And now Kelly — stripped of any oversight over personnel — is in charge of a 49ers offense that boasts arguably the worst skill-position talent in the NFL and will be led at quarterback by Blaine Gabbert, whose 71.9 career passer rating puts him behind such exalted figures as Geno Smith and Brandon Weeden. While Kelly’s Oregon and early Eagles offenses broke records by weaving together multiple formations, adaptable running schemes, and multifaceted read-options, all powered by an ingenious spread offense philosophy and a frenetic, up-tempo pace, in the last two years those elements have been undermined or simply fallen away, and Kelly’s offense has become, in Evan Mathis’s words, the most “never-evolving, vanilla offense” in the NFL. How did that happen?
Read the whole thing.]]>
But, even if Prescott plays great, all he can do is solidify his spot as the backup QB behind Tony Romo, which is why the most interesting play to me was one that told me something about what the Cowboys will do even when Prescott’s not in there. Specifically, on Prescott’s first touchdown pass, a ten-yarder to Dez Bryant, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called a “third level” packaged play, also known as a run-pass option or RPO. Third level packaged plays are the newest (although not that new) step in the evolution of shotgun spread “read” concepts: When the shotgun spread first became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the defining plays were the zone read and read-option plays, in which the QB read a “first level” defender, i.e., a defensive lineman. The big innovation by the end of the 2000s and early 2010s were, first, built in screens, and later the earliest packaged plays/RPOs in which receivers ran slants, hitches and sticks and the QB would read a “second level” defender (i.e., a linebacker or nickel defensive back playing like a linebacker) to determine whether to hand off or throw.
In recent years a few teams — most notably Baylor, although there are others — began using packaged plays where the quarterback read a safety to determine whether to hand off or throw. This had two primary effects: (1) it is an excellent response to Quarters coverage, in which the safeties read the offense to determine whether to play the pass or the run, often outnumbering offenses in the run game as they are so difficult to account for; and (2) it transforms a read concept that was originally designed to move the chains by having the QB either hand off or throw a screen into a handoff or a touchdown.
Which brings me back to Dak Prescott’s play against the Rams. There was nothing that sophisticated about the concept: The Cowboys called an inside zone run play, in which they blocked all of the Rams’ frontal defenders, including the backside defensive end (i.e., no read option element), and tasked Prescott with reading the safety to the side of the single receiver, who just happened to be Dez Bryant. Now, I’m not sure if Bryant was only allowed to run a fade or had some sort of choice in what route he’d run (either choosing on the fly or via a pre-snap signal between receiver and QB), but teams often adjust the route by the single receiver to find the way to best attack the safety.
In any case, given that it was Dez Bryant singled up, all Prescott really needed to confirm was that the safety wouldn’t be able to help, something he was able to do quite quickly and likely even pre-snap. (A savvier safety might have aligned inside and then hurried back outside; Prescott did stare down Bryant a bit.) And with an extra safety stepping up for the run and a freak of nature 1-on-1 near the goal line, Prescott’s choice was simple:
So while Prescott’s performance should give Cowboys’ fans hope for what they might see in the future, this play should give them some insight into what they might see this season: A cutting edge concept that, in the end, reduces to a winning formula: Run the ball behind that great offensive line with extra numbers, or throw it to #88. That makes sense to me.]]>
Jim Harbaugh – Coach Harbaugh talked about the type of coaches they’re looking for. Experts in their field. High character people that represent Michigan. Great motivators. Positive energy. Coach Harbaugh also talked about how to spot coaches that they don’t want. He doesn’t want people on his staff that “Coach like Costanza.” He talked about a Seinfeld episode where George reasoned that if you act frustrated and angry, everyone will assume you’re working harder. Doesn’t want coaches who are standoffish. Most times those coaches pretend to know everything because they’re afraid of getting exposed. Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know, but let’s work together to figure it out.
John Harbaugh – John went through a few of the staples of his coaching philosophy
- Build it the way you believe in. Not what you think someone else wants. They’ll run you out either way.
- Don’t do the job to keep the job. Do what you believe is right.
- Coaches compete everyday. With each other (game plan) and against each other (practice)
- Never stop learning, you can always get better. He talked about how he picked up some power run game ideas from one of the high school speakers, Akron Hoban (OH) Head Coach Tim Tyrrell.
- It’s not about what you can’t do. Find what you can do. There is opportunity in everything and everywhere. He mentioned a free agent that they lost recently. Rather than dwelling on the loss, Coach Harbaugh said “We’ve got a different path now. Different opportunity. Maybe we can add another pass rusher now, or rebuild the OL to run some different schemes. Find a way.”
- Football provides an opportunity that no other sport can. Everyone can be a part of the team and contribute in some type of meaningful way, scout team etc. Roster isn’t limited like basketball or baseball.
James Light also has good stuff from Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin (Austin: “We encourage good body language. Bad body language… fosters resent and divineness.” Light: “[Austin] use[d] specific plays from film as examples of bad body language to convey the point…. Coach Austin pointed out the reaction of Louis Delmas after the touchdown. That was the type of body language that they won’t tolerate…. It creates dissension within the team and shows weakness to the opponent.”) and new Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown:
Defending the Spread Run Game: In terms of defending zone option, Coach Brown will use a PUP technique for his defensive ends, also commonly referred to as squeeze and pop. The defensive end being read will play the QB and the bend (RB cutback) on zone. The unblocked defensive end will stay square and shuffle flat down the line of scrimmage to close the space on any zone cutback. If the Quarterback keeps the ball, then the defensive end is chasing the QB from the inside out to his help. Coach Brown stressed that you have to get the defensive ends help versus zone option. You can’t just assign the DE to the QB with no help and expect him to take away the zone cutback and be able to run down a Quarterback like Deshaun Watson.
