At both the AYF and Pop Warner National Championships there are many very good youth football teams that have dominated their opponents throughout the season. Several coaches I spoke to quoted their impressive records and point totals that bordered on the absurd. One coach was 15-0 with a 510-6 point total, another was 14-0 with a 456-14 point total.
While this isn’t necessarily the rule, there were plenty of teams that for whatever reason had ruled their fiefdoms with an iron fist and had experienced very little adversity prior to the tournament. Several coaches told me they had not punted at all the entire season, several others mentioned they had punted 2 times or fewer. At least 30 coaches said they had not trailed in a game all year. I like to call these teams “gorilla” teams, they rule the jungle and have no legitimate threat to their control of their jungle. They dominate their competition and many times they face teams that are defeated mentally before they ever take the field, due to the gorilla teams appearance or the gorilla teams reputation.
However, when most gorilla teams get to Florida, they find there are other gorillas just as talented as themselves who have little or no fear of facing other gorillas. I saw one gorilla Pee Wee team at the Pop Warner tournament, seemingly well coached on both offense and defense and with very good athletes, struggle to move the ball against another gorilla team. On their first punt, they barely got it off and it went just 12 yards, giving their opponent very good field position. On their next punting situation- 4th and 6 from their own 40, they decided to go for it and didn’t make it. On the next possession on 4th and 7 they booted a 14 yard kick. On another possession, they had 4th and 9 and faked the punt, it was an awful attempt, both the kicker and the player they were short snapping to were just a yard apart, it fooled no one and the snap was bad, the other team recovered and went in to score. On their last punting situation, they were 4th and 11 from their own 20 yard line. Since they punted so poorly and their fakes were just as bad, they decided to go for it and were stuffed to seal their fate.
This game was being played on one side of the field for the entire game due to poor punting of the one team and pretty good punting by the opponent. The opposing team was consistently getting 30 yards on their punts or were just going for it on fourth down because of the field position they had. The winning team was able to take a few more chances due to field position, whereas the losing team couldn’t dig very deep into their playbook. In the end the punting game was the deciding factor in this game which was decided by one touchdown.
Neither team was able to move the ball very well, but on each exchange the one team was gaining 20 yards or more of field position, which in the end won them the game. It was very obvious the losing team had not punted much during their season if at all. They didn’t need to, but they had obviously failed to perfect it for the day they might need it.
The same is true of some blocking scheme adjustments. Like any youth football league with about 100 teams, our league has very good teams, good teams, average teams and poor teams, the coaching runs the gamut. Depending on the schedule, we may have a good number of teams where we can run our base 12-14 plays with our regular blocking rules and schemes and win handily if we execute well and our players technique and effort are near potential. However there are always teams that are bigger, faster and better than us on the schedule, if not during the regular season, then in the playoffs or when we play out of conference in tournaments. Against the teams you bully, things like traps, influence plays, false pulls, wrong waying, key breaker plays or screens may not be effective at all. When you play teams that have players that do not play aggressively or are not coached well, those type of plays or tactics often times fail miserably, because those players are going to respond and play differently than well coached or aggressive players. The danger is, once you run a wrong way pull or key breaker play and it doesn’t work well against the weaker team, the coaching staff and players lose confidence in the play or adjustment and it is either put on the backburner or tosses altogether.
In many leagues the rules also prevent you from developing your teams for title runs. Many leagues mercy rules prevent you from working and developing aspects of your game that you will need once you are playing on a bigger stage. There are very few teams that are winning National Championships without a legitimate pass threat or great special teams. I’m not talking about going Air Raid and throwing 70% of the time, I’m talking about being able to threaten the field with the potential of a completed pass that will net 20 yards or more. In many leagues once you are up by 3-4 touchdowns you are not allowed to throw the football. These mercy rules are well intended and needed in many places where coaches are out of control, but they can also hinder team development.
What to do? If you think your team can be a league or National Title contender, you have to perfect parts of the game that you may not need until you face another gorilla. You MUST perfect those parts of the game you didn’t need to beat the weaker or average opponent with, that means committing practice time to it. If you have a title contending youth football team, you may need to play a game within a game. To work on your punting game, when ahead by 3-4 scores, go ahead and punt on third down to get the practice. In games where you feel confident your team has the upper hand, start throwing the ball earlier than you normally do or on downs you normally wouldn’t throw the ball on. Use your influence or false pulls/wrong waying even though your base plays are working extremely well. Keep the end goal in mind which is not only beating your opponent today, but winning the last game against another gorilla. If you are controlling the game on offense, put your weaker players in earlier on defense to keep the score differential tight enough not to go into mercy rule so you can work on your offense and special teams. I don’t get caught up in the final score, I could care less about shut outs, my goal is to prepare the team to it’s full potential and to win that final big game.
To win on the big stage, in most cases you are going to need all the tricks in your bag to beat the other gorillas in the jungle. Before every game take a few moments off to the side away from everything to think about your end goals, don’t get caught up in the moment and excitement of the game that day. Write some of the things you need to work on, on your play sheet to help remind you. My game three sheet said: Punt, Wrong, Burst 43 G, Buck, Smoke Pass, all things we were going to need later in the season. There were spots in that game where I was able to work in all five of those points of emphasis. When you get to that final game you will be glad you invested the time to fully prepare for that opponent, often times it will be the difference maker.
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