I particpated in this week’s Slate/Deadspin roundtable, and my topic was — wait for it — Tim Tebow:
In the last two weeks, in victories over Oakland and Kansas City, the Broncos ran for 299 yards and 244 yards. Meanwhile, the top rushing team in the NFL (the Philadelphia Eagles) averages merely 172 yards per game on the ground. Denver’s grind-it-out performance against the Chiefs on Sunday was especially surprising given that the Broncos’ top two running backs, Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, had to leave with injuries, and third-stringer Lance Ball gained only 96 yards. So how did the Broncos succeed? By mixing in traditional runs and college-style read plays, sometimes even using receiver Eddie Royal as a third option as a pitch man after he’d gone in motion.
Television football pundits often say this stuff can’t work for long in the NFL because pro defenses are too fast, and that they will just “load the box” and play “assignment” football against the reads and options. While there’s truth in this cliché, stopping Denver’s Tebow-ized offense is much more complicated than that. Football is governed as much by arithmetic as it is by physics. Though each side gets 11 guys, the defense “gains” a defender when Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers hands the ball off and does nothing but watch the running back. The Patriots and Packers can get away with this because they are a threat at any moment to fake a handoff and throw downfield. That’s why the base defense for most NFL teams includes two deep defenders, safeties who are a lot more useful at defending passes than they are at stopping the run.
Read the whole thing at Slate and Deadspin. Thanks to the guys at both spots for thinking of me for participating.
Given that humans lack clairvoyance, there is no such thing as the perfect play-caller and thus much of the development in football strategy has centered on how to get into (or out of) a given play because the defense is well suited to defend the one that was called. Indeed, quarterbacks have called audibles at the line of scrimmage for decades, and a few years ago the hot idea was calling multiple plays in the huddle.
Let's not make this too complicated
Most famously, Peyton Manning was supposedly given three plays to choose from on every down, though this was likely a bit of hyperbole. Calling two plays in the huddle remains very common, however. The method for this is simple: Two plays are called in the huddle, and then at the line the quarterback either confirms the first play (usually by saying a color) or “killing” the first play which indicates that the second will be run (by saying “kill” at the line). For example, the quarterback might call “Red Right [formation] 24 Wham [run to the right] and 70 curl [pass play].” At the line he’ll either say the confirming word (i.e. “Black! Black!”) or will kill that play so they can run the pass play (i.e. “Kill! Kill!”).
That’s all well and good, but is still cumbersome and, most importantly, the defense can still make the offense wrong after the quarterback has made his decision at the line. Moreover, with the rise of no-huddle offenses, there aren’t as many opportunities to call multiple plays at the line and have the quarterback check into one or another. The name of the game for defenses is confusion and movement, and even at the lower levels you never know how a kid might react. Increasingly, the answer to this has been to package concepts together, such that the quarterback has different options depending on what the defense does after the snap. I previously discussed packaging quick passes with five-step or dropback passes together. This is a great concept, but is quarterback intensive: the quarterback has to look for the quick pass and then reset his feet with depth and then go through another progression — not something every quarterback can do.
The answer has been to combine plays but to simplify the reads for the quarterback. There are three main forms this concept can take: (1) a base run play with a simple pre-snap backside pass concept built in; (2) quick passes combined with a draw play; and (3) quick passes combined with a screen pass. I’ll discuss each in turn.
I like to often say that football is a simple game, and in that vein coaches, when designing offensive plays, have really only two choices: To change where the players begin (the formation), and where they’ll end up (the play design). Formations are often more important than plays, but also should be easier to get right: The guy should stand where he was told to stand. But they’re still fun to play with, and the past couple of seasons have seen some interesting wrinkles.
Probably the most famous new formation came about from the world’s smallest adjustment: Moving a runningback over a couple of feet. But no one calls it that; instead, they call it the “PISTOL OFFENSE” (all caps). Of course, announcers like to say a team is using the “PISTOL OFFENSE” (all caps) whenever the runningback lines up in the pistol, but really only a handful of teams use the set in anything that can be called an “offense” in the sense of a fully robust system, Nevada, of course, being among them with a mixture of downhill I-formation plays from the shotgun with options like the speed option and the veer play.
But I’ve been kind of down on the “Pistol” as something broad or novel, because most teams that have used it are still one-back teams and all they’ve done is move the runningback around a little, which is something good teams like Oregon or others were doing anyway, just not from the pistol. The real advantage of the pistol (the formation, not the offense), however, comes when you add a second back to the backfield. In the image below, West Virginia actually goes with three backs (more on that in a bit), but the point is simply that you can align a fullback (or two fullbacks) to add a strength to the formation.
A bit of overcrowding?
