Lane Kiffin’s Southern Cal Playbook and (Entertaining) UCLA Scouting Report

Lane Kiffin’s run at Southern Cal ended rather inauspiciously, but there are many who still respect his mind as an offensive coach, most notably his new boss at Alabama, Nick Saban.

Let me focus on this

Let me focus on this

Not only did Kiffin learn from his father, Monte, he also spent long hours at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ football facility studying and learning from Jon Gruden when his father coached under him in the early 2000s. At Southern Cal, Kiffin coached under Norm Chow, who brought with him a version of the old LaVell Edwards/BYU offense (via NC State), but Kiffin — as well as USC head coach Pete Carroll — wanted to update the attack with NFL concepts, specifically Gruden’s.

I recently stumbled on one of Kiffin’s old playbooks from when he was head coach at Southern Cal (really, a specific gameplan for their game in 2010 against UCLA). By this point Kiffin’s playbook is as much his own as it is what he learned from either Chow or Gruden, but you can still see the imprint in the plays — and in other more interesting ways, as we’ll see. For example, most of the running game and base passing game are all NFL and pro-style offense staples, though Kiffin had begun sprinkling in concepts he faced weekly from other teams in the Pac-12, like inside zone where the quarterback had the option to throw a bubble screen on the backside.

zonereadbubble

But this is all pretty standard stuff. The plays I really liked in this playbook were his goal line and short yardage passes, an area where I always thought Kiffin’s teams usually had nifty answers based on whatever his opponent liked to do in those scenarios, whether it was man-to-man across the board or some kind of short zones.

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Gus Malzahn Discusses How to Attack Nick Saban’s Alabama Defense

This is from a few months back, but is one of the best one of these such segments I’ve ever seen. Malzahn does a really good job explaining exactly what his thought process was and would be in attacking Saban (and Kirby Smart)’s great Alabama defense:

(H/t RBR.)

Attacking “Psycho” fronts and other blitz heavy defensive looks

When asked earlier this season how he would describe the current trend in modern defenses, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton summed it up in one word: “confusion.” While there are few truly “new” ideas in football, there is a near infinite number of ways to hide, disguise, or slightly vary those ideas. One increasingly popular idea in the NFL is the “psycho front“, which simply refers to a defense that has two, one or maybe even zero defensive linemen with their hands on the ground and tends to stack the line of scrimmage. This may mean the defense is bringing a heavy blitz — or it might not. Often, the defense will show this look and then back out of it into some kind of coverage.

The advantages of the pyscho are many, but the biggest key is that confusion Payton talked about: it’s difficult for the quarterback and offensive line to determine which of the potential rushers will blitz — other than through mind reading — and with so many of them there is a high likelihood that there will be an assignment bust. Further, although the defense might give away what deep coverage it is playing, it’s not clear what kind of underneath coverage it will be — man, zone, and if zone how many underneath? Two? Three? Four? These are real issues.

Of course, the psycho itself is just a spin on some scheme done before; the fact that a defensive lineman takes his hand off the ground doesn’t, by itself, change the defensive structure. Indeed, these same issues have been presented by NFL-style heavy blitz teams in the past. The problem presented in the image below is the same one as in the image above, as the defense shows a seven man defensive front while the offense has only the five linemen and one running back as pass protectors. If the offense uses some spread run game they can tilt the numbers slightly back to their favor, but it’s still a big issue.

So how do you attack these looks? Ultimately the offense will need the ability to protect and complete some passes downfield, but that’s not where I would begin. Below is a short list of ideas (in no particular order) to defeat these heavy or “psycho” fronts where the defense simultaneously threatens all-out man blitz, confusing zone blitz, and no blitz, all at once. Note that this is from the perspective of either a pro-style team or some kind of pass-first or pass-balanced spread team.

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Keep it simple, stupid – Paul Johnson edition

From the AJC:

Q: Is there a coach out there whose schemes you like to watch for ideas?

A: I don’t know if there’s any one person. We’ve had our system, and we’ve run it for a long time and we don’t change a whole lot. If somebody has some ideas on the staff, I might listen to ’em. They’d probably tell you I’m hard-headed. But we’ve done things a certain way and it’s been successful for the most part, so there’s not much use to changing.

Q: Do you doodle plays on napkins?

