Crowton to Maryland – What happened?

Gary Crowton will become the Maryland offensive coordinator. At one time Crowton was on the cutting edge of offense, namely back in 1997 and 1998 when he was at Louisiana Tech. Famously, Tim Rattay threw for over 3,900 and then for over 4,900 yards in ’97 and ’98, respectively, while leading receiver Troy Edwards had over 400 (400!) yards receiving at Nebraska, at a time before Bill Callahan became the coach. But somehow Crowton went from this:

To this:

Too much Crowton?

The hint, however, may have come from back in his LaTech days, as described in this Sports Illustrated profile of Tim Rattay:

Rattay also liked Crowton, the mastermind behind what some people in football call a “global offense” for its anything-goes approach to moving the ball. As a journeyman assistant, Crowton studied under LaVell Edwards, Mike Holmgren and Tom Coughlin, among others, and at Tech he has established his reputation as a formation geek who really likes to chuck the ball. Having run out of numbers with which to label his plays, Crowton, who became head coach in 1996, turned to the heavens for inspiration. “We’ve got formations called Moon, Sun, Stars and Mars,” he says. “Something we did looked like a star, so I called it that. I know our offense is unique, and people are starting to take notice. We had about 200 college coaches come visit last year to learn what we’re doing.”

That’s all well and good, but when Auburn’s Gus Malzahn talks about having only ten base plays — four runs and six passes — maybe less is more. Indeed, when it comes to installing more offense (and defense), there is such a thing as subtraction by addition. But Crowton remains a bright guy, so hopefully he can streamline his system for that Maryland team. Remember, the Maryland fans almost had Mike Leach, and he only has about twenty plays and four or five formations. It worked for him.

Limiting possessions key to victory?

Chase, from the comments:

I agree that blitzing is not necessarily a good underdog strategy, because limiting possessions seems to be the biggest underdog key. People talk about controlling the clock, but that doesn’t make any sense in a vacuum. When Miami held the ball for over three times as long as the Colts in that Monday Night game last year, people talked about how brilliant it was to keep Manning off the field for 45 minutes.

But the Colts and Dolphins had the same number of possessions in the game, so who cares? The point isn’t to hold the clock, the point is to minimize variance. That’s the real advantage of controlling TOP, but giving up a ton of big plays on defense and having a methodical offense won’t help you win games no matter how great your TOP is.

So what can an underdog do?

(1) There is one real way to win the all-important possessions battle: control the ball at the end of each half. Combined with other possessions-minimizing techniques, you could end up with 9 possessions to your opponent’s 8 possessions, which is a legitimately valuable edge. If you get the ball with 8 minutes left, it probably makes sense to start thinking about a 2-for-1 with possessions. If you get it with 5 minutes left, figure out if you should go 2-for-1 or if you can drain all 5 minutes. With 3 minutes left, you have to ensure that you have the ball last. Do that in both halves, and you’ve stolen a possession (ideally, scoring a TD with as close to triple zeroes as possible).

(2) Going for it on 4th down is another obvious underdog strategy. In addition to it being a legitimate favorite strategy — going for it on 4th down is the correct play far more often than conventional wisdom dictates, and the correct player is almost always a good favorite strategy — it helps increase variance.

(3) Kicking field goals is almost certainly a loser. Going for it on 4th and G from your opponent’s 10 may not sound like a great idea, but even if you only gain 5 yards, odds are you will prevent the other team from scoring. The more times you can force your opponent to start drives inside their own 10, the better, because research shows that teams are overly conservative in that area. Only in blatantly obvious FG situations should an underdog kick — punting and trying to pin inside the 5 is also a good strategy.

(4) On defense, I think bend but don’t break is the correct strategy. If you can force the opponent to chew up clock and kick a FG, that’s a big win. Chewing up clock conquers all, I think. Once again, the goal should be 9 possessions to 8. Although obviously TOs would be very nice.

(5) On offense, chewing up clock is good but scoring touchdowns is better. I think whatever play is TD-maximizing, whether it’s going for it on 4th down, being run heavy, being pass heavy, being trick-play heavy, whatever, is the goal. A flea-flicker that goes for a 60-yard TD might turn it into a 10-to-9 possessions game, but who cares if you score a TD on that possession?

(6) On offense, I think a modified no-huddle offense following plays where the clock is running is the key. Following a run or completion that lands in bounds (or out of bounds before the clock stops in the final 5 mins), the offense should immediately run up to the LOS to prevent the defense from substituting. Then, they should simply milk the clock for the full 40 seconds (with some variance so defenders can’t time the snap) by doing whatever. Actually calling the play, wasting time, twiddling their thumbs, it doesn’t matter. But preventing defensive substitutions would seem to be a strong underdog strategy.