Meanwhile Coach Bird has high level notes from essentially every speaker (all the Harbaughs, Pees, Martz, Marc Trestman, Leslie Frazier, Juan Castillo) at the Michigan clinic. And, of course, Art Briles recently announced that Jim Harbaugh will be speaking at his Baylor clinic.
Football technology. There’s no question that in ten or twenty years, many aspects of coaching and playing football will be very different, with technological changes being the biggest driver: efficiencies in film study, player evaluation, data tracking, and teaching methods will have a huge impact on the game. I recently got a demonstration of STRIVR’s virtual reality system, about which I’ll have more to say in the future (the short version is that it’s a tremendous tool and really fascinating, and when a 330 pound nose tackle came at me I couldn’t help but get my hands up to punch him away), but VR will only be one component of the many coming changes.
But, as has been the case more generally, much of the impact of technology on football will be on improving communications. ESPN’s Kevin Seifert has a story about improving something that probably should have been fixed twenty years ago — the perpetual story about one team’s headsets “going out” in the middle of games — but it contains some interesting nuggets about future applications:
Finally, the Internet-based structure will allow for future additions to complement sideline technology. Imagine, for example, a digital play sheet on a quarterback’s wrist that changes based on signals sent in by a coach.
Of course, if the digital play sheet can change based on signals then wouldn’t it be easier to push a button to make the playcall appear on the QB’s digital wrist device and skip manual signals altogether (something that can’t be all that difficult with Apple Watches around)? In any event, the upshot is that this is where it’s all going. Now, the NFL (and especially college football) tends to like to restrict communications like this, preferring the pitfalls of older technology to encouraging a technological arms race, but technology will begin popping up and there’s no question it will eventually be an important part of NFL and college on-field communication. (True story: I played on a team where our opponent’s coaches went over to our offensive coordinator before a game, ostensibly to say “Hello,” but really so they could see what frequency the radio transmitter on his hip was set to. The opposing coaches then listened to all of my team’s playcalls (we lost), and then bragged about it after the game to the parents of one of my teammates over drinks, who for some unknown reason, thought it was funny that their son’s team was cheated out of a game (by the coaches, no less) and told everyone else. So, bring on the Apple Watches.)
Mouse’s Run and Shoot tapes. I recently stumbled on some great old videos on the Run and Shoot from maybe its most famous proponent, Mouse Davis. While I don’t (necessarily) advocate anyone running the “pure” Run and Shoot now, it remains one of the most fruitful offenses for study. (Plus Mouse is always fun to listen to.)
Twitterversary. Twitter turned ten years old on Monday, which I for some reason find a terribly depressing fact. (Though now we have an algorithm that can identify drunken tweets so, yay progress.) The New York Times asked some important twitter users about Twitter, and here’s football-twitter king Adam Schefter:
Twitter has ramped up the news-cycle speed to unimaginable levels. News emerges, it spreads, people react, and within minutes, the story is widely disseminated and analyzed. It’s one of the best parts of Twitter, maybe the best part: the ability to inform. Information pours out on Twitter.
We miss the dominant newspaper days, though it’s hard to pinpoint how much of that has to do with the evolution of Twitter and the digital day we’re now living in. Had neither come along, we might still be sitting at the kitchen table, sipping our coffee, reading the newspaper, rather than hearing about who the next Supreme Court justice is, at almost the same time he is selected.
Let’s set aside the oddness of using the nomination of a Supreme Court justice as the example (the news of the most recent Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, broke only moments before the President conducted a nationally televised press conference announcing his nomination), but it seems to me that Twitter qua Twitter doesn’t do much for the really big stories — earthquakes, wars, national tragedies, political issues, and so on. Yes, those of us on Twitter often read about those things faster than, say, if we waited for the stories to be printed in the newspaper, but making that jump ignores the fact that things like (a) television and (b) the rest of the internet (to say nothing of other social networks) also exist, which tend to do a pretty decent job of very quickly identifying major breaking news (which Schefter acknowledges). Instead, the information flood that Twitter excels at is an ocean of irresistible but ultimately meaningless minutiae, with the announcement of various personnel transactions in a made up game being a prime example. (The philosopher Bernard Suits once defined a “game” as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.)
But Schefter is surely right that the speed-race for breaking these kinds of silly but heavily trafficked tidbits is increasing every year, with Twitter being a prime culprit, which I suppose is yet another reason why I and so many others find it difficult to celebrate this ridiculous, seemingly poorly managed service that we nevertheless all spend so much time using.
Football and toenail fungus. This is only tangentially related to football, but Valeant — who has, uh, had a rough go of it recently — put out a commercial for its toenail fungus drug, Julia, in which a toe wearing a football helmet tackles toenail fungus (which is carrying a football) before a cutaway to an Xs and Os diagram of toenail fungus — just watch it (or, maybe, don’t):
So that’s both disgusting and ridiculous, though admittedly when it comes to advertisements for treatments of foot ailments it’s tough to improve on John Madden selling Tinactin. But it turns out the football toe commercial is not just a silly, it also drew the ire of the Food and Drug Administration:
The Food and Drug Administration wants to know if these memorable images skew perceptions of risks associated with medications. In a document posted online Tuesday, the agency outlined plans to study how consumers process live action and animated ads….
“Personifying animated characters may interfere with message communication,” the FDA said in the document. “Whether personified characters lead to reduced comprehension of risk and benefit information in drug ads is an important and unanswered question.”
As Matt Levine points out, the interested reader may have the chance to get involved as the study involves 1,500 people watching these ads followed by an online survey. But if you ask me they should just bring back John Madden.
Louisiana’s budget crisis. A few weeks ago Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards announced that the Louisiana state government was in such a deep, sustained fiscal crisis that budget cuts were inevitable, and the programs affected could even include LSU football:
In a rare statewide televised address, Edwards told viewers that the state would be forced to take extreme action — such as throwing people with off of kidney dialysis and shutting down hospice services — if new taxes didn’t go into place over the next few months. . . .
