Right now, I would be willing to guess that at least a fair amount of you reading this are pretty stressed out and overwhelmed right now. Happens to all of us. I get overwhelmed pretty easily myself, and I’m currently in a really good relationship with a woman who tends to have the same problem.
Sometimes, with myself, and the more I look around and have the opportunity to listen to others, it’s the same with other people too. The problem can be we tend to let things that don’t really matter get to us.
Before I decided I would one day be a syndicated columnist who writes about the intersection of society and politics, I wanted to be a high school or college football coach. I remember watching Jon Gruden on the NFL Network as a kid, and thinking he was just the coolest guy in the world. But I didn’t just like the glamorous side of coaching football, I was actually really interested in the “Xs and Os” of football. I liked that coaches got to stay up until 3:00 in the morning breaking down game film and trying to put together the puzzle of how to win. When I can get my hands on it, I still will watch some All-22s of college football. One of my favorite things is trying to decipher “run fits,” meaning who has what gap in the run game, depending on what the offense does.
I always maintained — and still do — that people who played football (especially offensive line and quarterback) had to be really, really smart, but one guy I always joked was the exception that proved the rule was one of the all-time greats, Brett Favre.
There is a famous story that can be found on YouTube, and probably a whole lot of other places on the internet, about young Brett Favre in the quarterbacks’ meeting room in Green Bay. Head Coach Mike Holmgren would go through game plans and what would be done in the following week, Holmgren would often talk about a nickel defense.
Favre had heard the term “nickel” before, and I assume many of you have as well, but despite being a starting quarterback at the highest level of football, Favre had no idea what the term actually meant.
One day, Favre’s curiosity was piqued, and he asked backup quarterback Ty Detmer (a former Heisman Trophy winner under legendary BYU coach and “Air Raid” inspiration LaVell Edwards, of whom Holmgren was an assistant) just what a “nickel” defense was.
“Are you serious?” Detmer asked.
“Yeah, I’m serious.”
“It’s when they take out a linebacker and bring in another defensive back.”
“That’s all,” Detmer reassured.
A media-appropriate approximation of Favre’s response to this revelation — that a “nickel” defense simply meant a defense with five defensive backs — might be “So? Who cares?”
As humorous as this exchange was, what’s really funny is that Favre was actually ahead of the curve. What do I mean by this? Look no further than Kent State alumnus Nick Saban.
Yep. Kent State alumnus. Nick Saban.
I’m not an Alabama guy by any means, but knowing that when I graduate, I’ll share an alma mater with Coach Saban, possibly the best to ever do what he does, gives me probably a greater sense of pride than it should.
People who know I’m a football junkie will often ask me, “What kind of defense does Alabama play?”
The answer? “Yes.”
Does Alabama run a 3-4? A 3-3? A 4-2-5? They run all of these, somewhat at the same time, depending on how they react post-snap.
Most people categorize Alabama as a 3-4/4-2-5 hybrid, but their personnel is actually 3-3-5.
Cool side note to those who aren’t football fans: the first number refers to defensive linemen, the second refers to linebackers and the third refers to defensive backs. So a 4-3 or 3-4 means either four linemen and three linebackers or three linemen and four linebackers, respectively. There, the final “four,” the defensive backs, is implied.
Alabama plays, most seasons, and in base personnel, with three true down linemen, two true linebackers and four true defensive backs, which is only nine players. What are those other two players? A hybrid defensive lineman/linebacker and a hybrid linebacker/defensive back.
In theory, using only their base personnel, Saban (and defensive coordinator Pete Golding) could line up “mimicking” a 4-3, a 3-4, a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5. Depending on the defensive call and offensive formation, there might be no difference in how many of those looks might play. As Thomas MacPherson, now the head coach at Orange Park High School in Florida, says, “fronts are universal.”
Additionally, at what point then is Alabama (or even Massillon High School, which runs a very similar system) in a nickel defense as opposed to a base package? I think it’s almost irrelevant.
How does any of this tie into my first two paragraphs? Coach Holmgren, who has forgotten more about football than I’ll ever know, would spend a fair amount of time preparing for how to attack a “nickel” defense, but why? In my experience, regardless of personnel, a lot of defense is just front and coverage. And, as I said, fronts are universal, as well as coverages. Brett Favre was ahead of the curve, whether he knew it or not, because he just read front and coverage, regardless of personnel.
There are a lot of people, like me, and many people much smarter than me — though they would probably never be compared to Coach Holmgren — who tend to focus way too much on stuff that’s pretty irrelevant. With someone like me as well, it’s really hard to ignore irrelevant stuff because I can be a pretty irritable person, but at the same time, I know if I could learn to ignore life’s minor inconveniences I would be — and am becoming — a much happier person. And I assume most of you would too.
Ross McDonnell is an opinion writer. Contact him at email@example.com.