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Why what's happening in basketball matters to football

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While the spread offense is coming to define offensive football, modern basketball is being seized by the "spread pick'n'roll revolution." The result is going to be the trading of personnel as young athletes find their best opportunities in new sports.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

I'd be willing to bet that more than just my own bracket took a serious hit when the #2 seed Michigan State Spartans went down to #15 seed Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. What killed the Spartans and lifted the lowly Blue Raiders was the same thing that brought the Golden State Warriors a NBA title and might bring them another this coming summer...five-out basketball.

The Blue Raiders had five guys on the floor for most of the game who could all shoot 35% or better from beyond the arc. They went 11-19 from three against the Spartans and the spacing that their shooting created for their offense resulted in 55.9% shooting on the day and 90 points. Izzo's squad just couldn't keep up with that kind of offensive pace.

This was just a small example and taste of a trend that is revolutionizing the way basketball is played and who plays it. That latter point is likely to have a big impact on football.

What's happening in basketball

Basketball is learning the same thing football has been learning, if you force opponents to defend in space then the good athletes on your own team will find an easier time creating high percentage offensive opportunities.

Nearly everyone in basketball is now trying to load up on as many perimeter players, particularly perimeter players who can shoot, as possible. Basketball has always been the game for the taller man but modern developments require that he also be able to shoot and move his feet on the perimeter.

If you're a team that wants to slow the game down and pound it down low to wide-bodied post-up players you simply cannot keep up anymore. The percentages says that the team taking as many open three point shots as possible is going to finish the game with more points on the scoreboard then the team trying to take a smaller number of two point shots. When the former is uncontested and the latter is? You have a blowout.

Some teams in the NBA don't even double post-up players anymore unless they absolutely have to because they understand that they're more likely to get beat by the ball swinging out to an open shooter then by the efforts of a strong man trying to out-physical another big guy in front of the rim.

This has major effects on defense as well, not only is the hefty post-up player who prefers to bully his way to points in the paint less efficient on offense but he's generally not built for chasing shooters or moving his feet on the perimeter on defense.

Every year college basketball is producing 6'8" 250 pound athletes that can't shoot or move their feet well enough to provide a superior option at power forward over a perimeter player and are too short to stand out at center where the 6'10"+ freaks tend to congregate. The college game is starting to phase these guys out as well in favor of putting more perimeter players on the floor.

The inevitable result? A supply-side economic impact on the game of football, which has no end of opportunities for guys that are tall and powerful.

What's happening in football

Meanwhile, football is moving in a direction where taller players are more and more welcome. Back when the game was all about the scrum and flanking opponents with big bodies at the point of attack, it didn't necessarily pay to be a taller guy.

In a battle between a blocker and a defender the low man is going to win and it's hard to be the low man if you are much taller than the other guy. But football is no longer being determined as much by these battles but instead by the kinds of physical confrontations that take place in the passing game.

Namely, the battle between the pass-rusher and the pass-protector and the battle between the receiver and the defender in coverage. In these battles, length is a major advantage.

Additionally, NFL defenses have reached the point of complexity, athleticism, and precision to where the good defenses can stop the run if they really want to. It's only a question of how much they have to expose vulnerabilities to the passing game in order to accomplish that result.

On the other hand, assuming solid pass protection there's really no defense good enough to stop the precision passing attacks in today's game. There's a reason you see the same QBs in the Super Bowl so often, or that two of the last three teams to win the Super Bowl were teams that excelled at defending the passing game.

The shift in strategy is well encapsulated by how the New England Patriots use their 6'6" 264 pound athlete, Rob Gronkowski. Back in the older days the obvious use for a guy like this would be in creating blocking angles and advantages to free up your running back.

Now? Guys like Gronk make their presence felt in the passing game, in this instance as a receiver. Perhaps the most devastating way the Pats will deploy Gronk is in this formation:

Gronk single-side WR

This formation is a fantastic way to ask the two hardest questions for defenses to answer when they play the Pats. The first is "who covers Gronk?"

A standard cover 2 set up like I've diagrammed above has a corner on him, but most cornerbacks in this world are poorly equipped to handle a 6'6" 270 pound freak and keep him covered up. Any other choice is also going to have some trade-offs but the way this formation isolates Gronk on the weakside really hammers at the importance of answering this first question well.

The next question is, "how do we help the guy covering Gronk?" The methods for effectively bracketing Gronk in this formation are going to cost the defense something awful. The main solutions are to either sacrifice a potential pass-rusher to drop someone underneath the flex TE or to keep a safety over the top, which leaves the other side of the formation vulnerable to Brady and the three receivers aligned there.

The modern passing game can make 6'5" guys with quick feet and soft hands a treasure that entire offenses can be built around. Then there's the 6'5" guy who can get to 300 pounds and buy the QB time to throw or the 6'4" 250 pound guy with stone hands but good hips that can put pressure on that QB.

Where worlds collide

There have always been guys playing basketball who arguably should have been playing football. That's not a popular statement to make these days because many in the media are pushing an argument that goes like this:

Professional football is more dangerous and pays less than professional basketball, therefore athletes who have a choice should opt to play basketball.

Here's the problem, that calculation will only apply to the tiniest percentage of American athletes who grow up with the right genetics and skills to choose between professional paths in the two sports. The vast majority of athletes won't play beyond college and while college football is more dangerous than college basketball it also pays better and it pays more people. Every FBS program is putting 85 young men on scholarship every year while the Division 1 basketball programs are giving 13. What's more, most guys that want to go pro in basketball can't afford to wait until they finish their degree to do so.

A free college education in the modern economy is a major advantage in life to say nothing of the networking and branding opportunities that exist for student athletes. The football path is one that more basketball players should be carefully considering.

When you add together the glut of big men in basketball combined with the high demand in football for those same athletic types you have an obvious solution.

The inevitable result is that we're going to see more smaller programs with surprisingly big and powerful OL, more programs with large and athletic DL, and more flex TEs like Gronkowski that would have been undersized power forwards in another era.

If and when that happens, basketball can continue on it's way towards wide open and exciting play and football can do the same while the 6'7" athlete who's not quite quick or skilled enough for basketball still has a chance to be a star. Everybody wins, hooray!

Let's hope the media catches on and helps spread the word so no one slips through the cracks.