November 28, 2022

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FMIA Guest: Greg Cosell On The NFL Evolution Of X And O Film Study

22 min read


Peter King is on vacation until July 26, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Greg Cosell, who has been with NFL Films for 42 years. He pioneered the concept of tactical X and O football on television with the NFL Matchup show, now beginning its 38th season on ESPN. In addition to his work as producer and analyst for NFL Matchup, Cosell is a regular contributor on “The Herd” with Colin Cowherd, and numerous radio shows in local markets across the country. Cosell is also a published author, collaborating with Ron Jaworski and David Plaut on “The Games that Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays.”

It was pre-pandemic. Eagles training camp 2019. My good friend Peter King was in attendance that day making his summer camp rounds and we got to talking. He said to me in a very matter-of fact manner, “Do you realize you have been with the NFL (NFL Films) for 40 percent of the National Football League’s existence?” That 2019 season was the 100th regular season of the NFL. I looked at Peter after he said that to me, and thought wow, I had never even considered that.

What’s that quote you always hear in football? The best ability is availability. For 40 seasons, and now going on 42 with the upcoming 2021 season, I have worked at NFL Films and I don’t think I ever missed a day. Of course, when you work for and with the best people in the business and you absolutely love what you do, showing up every day is a joy. But more than that, it’s a privilege, and I have been grateful and fortunate to work for the company that Ed Sabol (who hired me) and Steve Sabol (who was my mentor and biggest advocate) built into the best sports filmmaking enterprise anywhere in the world.

Let’s step back in time for a moment, to the spring of 1984. I had been with NFL Films for 5 years, still trying to become a documentary filmmaker, and quite honestly, struggling a bit to find my way. Steve came into my office and sat down, and said I think I have an idea and you’re the guy to do it. You had to know Steve; he didn’t tell you how to do anything, he threw something out and then it was up to you to make it work. That germ of an idea: an NFL matchup show. Now keep in mind this was 1984. Cable TV was still in its relative infancy, ESPN was less than 5 years old, and perhaps most importantly, no one really believed anyone was interested in X and O football. No one even considered it. It would have been laughed at.

Quick aside: I grew up in Queens in New York. My high school, Francis Lewis, did not field a football team. Keep in mind that a high percentage of high schools in New York City did not have a football team. Space was not a natural commodity in the city. Therefore, in my formative years, I did not aspire to play football. I played basketball and baseball in high school, from 1971-74. Difficult to believe now, but baseball was king back then, the number one team sport in the United States by a significant margin.

Back to the genesis and evolution of NFL Matchup. It was a challenging process in those early years, with host Chris Berman, and analysts Steve Sabol and former NFL coach Allie Sherman. As the executive producer, I did not know much about football from a tactical perspective, and NFL Films did not have access to the All-22 coaching tape that coaches and players studied and evaluated to game plan. Coaching tape is the Rosetta Stone of football analysis. As I once read about the Rosetta Stone and its idiomatic usage, “It’s the first crucial key in the process of decryption of encoded information”. Without the ability to decode and decipher what was really happening on the field, there was not much we could show from a tactical and schematic standpoint.

Even though I did not play football in high school or college, I was becoming fascinated with the game—22 players, initially static, then moving before and after the snap in both choreographed and improvised ways in a confined amount of space. How did offensive coaches best utilize that space? How did defensive coaches look to shrink that space and make it difficult for the offense to execute their game plan? It was the ultimate game of action and reaction, planned strategy followed by counters and adjustments.

As I was becoming more and more captivated by the game from an academic and intellectual perspective, two things happened that further enhanced my career path. First, in 1993, NFL coaching tape became available for us to watch and use in the Matchup show. That was the Rosetta Stone coming to the world of Matchup. That unlocked and revealed a whole new world for me. I could now see all 22 players on every play, and that allowed me to begin the process of studying and learning the game in its entirety—offensive concepts, defensive schemes, and the assignments and responsibilities of players within those systems. The Magic Kingdom had come to my office at NFL Films.

Secondly, and of concurrent importance, I was getting the opportunity at that point in time with my job at NFL Films to meet and learn the game from some of the best coaches in the business—men like Bill Walsh (one of my most prized possessions is a signed copy of his book, “Finding the Winning Edge“), Al Saunders, Dick Vermeil, Brian Billick, Dave McGinnis, Rod Rust (the father of cover 4, or quarters as it is more commonly called). I was so fortunate to spend meaningful time with Coach Walsh; he taught me the quarterback position.

