In my first season as a spectator and commentator on professional football, the biggest error in judgement I made was how I thought Casey Creehan would fare in Hamilton as a defensive co-ordinator.
During last year's CFL season preview show on TSN, I picked Hamilton, among many others, to win the Eastern division, due to a prolific offence and a defence that I thought would take a page out of Winnipeg's defensive dominance from 2011. While the Hamilton offence lived up to their billing, to say that the defence that Creehan presided over was disappointing, would be the understatement of the year.
The rationale behind my errant conclusion, was that when in doubt, the system would win out. I reasoned that the scheme we ran in 2011 was of the "plug and play" variety. That you could slot any professional calibre athlete into it, and it would at least be moderately successful, because the premise behind it was so simple and unorthodox. I could not have been more wrong, and I didn't give the Bomber personnel here nearly enough credit.
G.T.F.O. is the acronym that encapsulates this defence, and it stands for "Get the $$ off." The entire front seven is predicated on attacking and getting off of the line of scrimmage at the snap of the football. The goal is vertical penetration and disruption for the defensive line, with the linebackers playing downhill, fast and aggressively. There is no gap control or two-gapping, every player is aligned on a virtual track, and when run correctly, the upfield penetration is supposed to offset any over-reaching offensive play.
As was demonstrated by the CFL-leading, 2011 Winnipeg defence, it can be a devastating scheme when run properly and matched with the right players, but some of the principles it requires are counterintuitive to what many defenders have been taught their entire careers.
Staying on a virtual track is easier said than done when the offence is moving away from you, and your gap -- that of which you have always been responsible for -- is going in another direction.
In addition, "stopping the run on the way to the quarterback," another mandate of this defence, is something that has to be reprogrammed in most defensive linemen.
On potential running downs, defensive linemen are more hesitant and take shorter steps, because they are reacting to what unfolds in front of them, and don't want to be caught out of position. Suppressing these instincts can be a lengthy process, but once again, a requirement of this scheme.
When ran as intended, this scheme produces a lot of losses on first down, and puts the opposition in definite passing situations on second down.
What made the defence so effective in 2011 was the ability to consistently pressure the QB on second-and-long without blitzing and only four rushers, and thereby having eight defenders in coverage.
I spoke with a Tiger-Cat player that played on this defence in 2012, and after being exposed to the system all season, it was evident that he did not believe in its effectiveness. If only a few players don't buy in or believe what is being presented to them, no system has a chance of succeeding.
The other consideration that came from my discussion with this Hamilton player, was that, not really surprisingly, Creehan's abrasive, take-no-prisoners, in-your-face style of coaching, rubbed a number of players and staff the wrong way.
Creehan's demonstrative nature makes practice more exciting for the media and players alike, because he is so animated, so aggressive, and always one trigger away from a verbal or physical confrontation.
There are two schools of thought on this style of coaching. The first is that it is the perfect match for a defensive head coach. Defences require high levels of passion and energy to be effective, and the players have to walk a fine line between hostility and aggravated assault, so having a co-ordinator that embodies these traits can rub off. The other school of thought is that the chest thumping and bumping, tear a strip off someone, hard charging, machismo posturing is all show, and no go, and the players don't respond to it. I happen to think a balance between the two is ideal.
Whether the players didn't respond to Creehan's style of coaching in Hamilton, were ill equipped to be effective in the system he ran, or just didn't believe in it, Tim Burke and Casey Creehan, both coming off rookie seasons at their respective positions, must be confident that the different ingredients found in Winnipeg, will once again produce the kind of dominant play we witnessed in 2011.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays and game days in the Free Press.