(7) Special teams would be the overlooked key here. Winning the field position battle, the hidden yardage in football, is an easy way to level the playing field.

My only question: Is it more important for an underdog to limit the overall number of possessions or the relative number of possessions (or both?). This analysis seems to indicate that there are too few onside kicks. For more, see also here and here and here.

But, see this surprising result:

… The team receiving the ball [at the beginning of the first half] consistently lost the half (except in 2008)…. The receiving team will have as many possessions if not one more than the kicking team [during that half]. Yet the data clearly show that the kicking team has won more game halves than the receiving team….

I next ran the data to see how teams receiving the ball at the start of the second half succeeded. The data show the game results of the team receiving the ball in the second half. Again, the team kicking to open the second half won more games than the receiving team.

Breaking down Boise: How the Broncos use leverage, numbers and grass to gash the opposition

[Ed. Note: The following article was written by my friend Mike Kuchar, who, when not writing incredibly informative articles, is the defensive coordinator at North Brunswick Township High School in New Jersey.]

It’s no secret that Boise State knows how to move the football — its 42 points per game last season led the nation — but it’s exactly how Boise moves the ball that makes them unique.  I became privy to this information when I spent a week with the Virginia Tech coaching staff back in early April as they prepared for their opener against the Broncos, a September 6 bout at Fed Ex field pitting two top ten teams against each other.  Indeed, the mere fact that Va Tech’s staff was breaking film down more than five months before gameday tells you something profound about how much respect Boise head coach Chris Petersen’s offense commands. I sat with Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray and defensive graduate assistant Steve Canter (who has since become Norfolk State’s QB coach) as they scouted Boise State’s games against Tulsa, Nevada, Fresno State and finally TCU last season.  Canter was given the important but not-so-glamorous task of charting every snap that Boise took on offense last year.  And after just a few minutes of watching tape with them my head began to spin, but Canter couldn’t spare to take his eyes off the screen.

To me, every play seemed like an entirely different scenario — a tiny but perfect little strategic masterpieces carved out by Petersen and his offensive staff for that situation alone.  While I struggled just to follow the ball (apparently the filmer in the press box had the same problem, as the camera often got faked out along with the defensive end or safety Petersen targeted) Canter diligently worked his craft, jotting each down and distance, all the personnel used, every formation, any motion and play. It’s a process he’s engrossed himself in as a former head coach himself: he mentored Vikings receiver Percy Harvin at nearby Landsdown High School (Virginia) and won a state championship in 2004. He’s earned the respect of defensive coordinator Bud Foster, one of the best defensive minds in the game. “[Boise] tr[ies] to do a ton of different things, but there has to be a reason for what they are doing,” said Canter.

Five months and a dozen scratch pads later, I’m not sure that the Hokies have Boise all figured out yet, but knowing Foster, they’ve certainly gotten some insight on them.  I took all the information from that visit and — mainly out of curiosity for my own purposes as a coach to see how a great offense works and how a great defense might prepare — to thoroughly study what Boise State does on the offensive side of the ball.  Once the studying was complete, I compiled a detailed and definitive report on what makes Boise, well…Boise. And more importantly, what the Hokies must do to win.

Personnel

“Maximizing personnel,” one of those football buzzwords that sounds like it was invented by Peter Drucker, is nevertheless essential to making an offense dynamic — and arguably nobody in the college game knows how to do it better than Petersen.  He learned it from his days working as the offensive coordinator under previous head coach Dan Hawkins where his direction thrust little known talents RB Ian Johnson and QB Jared Zabransky onto the college football landscape in 2006. [Ed. Note: Petersen also credits former Southern Cal head coach and longtime NFL offensive coordinator Paul Hackett for his football development, along with the time he spent under Mike Bellotti at Oregon where he worked alongside Dirk Koetter and Jeff Tedford.] Boise doesn’t always have the Tarzan’s on film — they don’t bang heads with the Oklahomas and Floridas in the recruiting wars — but they don’t need to.  Petersen is schooled in the art of allocation: he wants to best utilize the talent he has.  For example, five-foot-nine senior running back James Avery, rushed for 1,151 yards last season for the Broncos.  He’s not the fastest, but he’s elusive with an explosive burst. “He’s not the fastest guy in the world, you rarely see him get long runs” said Virginia Tech’s Gray.  “But like most Boise backs he has terrific start and stop skills; he can change direction quickly and he knows how to read blocks.”