A: [Lifts a yellow legal pad with plays drawn on it.] That’s for this week. All these plays. This is my game plan for this week. That’s it right there.

Q: How many plays are there?

A: [Counting] 10. There’ll be base plays with it and I won’t run all that, but that’s just the ideas I’ve scribbled down in the last two days watching tape and [Tuesday], I’ll go in with the offensive staff and I’ll tell ’em, ‘OK, here’s what I got. What do you guys got? You’ve got anything you want to do?’ If they’ve got some ideas that I think will work, we’ll put ’em in, we’ll look at ’em this week and we’ll sort ’em out. That’s the way we do it.

Hat tip one and two.

Game planning (and game theory) wisdom from . . . Lane Kiffin

From the 2011 Nike Coach of the Year Clinic:

Each year we do a self-scout at the end of the year…. After the review, we could see where we made mistakes of adding plays that we did not have time to perfect. We have decided to stop running plays we add late in the week, and we do not have enough reps where our players feel comfortable running them. We may add a play to take advantage of a team that widens their 3-technique. We work on that all week, and when we get into the game, the opponent does not widen the 3-technique, and we have wasted a lot of time working on something we did not need.

I want to encourage you to stay away from doing that next season…. You will see something you think will work, and you think it will help you in the next game. You get to the game, and you see it does not work. You need to go back and call the plays the players know; just call them from a different formation.

What impact will (or should) Tom Moore have on the New York Jets offense?

Jets coach Rex Ryan, more comfortable with a more experienced Mark Sanchez, has promised to open up the Jets offense to throw the ball more this season. And there was some (meager) evidence of this in the Jets first preseason game, as George Bretherton writes over at the NYT Fifth Down:

Even if you took Rex Ryan at his word when he said the ground-and-pound Jets were going to throw the ball more this season, there were plenty of reasons to believe it wasn’t going to start with last night’s preseason opener against Houston . . .

[But t]he most notable outcome from the Jets’ 20-16 loss to the Texans was the quick pace set by Sanchez (6 of 7, 43 yards), who came out firing in his one-quarter cameo.

The move to throwing the ball more is one possible change for the Jets. The other is shrouded in a bit more mystery: In the offseason, the Jets hired longtime Colts assistant and Peyton Manning mentor, Tom Moore. Everyone involved insists it was not a vote of no confidence for current Jets offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer. Moore is 72 and will often not travel with the team this season, and Schottenheimer is a good coordinator who has done good things with both the Jets offense as a whole but also Sanchez in particular.

I've seen your playbook, and it's too big.

But there is lots of room for improvement, and Moore could be a key to that. Although Schottenheimer is a good young offensive coordinator, he suffers to some extent from good young offensive coordinator disease, which is a specific strain of a larger disease that affects large portions of the NFL: his offense often suffers from needless complexity. As I’ve previously explained, NFL offenses are typically cut from the same cloth and seek to do essentially the same things: the inside and outside zone runs, along with the power play and some counters, while the passing gameinvolves the quick game, some dropback concepts, plenty of play-action and a sprinkling of screens.

All that is fine, and there is a necessary layer of “micro” complexity where coaches must tinker with pass protections, route structures, and personnel and formations to get both the “matchup” they want (an overused term, as what you really want is not a particular one-on-one matchup but a numbers advantage of three on two or two on one, whether it is blocking or a pass route combination). Contrast this with college systems where more of the focus is on “macro” complexity in that you might face a pro-style team one week, a spread offense the next and then a triple option team after that. But the problem for pro coaches is that they often fall into the trap of complexity for its own sake, thinking that they must give a new look to the defense while forgetting that every time you add something new you make it just as hard on your own players as you do on your opponents. This is a trap I often see with Brian Schottenheimer’s offense, which, while generally very effective, often results in too many mistakes and breakdowns — all blamed on the players not getting it — when all they are doing is trying the fifth different way to throw it to the flat or to run yet another new play that hits in the same defensive gap as four others the players are more comfortable with. (Indeed, Rex Ryan recently went off on his players for their mental mistakes in that first preseason game.)

