Thoughts on the spread and run and shoot offenses — Hemlock’s comment

[This is part of an ongoing back and forth between me and a friend of mine who goes by “Hemlock.” He was a D-1 coach at a Big 12 school (among other places) and now is pursuing a PhD in non-football related matters. He’s a spread offense/run & shoot guru, and has a lot of great thoughts on these offenses, their role and future in football. Below is his comment; I will have a response out soon.]

I broke into coaching when I was still in high school. As a player, I had long read the writing on the wall and knew that playing on Saturdays and Sundays was not in my future. This was not painful for me since I knew all along that what I really loved about the game was its technical side. As it so happened, one day early in the summer I read an article in the local paper that a rival HS had hired a new football coach. This coach was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill gym-teacher-will-you-also-coach-football guy, but instead one whose primary focus was on coaching: he was there to coach football first, not teach during the day and collect a check. What also made him unique was his commitment to the real run and shoot offense, not what Tiger Ellison and Red Faught had their success with — a modified wing-t type offense — but the real thing run by Mouse Davis with the Detroit Lions and John Jenkins at the University of Houston. On a lark, I called the school and asked to meet with the coach.

He agreed to take me under his wing as a sort of high-school version of a graduate assistant. Much like a college graduate assistant [Ed. Note: Most colleges take a graduate student as a grunt-level assistant, which is still the best way to break into coaching at the college level; not many guys start as a full-on assistant coach], in this capacity I pretty much did what nobody else wanted to do. The trade off for me, however, was that I was exposed to the real ‘shoot — the real deal. Not only did I learn the schemes and the playbook, I learned the entire run and shoot culture, the deep grammar undergirding the offense. And, as an added bonus, I was learning it from the very people running it in college and (then) in the NFL.

I learned the offense, but I also became familiar with the familiar reservations coaches had about it. Indeed, in staff meetings someone usually stated that we could run our same four-wide schemes but with a tight-end or even with two running backs in the backfield. After all, wasn’t the “K-Gun” that the Buffalo Bills ran back in those days the run and shoot with tight-end? Didn’t they also run the choice route?

Then as now, coaches gave a whole litany of reasons explaining their desire to change the true, four-wide receiver run and shoot offense into one with another tight-end or another runningback — to unspread the spread. More often than not, these guys would say that the run and shoot would be better if you could just “run the ball downhill with more authority”. Even then I always found these arguments flawed. As a budding scholar today, one of the principles I live by is the belief that you craft your questions around the issue before you. That is, you understand the premises and foundations of the project or topic you are researching and do not ask questions that seek answers to “Y” if the topic is “X.” It’s all about establishing and understanding the terms of the debate. People who say, gee, the run and shoot is great except you can’t run the ball enough — or say the same thing about the Mike Leach/Hal Mumme Airraid offense — do not understand the whole point of the offense, the questions it seeks to answer, and the method it uses to pursue those answers. Let’s look at a few of the major questions.

(1) Why is it necessary and beneficial to operate the run and shoot exclusively from a four-wide receiver, one-back environment? (I.e. no tight-ends, H-backs, fullbacks or second half-backs, etc.) Are there any potential benefits to adding another set here and there for specific situations such as goal line or short-yardage?

Before discussing the technical benefits, let me first say that operating exclusively out of a four-wide environment is the first step a coach makes towards aculturating his program to the offense. To run the run and shoot effectively, it is necessary to commit to it entirely. Coaches that retain the ability to use tight ends, h-backs, and multiple-back sets create a crutch upon which they can fall back on when things don’t go as well as they’d like in the early going. Inevitably, what happens then is that the team becomes a multiple-set team that uses some run and shoot packages on passing downs. What never happens, however, is that the team converts to the run and shoot culture. And without that, the coaches and the players never become fully comfortable in the system, and then when the team struggles more, they blame the system.

When you decide to run this offense you need to burn your bridges with the past. You have to declare, “This is what we will sink or swim with. We are a run and shoot team.”