I remember the first time I met Coach Walsh. He had already left the 49ers and was a year or two away from taking the Stanford head coaching position in 1992. I was doing a piece for NFL Films of which I cannot remember the specific focus but it entailed watching tape with the coach of some of the greatest quarterbacks of all time starting with Johnny Unitas. This was the early 1990s so the shotgun formation had not yet become a staple of NFL passing games. Quarterbacks played the position under center, even on 3rd down. We spent about three hours watching tape, and I learned more about the quarterback position than I ever knew was possible. Two things really stood out: footwork and balance, and precise ball location. I can still hear Coach Walsh talking about the ballet-like footwork of Joe Namath and Joe Montana; balletic was a word he used often to describe the nature of quarterback footwork. (Of course, much of that is lost today with the high percentage emphasis on the shotgun.)

Another time for another NFL Films piece I remember being on the practice field at the 49ers facility with Coach Walsh, Joe Montana, Roger Craig and Jerry Rice. This was well after the coach had retired, and Montana was no longer playing as well. Coach was running through route concepts of the West Coast offense, and it was so fascinating to see him settle right back into coaching. What was even more interesting was that Montana and Craig (and even Rice, who was still playing) accepted the coaching as if they were still 49ers. It was an amazing experience.

Lastly, and perhaps most memorable to me, were the times we went out to lunch after we completed the work for the film pieces. To sit and listen to Coach Walsh talk about the quarterback position, well, could anything be better? It was PhD level material. It was a lesson in playing the position the right way, at the highest level, all the time. I have never forgotten that, and it always infuses my thoughts when I watch and evaluate quarterbacks, both college and NFL.

There are so many more coaches I have spent meaningful time with over the years that I cannot recount them all. But the point is this: I wanted to learn the game in as detailed and as nuanced a way as possible, and I was an open book, ready to be filled with as much knowledge as I could take in. It was all I could ask for—the All-22 coaching tape, and the education of a lifetime.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Ron Jaworski. Jaws retired in 1989 after 15 seasons as an NFL quarterback and he joined the Matchup show as an analyst in 1990. Living in southern New Jersey (or south Jersey, as we say), Jaws had an easy ride to NFL Films, and we spent countless hours together, watching tape, talking football (another significant part of my learning experience), bringing present and former coaches into the office, and constantly thinking about ways in which to make the Matchup show better. Of course, the advent of the coaching tape was a game changer, but the most important factor as we continued to learn over time (and quite honestly, I still learn every day) was not the actual knowledge of the game, but the presentation of that information in visual form. The truth is football is not complicated, it’s detailed. The objective of both film segments and talking points is to present the detail in as clear and concise a manner as possible. Jaws and I spent so much time working to achieve that. We like to think that in all the years we worked together that we branded X and O football on television. The reality is it didn’t exist before the Matchup show and Jaws’ commitment to the product and the original and resourceful use of the coaching tape created a new and innovative genre.

The Matchup show also resulted in a book, as I do a little self-promotion: The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays, with one of my good friends and long-time NFL Films Senior Producer David Plaut doing the actual writing based on the research I did through 75-plus interviews with players and coaches and exhaustive film study. The best interview I did for the book was Bill Belichick; it was an hour and a half of a masters thesis, football at its highest intellectual level.

In 1996, Merril Hoge joined the Matchup show as an analyst, and a few years later, Sal Paolantonio became the host, forming the longest tenured trio in the show’s history. When you work with great people, you feel compelled every day to be the best you can be. You challenge yourself every moment of every day. I remember Dick Vermeil telling me something years ago that I have never forgotten: “No one gets better by working less.” Words to live by. Gradually over time, with that outstanding cast, we built a strong audience base that allowed us to incrementally advance from a niche show to more mainstream viewing. In our information-driven society where people want more not less, it appeared that football fans increasingly desired the kind of tactical breakdowns that we were presenting. The concept of X and O football on television was not laughed at anymore. In fact, it became celebrated.

In 2017, after executive producing the Matchup show since its inception in 1984, I was presented with the opportunity to sit on the set and be one of the analysts. I had been extremely fortunate in my career that my years as the producer of the show had resulted in numerous local and national radio segments, and that work had led the decision-makers to believe that I could add a strong analytical voice to what I always believed was the best football show on television. It’s been a great ride these last 3 years with Sal and Matt Bowen, and thankfully, due to a contract extension, there will be much more to come.

And that brings me back to my friend Peter King. On that summer day in August 2019, he brought up the point that if it wasn’t for NFL Matchup, there would not be the proliferation of tactical X and O breakdowns on television, and now increasingly on social media, especially Twitter. Peter said we were the pioneers, the innovators. I don’t really think in those terms, but I so appreciated his comments. And there is one thing I do know—I am not ready to retire any time soon. There is always more tape to watch.