The governor didn’t stop at health care services, but also detailed catastrophic cuts to higher education. He said new revenue was needed to prevent universities from running out of money before the semester ends. LSU, the state’s wealthiest higher education institution, would only be able to pay its bills through April 30, unless some tax increases went into place.
The governor went so far as to say that LSU football was also in jeopardy, due to a threatened suspension of spring classes that would put college athletes’ eligibility in danger next year. . . . “Student athletes across the state would be ineligible to play next semester,” Edwards said. “I don’t say this to scare you. But I am going to be honest with you.”
So none of that is good, and while cuts to football shouldn’t be equated with more important programs like education and other mainstay public programs, it certainly gets people’s attention. And the outlook for football at universities outside of LSU is even worse:
The Southern University System, and University of Louisiana System, and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System are in the same boat: without legislators approving new revenue this special session, some campuses will be forced to declare financial bankruptcy, which would include massive layoffs and the cancellation of classes.
If you are a student attending one of these universities, it means that you will receive a grade of incomplete, many students will not be able to graduate and student athletes across the state at those schools will be ineligible to play next semester. That means you can say farewell to college football next fall.
I was reminded of this depressing state of affairs while reading this article on the broken public defender system in Louisiana, which already had a mixed record to begin with:
The constitutional obligation to provide criminal defense for the poor has been endangered by funding problems across the country, but nowhere else is a system in statewide free fall like Louisiana’s, where public defenders represent more than eight out of 10 criminal defendants. Offices throughout the state have been forced to lay off lawyers, leaving those who remain with caseloads well into the hundreds. In seven of the state’s 42 judicial districts, poor defendants are already being put on wait lists; here in the 15th, the list is over 2,300 names long and growing. . . .
With felony caseloads already far above the professional standard, the public defender concluded that turning down cases was the only ethical option…. Even if state funding remains stable, however, more than half of the public defender offices could be under austerity plans by the fall, turning away clients and laying off lawyers.
“It is in shambles,” wrote District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg in a recent ruling, in which he sought private lawyers to represent several jailed defendants. “Things were not good before, but they are in a terrible place now.”
– Economics of animated movies: “An executive producer who wants to cut costs has only two choice curbs: water and hair. Those are the most expensive things to replicate accurately via animation. It’s no mistake that the characters in Minions, the most profitable movie ever made by Universal, are virtually bald and don’t seem to spend much time in the pool.”
– Mark Richt on handling the blitz.
– The Solid Verbal had some great podcasts with coaches Tom Herman, DJ Durkin and Bronco Mendenhall.
– Ian Boyd on Katy Texas’s staunch 3-4 defense.]]>
I’ve written extensively about Peyton Manning in the past, and there is much, much more to say, but for now just a few notes. Peter King has a nice retrospective on Manning’s influence on the quarterback position, something that can’t be underrated given that he, along with Tom Brady, bridged the QB position from the prior generation of greats — Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway — to now, a period when the game itself, but particularly the passing game, changed dramatically.
Much of Peyton’s legacy centers, quite rightfully, around his mental mastery of the position, particularly his audibles and adjustments at the line of scrimmage: The enduring image of Peyton Manning is less about him standing tall in the pocket, arm extended, with a beautiful spiral extending from his fingerprints, than it is of a frenetic Manning gesticulating wildly as he directs teammates and identifies at opponents, while shouts of “Omaha” cascade in the background. But one underrated aspect of his stewardship at the line was his gamemanship: Many of his signals and calls at the line were ploys to trap opponents.
In that 2002 game, Ismail told Manning the Jacksonville corner, Jason Craft, knew that when Manning made a shoveling motion at the line or called the world “Crane,” Ismail would run a short dig route. Later in the game, Manning gave Ismail “Crane!”
“Easiest double move I ever ran in my life. Touchdown,” Ismail recalled.
King doesn’t include a diagram but I know exactly the play he and Ismail were referring to, known as “Dig Pump” in the old Peyton Manning/Tom Moore nomenclature. The diagram below is from Manning’s old Colts playbook:
Peyton was notorious for tricks like this I vividly remember him kicking off his remarkable 55 touchdown 2013 season versus the Ravens with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Julius Thomas on a fake receiver screen-and-go, which Manning rather cheekily set up by making the same call right before this snap that he had used earlier in the game to set up a real wide receiver screen pass. Manning, a stickler for fundamental technique, of course sold the fake screen during the play, but the real sales job came from getting inside the defenders’ heads.
I have seen Peyton Manning play in person as many times as any professional football player — not to mention the four times I saw him play at Tennessee, including one that remains unforgettable to me (though more for personal reasons than anything particular to Manning or even the game itself) — and it remained a thrill to watch him operate. And two of his seasons are among the handful of very best seasons any quarterback has ever had: 2013, when Manning, after all those neck surgeries and lacking feeling in his hands, launched 55 touchdown passes as he led what some measures indicate was the most prolific offense in NFL history; and 2004, which is possibly the greatest passing season in NFL history:
By ANY/A [Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt], Manning’s peak seasons were out of this world. His 2004 campaign rates as the best single-season performance in league history. Manning passed for 4,557 yards on 497 attempts, threw 49 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions, and took a staggeringly low 13 sacks. He averaged 9.78 ANY/A per dropback, which is awfully difficult to stop.
There will be (and are already) countless tributes to Peyton Manning. The best tribute I can think of is to continue to admire — and more importantly to study — a body of work that young coaches and quarterbacks will continue to scour for lessons for many, many years to come.]]>
Over the last few months I’ve asked a number of coaches at a variety of levels what they thought football strategy would be like in 50 years. Given that, as a profession, coaches tend to be focused on immediate goals—the next practice, the next game, the next play—the response I received from one small college head coach was typical: “First, hell, I can’t predict how strategy will change next year, let alone in 50 years. Second, it doesn’t matter, because in 50 years I will be dead.” And the coaches who did proffer predictions tended to give ones that might hold true in the next four or five years—like an increased use of power formations and power runs, in the alternative, even further moves by offenses towards the wide open spread attacks—but that would either be long in the past by the time we reached 50 years or that, with such a long time horizon, would be mere blips along the way.