Now, West Virginia didn’t have much luck with the three back set, but the idea is a good one:
No matter what offense you run, it’s important to have counters. In the video clip below, legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs shows his “crack toss sweep” counter to an overloaded defense. The idea is that, if you’re successful running to the power side of the formation, defenses will often overload that side, specifically by playing man coverage and flopping their cornerbacks to cover your two split receivers, thus keeping both the numbers as well as the better run support defenders to the strong side. One possible counter is the old counter trey play, which has the advantage of getting extra linemen at the point of attack but has the disadvantage of being slow. Gibbs shows (flip to the end for the film cut-ups) a “crack” toss where one of the wide receivers cracks down on the defensive end while the playside linemen pull and lead to the outside. It’s a great, easy to install changeup.
But as Coach Gibbs notes, it’s not quite as good against zone, a primary reason being that it doesn’t necessarily account for the linebackers as opposed to just the defensive end to the pitch side. Moreover, as fast as the toss is it’s not that quick. That’s why I prefer, instead of the crack toss, a “crack screen” play. This play is faster, which then has the added benefit of better numbers at the point of attack because the offense shouldn’t need to block the defensive end as he will be outflanked.
Before the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Airraid or the Urban Meyer spread-to-run, there was the old, original “one-back” offense. The man who is considered the father of the one-back and did the most to popularize it is Dennis Erickson, who doesn’t even run it anymore at Arizona State, having given the reins of his offense over to Noel Mazzone, who runs a kind of hybrid with the Airraid offense filtered through a former NFL assistant’s viewpoint. But the one-back has a storied legacy in football, both in that it paved the way for the 2000s, the decade of the spread, but also as an incredible offense in its own right. Erickson has explained the origins of the offense:
The one-back worked for me
“The ingenuity [Jack Elway] had offensively has spread throughout the country and has certainly had an influence on my strategy and my coaching,” Erickson said. “Obviously, he (Elway) was a pioneer of all that stuff, and used it before a lot of others.”Erickson said the first to use the spread offense was Jack Neumeier at Granada Hills, where John Elway played his high school football. Jack Elway then used it at Cal State Northridge and brought it to San Jose State.
Neumeier was a high school coach who wanted to open up his offense back in the 1970s and began splitting out extra receivers to do so. Both Jack and John Elway, then a young high schooler, wanted John to play somewhere that would showcase his talents as a quarterback in an age when everyone wanted to out-muscle everyone and so John enrolled at Granada. Granada’s offense got rolling as it was based on three excellent concepts:
One-back formations with extra split receivers to open up passing and running holes in the defense.
Option routes where receivers had the freedom to alter their route depending on the coverage.
Having John freaking Elway as your high school quarterback.
Although undoubtedly already convinced of the wisdom of #3, Jack Elway saw the wisdom of #1 and #2 and realized that maybe the most advanced offensive mind in the game that he knew in 1976-78 was a high school coach in Granada. So Jack began spreading guys out and using what became the “one-back.”
Dennis Erickson served as Jack Elway’s offensive coordinator for three years at San Jose State, before later becoming a head coach at Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State and later Miami. During that time he coached with a number of other one-back gurus, including future head coaches John L. Smith, Mike Price and Joe Tiller (not to mention future NFL head coach/offensive coordinator Scott Linehan). It was during this time that Erickson solidifed the one-back’s offensive package, based on several important principles:
One-back formations, with the base being three wide-receivers, one tight-end and one runningback. (Other coaches would put different spins on it, whether with four receivers or two tight-ends.)
Probably the best exemplar of the one-back in its prime was the 1997 Washington State squad led by then coach Mike Price and quarterback Ryan Leaf. History was not particularly kind to either man (though nicer to Price as after his Alabama debacle he’s been the coach at UTEP since 2004), but for that season the results speak for themselves: PAC-10 champ, 42 points per game and over 500 yards of offense per game. And let me say it again: They did this at Washington State.
That season Price employed a lot of formations but he used the “double slot” the most: two receivers to either side of the quarterback along with one running back. Many now will recognize this as the basic spread formation (though Leaf was usually under center rather than in the shotgun), but back then it was somewhat of a novelty. Price used it because of its then relative rarity, but also for practical reasons: Washington State’s fourth wide receiver was better than its tight-end.
What kind of offense should you (or do you) run? A typical responses sounds something like: “I run a system with bubble screens, play action passes, screens, and draws.” This is a nonsensical answer. That’s not an offense; it’s a collection of plays. An offense consists of what are your base runs, base dropback passes, base options, or whatever else are your base, core plays. The other plays I mentioned are not your offense, they are constraints on the defense, or “constraint plays.”
The idea is that you have certain plays that always work on the whiteboard against the defense you hope to see — the pass play that always works against Cover 3, the run play that works against the 4-3 under with out the linebackers cheating inside. Yes, it is what works on paper. But we don’t live in a perfect world: the “constraint” plays are designed to make sure you live in one that is as close as possible to the world you want, the world on the whiteboard.
Constraint plays thus work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.