1. I think I can’t remember being this excited for an NFL season as I begin my 42nd year at NFL Films. It was only 12 months ago that none of us really knew whether there would be a 2020 season. And I was furloughed last summer, uncertain not only about the season, but about my job. Fortunately, things worked out for the NFL and for me. But I can tell you there is not a day that goes by that I do not think about those families that lost loved ones, and those far less fortunate than I am. I am truly privileged, and every day I try to never forget that I get the opportunity to do what I love.

2. I think I am absolutely fascinated by the Titans addition of Julio Jones to an offense that averaged more than 30 points per game in 2020. (And how ironic is it that the new head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Arthur Smith, was the man who orchestrated that Tennessee offense a year ago.) As the 2021 season begins, Jones is the seventh oldest WR in the NFL, coming off a 2020 season in which he played only 9 games. It’s hard not to see Jones as a declining player based on almost every historical metric for the position. Last season, the Titans were one of 3 teams in the NFL that ran the ball more than they threw it; in fact, Derrick Henry had more first-down rushes than any back in the league by a wide margin. (Henry averaged almost 16 first down carries per game.)

Now, not only have the Titans added Jones to a wide receiver corps that features AJ Brown (a big-time wideout after 2 years in the league), Josh Reynolds (a vertical dimension) and rookie fourth-round pick Dez Fitzpatrick out of Louisville (one of my favorite second tier receivers based on tape study), they also have a new offensive coordinator. Todd Downing was the Titans tight ends coach in 2019 and 2020 before his promotion to offensive coordinator, so he has been there while this offense has evolved into a run-centric attack with Henry leading the NFL in rushing attempts each of the last 2 seasons. Corey Davis, now with the Jets, was the receiver opposite Brown last season. Davis finished the season with 65 receptions for 984 yards and 5 TDs on 92 pass targets. Those are good numbers for a number 2 WR in an offense built on the run game. Clearly, Jones is a better receiver than Davis but that’s not the point. With the weapons now at his disposal on the perimeter, how will Downing coordinate this offense? It is easy to say they are loaded with outstanding talent, but how will Downing structure this offense? Will it be the same as it’s been with the heavy emphasis on Henry, or will it change with a greater focus on the passing game? What will be the Titans offensive identity? It is not an easy schematic decision.

I have been reading since the trade was made that this offense will be unstoppable, and many cite statistics to prove their point. Statistics, of course, provide little or no context for a new situation, and do not speak at all to the process of composing and building an offensive philosophy through an offseason and training camp. Of course, we also know that no offense is unstoppable, not in the NFL, unless you believe the Titans will ring the scoreboard for 40 plus points per game. I understand the simplistic urge to say that defenses must choose tactically between stopping Henry and minimizing the explosive plays in the passing game with Jones and Brown on the outside, but NFL defensive coaches are pretty darn smart. It’s not a binary equation, believe me. But there is no question it will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the 2021 season.

3. I think I am truly absorbed by the conversation about the quarterback position, specifically whether the ability to make off-script, improvisational plays is now a necessity in today’s NFL, or whether a quarterback can still play at a consistently high level without that trait. While Russell Wilson has been making outstanding off-script plays for years, my sense is he was considered more of the exception given his lack of size, and the fact that there were snaps in which he could not see a clean throw, even if it was there. For Wilson, movement was a necessity to function in the league. It strikes me that Patrick Mahomes has been the one to accelerate this discussion with his movement and his rare ability to make off-platform throws. (Of course, Matthew Stafford has been doing that for years, well before Mahomes came into the league, but for some reason no one seemed to notice.) Josh Allen, coming off an exceptional 2020 season, has also enhanced this debate.

I would pose the question this way: If you believe that improvisation is now essential to play NFL QB at the needed level of excellence versus the increase in sub-package defenses (5 defensive backs, 6 defensive backs, at times 7 defensive backs) and the expansion of pressure/blitz schemes, then you need to have a reason for the continued excellence of Tom Brady. (You could put Drew Brees in that category as well.) And please don’t tell me it’s because he’s great, as if that removes you from answering the question. Why is Brady great? What are the traits and attributes that have resulted in him playing at a Hall of Fame level throughout his career, and continue to do so, without the mobility to make outside of structure plays? That is what you need to study and evaluate, in great depth. You must develop a detailed and precise understanding of this before flippantly tossing out the platitude that off-script plays are now a necessity. There is not a coach in the NFL who would draft a quarterback based on his ability to extend plays if the coach felt that that quarterback could not execute the structure of the pass game with the needed efficiency and consistency on a play-by-play, game-to-game basis. Quarterback is a subtle, nuanced, disciplined craft position both before and after the snap; that is how it is taught. Coaches do not roll the ball out in practice, and then say let’s run around and make some plays. Maybe in college, but certainly not in the NFL.