Yet all agreed football strategy and tactics will change over the next fifty years, but the iterative give-and-take of offense versus defense means that predicting specific future strategies is almost impossible. Instead, the key is to look at what trends have and will continue to affect all technical trades, from medicine to engineering, as football coaching will continue to evolve in response to those same trends.
To date, so-called analytics or data based approaches—other than basic charting of tendencies—has had very little real world impact on strategy: coaches teach blocking, tackling and catching, draw up plays to beat coverages, and largely ignore external analyses. And, given that most of the strategic analytics currently produced is noise—a victim to garbage-in/garbage-out and naive models that don’t appreciate the game’s nuances—this is a rational response. But, over the next 50 years, tracking technology is likely to bridge this gap between coaches and data-crunchers which will lead to several innovations in how teams prepare their gameplans and even call plays.
Read the whole thing.]]>
But Gibbs didn’t think of the play on his own. “We stole it,” Gibbs told Sports Illustrated. “We saw some film on Nebraska, and Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative things with his line up front. We were watching it and thought, God, that’s good stuff. So we stole it.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong with this: You can’t patent a football play, and once it’s on film it’s there for the world to see — and for other coaches to copy. And arguably no coach over the last two seasons has been better at strategically “stealing” plays than Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Kiffin has a history of being flexible with offense, as while an assistant at Southern Cal under Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, Kiffin spent a lot of time at Tampa Bay’s facilities where his father was the defensive coordinator and Jon Gruden was the head coach, where he picked Gruden’s brain and studied hours of film on Gruden’s West Coast Offense. Many of those concepts eventually made their way into USC’s attack. And one of the reasons Nick Saban hired Kiffin was because he wanted someone who could bring a true pro-style approach to Alabama’s offense while also modernizing it, as Saban had seen first hand how quickly offensive football was changing. Kiffin has largely succeeded on both fronts.
But Alabama’s win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl was one of Kiffin’s best games, as he first loosened up Michigan State’s excellent defense with short passes, packaged plays and screens, before surgically dismantling it (while Alabama’s defense completely suffocated MSU’s offense). And several of the key plays for Alabama were ones Kiffin had borrowed from film study. From The Wall Street Journal:
[H]ere’s the most notable thing about those two Alabama plays: They weren’t actually Alabama’s.
Chris B. Brown, a corporate lawyer who writes about strategy for his website Smart Football, was watching the game the next morning, unable to stay up on New Year’s Eve with two young children, when he noticed something unusual. Alabama had recycled the same plays that had worked for Baylor and Oregon in their recent games against Michigan State.
The first Alabama deep ball was a ripoff of a Baylor play that went for a touchdown against Michigan State in the very same bowl game and stadium last season. The second Ridley bomb was right out of Chip Kelly’s old playbook at Oregon.
Alabama coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin have a history of borrowing plays. Brown remembered Alabama scoring against Wisconsin this season on a run that Ohio State used to run all over Oregon in last season’s national championship. But they’re at their most brazen in bowl games, because that’s when they can add a few wrinkles that might work against only one opponent.
“They have done a good job of pulling ideas from different teams and using them to often devastating effect,” Brown said in an email.
I have previously written about Alabama’s use of Ohio State’s wrinkle to the Counter Trey in which it’s run from the shotgun with a fake jet sweep going the opposite direction, and I wanted to explore the specific origins of the plays Kiffin borrowed and used to great effect in the Cotton Bowl.
As many now know (and as I’ve also written about at length), the Spartans’ defense largely cycles between their base defense, a 4-3 alignment with “Quarters” coverage behind it, and aggressive zone blitzes. To broadly oversimplify, MSU’s Quarters is a hybrid man-to-man/zone coverage where the cornerbacks are locked up in what looks like (and often ends up being) man coverage while the linebackers are free to stop the run. The key to the defense is the play of the safeties, who stand at around eight yards and “flat-foot read” the tight-end or inside/slot receivers, which determines whether they are responsible for flying up to stuff the run, help the cornerbacks by becoming “robber” defenders who read the QBs eyes and can double teaming the outside receivers, or if the safeties will instead lock up one-on-one with the tight-end or slot, all depending on what those receivers do.
Michigan State’s record over the last few seasons speaks for itself, and when that defense is rolling it looks like it’s everywhere because it naturally adapts to what the offense is doing with nine defenders up to stuff the run, help on passes to the offense’s best outside receivers, and cover the four verticals pass play. As former Michigan State defensive coordinator (and current Pittsburgh head coach) Pat Narduzzi said a few years back at a clinic: “I believe one defense can stop everything; I believe we could play an entire football game in our base defense. I believe that if everyone lines up exactly right, reads their keys, and does all the fundamentals involved with the defense, it is enough to win.”
But the weak point of Quarters (and other coverages in the same family) is the stress it puts on the safeties to play the run, read offensive players, and still be able to react and then hold up in man-to-man coverage, especially if the linebackers don’t re-route a speedy slot receiver. Indeed, Baylor sees a lot of Quarters coverage variations in the Big 12, and one of their favorite answers is to go play action and have the outside receivers run 5-10 yards to the sideline and just stop while the inside slot runs a “Win” route vertical — get open deep.
In the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State last season, Baylor scored on a 49 yard touchdown pass from Bryce Petty to KD Cannon on a play in which Baylor’s outside receivers simply took MSU’s cornerbacks out of the play, while Petty made a ball fake and Cannon vaporized MSU’s safety on a vertical route before running under a pretty deep ball from Petty. (And look carefully: Baylor only had ten players on the field on this play.)
