The St. Louis Rams put two halfbacks on the field for a third-and-5 play at Seattle last season, an unusual personnel grouping. The Seahawks called timeout. The Rams came back with something more straightforward -- a basic play offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, quarterback Sam Bradford and the Rams' receivers had installed from the first day of training camp.
Bradford hit Chris Givens on a quick slant route. Givens ducked under cornerback Jeremy Lane, breaking free for a 37-yard gain to the Seattle 4, setting up a touchdown in a hard-fought game Seattle would win in the final 1:39.
Five-plus months later, Bradford sees in that play something that has been in short supply for the Rams in recent years: evidence of continuity. The Rams went with something familiar to everyone involved instead of getting cute with a call that might have seemed more formidable when drawn up on a whiteboard. The more time players and coaches have together, the greater number of plays they'll feel comfortable running in specific situations.
Bradford, a veteran of three offensive coordinators in three NFL seasons, will work with Schottenheimer for a second consecutive season. That doesn't mean the Rams will always gain 37 yards on third-and-5, of course, but familiarity can be a good thing -- not just in general, but when applied to specific situations.
"There were times last year, I remember sitting in meetings, maybe [Schottenheimer] was really comfortable with a play because they had run it in the past and had success with it, but it was new to me and I wasn't as comfortable with it," Bradford said. "Now, I think we have a much better feel for each other."
Every NFC West team but Arizona returns the same starting quarterback and same offensive coordinator from last season.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick enters his first full season as a starter in coordinator Greg Roman's offense after taking over for Alex Smith in Week 11 last season. This will be Kaepernick's third season with Roman overall, an advantage. But because the playing styles for Kaepernick and Smith differ so significantly, the 49ers adjusted their offense on the fly. They used the pistol formation more frequently. Kaepernick was more likely than Smith to target receivers outside the yard-line numbers, where Kaepernick's stronger arm served him well. Kaepernick's passes inside the numbers traveled nearly twice as far past the line of scrimmage on average, another reflection of how the offense would be different with a new quarterback.
These are the sorts of things we can evaluate from the outside. Imagine how many subtleties must exist on the inside. Schottenheimer said Bradford is "a thousand years" ahead of where he was one year ago. Roman used the term "light years" to describe how far ahead his quarterback stands at this point in the offseason compared to one year ago. It's not just talk.
Think about how the 49ers' final Super Bowl possession ended, with Kaepernick throwing incomplete against pressure when only 5 yards separated San Francisco from a likely championship. One play earlier, on third down, the 49ers had suffered the type of breakdown we might expect with a young quarterback making only his 10th start in a highly advanced offense. They burned a timeout with the play clock running dangerously low, scuttling what coaches thought had been the perfect call against that specific Baltimore defense. Surely the odds of such a miscue repeating itself in a critical situation will diminish as Kaepernick and Roman have more time together.
A year ago, the Seattle Seahawks weren't sure whether Matt Flynn or Russell Wilson would be their starter. They committed to Wilson late in the summer and spent several games figuring out how much of the playbook to explore with him. Coordinator Darrell Bevell is back after attracting interest as a head-coaching candidate. Even after 16 regular-season games and one postseason game last season, Bevell said the team was still "figuring out what we have" heading into its divisional-round matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
This offseason represents the first time Bradford, Kaepernick and Wilson have had time to explore in depth with their coordinators the plays and concepts each felt comfortable running in game situations.
"Sometimes you watch tape, you study things during the week, you see one look on tape that they played the week before and you try to draw up the perfect play to beat that coverage, but then you call it and don’t get that coverage and it’s like, what are we doing?" Bradford said. "None of the receivers have run it. We might have repped it two or three times during the week."
When in doubt, go with what you know, such as Bradford to Givens on the simplest of routes. Call it a starting point.
"The day Sam walked back into the building [this offseason] we started making adjustments," Schottenheimer said. "We are a thousand years ahead of where we were last year."