It is a conversation that will no doubt continue with the influx of more athletic quarterbacks into the NFL. Many see Mac Jones as the litmus test for this debate. He was the only quarterback of the top 5 chosen in the first round who did not show second reaction improvisational movement. Some say he’s a better athlete than his tape showed; I guess we will see when he gets his opportunity in New England. What Jones did at Alabama was play the position with needed refinement and maturity from the pocket. It seems these days that we don’t place the same value on that as we do the ability to make off-script plays. As the world turns.

Buffalo Bills Mandatory Minicamp
Bills quarterback Josh Allen. (Getty Images)

4. I think, speaking of Josh Allen, he is the most physically gifted quarterback in the NFL. That is not a bold, controversial take. It is just a statement of fact. Whether he develops into the best quarterback in the NFL is a different question, one that remains to be answered. Remember, Allen is 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Think about that for a moment. I have stood right next to him, and he is a big man. I stood a few feet away watching him throw, and I have never seen a ball come out of the hand of a passer like it does with Allen. It was otherworldly. The name that often comes up, and rightly so, when the talk is of the most physically talented quarterbacks of all time is John Elway. Allen is a much bigger man than Elway. Allen is the most intriguing quarterback I have watched and evaluated in all my years at NFL Films. It would not surprise me at all if we soon call Allen the most physically gifted quarterback the league has ever seen. Stay tuned.

5. I think I am still trying to get a true understanding of analytics as it applies to NFL football. I will be the first to admit I am not an expert in that area, so I keep trying to learn more and more. One thing I keep being told by those that know far more than I do is that analytics is based on the accumulation of data over time; in other words, it is results-driven, with the over-riding premise being that more information is always better than less information. My guess is all football coaches going back to the era of Paul Brown believed that and will always believe that.

Where we have advanced with technology is the amount and detail and nuance of information available to personnel people and coaches. Let’s focus on coaches, and game planning and in-game decisions. It would seem to me the question becomes, how can all this information be applied and utilized to help coaches make better play calls/decisions throughout the game, especially in critical situations. It’s what to put in, what to leave out that ultimately becomes important. An overload of information clutters the mind. So analytics works best for those coaches who understand how to take excesses of information, pare it down to its base essentials and then effectively apply it in game situations. I’m sure smarter people than I will tell me I’m wrong, and I am always willing to listen and learn.

How about this for an in-game situation, purely hypothetical for purposes of discussion—it’s fourth and 2 in the third quarter on your opponent’s 42-yard line. A 10-year study of that down and distance on that part of the field indicates that teams that go for it are successful 76 percent of the time. So the analytics/statistics strongly suggest that you should go for the first down. But how does what happened in the past have any relevance to this specific situation in this given game, and if you believe it does, then what’s the personnel group, the play call. What goes into the play call? Your starting LG got hurt, and you’re playing with a backup at the position. How does that factor in? Is that part of analytics, because now we are getting into the process of a critical play call in a specific moment in time, and not simply previous outcomes and mathematical equations.

It’s this dichotomy between process and track record that I find so interesting. And there is so much more to process than specific game situations. How do past results which provide no context impact what is happening right now? I can’t wait to learn more and hopefully become smarter.

6. I think I may have truly reached that level of obsessive that might require professional help. I have been on vacation for the last month and a half, and you know what I have been doing. Yes, you guessed it, watching tape, both NFL and college. I just can’t help myself. Truth be told, I am not starting at 6 a.m. as I do during the NFL season and from early February leading up to the NFL draft at the end of April. But I still feel the need to grind away and watch as much tape as I can. It’s just in my DNA.

I read Brian Billick’s book this offseason—”The Q Factor: The Elusive Search for the Next Great NFL Quarterback,” a recommended read, by the way—and one thing (among many) really stood out to me. No matter the number of new metrics and new tests that are increasingly available due to the seemingly daily advances in technology and medicine, coaches always come back to one method of evaluation when it applies to quarterbacks: tape study. They always say, let’s go back to the tape. I feel the same way. It doesn’t mean you will be right a high percentage of the time because there are so many factors and variables that go into evaluation (not only of the quarterback position, but all positions), but it must be the starting point and the foundation. So until further notice, I will watch as much tape as I can. I have always believed in a simple mantra: When you think you know, that’s when you don’t know. There is always more to learn, and if I am not watching tape, I am not learning. I will stay obsessed.