And after a slow start for his offense in the Cotton Bowl, Kiffin decided to get aggressive . . . after some encouragement from his boss. “It’s the first quarter and we’re not doing well,” Kiffin said this week. “Nick says on the headset, ‘You need to go after the safeties.'”
To do so, Kiffin used the same concept Baylor had run to engineer a 50-yard bomb to freshman phenom Calvin Ridley to set up Alabama’s first touchdown: Alabama’s outside receivers ran outside routes on the sideline to hold the cornerbacks; Jacob Coker made a play-action fake to Derrick Henry to hold the linebackers; and Ridley ran a deep double move — the same stem to the post and then fade back out that Cannon had used the prior year — against a Michigan State’s safety who was trying to both read the play-fake and match the speedy Ridley one-on-one.
“In that last game [against Michigan State] we were fortunately able to get ‘Quarters’ type looks versus Calvin [Ridley] in the slot a couple of times,” Kiffin said this week. “And we hit a couple of big plays.” What he didn’t mention was that the blueprint for attacking those safeties was right out of Art Briles’s Baylor playbook.
While the first long bomb to Ridley kicked things off for Alabama, the last one, a 50-yard third quarter strike for a touchdown, was the coup de grâce. And this one, too was inspired by one of Michigan State’s former opponents, though what Alabama did was a mixture of two different Oregon staples.
First, one of Oregon’s favorite plays since Chip Kelly was a play that (I believe) they referred to as Saints but which most refer to as “Deep Cross” or, in Air Raid parlance, “Y-Cross.” The Oregon version of the play is always run from the shotgun as it combines the old Y-Cross concept with a fake zone run and a backside bubble screen — staple concepts in Oregon’s offense which enhance the deception and can help free up the receivers. Meanwhile, the slot or tight-end runs the deep crossing route at a depth of 12-18 yards while the receiver outside of him runs a deep post or a curl. The play can hit in a lot of different places depending on the coverage, but the deep cross and the backside post puts the safeties under stress for a downfield shot. Below is an example from Philadelphia under Chip Kelly, who first brought the play to Oregon.
You can watch Marcus Mariota diagram this very play for Jon Gruden (who calls it, in own parlance, “Bubble Y-Over”), though note that while Mariota draws it up with the backside receiver running a curl Oregon often either tags that receiver to run a post or, alternatively, sometimes he actually reads the coverage: He runs the post if he can get open deep and, if not, he stops and turns it into a deep curl. The idea is the offense is faking an inside run play to draw up the linebackers and safeties and can either hit the vertical receiver, the deep crossing receiver behind the linebackers, or the deep post if the safeties cheat up or they leave him one-on-one. It’s a play Oregon runs several times in every game.
This is the concept Kiffin and Alabama used to spring Ridley for the long third quarter touchdown, but there was a wrinkle to it, which also happened to be Oregon inspired. When Michigan State and Oregon matched up in 2014, the Ducks broke the game open in the second half with several long Marcus Mariota throws, many of which featured bunched receivers criss-crossing at the snap. In Michigan State’s Quarters defense, they define the coverage responsibilities for the secondary by them from the sideline: the outside WR is #1, the next guy is #2, etc.
By using the bunched sets with the “switch” releases, Oregon was able to spring receivers for easy gains when Michigan State’s defenders got confused on who they were covering, and even when there wasn’t a bust it can cause hesitation which is enough for a receiver to get leverage to get open. In the below play, Oregon runs the four verticals concept while #2 and #3 to the three receiver side switch their releases and a runningback goes in fast or “bullet” motion to the field, all tactics designed to mess with the Spartans’ coverage responsibilities.
With that background, you can see how Kiffin took staple Oregon concepts and combined them to get a crucial touchdown in the Cotton Bowl. From a set with bunched receivers to each side (a very common Oregon formation), he called Oregon’s version of deep cross with the fake screen away from the back and the deep cross and post to the other side, with Ridley — originally lined up as the inside receiver — running the post while the outside receiver runs the deep cross. And, even though Michigan State looked to be in a form of pure man coverage rather than Quarters and didn’t bust their assignments at the snap, the concepts Kiffin borrowed — play-action Y-Cross combined with the bunched sets with switch releases — nevertheless caused hesitation in the Spartans’ secondary and again got Ridley one-on-one with a safety.
Although each of the plays I’ve highlighted were borrowed from so-called spread offenses like Ohio State, Baylor and Oregon, Kiffin’s borrowing them very much fits in with his and Saban’s “pro-style” background, where the emphasis is on situations and gameplanning — and drawing ideas from anywhere — as opposed to running only a core set of plays that fit together and relying on your team’s execution and the coach’s ability to move down the sequence as the defense tries to react.
“You’re always trying to get matchups, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, because they coach too and they have good players as well,” Kiffin said earlier this week. “But you’re always trying to get certain coverages for certain plays, and that’s what we do all week, to figure out, ‘Do they play this versus this in these situations so we can run these plays?'”
The risk of this approach is you run too many disparate plays that don’t fit together and your players can’t master, but Saban sets the tone for his team and he has always believed that his players will master what he throws at them — so long as they trust Saban’s “Process.” And maybe that’s the secret to the success of Kiffin’s cribbing from other teams: Anything that survives The Process is bound to work.]]>
“This is a great hire for us,” Miles said. “Dave has an outstanding track record of producing some of the best defenses in college football. We’ve seen him up close and understand how difficult it is to have success against him.
“He’s everything that we were looking for in a defensive coordinator. He’s youthful with tremendous enthusiasm; our players are going to love him. He brings great defensive knowledge to our staff both as a technician and as a strategist…. Dave will bring different packages and an attacking style to the field,” Miles said. “Watching his defense play, they are tough to move the ball on and they are sticky in every situation. His defenses do a great job of getting off the field.