Committing exclusively to operating in a four-wide environment accomplishes a number of important things for the program:

  • Creates an immediate sense of identity. This is who we are, and this is what we do. We are not so much concerned with what our opponent does, as with what we are going to do.
  • By committing exclusively to such an operating environment you force both your players and coaches to think in run and shoot structures. Four-wide is no longer a situational thing, but the thing itself. Many coaches, and some recent experiences confirm this, feel naked without a tight-end or fullback; they are never truly comfy in a four-wide environment; they feel exposed. There is truth to this, for when things do go wrong there is literally no place to hide, whereas with other offenses the individual disasters that doom a play are largely concealed within the scrum.
  • When you commit exclusively to a four-wide environment you make standard what was once exotic and in so doing learn to become comfortable with both the environment itself and the opposing structures that it will inevitably elicit from the opposition.

When coaches fail to do this, it has been my experience that their first response when confronted with an uncomfortable situation is to become faint-hearted in their belief in the system, and thus undermine their ability to succeed with it. What this reveals is that neither they nor their players are truly comfortable with their “base” operating environment. And, usually sooner than later, what happens is that the ‘shoot is jettisoned from the offense because the coaches have not become comfortable with both the offense itself and the defenses they will inevitably face, especially in the early going when everybody and their brother will blitz the living daylights out of of them to see if they can handle it.

(2) Two more words about identity. It is more important to have a defined “identity” at the high school and college levels than it is in the pros. There are coaches like Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints who have succeeded with a pass-first yet multifaceted approach. Indeed, it is possible to deploy a plethora of formations in order to create mismatches, as well as change the cosmetics of single play without altering its basic structure. This is great, but I argue that it is really only applicable at the professional level. Because of the unlimited amount of practice time available in the NFL — not to mention their practically unlimited video, film, weight training, staffing, and other resources — coaches at that level can implement as many formations as they can dream up. Even with this advantage, it is worth noting, however, that professional players frequently blow assignments and misalign – even with all of that practice time. (Ah, the beauty of free agency in the modern era!)

I’ve coached both high-school and D-I football and I’ve learned the hard way that it is either impossible, in the case of high school, or or so difficult to the point of being prohibitive, as in the case of college ball, to effectively implement a multiple-formation intensive system and to consistently succeed with it. At my last D-I school we ran the true west coast offense, as my head coach was a legitimate disciple of Bill Walsh. Not only was it difficult to install all of our formations, but it made our players hesitant; they were so worried about getting lined up correctly that they were not able to concentrate on running the play. Another unintended consequence was that the different looks we installed confused our players more than the defenses we faced. It sounds odd, but our players, despite all our efforts to the contrary, deep down believed that every time we ran a route concept from a new formation we were in fact running a different play. This problem reinforces a point that June Jones made once about his former quarterback Colt Brennan. Even though they ran their “Levels package” primarily from one formation (“Early”), Brennan, for nearly a year, believed that the different level distributions constituted a different individual play. It took a year, according to Jones, until Brennan basically understood that regardless of who was the over and who was under runner that they were running the same play. Now, remember, this was all being run from one formation; imagine what it is like when you have literally a dozen different formations from which to run that one play. We found out the hard way: We had a lot of formations and our players thought we were drawing up all kinds of new plays.

The result was that even though our offense was very well conceived in that it systematically centered around a set package of plays, our players didn’t see it that way, and they felt we had no identity.

(3) Another problem with being too multiple is that every action requires an equal reaction, and by adding new formations you have made your life more complex by forcing the defense into new sets to counter each of your alignments. Again, at the professional level this is not as much of a problem, though I would say that the New England Patriots’ love of four and five wide environments suggests that even at that level they recognize the benefits of spreading out in order to avoid dense and opaque defensive front structures and read keys. This is also why I am not a huge fan of shifting and motion, regardless of the offense. Yes, there can be advantages, but it can just make things more complex and the reads cloudier for your own players.

