Tape Don’t Lie: Watching Game Film
In 2014-15, I was involved as an assistant coach with my hometown rugby club, Skerries RFC. I loved reviewing game tape on the Monday after the game, finding out what patterns worked, where we made mistakes and, occasionally, where we were exposed. Once the tape was analyzed a report was sent to the other coaches and we would talk before Tuesday night training. It would help inform the process of how we prepared for opponents the following week. Amateur rugby with a critical lens applied.
Sometimes, tape sessions can be a chastening experience for players. Former Irish rugby coach Joe Schmidt would take a blowtorch to his player if he saw a lapse on tape. Schmidt would reprimand the player in front of the team during their film session. Players don’t forget being treated like that in front of their peers. Watching game tape is a fundamental part of football, even more so than it is in other sports. “Tape don’t lie,” Mike Pettine, Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator, said. He has a point. Responding to the coronavirus outbreak, the NFL decided to grant fans complimentary access to Game Pass, their back catalogue of full games, highlights reel, coaches tape and NFL documentaries. The offer runs for three months in the U.S., and five months outside North America. A treat is in store. Film study is part of the lore of the sport. I recently went back to the 2012 and 2013 playoffs to self-torture and watch Colin Kapernick dismantle Green Bay. Why? Well, as a Packers fan, losing those games to San Francisco still lingers in the memory. More of a driver was that I really wanted to watch Kapernick at his sensational best. Skinning teams on the ground and finding Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree open in tight windows. When you see him burn through the Packers defense in the 2012 playoff game it like being ushered into a new era of how quarterbacks play the game. We’re never going to see Kapernick again so it is nice to be able to appreciate the playing side of his legacy. Before his time as an activist and a polarizing figure, he was a dynamic player. Look at the tape and you see Kapernick was capable of beating teams in a number of ways. In this game he ran for 181 yards, a record for an NFL quarterback in a regular or postseason game.
I’ll come back to the tape of Kapernick’s killer play later. For college prospects entering the NFL, teams when they analyze tape want to know the following about a college player they're considering drafting:
Can he do the one thing every pro has to be able to do?
Does he do the little things well?
Does he have any bad habits and does it matter if he does?
What’s missing from the tape?
People that break down game tape for NFL teams desire an adapted form of the above. The emphasis is more on “how they do it” rather “what they did” when looking at the opposition or their own plays. The basics, for instance, are:
What is the play?
If it is a pass play focus on the receiver, run focus on the back.
Defensively, how is coverage developing?
Coaches tape makes it easier to examine the essential details of an individual play. Tape is the simplest way for players and coaches to analyze what has gone on. With it, the concepts and schemes of football are clearer with the film. Now, back to Kapernick’s epic 56-yard touchdown against the Packers and apply the NFL tape principles about the ‘how they did it’ method. Going back and analyzing the tape made me appreciate how complete a team touchdown it is, with everyone on the 49ers offense playing their part. What it distinctly is not, contrary to what I thought for all these years before re-watching the play ten times, is Colin Kapernick in a Johnny Hollywood role, delivering all on his own. The play: San Francisco’s offense runs the pistol read option. The read option is a common play during which the offensive line zone blocks in one direction, ignoring defensive personnel, while the quarterback makes a read and decides whether to keep the ball or to hand off to the running back.
Who’s involved? Quarterback Colin Kapernick, running back Frank Gore who runs a decoy route, blockers including the 49ers full back take out the Packers safety, the 49ers line and tight ends fold left and decisively take the Packers defense out of the equation. When Kapernick came along, he was a dual threat: he could run and pass, and this gave defensive coordinators nightmares. Pass or run play: The Packers are flummoxed as to what the 49ers are doing - run or pass? Remember, Kapernick has only played a handful of NFL games. The Packers defense and coaching staff has clearly not had a proper chance to study him. In particular, they woefully underestimate his speed and the potency of the 49ers blocking scheme. The 49ers perfectly execute the plan to get Kapernick to the outside lane where he can use his pace to land a knockout punch.
Defensively, how is coverage developing? Unable to read the play in time, the Packers defensive end comes down, the safety is blocked and Kapernick sees that there isn’t anyone left to stop him. Even the great Charles Woodson, Packers cornerback, is unable to get there in time to bail out his safety and make a tackle. Kapernick tucks the ball under his arm and scampers off for a 56-yard touchdown run. I question how much homework Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers did on Kapernick and the 49ers creative play schemes because whatever he devised completely unraveled on this play and the game went with it. I started by talking about the importance of game film and the value it brings a team, a coach, a player or a journalist. Watching game film allows you to understand your team and prepare for the opposition. The example of how the league struggled to adapt to Colin Kapernick demonstrates that if you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail. There’s enough content on Game Pass to interest everyone, including amateur coaches on extended sabbaticals from rugby like me.