Given that he’s an up and comer there’s not an enormous amount of information out there on Aranda, but what there is — and the tremendous defenses he’s coached at Utah State and Wisconsin — indicates that he’s very good teacher and coach. I quoted him (very) briefly in The Art of Smart Football, and the below clip gives a bit of insight into some of his philosophy on rushing the passer.
Also the coaches I’ve met with seem to universally praise him, citing both some of the techniques he uses (often lining up his defensive tackles a yard or more off the ball to help with slanting), and his candor in taking full responsibility for Wisconsin’s blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game last season. (Here is an old powerpoint from Aranda on pass rush when he was a GA at Texas Tech.)
Had the pleasure of speaking with Aranda at the WFCA clinic last year. Very bright and helpful to this young coach. Loved his work at UW.
— Benjamin Flack (@CoachBenFlack) January 2, 2016
Aranda is also at the forefront of defending both read-option plays and has developed some interesting answers for packaged plays/run pass options in recent years.
One way Aranda keeps his defense simple but reactive is by giving his linebackers several reads on each play that can evolve both pre- and post-snap that nevertheless are only based on a few key looks for the players. In a private whiteboard session he told some high school coaches that when teaching a defense a rival school’s coaches (I won’t name names) might might draw up 75 different looks for their players, but for his there’s only three looks. Some examples of these reads can be found in this excellent article with Aranda from Xs and Os Labs, where he talks about how he combines one-gapping and two-gapping principles to defend the spread run game.
Aranda, who runs a 4-3 base quarters package used to play single-gap control defense and wind up getting gashed for big yardage on zone wind backs because of a numbers advantage on the offense because of his two-safety look.
“[On a “Zeer” or zone-read-veer run scheme, n]o matter how you draw it up, the offense will have four guys at the point of attack: the QB, the tackle, the guard and the running back. If you’re a one gap type team and you’re playing it that way, whether your have a five and a 1-tech or a 3- and a 5-tech it really doesn’t matter because it’s four on three,” says Aranda. “You have two DL and one LB. The DE gets the shaft because he has to play two aspects: the dive, the bend of the dive to the inside out to the QB. You’re cheating a guy. An easy answer is to use someone from outside the box and bring him inside the box. The problem with that is the bubble screens and the now screens that are thrown by these offenses. Teams will read the LB that is walked out. If that LB steps up and reads run on the play action to handle QB on zone read. Once the QB sees him step up, he disconnects from the RB and throws the slant over the top of his head. It’s a tough play. I found you needed to get four and four and equate the numbers post-snap.”
Aranda has a very simple philosophy when it comes to his second level players playing the read game: If you’re in the core [i.e., the box], you play in the core and if you’re outside the core you play outside the core. “This handles all of that fly sweep you may see out of unbalanced formations,” says Aranda. “There is no inside linebacker needed to run down sweep, or safeties negating force. Everything must be assignment football, particularly when playing the option.”
His Mike LB’s assignment pre-snap when playing the Zone or Zeer read is to sit in the A gap, but post-snap he has some key progressions to work through starting with his first step. . . .
Initially, Aranda tells his Mike LB’s to work to stack the 2-technique, but as the play bends back he must be ready to fall back. To do that, he must be at five-yards. “If it’s coming tight downhill, that 2-technique is going to clear out the A gap. There is no A gap so it’s already bending back to begin with. As the offensive tackle is coming down on the 2-technique, and our 2-technique is already squeezing the guard, the RB will bend back. The further he bends back, there is our 5-technique. For our Mike LB reads, we play clear or cloudy. If they zone it, the guard surges on the 2-technqiue, the tackle wipes out the 2, now Mike is already sitting in the gap so he plays the back. If the back bends it and it’s cloudy (the end is there) the Mike is over the top and will be a QB player inside out. If the Tackle works to surge on 2-technique, then turns back out on the 5- technique (to open up the B gap) it’s a clear read so the Mike hits it. Essentially, he plays clear to cloudy and dive to inside out on QB. But everything works off the defensive tackles.”
“The way we play quarters, the outside LB is the force defender. We play the safety as sky force but it’s a replacement force if the LB gets cracked. We used to put the safety as the pitch player, but he also has number two vertical so he’s in conflict. Teams could run the back-side number two in orbit and now they have a pitch player. The LB plays into the number two receiver man-to-man. He’ll play the QB if he comes out his way and he’ll also play pitch. The safety is sitting off of him. He plays the outside half of QB to pitch. We tell the safety if number two blocks he triggers off that LB so we can get those two involved (diagram 15). Whenever that safety has pitch responsibility in a quarter’s system where he has two vertical, there is a problem. We need to be tied with the LB. We play crack replace with the safety so the LB can be more aggressive. If they run a slant/bubble combination, the safety must see the block on that LB. The LB who is covered down can play the run aggressively through receiver. The safety is the protector.”
Some evolutions are good ones.]]>
Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey narrowly missed out on the Heisman trophy in one of the most competitive races in recent years, as McCaffrey, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Alabama’s Derrick Henry each had remarkable seasons, with Henry taking home the trophy. But McCaffrey might be the most intriguing one of the bunch as he has tremendous skills but I’m still wrapping my mind around how he projects to the NFL, as while he weighs only around 205 pounds (by contrast, Rams rookie Todd Gurley is 225 pounds), he has preternatural agility and quickness, yet has thrived in Stanford’s bruising, power based system while rushing for 1,847 yards. But what makes McCaffrey truly special to me are his special skills as a receiver.
Of course, McCaffrey has the pedigree of an outstanding “space player“: McCaffrey’s father was Ed McCaffrey, a thirteen year NFL veteran wide receiver (who could really ball); his grandfather, Dave Sime, was “ranked one of the fastest humans of all time“, won an Olympic silver medal in the 100 meter dash and at one point held the world record in the 100 meter dash; and his mother, Lisa, was a soccer player at Stanford who once (jokingly?) told Sports Illustrated, “That’s why Ed and I got together — so we could breed fast white guys.”
