Eric Rowe is now considered an NFL “tight end eraser”. Players that have laid victim to him, include two of the best, George Kittle and Travis Kelce.
Undrafted Free Agents (UFAs) and late round draft picks have helped morph Miami’s defense into one of the best in the league. In 2020, Andrew Van Ginkel (5th Rd, 2019) became an invaluable contributor and game changing play-maker, appearing, as an important piece of the defensive unit, almost out of thin air. The year prior it was Vince Biegel’s surprising play. Former seventh round pick Zach Seiler, a Baltimore Ravens reject, was recently rewarded with a multi-year contract after becoming yet another “no-name” guy to play way above anyone’s expectations. To state it simply, Brian Flores, in-tandem with General Manager Chris Grier, have built a playoff contender out of players most people haven’t heard of, by taking an unconventional approach in anticipation to counteract a coming movement in the National Football League. They’ve done it by finding players with certain skill sets, and/or positional versatility, and using them in very specific roles that maximize their potential impact. And they’ve done it in two seasons.
With the structure of a formidable defense in place, Miami has shifted their focus to Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphin offense. Predictably constructing an offense built around the RPO (run-pass-option), the team is starting to add and evaluate players that can fill similar mis-matched positions, much like their defense. Adding WR Will Fuller in free agency gave Miami a top deep threat option to couple with 50-50-ball catchers DeVante Parker and Preston Williams. Lynn Bowden Jr. is a do it all “gadget” player that can operate as a Wildcat quarterback, a running back, or a slot receiver. You can’t even label Mike Gesicki a tight end, as he operates primarily in the slot; a 6’6 receiver-tight end mismatch, that will blow past linebackers and is too big for any cornerback.
It’s rumored that Flores and Grier are hot on University of Florida draft prospect Kyle Pitts, a cyborg version of Gesicki. If you can catch up on, or to, their master plan, you’ll realize he’s another player that doesn’t fit, which is why he’s a perfect fit.
Bill Belichick had something special with Hernandez and Gronk, with a couple slot-style receivers too. But what if you took those two, and added a well-respected home-run threat like Fuller, and a couple of jump-ball kings such as Parker or potentially Williams? Now, with all that, add a dominant, elite-level running back like draft prospect Najee Harris, and you have a never-before-seen offense with infinite potential.
If you comb through this year’s draft class, you’ll be amazed to discover a vast pool of “position-less” players. The incoming linebackers are all much faster, smaller, and versatile than the traditional NFL ‘backer. The new hybrid ‘backer is built to cover, operate explosive blitz packages (like the one Brian Flores utilizes, imagine that), and burst through run gaps to the backfield. Safeties have mutated to fast, athletic, powerful “tight end erasers”. Gone are the days of the savage, head hunting Strong Safety like past Dolphins Reshad Jones, Brock Marion or Yeremiah Bell. Today’s safeties needs to do much more than play deep zone. The new assignments entail going step-for-step with receivers in man coverage while being serviceable run stoppers. The 2021 WR draft class, is populated by fast, shifty route runners, that can play the gadget-game and even offensive lineman are sought for their plug-and-play versatility.
It will be a truly special time for the Dolphin franchise if the foresight of Brian Flores and Chris Grier culminates in the way their minds have envisioned. There’s been no sign or symbol that they’re off to anything other than a great start. They’ve caught the league by surprise twice so far, and if MY foresight is leading me much in the way of theirs, I believe the 2021 Miami Dolphins will be a grand unveiling to the rest of the NFL as a model for what their teams should’ve already looked like. My piece of advice for them is, if they’re smart, I wouldn’t try to copy them.