Related to this is the phasing out of motion in the run and shoot that really began with John Jenkins at the University of Houston. In the original Mouse Davis run and shoot, the offense used a receiver in motion on almost every play. Either they motion from a two-by-two receiver set into a trips or three-by-one set, or vice versa. Jenkins was the first to really get away from using all that motion. The reason was simple. Originally, motion in the run and shoot was used as a key for reading coverages. This was fine so long as the coverages remained simple. But, one result of the ‘shoot’s success was that coverages became more advanced in response. Jenkins stayed ahead of the curve and saw it happening before it actually did. He understood that that motion could actually lead to false keys that would hamper his offense’s ability to execute. Consequently, Jenkins began to use leverage as a way of decoding a defense’s intentions. Another reason he abandoned motion was that he understood that it could lead to sloppy route running. A big key to the run and shoot is to “stem” your route correctly — i.e. begin off the line in a particular direction to set up the routes. Motion can be a lazy man’s way of dealing with press coverage. Great technique though is better and will result in a better stem, which lead to a better route. One other point in regards to this is that stemming your route means identifying who in the coverage structure you are running your route off of. Again, motion can muddy the waters.

(4) What is the cost of committing exclusively to a four wide environment? While I appreciate breadth, I really prefer depth. Multiple offenses, especially at the professional level, are effective because they have unlimited practice time. Sean Payton thus is able to spend the time needed to have what is arguably the most diverse system in the NFL in terms of sheer concepts — and to get good at all of them. However, at the same time, the Patriots, who have been more successful, run a system that is pretty straightforward from a conceptual basis. They have an identity, the expand based on what they have rather than importing from other systems and thus have thorough knowledge of their system and consequently are able to manipulate it appropriately without jettisoning their core values. [Ed. Note: The Indianapolis Colts have arguably the most basic offensive system in the NFL, and quite possibly the best over the last decade.]
This is why I’m comfortable operating exclusively in a four-wide environment and why I am loath to play with tight ends or hbacks. Sure, if I had a greater ability to run play action I could open some people up pretty easily, but at what cost. To throw the ball at the efficiency level that the Run-N-Shoot needs to in order to be successful you need to rep it constantly; moreover, those periods in practice where you would work on play action are what you need in order to become a truly great screen team.
The argument, and it is a valid one, against this is that as a result you are now asking your QB to throw into tight widows. Yes and no. It depends on what you mean by tight. For a team that does not practice stretching zone windows all the time I can see how this would be a problem; but if this is what you do and what your identity is premised upon than it is really not a problem. Coaches frequently will ask me why Jones or Leach continue to throw the ball when teams drop seven and eight into coverage. I tell them that every coverage has creases, gaps, and seems and I have never seen a coverage that was incapable of leveraging a window open.

Much of this depends on your mentality. Some coaches are fine with being only “good” at what they do. Take what I’ve seen of Florida State recently. I like Jimbo Fisher and think he calls a great game, but I don’t think his offenses — either at LSU or his current one at FSU — is particularly great at any one thing. He has a lot of concepts but few of them, espcially in the passing game, seem to flow into and out of one another in the same way that, say, June Jones’s do at SMU, Mike Leach’s at Texas Tech, or Joe Tiller’s did back in his early Purdue days.

This lack of a fully developed, fully whole conceptual approach to the passing game troubles me more than the fact that the run and shoot doesn’t offer much in terms of a play-action game. The running game isn’t a huge part of my system, so a play-action system wouldn’t be entirely persuasive or successful anyway.

