Consider Gregg Easterbrook's latest Tuesday Morning Quarterback column:
Terrell Owens and Randy Moss just cleaned the clocks of the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills, catching four touchdown passes apiece Sunday. Here is a possible solution when dealing with guys like Owens and Moss: Cover them!For the benefit of readers who don't necessarily care to master the intricacies of defensive strategies in football, I've highlighted the most important portions of Easterbrook's analysis. I'll also add my own gloss on the most important defensive divide in football. Man-to-man defense operates exactly as it sounds. Each pass defender covers a specific eligible receiver. Cover 2 is a zone defense that directs speedier cornerbacks to watch shorter, snappier plays near the line of scrimmage and somewhat slower safeties (who are set back a considerable distance in the secondary) to guard deep plays. The essential difference is that man-to-man assigns individual responsibility, while Cover 2, or any other zone-based scheme, is a consciously collective effort.
Man-on-man, that is. Perhaps manly-man-on-manly-man. For most of the two contests in which these gentlemen ran wild, the Washington and Buffalo defenses were in some version of Cover 2, meaning zone, meaning no one had the specific responsibility to stick with Owens or Moss. In a Cover 2, the cornerbacks watch the short zone for outs and curls and the safeties watch the deep zone. The Cover 2 is often effective. Its weakness is that no one is specifically assigned to the other team's best receiver. Just as, when splitting a large-group dinner check, each diner might find it convenient to assume the next person will take care of the tip, in a Cover 2, each defensive back might find it convenient to think, "The safety will get him." The result is letting the other team's best receiver fly down the field unguarded.
With Dallas leading 21-16 and the game tense, Owens ran an "up" against a Washington soft-zone look. Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs stood there and watched Owens fly past; Springs covered no one, and Owens caught a 52-yard touchdown, providing the game's winning margin. With New England leading 7-0 at Buffalo, Moss ran an "up" against a Bills soft-zone look. Buffalo cornerback Terrence McGee stood there and watched Moss fly past; McGee covered no one, and Moss caught a 43-yard touchdown, sparking what would become a rout by halftime. Randy Moss and Terrell Owens were not covered by anyone going deep. Moss' touchdown was especially ridiculous because the Bills rushed only two on that play. Nine defenders dropped into coverage, yet no one guarded Randy Moss going deep.
Nine guys available and no one guards the other team's best receiver: This sums up the it's-not-my-job flaw of the zone pass defense. And don't tell me the cornerback is supposed to let the receiver go deep so the corner can watch the flat. On both the touchdown passes cited above, there was no receiver in the flat. Both cornerbacks just stood there while the other team's star roared past them for a touchdown. Nor are these two plays exceptions. On several of the eight Moss/Owens scores Sunday, cornerbacks simply watched as these threats raced upfield, covered by no one. . . .
The soft zone works for disciplined teams such as Indianapolis, but for sketchy teams such as Washington and Buffalo, it seems to promote it's-not-my-job thinking. Hey, he wasn't my man! If the Cover 2 doesn't prevent deep strikes — and that's supposed to be the big virtue of playing Cover 2 — then what is being accomplished? Defensive coordinators, pick your best cornerback and tell him: Wherever Moss or Owens goes, you go. You're on him like glue, and it's your responsibility, no one else's. Challenge your best defender: That's the way to counter a great receiver. And before you say, "Man coverage can be burned deep," what exactly did we observe Owens and Moss doing to soft zones? Play man-to-man. It's manly!
By temperament and instinct, I prefer Cover 2. It is a goal-oriented scheme as opposed to a task-oriented scheme. Its stated objective is to prevent big, back-breaking plays by whatever means emerge, as opposed to assigning specific tasks to specific players. In military terms, the equivalent is telling the entire company, "Secure the position, whatever your tactics," as opposed to issuing specific instructions to individual soldiers.
But Gregg Easterbrook correctly observes that the Cover 2 assumes that a defensive unit has the talent and the cohesion to identify and neutralize deep threats. Otherwise, a soft zone defense is just that, soft. In the face of blazing speed and preternatural instincts — of the sort typified by Randy Moss and Terrell Owens — a defense may be well advised to deviate from a pure Cover 2 scheme and restore at least one individual assignment. Randy Moss is your responsibility; don't get beat. In other words, when the going gets tough, the tough go man-to-man.
So it is with academic administration. As I've written before in this forum, the vast majority of law schools, perhaps as much as 90 percent of the industry, have missions that are distinctly less lofty than those of truly "elite" schools. Relative to the wealthiest schools, we don't have the resources to overcome shirking, mistakes in judgment, or even bad luck. As much as we'd like to play Cover 2, few of us are to legal education as the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots are to professional football. For the rest of us, contending for the playoffs, let alone making the postseason and going deep against the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, depends on a judicious balance of Cover 2's team-wide resilience with the individual accountability that distinguishes man-to-man defense.