Chris Petersen: smart guy, smart slacks

Avery is a patient, zone style back who looks for creases in defensive fronts. His skills are modeled after guys like Ian Johnson who had a stellar career running the same zone type runs.  Of course, it helps when those blocks are created by an offensive line that only surrendered five sacks last season.  And that success against the pass rush must be attributed to their knowing their protection assignments when picking up various blitz packages that teams throw at them at a weekly basis. In the Fiesta Bowl last season, TCU appeared to be in dial-a-blitz mode for most of the first half but still couldn’t get to Boise quarterback Kellen Moore, before largely giving up that approach as Moore never got flustered.  He knew where the weakness in his protection were and found a way to escape at the right times to avoid losses.

Moore is another anomaly: not scary on paper, frightening on film. Despite being barely six-feet tall, he has tremendous presence in the pocket.  He knows exactly where to escape when the pocket collapses and often finds receivers downfield simply because the defensive backs got tired of covering.  He’s quick and decisive with the ball — he threw only three interceptions in 431 attempts last season. His career completion percentage has been in the mid 60%s, he finished seventh in Heisman voting and was the WAC offensive player of the year.  His main target, senior Austin Pettis, had 63 catches from virtually every spot on the field: flanker, slot, split end and even out of the backfield; Petersen loves moving his chess pieces around.  Referring to Pettis, Virginia Tech’s Gray said: “He’s their tallest guy at 6-3 and they move him around a ton,” adding, “In the red zone, he’s lethal.”  Indeed, Pettis had 14 touchdowns last season, mainly on bootleg schemes — a Boise favorite in that part of the field.

Schemes

Boise State’s linebacker coach, Jeff Choate, once told me at coaching clinic two years back, “We run plays, we don’t have an offense.  It makes it difficult to defend.”  At that time he was working with the running backs.  Before this project, I wondered how an offense can’t be a system.  Coordinators pride themselves on establishing identities: “It’s what we do” is a common mantra among the coaching profession.  Urban Meyer at Florida has his spread option, Chip Kelly at Oregon has his QB run game, Steve Sarkasian at Washington has his pro-style offense that he developed at USC. Well, apparently Boise was the Seinfeld of college football — their lack of identity is their identity.  Although I may not have understood it then, the method behind this apparent lack of cohesion became much clearer to me after hours of study.

Boise specializes in getting defenses out of position to make plays by utilizing the three major essentials in offensive football:  numbers, leverage and grass.  “Numbers” means outnumbering the defense at the point of attack — i.e. more blockers than defenders on the edge, more receivers than zone defenders, etc.  “Leverage” refers to out-flanking a defense at the point of attack — i.e. you may not have numbers but the angles are on your side.  “Grass” harkens to Willie Keeler’s baseball adage, “hit ‘em where they ain’t.”  Run the ball where there are the fewest defenders.  As it turned out, Choate was right: Boise spends more time on distracting you then developing themselves.  But don’t get confused: the point is that although the Broncos have the talent to be one of the best teams in the country and could simply overrun certain opponents, their modus operandi is to be patient and to take what the defense gives them — a true reflection of Petersen, their coach.  The quintessential underdog philosophy, they wear you down by picking at four and five yard gains until they pop a big one.   Watching them on film, it’s never surprising they score, but to a football junkie, the methodology of how they score is a work of art.  Basically, Boise uses three distinct ways to score: (1) pre-snap leverage by the use of formation, (2) post-snap misdirection and (3) calling the unexpected — the dagger after lulling you to sleep.

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Can the West Coast Offense be taught anywhere besides the NFL?

Is it possible to run the “West Coast Offense” — the offense credited to Bill Walsh and those of his “coaching tree” — at any level other than the NFL? The answer is not necessarily clear. Indeed, despite being the most prevalent offense in the NFL, the WCO seems designed to overwhelm any college or high school team attempting to install it, whether from the voluminous playbook, playcalls that sound like something from NASA, or the difficult throws that only NFL guys can make. Despite its wonderful aspects and results, there’s a reason that many a high school coach with the best of intentions has junked the West Coast Offense after a few miserable games to return to some simpler and more trusted approach that has the advantage of being something his kids can actually do.

west coast

One, two, three, throw

Yet it must be possible to run the west coast offense at the lower levels, isn’t it? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because the most important elements of the offense can definitely be applied to the lower levels, while Jon Gruden’s extensive call sheets can be left aside. The no is just that: you won’t be able to run every formation, motion, and play in Holmgren’s Packers playbook, but fortunately you don’t have to. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about installing the WCO. The wrong way is to download a WCO playbook and try to install Walsh’s verbatim. That approach is also known as suicide. Instead, to use the offense at the lower levels (including college)  — or even to merely understand why the WCO and is such a good offense — it’s necessary to focus on the offense’s core principles.

