ATLANTA -- ESPN recently made available analyst Trent Dilfer for a media session focusing on the AFC and NFC championship games.
I was not on the call, which took place Thursday.
Colin Kaepernick's fame has taken off since the Packers game, and I was wondering with the magazine covers and Kaepernick on Twitter, why has he captured football's attention this way, and do you think he's an example of evolution at the quarterback position?
Trent Dilfer: Why do I think he's so popular so early? I think he's everything you kind of want wrapped up in one. He's big. He's good-looking. He's athletic. He can throw. Very articulate. And at the same time he's a little different. He doesn't necessarily look the part. And I think that's kind of cool and cutting-edge. And he's performing. I think at the end of the day you get famous in the NFL when you light it up. And he lit it up on a huge stage. He's had a couple of big stages where he's played excellent football this year. So the math kind of adds up. But between the performance, his persona, his giftedness, and the edge that he carries, too, that makes ‑‑ I guess there's intrigue about him that people are curious about and excited about.
Is he revolutionizing it? I was thinking about the statements, it's funny in today's football if you try to be wise and discerning and think about things before you say them and not knee-jerk react, you're abnormal ‑‑ why aren't you reacting that he's the greatest thing ever? I think I'm fortunate that I get to work with these quarterbacks at a very young age. So, for a few years I've been kind of seeing this coming: that the biggest baddest dude is now playing quarterback. And that was not the case for a long time.
Now they take the 6-foot-6, 250-pound great athlete -– the biggest, baddest dude on the block -– and they make him a quarterback and he gets this great training growing up and because of that, they're bigger, they're faster, they're stronger. They still have the passing skills. They're going to be more durable. It's a natural progression that the quarterback run-driven game is going to enter the NFL. And the NFL purists are going to continue to say, 'Well, they'll write a book on it, figure it out," and that's not true. They've never had to deal with the Colin Kaepernick, the RG III, the next generation of quarterback coming up that are pass-first guys but also have this physicality and this expertise in the quarterback run-driven game. They've never had to deal with it before. So Colin is one of many coming up that are the biggest, baddest dude that are pass-first guys that are highly athletic and gifted in the run-driven, quarterback run-driven game.
Obviously you think that the quarterback running game is here to stay, but to what extent? You still have to keep the guy healthy. Colin has only played eight games this year. Almost like a convergence of events that he was able to be so healthy as to be able to run like that. If he played 16, maybe not so much. Is there still a concern about keeping the quarterback healthy? Or Chip Kelly is going to be in the NFL now. Do you see a quarterback, you know, 12 to 15 running plays a game or will it be less than that?
TD: No. I think you'll see games where it's that many carries. But, no. Once again, big question -- I'll tell you the simplest -- Steve Young and I just spent 45 minutes talking about the same thing before I got on this call. The answer, believe it or not, for defenses, because there's a numbers advantage -- so the run-driven game, you have to first look at it conceptually. The quarterback run-driven game, you're always going to have a numbers advantage on offense when the quarterback's the runner, if you formation it right. Unless the defense plays what we call Cover 0 where there's no safety.
Nobody does that in the NFL because they're NFL receivers, beat the corner, quick touchdown. Setting that aside, everybody thinks the most dangerous part of the zone read or all the wrinkles off the quarterback running, when in reality what you want to do is the defense gets the quarterback to run. For the same reasons that all the purists are saying because eventually the quarterback running too much, getting hit too often is not going to survive. All that is true.
The issue, though, is it's going to be situational. You may not see him run for three and a half quarters. Still show run, and read and defense is taking it away, yada yada, looks like a normal offensive day and then on the third-and-6, in the fourth quarter, out to the fourth quarter, they're going to get you in a pass-first defense where they're defending the pass and they can run these quarterback runs, zone read or whatever it is, and they have not just a one-man advantage. Many times there's a two-man advantage, depending on formation and how the defense is set up.
I know this is a long-winded answer, but this is what people need to understand. It's not going ‑‑ it's never going away if the quarterback is athletic enough and skilled enough to read it, because there always will be a situation in the game where it's an advantage for the offense to run it. And it really comes down to discretion of the playcaller not to abuse it. Because what happens in football is when something's working, we live in a snap-by-snap world. There's so much pressure on these coaches. There's so much urgency to -- we're not just winning a game but to win the snap, but now because of fantasy football, it's not just winning the game it's how you win. So, it puts a lot of pressure on the playcaller to not go to the well too many times, so to speak. You have to be very judicious in when you call these runs, because you know you can save them for late in the game and certain packages and they're going to knife the defense.
So, I know it's a long-winded answer, but I wanted everybody to understand. I’ve been talking for three years now to high school coaches, college coaches that have run this and gone to the zone read and studied it ad nauseum and it's not going away; you're just not going to see where the quarterback's running 10 to 12 times a game because he'll never last.