But it’s not just that McCaffrey is great in the open field, a fact evidenced by his insane 3,469 all purpose yards, which broke the record set by none other than Barry Sanders. McCaffrey also has a tremendous feel for the passing game and for running routes, as evidenced by how often Stanford used him in their “HBO” or “half-back option” schemes.
Stanford has for years combined a halfback option with the Y-stick concept, going at least as far back as the Andrew Luck days. To one side Stanford runs Stick, in which an outside receiver runs vertical, either a slot receiver or a RB runs to the flat, and a third receiver runs a quick stop or turn route — the “stick” route. This concept creates a triangle stretch on the defense with a vertical stretch (with the vertical and the flat) and a horizontal stretch with the flat and the stick routes. Stanford’s wrinkle is to run a half-back option to the other side, which thus also puts the middle linebacker in a bind. For the mechanics of the running back option route, Air Raid progenitor Hal Mumme has succinctly explained how they work:
There are three key reads to [the option] route: being able to recognize man or zone, proper depth when running the route, and the timing between the quarterback and the running back… On this route we want [the RB] to line up directly behind the tackle with our heels at five yards. Pushing off on our inside foot we want to release outside the tackle and head straight up field to a depth of four yards past the line of scrimmage. If the back sees zone coverage, he will hook up, turn and face the quarterback. Now when the back knows he has man-to-man coverage he must recognize the leverage of the defender. If the defender is playing the back with inside leverage he will push off his inside foot and drive to the outside, running away from the defender. If the defender is playing the back with outside leverage he will plant his outside foot and break inside the defender.
Against zone coverages, the flat, stick and option route (which has settled between the linebackers) create a horizontal stretch on the underneath zone defenders that should produce an open receiver for a steady gain. But against man-to-man coverage, the stick concept pulls defenders out of the box leaving the option route one-on-one in space — and when that’s one-on-one is Christian McCaffrey versus a linebacker or safety, the defense is in trouble.
McCaffrey makes that look easy — effortless, really — but coaches from Mumme to LaVell Edwards to Bill Walsh have all talked about how many running backs don’t ever develop a feel for the kind of free-flowing split decisions option routes require, and notice here too that just before the snap Southern Cal crosses their linebackers and the one initially lined up over McCaffrey blitzes while the other jumps over. McCaffrey sees all that happen in a split second and still makes USC pay. That’s just a great feel for the game.
I still have a lot more Christian McCaffrey to watch — and, a true sophomore, he has to play at least one more season at Stanford due to NFL/NFLPA rules — but McCaffrey looks to me like an instant impact kind of NFL talent, particularly if his coaches know how to use him as a receiver out of the backfield.
Holgo’s Last Stand
Depending on what news article you read last week, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen was either on the brink of being fired or his job for 2016 was never seriously in doubt, but there was enough something to cause WVU’s athletic director to put out a statement that, despite being “disappointed with how our regular season ended” (a one-point loss on the road to Bill Snyder’s 6-6 Kansas State team, following a four game winning streak), “Dana Holgorsen will return as our head football coach in 2016.” Since going 10-3 with an Orange Bowl victory in his first season (in the old Big East), Holgorsen’s WVU teams have gone 7-6, 4-8, 7-6 and 7-5 in the past four years in the Big 12.
I’ll come back to the question of whether that record should earn you another year coaching West Virginia, but the fact that this was even a discussion owes much to some changes Holgorsen made to his offense this season, namely to expand his running game.
Although he has said he doesn’t like the label, Holgorsen comes from the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach “Air Raid” tree which, yes, means throwing the ball a lot, but has also traditionally meant a very simple running game: Leach and Mumme really only ran draw and a played they called “base” which was like an Iso (lead) play from two-backs but became something of just “hit the guy in front of you” blocking, as neither called many run plays unless the defense had mostly abandoned the box to defend the pass. At Houston and Oklahoma State, Holgorsen was one of the first in the Air Raid tree to use zone blocking, which every modern Air Raid team outside of Leach’s Washington State teams — from Texas Tech to TCU to Oklahoma State to Texas A&M to Oklahoma to Cal — uses as the foundation for their running game. Even when Holgorsen and then-Oklahoma State offensive line coach Joe Wickline invented the three-back “Diamond formation,” the run plays they used from that formation used almost exclusively zone blocking.
All of which made Holgorsen’s latest evolution interesting. When former WVU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh left for Oklahoma, Holgorsen hired Ron Crook, a longtime line coach who had spent two seasons at Stanford coaching tackles and tight-ends, with one of the explicit reasons being he wanted to integrate power football into his Air Raid philosophy.
“One of the things that impressed me about [Holgorsen] was he said, ‘I felt like our style didn’t give us a chance to play to the level we needed to play to and I think there are some things we need to change,’” Crook recalls from that first meeting. “I think I was excited that here’s a head coach who has had a lot of success doing things a certain way, but has recognized there’s something he wants to change and he’s going out and doing it.”
That only manifested itself in fits and starts the last couple of seasons, but this year — and really, in the middle of this year — Holgorsen, Crook and WVU really committed to the Power/Counter run game featuring pulling guards and fullbacks kicking out defensive ends and wrapping up to linebackers, in part because the strength of the team was in its runners but also because of shortcomings in the passing game. But there’s no question it fueled the Mountaineers four game win streak. And one of the fascinating thing were all the variations Holgorsen showed. (Videos courtesy of Mike Casazza.)
In addition to typical power — fullback kicks out the defensive end, backside guard wraps and pulls to linebacker — Holgorsen’s team made steady use of Counter, which simply flips the assignments of the two with the backside guard kicking out the defensive end and the fullback/H-back wrapping for the linebacker.
They ran this scheme from a variety of formations, including a nifty version from splitbacks with the playside RB taking counter steps so he can follow the other RB leading the way.
