The New Reality
Jenny Vrentas, Sports Illustrated, September 19, 2016
A few minutes after 8 a. m. LeSean McCoy walks into a windowless room on the first floor of the Bills' headquarters in Orchard Park, N.Y. He ... straps on a virtual-reality headset to stare down an NFL defense. In the 13-by-16-foot room, which is lined with FieldTurf, the eighth-year running back stands over a hash mark and peers through the goggles at a wall-mounted TV. His position coach, Anthony Lynn, cues up a running play from practice.
"Oh, this is crazy!" McCoy says with a giggle. "Ha! Jim Brown would have loved to have this."
LeSean McCoy doing virtual reality practice
"Rewind that," he says, breaking down a pass play. "Now, if that was an option route, oh, my goodness! You'd kill them on the inside move right there."
McCoy takes another look, reciting the defensive front, the protection call, the coverage and how he should run his route. "We are running option routes," Lynn says of the Week 1 game plan for the Ravens, "and I have all these coverage looks on tape for you. Get you some mental visuals."
"Nice!" McCoy says, adjusting the mask. "Can I get this at home, too?"
This isn't Jim Brown's NFL, and it hasn't been for a long time. Virtual reality aside, today's game is an aerial spectacle; a league record for passing yards has been established each year since 2009. Backs are so devalued that only three were taken in the first round over the past four NFL drafts. (Ten were chosen over the previous four.)
The new way of thinking: The guys who run the ball are interchangeable and replaceable - even the veterans. ... Buffalo was one of four teams that ran more than they threw last season (509:465), and its 152.0 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry were league highs. Yet the job of a running back is misunderstood even in Buffalo's locker room.
Defensive players occasionally mock the backs by asking, What, exactly, do you do in the film room anyway? Rookie Jonathan Williams, a fifth-round pick out of Arkansas, recently overheard one of the athletic trainers saying he wished he could be a running back, because it seemed so simple. "I told him, 'No!'" Williams says, still stunned. "We have to know a lot of stuff!"
The Bills' game plan against the Ravens on Sunday contained nearly 50 running plays. Each came with an alignment (where the back lines up), designated footwork (there are at least a dozen varieties) and an aim point (what to run toward). As the back approaches the line of scrimmage, he makes his primary read off one defender. The best backs can almost simultaneously read a second defender - just like top QBs can read two safeties at once - and sense where daylight exists amid the chaos of violent collisions. Each play also has something called a "big alert," a presnap read that signals a favorable matchup for the back to seize. Something as simple as taking the wrong first step can muck up the timing of a carefully orchestrated play. ...
McCoy and Anthony Lynn
The Bills had 10 protections in last week's game plan, each requiring adjustments at the line; the backs had to study about 30 base and nickel pressures of the Ravens' defense. By kickoff, Lynn had held 10 mini-meetings to go over theses protections alone, but the Ravens (two sacks, six QB hits) cooked up some new surprises.
Whether the ball is on the ground or in the air, Lynn's primary goal is to find ways to slow down an impossibly fast game for his players. To help one of his younger backs, Mike Gillislee, Lynn asked third-string QB Cardale Jones to record audio of the Week 1 play calls so Gillislee could visualize responding (in seven-second increments, of course). Lynn also employs a method he calls "deep practice" - making the game harder during the week so it seems easier on Sundays. He has his guys do read-and-reaction drills from six yards deep instead of seven to give them less time to make a decisions. During a recent special-teams period Lynn put McCoy behind an "offensive line" of five garbage cans and rattled off Baltimore pressures at lightning speed, baiting McCoy into making mistakes as he made the protection calls.