But, if you save it and you're judicious about it, now Colin Kaepernick, [against the] Miami Dolphins didn't have much success running the ball, but 4-minute drill, third-and-8, he goes 50 to seal the game, goes 30 the other night against the Packers. Russell Wilson with Seattle, they would save it for the red zone against Buffalo, long touchdown runs on it. I can go on and on. When the playcaller is judicious about it, there's some huge plays to be made.
I wanted to ask about wide receiver Michael Crabtree. What are your impressions of his development and how important that has been to this San Francisco offense kind of going to the next level?
TD: It's not surprising for those of us that have been around him. It's been, what, four years now in the league? It's surprising that he's starting to emerge [only] now. I have a chance to work out with Crab a lot, just after I retired, I was in town. He needed a guy to throw to him. I threw to him. And I remember saying this is ‑‑ of all the players I picked, I never played with a stable of great receivers. But in my 14-year career he was the most electric guy I've ever worked out with, outside of the four walls. And I knew it was just a matter of time before he got in the system that kind of enhanced the skill set.
He was also banged up for a while. When you have a foot injury like he had for a couple of years, it's really limiting. There's also rumors about him not being a team guy and all that. I understand why he's just starting to surface. But he's always been this guy. I think the best thing that staff has done, especially the offensive coordinator, they've really ‑‑ because they're a run-driven offense and they can create so many defined looks, like they know where the ball's going to go in the passing game a lot of times because they kind of dictate the looks, they put him in a position, they moved him around to where he's most of the time the primary read. So he's going to get involved in the game early. And every good player I've ever played with and guys I've talked to, you can talk to Key(shawn Johnson) about this or Cris (Carter) about that. If they get involved early and they know they're a focal point of the offense, they're naturally going to play with greater energy, more momentum. They're going to be more dominant.
And I think the Niners have done an incredible job, every game you study, those first few passes that they're designing for specific purposes, you know, emphasize Crab. And they get him going early. And then as the game wears on, he just naturally becomes the dominating force throughout it. He obviously is a very good run after the catch. He was that way at Texas Tech. I think the best thing he does which doesn't get talked about a lot is his conflict catches, when he's getting hit and catching the ball. That's the hardest thing for receivers, tight ends, when they're in conflict, tight cover -- still catching the ball. He's got some huge conflict catches this year that have moved the chains and led to points for the Niners.
The question I have is with Colin Kaepernick and the Falcons' defense. They struggled with all their running quarterbacks, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson last week. Watching film of how he picked apart Green Bay, what do you see Mike Nolan is doing to kind of improve their chances this week?
TD: I think all the defensive coordinators are starting to learn from other coordinators' failures defending the quarterback run-driven game. And I spent all day yesterday trying to put on my defensive-coordinator hat and studying Kaepernick and Russell Wilson and RG III and the similarities of these zone-read games and all the wrinkles off of it. And what all coordinators do is what I did yesterday is they go through hours and hours of film and they kind of see what fronts and coverages and spacing is working most often. You don't want to get knifed as a defense.
You don't mind if you get the little incisions every once in a while. You're not overly concerned if ‑‑ make them march the ball we don't want to give away the big play. Mike Nolan, he's doing the same thing, trying to develop a plan that increases his odds of not giving up the big play, the big knifing play.
The similarities have been defensive fronts have moved around at the line of scrimmage before the snap, kind of confusing the blocking schemes. Linebackers with their eyes very much on their gap, not necessarily the mesh between the running back and the quarterback. And then in the passing game, you know, really eyeballs on the quarterback. And that's all the big plays that these running quarterbacks are making, whether they're scrambles or quarterback-driven runs, the eyes of the secondary players and the linebackers are getting caught up either focusing on receivers or focusing at the line of scrimmage. The teams that have slowed it down have really good eye discipline.
So, he's going to build a bunch of fronts. So front-seven spacing, easiest way to say it. That's going to confuse the blocking schemes of the 49ers, and where all the eyeballs of those defenders are very keyed in to the quarterback, especially in the pass drops. When that's happening, you're forcing these quarterbacks to be passers like everybody else. They're really getting in trouble when they're diving in the line of scrimmage or chasing receivers around the field, that's when a lot of these big plays are happening.
Do you think that will help them from having the experience from those other guys, just everything they did wrong to help them get it right this week?
TD: I think so. I'm not saying he's going to come up with the genie-in-the-bottle plan, but I think every coordinator learns from other coordinators' mistakes. One of the best ways I've seen coaches coach, they get in the film room with the team and say here's 15 plays, this is where the teams playing this guy have gotten in trouble so let's avoid these situations. So we built a plan to keep you guys away from these situations.
So, I think you're going to see a lot of people on the line of scrimmage and zone-based schemes. That's the easiest way to say it. It's seven, eight guys around the line of scrimmage, kind of moving around, and then as they ‑‑ if it's a pass, as they pass-drop, really standard zone pass-drops where all their eyeballs are on Colin Kaepernick. And in the run game you try to create as many people around the line of scrimmage as possible. You don't always have the numbers advantage. But if you've confused the blocking schemes you can get off blocks easier and get in the gaps quicker.
