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Masters of Disguise: How the Carolina Panthers' Offense Avoids Tipping its Hand

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re looking for variety, NFL playbooks aren’t the place for you.

As Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com writes, "NFL offenses are surprisingly bland and homogenized. Not entirely, but as a rule of thumb, 80% of what NFL teams do on offense (or defense, really too) is extremely straightforward to the point where every team runs the same stuff. And the list is not that long."

The list gets even shorter when the game is on the line. Every coach has his money plays that he turns to when the chains need moving, and defensive coordinators spend hours watching film looking for keys that he can relay to his players so they’re prepared in those key moments.

This is where good offensive coordinators make a difference. It’s up to them to come up with elegant designs that act as a good poker face in order not to tip their hand.

Former Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski excelled in this area, ultimately got him a head coaching job in Cleveland. Say what you want about his play-calling and utilization of the Panthers’ expensive backfield, Chud’s ability to disguise basic passing concepts with elaborate window dressings played a large role in Cam Newton’s success through his first two years.

Take, for example, the Panthers’ "Spot"concept, a play run by almost every NFL team in critical situations. It’s a simple three-man read concept, featuring a man in the flat, one running a curl and the third receiver running a corner route.

Sp_medium

(h/t to NationalFootballPost.com)

The quarterback’s progression will take him to the flat receiver first, the curl second and the corner route third. If no one is open, he can take off or throw the ball away if there are no openings. If the defense sends a weak-side blitz, he’ll hit the backside slant.

Let’s look at a video example of the concept, with the Panthers featuring 21 personnel (2 WRs, 2 RBs, 1 TE) in the I, and the Broncos countering with a Tampa 2.

From the end zone angle, you can see Cam working through his progression to get to his third read. The one complaint you’d have is how long it takes him to get there, a problem Newton has had early in his career. But, like most quarterbacks, he’ll improve with experience.

And now the interesting part. The offensive coordinator wants to run this concept in certain situations, so it will show up in the scouting report when the opposing coaches studies his situational tendencies. There’s no way to combat this, but you can still make things hard on the defense.

By running the concept out of different formations and personnel groupings, with receivers going in motion right before the snap, the defense won’t recognize what’s coming until it’s too late to adjust.

In 2012, the Panthers ran their "Spot" concept many times, but never out of the same look. They ran it out of 11, 12, 21 and 22 personnel. They ran it out of the Gun, out of the I and out of a single back formation. They used play action with the full back going out to the flat; the used play action with the half back going out to the flat. There were so many combinations that it would be impossible for any defense to know what was about to hit it. But time after time, it was the same basic concept behind whatever guise Chudzinski could dream up: Flat-Curl-Corner.

Take a look at the many ways the Panthers got into this play in 2012:

New offensive coordinator Mike Shula has talked about simplifying the language in the Panthers’ offensive scheme and simplifying the offense overall; but you have to wonder how that much that will simplify opposing defensive coordinators’ jobs, as well.

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