Mike Leach is the new coach at Washington State: Rejoice and be glad

Raise your jolly rogers: Mike Leach is back. After two years of book-touring, suing ESPN, hosting talk-radio, and chillin’ in Key West, Leach is set to coach again in 2012, this time as head pirate in charge of the Washington State Cougars. History, connections, anecdote, and theories regarding the hire abound, but first thing first: It’s a great hire.

Back to business

I love Mike and I obviously can’t wait to see his offense back in action, but I was skeptical of the “fit” between Mike and some of the other schools whose name he was connected to. Big Ten schools tend to either like their coaches a certain way — a way not typical for Leach — or probably couldn’t afford him; SEC schools could afford him but the culture shock on both sides would be larger than I think people realized; and while Leach said he’d basically take any job, I don’t think he sat out for two years to coach a non-BCS conference school. Washington State, on the other hand, is, in my mind, perfect. It’s not perfect in the sense that the team has been struggling in recent years, but they’ve had winners there, and if Leach can get them to a bowl game in the next couple of years the perception will be that he’s been successful. Contrast this with, say, Ole Miss, where a bad game in week five and a couple of questionable calls (and trust me, there would be many calls that diehard SEC fans would not understand) and the pressure would be of an entirely different order.

Indeed, at Washington State Leach can essentially say he’s getting back to the tradition of guns blazing offense and great quarterbacking that defined the Cougars in the modern era. In 1987, Dennis Erickson brought his one-back offense to Pullman and engineered a big turnaround in his second season when they went 9-3, including an upset of then #1 ranked (and Troy Aikman led) UCLA. Erickson left for Miami the following season and was replaced by Mike Price, an Erickson one-back protégé (and actually a high school teammate of Erickson’s). Price led the Cougars to several successful seasons, most notably in 1992 when the team was quarterbacked by Drew Bledsoe and later two Rose Bowl seasons, 1997 when led by Ryan Leaf and 2002 when led by Jason Gesser. The 2002 squad shared the Pac-10 title with Pete Carroll’s Carson Palmer led Southern Cal team, and went to the Rose Bowl ahead of USC due to their head-to-head tiebreaker.

Although I don’t expect Leach to junk his Airraid for Erickson’s one-back offense, this history is important, at least to Leach. In his book Leach mentions that, had he not joined up with Hal Mumme and began running their twist on the BYU passing game, he would have run Dennis Erickson’s one-back three-step game, which was in fact what he’d been doing before he and Mumme got together. Further, after Mumme and Leach’s first season at Kentucky in 1997, they visited Mike Price and his staff at Washington State after their Rose Bowl season. There they picked up some information on formations and receiver screens. It may be irrelevant, but Mumme’s Airraid had always been a two-back offense, while in 1997 Washington State ran a ton of four-wides with one back. That personnel group and formation would later dominant Leach’s offense when he began running his own show.

But all this is important because it is possible to win at Washington State; from 2001 to 2003, the Cougars had three straight ten win seasons. It may be that the Pac-10/12 is much better top to bottom than it was then, but this is not as big of a rebuilding job as, say, Kentucky was when Mumme and Leach went there.

Building a staff. The most important job for Mike right now is to quickly and effectively put together a staff. Fans may expect Leach to arrive in Pullman and by sheer force of history and personality begin to tear up Pac-12 defenses, but the quality of assistants is extremely important. Historically, the assistants Leach has been around, both when he was an assistant himself and later as a head coach, have gone on to continued or increased success elsewhere as four or five have become D-1 head coaches and a number of others have gone on to become offensive coordinators. Further, Mike is a strange guy: he talks too long in meetings, can ramble when recruiting, was never known as a die-hard recruiter, and is very focused on certain things — his offense and his quarterbacks — and really needs others to take the lead in other matters.

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A couple of good pieces on Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon

One is a profile (or anti-profile), while the other includes excerpts of interviews with Big 12 cornerbacks who’ve had to face him. The latter touches on the points that make Blackmon maybe the best college wide receiver I’ve seen in some time: (1) that he is focused and goes hard on every play and seems to never get tired because he’s in fantastic condition and (2) that he is not as big as he plays — he’s listed at 6’1″, but is extremely physical and plays large.

When Holgorsen got to Oklahoma State, he was an underclassmen receiver who had just a few catches to his name. Indeed, they said that, coming out of spring practice, they thought Blackmon was probably only their third-best receiver. But the light went on for him and it’s been fireworks ever since. This season his average yards per catch is down because he’s such a marked player, but that’s helped open things up for his teammates as the receivers around him have been playing at a higher level (in their second year in the offense with Blackmon as fantastic role model). And of course, he and Weeden have the best connection in football, and when they throw that fade route it’s unstoppable — and gorgeous.

Can Tebow’s non-passing offense work in the NFL?

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.

Combining quick passes, run plays and screens in the same play

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.

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Plays (I think) I saw West Virginia run against UConn

In the spirit of Paul Johnson, below are the scans of what I saw Dana Holgorsen’s offense do against UConn. Keep in mind that, despite the gaudy stats, UConn’s defensive line largely controlled if not dominated West Virginia’s front, so that may have affected the tactics.

Take the doodles with a grain of salt, however, as they are merely based on a review of the television broadcast.

Video and more doodles after the jump.

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The “Diamond” formation and other multi-back “pistol” sets

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:

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The crack toss sweep and the double crack screen against an overloaded defense

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.

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The original one-back spread offense

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:

  1. One-back formations with extra split receivers to open up passing and running holes in the defense.
  2. Option routes where receivers had the freedom to alter their route depending on the coverage.
  3. 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:
  1. 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.)
  2. A running game consisting of inside and outside zone, Power-O and the counter trey.
  3. A heavy emphasis on the three-step drop passing game.
  4. “Option routes” as the base of the five-step drop passing game.
  5. A systematic or “constraint play” approach to playcalling.

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.

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Why Every Team Should Apply the Constraint Theory of Offense

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.

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Airraid screen game and wide receiver blocking

Videos all courtesy of the excellent Trojan Football Analysis. Screen game:

And wide receiver blocking drills, after the jump:

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