Continuing with the Falcons. They got the monkey off their back, so to speak, with the playoff win last week but seems like they're not getting a lot of respect at least for a No. 1 seed. Underdogs at home. Experts are picking the 49ers to win. Does it surprise you? Is it warranted that Atlanta still has some doubters now?
TD: I kind of see both sides of it. We're so -- as analysts, as writers, as a football-consuming audience, we love the quantifiable. We love being able to say, hey, they're this because here's a number to support it. And we don't dive into the psychology of it and the intangible qualities teams have. So from the quantifiable, it's very understandable why people don't believe in the Falcons. They don't do anything outside their passing game that just jumps out at you and says wow they're really good at A, they're really good at B. They also play a lot of tight games against opponents that are, quote/unquote, not top-tier teams. For all those reasons, I understand it. And at times I find myself getting caught up in that, too.
I just know that sometimes the most powerful thing in football is confidence, which you can't quantify. It's momentum that you can't quantify. It's will, competitive will, to make big plays in big moments. There's no number to support. When I look at the Falcons in that light, I see a lot of that stuff. I see a lot of the unquantifiable stuff that goes, that I go, wow, this team's really good. Seven fourth-quarter comebacks. Some of their comebacks are 30 seconds on the clock and getting the ball where they get it. Stops in games where they've been gashed on defense. But a big third-and-3, they come up with a big stop. They force a turnover. They don't flinch. So for all those reasons I really like the Falcons. But from a personnel, quantifiable matchup, they don't match up against the 49ers. So to me the game comes down to kind of the hidden intangible qualities of each team and which one is going to surface the most. I hope I answered your question. Trying to give you both sides of it.
TD: And a great question. I've studied them a lot especially last week, I studied both of them a ton. I'll start with Julio, because I really believe -- I'm not taking anything away from Roddy. But I think Julio is really the fear-factor guy. When you're a dynamic passing game, you have a skill-position guy that creates fear in the defense. Like how they line up changes because that guy's on the field and that's Julio. He creates a lot of attention. And I don't like to just use the word double-covered, because we've ruined that whole term. A lot of eyeballs, a lot of attention on where Julio lines up. They know on the defensive side if they make the slightest mistake with how they line up, what their personnel shift is, what the personnel grouping is, their spacing, that they're one play away from just getting gashed. So why he's very good at the line of scrimmage, for a big man, he has very sudden feet.
It's not just quick. It's quick and explosive. That's why I use the term "sudden." He's very hard to jam. He's very competitive at the moment of truth catching the ball in contested coverage. He runs very good routes. And he's diverse. This year he's very diverse as a route-runner. Last year there were four or five things he did well. Everything else is kind of not quite sure if he would be in the right spot at the right time. Now they move him around. He's very precise in his route-running. He's explosive after the catch. He catches the ball in all three levels of the defense. The first level, second level, third level. Creates a lot of fear for the defense.
Roddy, the best auxiliary receiver in the league because he really could be a 1. But in this offense, he serves as a 2. And he gets the benefit of a lot of that attention that Julio gets from the defense. They run a lot of stuff where Julio will take the top off the coverage, for lack of a better term, or generate a lot of interest by the defense and Roddy's explosive enough and crafty enough to find those spots. And then you add (Tony) Gonzalez on there, obviously there's middle-of-the-field attention. So Roddy is more of a space guy, he works well in the space for the defense. Julio is more of a guy that creates space in the defense.
Most of us have a tendency to lump Kaepernick in the group with RG III and Russell Wilson and some of the quarterbacks of that style. And that's probably true to some extent. I'm wondering is he unique in his own way compared to some of those guys?
TD: It's a great question. I'm a big believer in what separates the better players in the league is a unique trait. You just go any position in the NFL. You say, OK, what separates person A from person B. It's usually one dominant unique trait that he has, another guy doesn't have. You know, Colin, RG3, Russell Wilson, one thing they're all very similar in -- this is what I'm trying to keep hammering home to people -- is between the ears. They're very smart kids. They're very poised individuals. They're highly, highly competitive. Their competitive temperament is built for the position.
And that is more important than the physical skill sets. But I think what maybe makes Colin unique to the other two is he's got the thickness, kind of the strength of Russell Wilson in a 6-foot-6 frame with the foot speed of RG III. You don't see many athletes like that. Like people keep talking about Colin is going to get hurt like RG III got hurt. I've been next to Colin. I'm 6-4, 238, and he makes me look tiny. I mean, he is 6-5. He's huge. I mean, he has big, thick joints in his upper body. Big wrist. Big neck, big shoulders. Wide hips. I know he's got skinny legs, but he's a thick dude. Works very hard in the weight room. He's going to be durable.
That's what makes him unique physically is that he's not only a great foot athlete, but he's got the stature of a tight end that can take, that can absorb some punishment. So I'm blown away -- even when I studied him coming out of the draft, I was like he's different. I didn't want to say better. He was just different than anybody else you studied because of his physical makeup. And he had the mind to fit it as well.