7. I think I need to write about Steve Sabol, who officially was enshrined into the Hall of Fame earlier this year after being inducted a year ago, joining his dad, who we at NFL Films affectionately called Big Ed. If I am being honest, I couldn’t begin to tell you where I would be in my career without Steve, without his guidance and support and, most of all, his belief in me. I wrote about the Matchup show and how Steve came to me in 1984, certain in his mind that I was the one to make that concept work. At least one of us was certain. Steve never wavered in his belief that I could do it, and he let me find my way through trial and error. (There was a lot of error in those early years.) At the time, and through those formative years, I had no idea that Matchup would be the beginning of a career path that I have now followed for almost 40 years. But Steve’s belief in, and commitment to me went far beyond NFL Matchup. He was the one who encouraged me to broaden my scope by actively seeking out radio and TV appearances, and who insisted I attend the NFL Scouting Combine beginning in the late 1990s so I could develop relationships with coaches and personnel people in the league. Steve was the one who put me on this path, and I will forever be grateful. I treasure those times (and they were many) he would come into my office, sit down and just start talking football with me. He was so genuine, so easy to talk with. Those conversations are etched into my brain. I miss him every day I come into the building at NFL Films.

8. I think I am still stuck in the 1970s and 1980s when it comes to music. Often when I watch tape, I listen to music. And what do I listen to: classic rock. That’s my music. No matter how many years pass, that’s what still resonates. A little Led Zeppelin is always good for the soul. I was fortunate to see Zep at Madison Square Garden in the mid-1970s at the height of their powers. A special show that I have never forgotten. If you want to read a great book on the best rock n roll band of all time (okay, Beatles and Stones fans, simmer down) you must pick up “Hammer of the Gods” by Stephen Davis. It’s a classic of rock journalism, and such a fun read, especially if you love learning about the origins of songs, as I do. And who would not have wanted to spend time at the Continental Riot House on the Sunset Strip. I have also been on a kick lately with power ballads from the 1980s. Hey, you can’t go wrong with the hair bands like Poison, Cinderella, Whitesnake, Warrant, Skid Row. I could go on and on. They will always hold a special place in my music history. Because one thing is for sure: You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.

9. I think Sons of Anarchy and Justified are two of the best shows I have seen. I must admit, I did not watch a lot of TV or streaming services until the last year when the pandemic became a reality of our lives. So my catalogue of shows is not that extensive and I am sure there are many of you who have seen far more than I have. But I was so absorbed in both of those shows. I could not wait for the next episode. How good were Charlie Hunnam and Timothy Oliphant in the lead roles? I mean, that was some seriously outstanding acting. I didn’t even realize that Hunnam was British until I looked him up on Wikipedia after I watched the first season. There was so much going on in both shows, so many references and allusions to literature and different genres. I am certainly not an expert on Shakespeare, but I felt like Sons of Anarchy played out like a Shakespearean tragedy with Hunnam’s Jax Teller the dark and tragic anti-hero. And I love Olyphant’s Raylen Givens, the laconic minimalist man of few words lawman from the tradition of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Both shows can be enjoyed on so many different levels. There were times I just let all of it roll over me, and other times I felt like I was reading a book and had to think about the characters and the way in which they were presented. Both shows were so compelling I was truly sad when I finished the last episodes.

10. I think reading detective and mystery novels is one of the true pleasures of my offseason. Every February, when the Super Bowl is over and I finish watching the tape of the game, I start diving into books. Last year, largely due to the pandemic, I broke my offseason record, reading 48 books. I won’t get to that number this year, but I am still reading as much as I realistically can. I always start with Lee Child and the his most recent Jack Reacher adventure. I remember being in Paris with my wife 23 years ago, finding a French-American book store and looking for a good novel to read on the long flight home. I discovered “The Killing Floor,” the first book in what became a long series, and I loved it. I have read every Reacher book in order since then; there have been 25 of them. It’s a great premise: Reacher is essentially a nomad with no home, former army military police, traveling at his leisure. He encounters different situations in every book, in new cities and towns, with different characters, but each scenario demands that justice be done in one form or another. What I enjoy most is the way Reacher is presented: he is 6-5, 250 pounds and there are always scenes in which his size and physical attributes are required but it is his deductive reasoning that is far more critical to eventually finding the truth.

Two other authors I always read are John Connolly and James Lee Burke, with Connolly’s protagonist being Charlie Parker and Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. Both Parker and Robicheaux are fascinating characters, each flawed in their own way, having lived through terrible tragedies while fighting personal demons, yet both ultimately seeking to do the right thing. I think Connolly and Burke’s writing is so good, so evocative, so descriptive.

FMIA Guest: Greg Cosell On The NFL Evolution Of X And O Film Study



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