  • Coach T

    I run a multiple formation offense. It is very successful because we run a limited number of plays. 4 running plays, 5 if the quarterback is a runner. 3 quick passing concepts, 5 dropback concepts, playactions are a combo of best run plus a dropback so no new teaching. One or two screens depending on personal and a draw. We teach all our plays as concepts and explain that to the kids before we even introduce our alignment system. Every concept has rules and we teach those rules day in and day out. It may take a little longer to see that confidence in your players but once they get it it pays exponetially. The real key to multiple formations is using the right laugage. We align in many formations just by moving one or two players most of the time. Once in a while we move three. Patience is the key. It gives a team with lesser athletes but who are intelligent an advantage over the better teams. If I had monsters on the line and a stud running back every year then yes I would line up in one formation. Give your kids some credit. They are smarter than you think. You have to make sure you are the best teacher that you can be.

  • James

    “As a side note, Nick Saban did not have all the pieces in place at UA his first year to run his defense? Did he compromise? No. He taught his system and laid the foundation for his program.”

    I would argue that running a defensive system is much different as it must apply to many possible opponents and systems. Everyone should have a systematic way of teaching and preparing a defense because of the variation of offensive styles across high school/college football.

    Sometimes, even the best programs have restraints on their offensive system by personnel. It is quite “ivory-towerish” of you to state that teams should simply procure or develop talent for their system as if that is the easiest thing to do in the world.

    Furthermore, I agree with Stan that building a program on schemes is beyond foolish. Built a program on character and quality traits of the people within the program- not something as insignificant as offense systems. There are so many different yet successful programs in the football landscape that have nothing in common as far as schemes go. But they all have togetherness in their beliefs. That is what I would argue successful teams do- they practice and use what they believe in, regardless of whether it is purely system-based or multiple.

    From an outside perspective, I would say that this is what has led to your success- running something you believe in- rather than it being a system.

  • Hemlock

    James & Stan:

    I think you are both correct, but you are missing something – perhaps my fault – probably.

    Programs are built on systems. Georgia Tech is a perfect example. So is Texas Tech, Navy, SMU, and Northwestern. The point is to stick with what you BELIEVE in, as you noted and not to scrap it when things fail to gel all at once. SMU is bowl eligible this year. Last year they were a bad team that was at best sporadically effective on offense while they were installing the system. Many coaches in the same situation as Jones’ would have panicked. Samething at GTech. Paul Johnson’s program is about more than schemes – undoubtedly, but what he puts on the field is. And he is successful for two reasons: He BELIEVES in his system; UNDERSTANDS his system; and knows how to TEACH his system.

    This can be done with any style of football. My pedigree is in the Run-n-Shoot, but I LOVE the triple option – I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT. Why? Because it is an integrated system with a developed teaching platform that has answers to anything a defense may throw at it.

  • Line Coach

    I have coached football at two class one schools in Missouri for 9 years. The first was an average class one school, finishing a game or two under or over .500 year after year. In my lifetime I can remember 10 head coaches at this school.

    The other school hasn’t had a losing record since the 1970s. Only two excellent head coaches in that timespan. Keep it simple. Run the ball. Practice intensely. Play excellent special teams. Make fewer mistakes.

    For kids who play offense, defense, and special teams, a simple system works much better.

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  • psutfin

    I agree with Steve (and Buddy Ryan) regarding the run and shoot which I realize wasn’t necessarily the point of Hemlock’s article.

    Not only does the Run and Shoot program’s defense not play well against power running teams but psychologically they aren’t prepared to be physical or adapt to the grind of a difficult game.

    The current Big 12 and Pac 10 model is for the individual offenses to score touchdowns but what usually happens is both teams are scoring touchdowns. It becomes a shot out and often times the team with the ball last wins.

    Conversely, when the offense is dictating their physical will (versus their tactical will…) the game is usually over. That was brilliance of the old Big 8 run option teams. Oklahoma, Nebraska and later Colorado beat you up physically, ground you down mentally and attacked you on defense. Add in, great athletes and witness the national championships. If Paul Johnson can recruit like Switzer, Osborne and McCartney– he’s going to compete for one as well because he understands that football is as much about mental toughness as innovation or great strategy.

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