This issue, however, is solvable, and Tom Moore long ago figured it out.
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Playcalling doesn’t have to be difficult

Okay, so here’s a story for you. Kilff Kingsbury was our starter, and he was sort of conservative, you know? B.J. (Symons) knew what I wanted to audible to before I even said it, but Kilff was just careful like that. It was third and long against someone, and their corner was cheating way up. Kind of a cheat back, and then at the last second he’d pop up.”

“Well, we had good technique, and were pretty good getting off the line, so I called “Six,” or our call for four verticals. We had it, and I called it, and Kliff shook me off. Now most of the time I’m fine with quarterbacks shaking me off, but we had this, and I got mad and called time out and said some things to Kliff.”

He spits in the ocean, and continues.

“So Kliff goes out there, and I call “Six” again, and he shakes me off again, and now we get delay of game. It’s fourth down, and we’re on our own forty, but I just call it again and have some words with Kliff. We hit it against that corner cheating up for a touchdown, and Kliff comes up and starts yelling at me angry on the sideline: ‘FINE, FINE, ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? WE DID IT YOUR WAY, AND NOW ARE YOU HAPPY?’ And I was.”

That’s from Spencer Hall’s day on the boat with Mike Leach, who is bordering on overexposed right now. That said, the above anecdote is great, and does more (for me) to illuminate why he’s worth studying than all of the Adam James stuff. I have read his new book and do recommend it, and I plan to have more to say about it in the near future.

Why every team should install its offense in three days (and other political theories on coaching offense)

Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia’s new offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting, has frequently said that his entire record breaking offense can be installed “in three days.” And, now that his three days of spring practice are up, he said on day four his team will simply “start over,” and will run through this install period three or four times during the spring. Wait, what? Hasn’t Holgorsen been a part of record breaking offenses for more than a decade, including the last three (at Houston and then Oklahoma State) as head orchestrator? Doesn’t saying you can install your entire top tier Division-I men’s college football offense in three lousy days seem a little bit like, I don’t know, bullshit?

Entire offense, three days -- power through

It does, but only because “complexity” is too often accepted as an end in and of itself and because we undervalue gains from specialization. As Holgorsen says, “no one” in his offense will play more than one position; he doesn’t even want someone to play both “inside and outside receiver.” The idea is a simple one: with limited practice time and, to be honest, limited skills, kids need to focus on a few things and to get better at them — the jack of all trades is incredibly overrated. While Urban Meyer’s Florida offense thrived for a time with Tebow and his omnipositional teammate, Percy Harvin, I’d argue that this reliance on a “Percy Position” — a guy that can play most every skill position on offense — eventually does more harm than good. I’m all for getting the ball to playmakers in different ways, but I am not — and neither is Holgorsen — a fan of doing it to the detriment of repetitions and becoming a master at your given position. It’s nature versus nurture on the football practice field, and I side with nurture.

Put another way, if your offense is well designed you don’t need to move a guy around to get him the ball. As one of Holgorsen’s assistants at West Virginia explains:

“Wes Welker at Texas Tech caught over 100 balls two years in a row and he played ‘H,” Dawson said. Michael Crabtree caught over 100 (at Texas Tech) and he play ‘Z.’ I had two receivers back to back that caught over 100 and that played ‘X.’ Then I had a guy catch 119 that played ‘Y.’

“It just depends on where that guy lines up,” Dawson continued. “The ball finds the play makers. Regardless of where you line them up. The ball finds the play makers. That is just the way it works out.”

If you’re looking for the guiding principle here, it is not one specific to football. Instead, it is (at least) as old as the opening of the Wealth of Nations:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.
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How can a pass-first team score more touchdowns in the red zone?

I received this great question from a reader:

We run the Airraid offense, and we’ve noticed that it’s very easy to move the ball down the field to the 20 but then it gets really difficult as the field compresses. We can’t power run because that’s not what we do and it’s hard to throw a lot of stuff because the field is compressed. The options shrink dramatically. Any suggestions?

This falls into the “easier said than done” category, but at the risk of stating the obvious here are some thoughts.

First, and I think Dan Holgorsen has moved in this direction, is to take the philosophy that you need to just run the stinking ball into the end zone. Gus Malzahn (who runs a more run-oriented offense) recently said this was his goal line philosophy to a group of high school coaches. It’s not exactly what you do as an Airraid (or run and shoot, or one-back spread) team but you should have some kind of package — two-back power, that three back set Holgorsen uses, maybe use an H-back, or even a wildcat type deal — as it’s important to get the ball directly forward. I think a lead blocker is key in short yardage because the defense can cover your offensive linemen and thus free up their linebackers to fill. (I think a lead blocker is overrated on normal downs and distance, however, but obviously the advantages to the spread diminish as you get closer in.)