1. Timing-based, ball control passing game. Routes are timed to match receiver steps and quarterback steps, with a healthy mix between 3-step and 5-step drops. It’s not about long bombs (though it has these too), but instead about efficiency. This is probably Walsh’s defining legacy. Most of Walsh’s plays existed before he came around — you can find Paul Brown and Sid Gillman using them, among others — but Walsh’s passing game exploded because he was essentially the passing game’s first risk manager. Although quarterbacks had long been able to sling the ball — for example, Joe Namath threw for over 4,000 in 1967 — Walsh’s quarterbacks became great by what they didn’t do: they didn’t throw incompletions (Walsh’s quarterbacks consistently completed over 60% of their passes, and occasionally closer to 70%), they didn’t throw interceptions (the interception rate per pass attempt went way down) ; and they didn’t take sacks, owing to Walsh’s meticulousness about their not holding on to the ball too long.

To compare this to the prior generation of signal callers, in 1977 the Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl despite Ken Stabler’s 20 interceptions; in 1978 the Steelers won the Super Bowl despite Terry Bradshaw’s 20 interceptions; and, in 1978, the Steelers won the Super Bowl and won more games … despite the fact that Bradshaw threw 25 interceptions. (In 2009, only three quarterbacks threw 20 or more interceptions: two rookies, Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez, and Jay Cutler, who had some issues in that department.) Moreover, if you roll the relevant passing stats together you get a useful stat called “Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt,” which averages how many yards are achieved per passing attempt (which usefully combines completion percentage and average yards gained per completion), with the adjusted part being the subtraction of yards to account for interceptions. Pro-Football-Reference.com has an in house version of Adj. YPA quite similar to what I’ve described, and the upshot is that Walsh’s quarterbacks, Montana and Young, average between one and a half and two adjusted yards per pass attempt more than Hall of Famers from an older generation, like Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Stabler, Bob Griese, and so on. The difference was the efficiency, the careful approach, and the timing.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying that it’s really important to focus on the details. It’s one thing to say that the WCO “treated short passes like runs” and used a “ball control approach to the passing game,” but it’s another to make pass plays so routine that they really become as second nature to the players as a handoff off-tackle. You do that through intense drill-work and matching routes, reads, and drops.

2. Meticulous gameplanning. If his legacy is not about reducing the risks of throwing the ball through a disciplined approach, it is by revolutionizing how coaches prepare for games through simple organization: scripting plays, analyzing tendencies, self-scouting, probing defenses to look for weaknesses, and so on. As with his plays, none of Walsh’s innovations here were truly new, but his approach obviously worked because not only was his success outsized but so has been the success of those who coached with him — those that were able to observe his methods.  Applied to the lower levels, it is about having a plan for gameplanning, designing practices around what actually happens in games and using as many “situational” or “game-like” scenarios as possible, and treating the creation of the scripted plan and playcall sheet as tools to be organized during the game (when you have the least time to think and things are craziest). You don’t need to produce 200 page scouting reports (like this one which Mike Shanahan and co. made for the Denver Broncos as they prepared for the Indy Colts in 2002) but the creation of a thorough plan will make you a better coach and will make your practices more focused on the things that matter.

3. “Balance” between running versus passing. Now, I have written a lot about notions of balance but and how I don’t think traditional notions — an equal number of runs or passes or an equal amount of passing and rushing yardage — is a useful way to think about the concept. But there is no doubt that the West Coast Offense wants to be balanced in a meaningful way: the defense must fear both the run and the pass. Now, again, the WCO is a pass-first offense, so I think the best way to think about whether your team has sufficient balance is to contrast the offense with offenses that don’t care about balance, like the Airraid teams or run-heavy option squads. And the best way I know of to determine that is to ask whether the play-action pass is a legitimate threat. For many pass-first spreads, the play-action pass is a non-starter because the run is an afterthought. But it is also the main source of the West Coast Offense’s explosive plays.

Indeed, Walsh as Walsh explained:

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Sean Payton breaks down his Super Bowl script

From the New Orleans Times-Picuyane, via reader Justin. Sean Payton discusses several plays, including four verticals and stick.

Below is a diagram of the second play the Saints run in the video above. The second video in the series (which is the more informative of the two videos) can be found after the jump.

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