On Monday, a veteran NFL player attempted to break down a specific play from the Super Bowl on Twitter, but in doing so only further revealed the flaws of breaking down anything in football.
Mitchell Schwartz, a starting offensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns, tweeted a 10-second clip of a play with the caption, “This is from the 1st drive of the Super Bowl and is one of the best + cleanest runs you’ll see. I’ll break down why.”
Over his next 13 tweets, he gave valuable and intelligent insight into why the play worked for the Denver Broncos offensively and what went wrong for the Carolina Panthers on defense. In his eighth tweet, Schwartz wrote, “RG is out-leveraged by one of the fastest LBs. But (Panthers linebacker) Thomas Davis guesses wrong b/c of TE coming across the formation.”
And it’s true: Watching the play, it does look like Davis guessed wrong and ran away from the ball to follow the tight end coming across the field or the quarterback rolling out.
But that’s when things got interesting. Davis responded to Schwartz’s tweet with a clarification: “It’s not guessing, it’s called doing my job.”
Schwartz responded, “From the other side, sometimes you do your job right + it takes you out of the play. Can only do your job each play.”
What’s fascinating about this is that even a guy as credentialed and up-to-date with today’s NFL as Schwartz can get analysis of a play wrong. Schwartz has played in the league since 2012 and has started every game. He is a veteran both in terms of years and in-game experience. And yet even he can’t always tell what’s going on in a given play.
This is not a new point, but a worthy one to bring up again in the dead of the NFL offseason: It is really, really hard to know with any real certainty what’s happening.
That’s not always the case; sometimes perception of a play is reality. But just as often it seems that an initial reaction is wrong. Danny O’Neil from 710 ESPN Seattle wrote about that issue this season after O’Neil tweeted that Seahawks guard Justin Britt had messed up during a play when, in reality, the breakdown wasn’t Britt’s fault.
And I’ve made the same mistake as well. In 2013, the Texans scored a touchdown when a tight end ran by linebacker Malcolm Smith in the middle of the field. Smith was the only player near the ball, and I was convinced the blame lay at Smith’s feet. So I said so.
Only later did I find out that safety Earl Thomas guessed wrong on the play. Instead of lending help over the top, which Smith was expecting, Thomas had taken off at the snap to the other side of the field with receiver Andre Johnson. Thomas studies so much that he feels confident taking educated guesses and trusting his instincts, but this time he was wrong and admitted so.
Another time this season, I was talking to a Seahawks player in the locker room after he had a big game the week before. But he said that while his stats indicated that he played well (and we all wrote that he did), the reality was that he did not have a good game based on what his assignments demanded from him. In fact, he said it was not one of his better games in that regard.
It can be incredibly difficult not to have a snap reaction, and the truth is we may never know what happened on a play. Players in the NFL aren’t big on opening up about in-game specifics, and they really aren’t big on publicly blaming teammates.
The point is that football can be like a bank vault, and only a select few people have the combination. Sometimes they let us take a look inside and see what’s going on. And sometimes we have only our best guesses.
As Schwartz tweeted to one national NFL writer after his exchange with Davis, “It’s crazy how each of us knows our own little world so well but outside of that it’s guesswork.”