Second, you can create some kind of other little package for “scoring” plays. Georgetown College of KY used to do this. Here is an excellent article describing their methods. They were a true run and shoot team under Red Faught and the later staffs, but also developed this little short yardage special situations package where they used the Delaware Wing-T and a handful of plays off of it — some runs, a speed option, a shovel pass, bootleg, and so on. I think doing something like this is highly doable and doesn’t ruin the rest of your offense. You only need a few plays. They averaged something like 70 points a game over a few seasons. Don’t just say you’re going to be an I-formation team and run the other team over. The Delaware Wing-T thing worked because it was so weird — unbalanced set, wingback — but also completely consistent with their philosophy with all the misdirection and set-up plays despite not being the run and shoot stuff they ran the rest of the time.

Third, you just run your offense but try to find your three or four scoring plays. (more…)

First down means everything

According to an exhaustive study of NFL play data conducted by Yale professor Cade Massey, what happens on first and 10 in an NFL game is a powerful indicator of who will win.

According to Dr. Massey, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management, the ability of an NFL team to meet certain benchmarks on each down is one of the best predictors of whether a drive will be successful. When it comes to first down, he says, the magic number is four. That’s the number of yards Mr. Massey says teams need to gain on first and 10. Those that do, he says, are more likely to be successful in making a first down and keeping the drive alive.

. . . The four teams in Sunday’s playoffs have different approaches to first down—and rates of success. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who play the New York Jets Sunday for the AFC title, run the ball 55% of the time on first and 10 in the first three quarters of a game. (The fourth quarter isn’t included in the calculation because play-calling can be largely dictated by whether a team is ahead or behind). These runs by the Steelers rarely catch the opposing defense by surprise. . .  [T]he Steelers are daring the opposing team to try to beat them in a head-on collision.

. . . The Steelers have only managed to attain that magic mark of four yards or more on first downs 48% of the time—a number that puts them in the bottom half of the NFL. So far, the Steelers have been able to compensate for their lack of success on first downs by connecting on long passes on other downs. They’ve also excelled in the reverse role: Pittsburgh’s defense is the best in the league on first downs, holding opposing teams to less than four yards about 59% of the time.

. . . According to the numbers, the Jets are similar to the Steelers in that their first-down defense is better than their first-down offense. . . .

The Green Bay Packers rank No 2. in the NFL this season in recording successful plays on first and 10. The team also likes to pass on that down and distance 54% of the time—more than any other team in the playoffs and all but four in the NFL.

When Green Bay played the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Packers managed to run successfully on first and 10 early in the game with running back James Starks. But later in the game they began lining up in running formations—sometimes with two tight ends—and instead running play action passing plays. Those plays faked out the Falcons and led to big gains.

So who is likely to prevail? Green Bay is by far the best first-and-10 team left in the playoffs. But their opponents, the Chicago Bears, are also one of the best defenses at stopping offenses in that situation. . . .

Read the rest here. This is not a shocking result, but it’s possible to draw the wrong conclusion. I think the wrong answer is to pick plays that have extremely low variance at the expense of expected gain — i.e. the plunge into the line that, while it rarely loses yards, doesn’t average much, with the thought that you just want to avoid negative plays and want to get close to that four yard gain. As the chart below indicates, your probability of getting a first down in three plays depends far more on your expected gain than it does the variance.

chart

And, of course, game theory is relevant because you might significantly improve both your expected gain and variance on first down with simple consistent gainers, like runs off tackle, quick passes, and so on, by taking high variance chances, like play-action or some other kind of play that can significantly keep the defense off balance.

All that said, I think the upshot of Dr. Massey’s analysis is that most first down playcalling is not good, and too often puts the offense in a bad spot. If you show me a team that is good on first down, I’ll show you a good offense. Indeed, the best offenses look at it like they are playing under Canadian rules: if you only have two downs to get a first down, you approach the problem quite a bit differently. Third down shifts the burden away from the defense to the offense; better to avoid as many third downs as possible.