In a given game your offense might look like it is all “constraint” plays: all gimmicks, screens, traps, draws, fakes and the like. Maybe so, if that’s what the defense deserves. But you can’t lose sight of the structure of your offense. Just because the bubbles, the flares, the fakes, and other gimmicks are your best offense for a couple of weeks doesn’t mean that it will be there. Indeed, the best defense against that kind of stuff is simply a sound one. Thus great offenses must be structure around sound, time tested core ideas, but have the flexibility to go to the “constraint plays” whenever the opportunity exists. Too often, the constraint plays are alternatively given too much and not enough weight. But they nevertheless are what make an offense go.
Charlie Weis, he of the “decided schematic advantage,” is back coaching an offense in college football, this time with Florida. Spencer Hall does a good job explaining Weis’s offense and what Gator fans might expect — or at least as good of an explanation as is possible considering the contradictions: Weis considers himself pro-style, yet once tried to unveil a spread option look to start a season before promptly abandoning it; at Notre Dame his offense’s achilles heel was his teams’ inability to run the ball, and yet when he went back to the NFL his team lead the league in rushing. As Spencer says:
The pattern is that there is no pattern, run/pass-wise, and that he seems genuinely happy to adjust to the tools he has on hand.
I think that’s right. I expect Charlie’s offense at Florida to actually be less of the go-for-broke-let’s-hit-the-home-run fest it became under Clausen. At that stage it had become so erratic that either Clausen, Tate, and Floyd shredded you for big plays or they failed to connect, often in critical situations — it had a Madden-esque feel to it by the end. The year with the Chiefs was likely good for Charlie in that with an average NFL quarterback, only a few outside playmakers and good runningbacks, he had to turn to the run game.
And in the NFL, you don’t make the run game better by adding option plays or doing anything too exotic like the college guys. Instead, you find as many ways as you can to run the inside and outside zones. And Charlie’s big wrinkle with the Chiefs was the same one that a lot of NFL teams adopted: the unbalanced line, or simply an extra offensive lineman. The Chiefs did this, the Ravens did it, and even Stanford, under Jim Harbaugh, often did it too. The reason why you do it, particularly on zone runs when the quarterback is not a threat, is obvious: create more gaps to run through and for the defense to worry about. Compare this lineup with Michigan (note that I’d just throw it to the slot receiver here):
With this (I’ve highlighted the extra lineman and one of the gaps created by having two tackles to that side):
The whole point of zone running is to block the defenders in those zones and to create vertical running lanes; creating the extra gaps should help create additional running lanes. In this instance, it worked brilliantly for Charlie (and it helps having Jamaal Charles). Indeed, I think this is the wildcat offense‘s lasting legacy for NFL coaches — more about unbalanced lines and playing with gaps than having a quarterback who can run.
When it comes to throwing the ball, I expect Charlie’s offense to look much like it did at Notre Dame, though, at least in the early days, there will likely be more of an emphasis on screen passes than downfield shots. But when he does throw downfield, you can expect to see the old favorites: quick slants, stick concepts, deep “go” routes, and the deep cross. Indeed, the deep cross was a feature play of his both at Notre Dame (see the second clip in the video below)…
Ultimately, I don’t expect Charlie to be in Florida for long, but that doesn’t mean he won’t leave his mark — a positive one. He’ll likely be there no more than two years, maybe three, before he leaves to become a college head coach again (yes) or another NFL spot. Charlie will only be able to handle working under someone else for so long. But I think the Muschamp-Weis situation will be fine: Will will defer to Charlie on the offensive side and he’ll provide an impressive sounding board (more on that in a moment), and Charlie will genuinely enjoy just getting to focus on creating gameplans, coaching quarterbacks, and calling plays. In the long run (and assuming he has a lot of success at Florida), Muschamp will probably end up with a coordinator whose roots are in the college game with college players, much like the guys Bob Stoops has worked with over the years. But Will undoubtedly wanted real-deal-NFL-guy to both be there as a recruiting pitch and for his own psyche — long-term NFL experience is one thing his mentor Nick Saban has that he does not (Muschamp spent one year with the Dolphins under Saban).
And Weis will be a great resource. He is generally known as an NFL “pro-style” guy all the way, but it’s often forgotten that, back in the 1980s, Weis spent the decade shuffling between high school and college programs, where he ran a variety of offenses, some of them quite surprising. From a post-game interview with Weis from 2005:
Q: Coach, after watching Saturday, this question begs to be asked: Did your career path ever intersect with Mouse Davis?
WEIS: I did visit with Mouse Davis back in South Carolina when we had the run and shoot. We talked to Mouse Davis, we talked to John Jenkins not Father John Jenkins, by the way Mouse Davis, John Jenkins, those run and shoot guys. Yes, we went from the veer to the run and shoot at South Carolina. We spent some time with all of those run and shoot guys.
Q: Was influences of that evident on Saturday?
WEIS: No. What you saw Saturday [ND did a lot of 5 wide stuff and quick three step passes], first of all, run and shoot always has a back in the backfield. It’s either a two by two or three by one, which trips are spread; okay, that’s number one. And you always have a run element, so empty (backfield) really doesn’t come into play.
This brief excerpt of his own words is the best summary of Weis that can be given: irascible, somewhat condescending, and incredibly knowledgeable.
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