I recall a time in my early teens when I participated in a judo club, a small one whose regular competition was one of the largest and most proficient judo clubs of its era. Our competition, in a period when no one had a black belt higher than sixth degree, had a fourth degree black belt, and whose club officers tended to be officers at the national level in the United States Judo Association. Having come to my full height, but not my build, I was tall and awkward, and in matches, tended to be paired with younger members of the better club. Those men were smaller, lighter, faster, more skilled and more nimble. I lost a lot of matches before I ever won one.

When I finally won, it was because my opponent was clearly out of balance. He was afraid of my legs, and was leaning into me as we took hold of each other. It was over in seconds. I executed a clean sacrifice throw. I slipped under him, the arch of my right food cut off his left ankle and he rolled across the mat. It wouldn’t have been possible if my opponent hadn’t been out of position.

An ancient “packaged play”. You run if the cornerback follows the flanker. You pass if the cornerback forces the run.

Oversimplifiying a little, skill in judo is being able to recognize what an opponent is doing and using what he is doing against him. In a real match, seldom is it as easy as beating an opponent off the bat. You have to recognize what the opponent is doing in the match and counter appropriately. Counters in football are old, and perhaps the most accessible explanation of an offensive system and the appropriate counter responses is the set “Vince Lombardi on Football.” In it, they mention the halfback option, a single wing play carried over into the strong side offense of Vince Lombardi’s Giants and Packers teams. We’re going through this long introduction to add a nuance to Chris Brown’s phenomenal discussion of packaged plays, which take the essential idea of judo, and also the halfback pass option, and shows how using an opponent’s own reactions against him are now at the forefront of modern football.

Understand, in an traditional option, as in the modern packaged plays, which way the play goes depends on how the play turns out. There are keys and the offense is reading (keying) on the defense. This isn’t the same thing as an audible. When trying to explain packaged plays to folks who have never read Chris’s article, the most common mistake is to think these plays are audibles. An audible is a pre-snap adjustment of a play. A “packaged play” is a play with 2 or 3 options with built in reads after the play begins.

The thing that makes these plays interesting, is the imaginative combination of run and pass options, with passes to isolate and pick on the reactions of specific defenders. To imagine one combination, think of a strong side run combined with a curl in by X in a pro split T, strong right. The quarterback reads the outside linebacker and left cornerback to see which way to go. It’s potentially a way to exploit an overpursuing linebacker.

I find these notions pretty exciting, another rachet up in the cat and mouse game that dominates offense and defense. I can’t help but feel that better play design is a substantial component of the offensive explosion of the past few years. The idea that “players are getting bigger” can’t entirely account for this; they’re getting bigger on both sides of the ball. Game video should benefit both sides. But if we’re in the middle of a new kind of play design, one that can isolate players at will and make their own natural reactions the enemy, then that kind of play design could in fact be “the thing” that’s powering the offenses of the 2010s.