West Virginia also ran this scheme from the three-back Diamond formation, with the backside guard kicking out the end man on the line of scrimmage and the two fullbacks both leading the way to the linebackers.
But maybe the most interesting stuff Holgorsen did — particularly for a so-called Air Raid disciple — was how he integrated his quarterback into the schemes. For example, Holgorsen got a lot of mileage out of running quarterback power with some simple packaged plays with receiver screens or short stick concepts to the outside, and letting his QB throw the screens or quick passes or keep it himself on the inside run.
Yet what really got me was seeing Dana Holgorsen run a Power-I mashup, with a QB power plus another lead blocker, as shown below.
None of these concepts are new — Power/Counter is the second most popular running scheme in the NFL and College Football — but I think it says something about the state of football strategy that one of the key innovators in the Air Raid lineage is integrating Power-I and even single wing football concepts into the offense.
West Virginia rode these concepts to finish second in the Big 12 in rushing with over 235 yards per game on the ground — including 299 yards per game in WVU’s four game November win streak — which in turn ultimately saved Holgo’s job, though the events of the last few weeks makes one wonder exactly how much longer it’s been saved for. Indeed, after issuing his formal statement, WVU’s AD later made these remarks about Holgorsen’s contract, which expires in just two seasons, a rarity for college coaches in light of the four-year recruiting cycle.
“We haven’t gotten to that point,” Lyons said. “We will talk to [Holgorsen] about the current contract in the coming weeks. We’re looking at it one way; he’s looking at it from a different standpoint.
“There’s no specific timeline for this though. Dana will be our coach in 2016. We may get it done by the end of this week or next. We may not.
“His agent has brought [renegotiating] up and I have to see what he’s proposing. I’m not sure what he’s looking for. Also, I have some things in mind.”
That sounds… not promising? Also, I’m pretty sure the way the WVU AD is looking at it is giving Holgorsen an extension while reducing the impact of terminating Holgorsen early.
In any event, the question of whether Holgorsen should be back is really a question about what’s appropriate for West Virginia as a Big 12 team. If Alabama goes 7-6, 4-8, 7-6 and 7-5, you better believe that coach is getting fired. On the other hand, Glen Mason at Minnesota had a career record of 64-57 and was fired after going 10-3, 7-5, 7-5 and 6-7 in his last four seasons; Mason’s replacement, Tim Brewster, went 1-11 the next season and was fired in the middle of the 2010 season with a cumulative record of 15-30. Sometimes 7-5 isn’t too bad. (For reference, legendary WVU coach Don Nehlen’s average season record was approximately 7-5.)
In the Power 5 era, with the specter of continued conference realignment always looming, the pressure is on schools to not accept anything less than top tier results, and it’s fair for 2016 to be a make-or-break year for Holgorsen’s WVU tenure. But if 2016 is his last season, WVU better nail the hire. Just ask Minnesota.
– Wall Street Journal on Baylor’s lazy routes (which I wrote about here)
– La’el Collins!
– Matt Waldman on Trevone Boykin
– Wade Phillips’s defensive call sheet
– Yikes: Bill Belichick on Marv Levy (from 1995):
The relationship was strained last week when Bill Belichick of the Browns took potshots at Marv Levy of the Bills for suggesting the Browns faked injuries to slow the no-huddle offense Monday night. Levy has made the suggestion in the past about other teams, including the New York Giants when Belichick was the team’s defensive coordinator.
Belichick replied: “I think that’s a bunch of garbage. It’s hard for me to have respect for Levy for saying that. It’s demeaning.” It’s almost unheard of in the NFL for one coach to publicly criticize another coach’s ability, but Belichick even did that.
“Here’s a guy offensively who came in and tried to run the Wing-T offense in Kansas City. That was brilliant,” he said. Belichick then noted how the Bills went back to the no-huddle at half-time of the Carolina game two weeks ago.
“The best thing he did was turn the offense over to Jim Kelly in the second half of the Carolina game and against us,” he said. “There’s a guy, Jim Kelly, who can run an offense and move an offense. Unfortunately, he (Levy) didn’t call more plays against us, like he did against Carolina. I would much rather go against him than Jim Kelly.”
– Books keep getting longer
– Ohio State’s issues on offense in 2015
– Coaching the two-gap nose
– Nifty: Bengals run four verticals from the Emory & Henry formation. Watch the Steelers defensive backs engage with both of Cincinnati’s tackles split wide and take themselves out of the play.
On an extremely brief personal note, suffice to say the season has gone rather quickly, as my non-football work has been extremely busy, we moved into a house just outside of New York City (I still commute to the City), and we just had our second child (on Thanksgiving!), another beautiful little girl. Oh, and Grantland died, which was… suboptimal. I have little to add to that subject beyond the countless words already spilled, other than to say I was fortunate to have any association whatsoever with such a talented group of people, all of whom I am indebted to in countless ways and further that I will always remain a fan of everyone there.
The Grantland development has also caused many to ask me what my plans are, who I’ll be writing for, and so on. There’s some meta-questions about all of this I’m still working through, but the short answer is that I asked ESPN to break my contract with them and they have now agreed to do so, and my plan (for now) is to (1) get back to writing on smartfootball.com more frequently, mostly shorter pieces or collections of thoughts as is this case with this piece, (2) write feature pieces for other publications (i.e., freelance), including for ESPN where there are a number of people I have great respect for, many of whom I consider friends, and (3) use this site as a platform for other projects and ideas, including hopefully featuring the writing of some other excellent strategy writers, though likely on a small scale. Number 3 is the least well developed idea of the three, as I already have pieces for other publications in the works, though the idea of continuing to grow the idea behind Smart Football is exciting to me.
Thank you all for the support over the years, and please don’t hesitate to email me at chris [at] smartfootball.com.]]>
The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015
The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015 (excluding The Art of Smart Football and The Essential Smart Football)
Below is a list of the books with links. Note that I simply included the top books and did not include a separate “other” category.