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.

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The “smash” route against man coverage

I have previously discussed the smash concept, where an outside receiver runs a short flat or “hitch” route while an inside receiver breaks to the corner. The play works well against cover two zones in particular because it puts the cornerback in a bind: if he plays the man in front of him he opens up a big are for the quarterback to throw the corner route behind him.

smash

One reason this play is useful, however, is because it does more than attack this zone aspect. Again man-to-man coverage the corner route is a very good option — so long as the throw is precise and the route is good. One reason for this is because many defenses who play man coverage use inside leverage to take away the quick slant passes that can gash them for big plays and are easy throws.

Cover 1 RobberMoreover, many man defenses use a deep free-safety or an inside “floater” or “robber” player whose job is simply to read the quarterback’s eyes. The advantage of the corner route is that the throw is away from all these inside defenders who can gum up a normal “who has beaten his man” read.

Finally, the fact that it is the inside receiver rather than the outside one who runs the corner route can get the offense some favorable matchups: Most defenses put their cornerbacks in man coverage on the outside receivers; the inside receivers are thus often guarded by safeties or linebackers or substitute “nickel back” players.

All of these advantages were on display in Penn State’s game against Michigan, as the Nittany Lions scored on the same smash concept from the same formation against the same coverage (indeed, same receiver) twice. Below is a diagram of their play, followed by video, courtesy of mgoblog.

1SMASHGIF

Below is the video:

What I’ve been reading

1Football’s Eagle and Stack Defenses, by Ron Vanderlinden, currently Penn State’s linebackers coach. This is a solid book on one particular defense, though much of it has general applicability. Fortunately you can read most of it online via Google Books, here.

2. Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow. Sad, funny, wistful (I enjoy the fake-word “wisty” as a descriptor). I’m only about halfway through but it’s written beautifully and thus is recommended. Not for everyone, I suppose, but I enjoy it.

3. Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System — and Themselves, by Andrew Ross Sorkin. This book has no real policy analysis, no economics, and no politics, and these are strengths; it is a blow-by-blow of the End Of Days Scenario that was our recent financial crisis. I wasn’t going to pick this up (it’s not a short book), but I read some of the excerpts online and found them gripping. Indeed, someone mentioned that they imagined Sorkin writing this in one long manic Kerouacian frenzy, and it does read like that. Again, this is a compliment.

4. The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy, by Bill Simmons (The Sports Guy). Someone picked this up for me. This is another of those too-long books that I nevertheless am tempted to hunker down and read. In particular, I am intrigued by this review of the book by economist/polymath Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution:

Could this be the best 736 pp. book on the diversity of human talent ever written?  It starts slow but eventually picks up steam.  It’s also devastatingly funny.  That said, if you don’t know a lot about the NBA, it is incomprehensible.  (I could not, for instance, understand the section of Dolph Schayes because that was not the NBA I know.)  In the historical pantheon, he picks David Thompson, Bernard King, and Allen Iverson as underrated.  The 1986 Boston Celtics are the best team ever, he argues.  And so on.  I found this more riveting than almost anything else I read and yes I think it is very much a work of social science, albeit in hermetic form.

Flashback: Oklahoma vs. Nebraska

I recently stumbled on these great (and long) clips on youtube of the 2000 Oklahoma-Nebraska game. Then #1 Nebraska got out to an early 14-0 lead before OU scored 24 points in the second quarter and went on to win 31-14. The game featured two of my favorite quarterbacks of the last decade, the brilliant Eric Crouch and the wily Josh Heupel, running two of my favorite offenses ever: the Nebraska I-option attack and the Airraid offense. (Mike Leach had installed the Airraid at Oklahoma and then left to become head coach of Texas Tech. In 2000 Oklahoma used the old school, Kentucky era Airraid, full of two-back sets and the staple plays like mesh, Y-corner, all-curl, and — on the famous post route to Curtis Fagan for a touchdown against an all-out blitz — Y-cross. Oklahoma would later evolve away from the true Airraid under both then offensive coordinator Mark Mangino and later current Kevin Wilson, among other coaches.)

Oklahoma of course had the better day against a Nebraska defense intent on blitzing. And Heupel, a noodle armed JUCO transfer whose receiver targets consisted of a slew of converted runningbacks and defensive backs (Stoops was only in his second year at OU), showed that being a great quarterback can be as much about brains and accuracy as it has anything to do with arm strength or raw athleticism.

(Incidentally, before watching these clips again I had forgotten what a good jet sweep team Oklahoma was at the time. I used to watch the passing cutups of the ’99 and 2000 OU teams over and over and over, but had forgotten this aspect of their run game.)

Outside zone variant: The “pin-and-pull”

I recently wrote a post giving a very simple explanation of the outside zone and zone runs in general. One popular variant that I did not discuss was the “pin and pull” zone. The Indianapolis Colts use this variant quite a bit, as did the Minnesota Gophers back when they had Lawrence Maroney and Marion Barber under Glen Mason. This is a staple of the one-back, two-tight end offenses that the Colts use and was famously used by Elliott Uzelac as offensive coordinator for the Colorado Buffaloes in the early 1990s.

Here is a basic explanation. Generally, one way to think of it is that uncovered linemen pull; alternatively uncovered linemen “block back” to get a good angle and the covered linemen pull. Just depends how you teach it. Here are some sample rules:

The aiming point for the Single Back is one yard outside of the tight-end.

If the Center can reach the Nose he will make a “you” call to the strongside guard telling him to pull and block the middle (“Mike”) linebacker. The strongside tackle and tight-end will “tex” — i.e. an exchange: the tight-end blocks down while the tackle wraps around. The tight-end down blocks to prevent penetration; the tackle pulls and runs to reach the strongside (“Sam”) linebacker.

If the center cannot reach the nose he will make a “me” call to the strong guard telling him to block the nose and the center will pull to block the “Mike.” The strongside guard blocks down and to disallow the noseguard from penetrating. The strong tackle and tight-end will “Tex” as described above.

flex

Below is a video of Penn State using what was, apparently, the pin and pull zone. (Courtesy of mgoblog.)

(Note that I could be wrong on identifying this as an example of “pin and pull,” as it could be a simple down or “G” scheme. Though the idea gets across.)

Improving a quarterback’s throwing motion

[The following is from noted quarterback guru Darin Slack. Check out his site and find out about his camps, materials, and the like.]

tombrady1There’s an old coaching adage that “you can’t change a throwing motion! A quarterback either can throw or he can’t. Period.”

You hear this all the time, this idea that a quarterback’s mechanics can’t be changed. Commentators, football dads, and coaches proclaim, “It’s impossible to change a quarterback’s throwing motion. Just coach his footwork.” Older quarterbacks in particular get subjected to this tunnel vision.

It says more about the coaches than it does the kid. The message it sends, however, is that, “We don’t have time to improve a kid’s throwing mechanics. Or we don’t know how — we don’t have the technical skills needed to coach them up. Why bother if we can just go find another kid who can already throw it better, without coaching”?

But what is passing talent? The mentality that some kids “have it” while others don’t shouldn’t apply to throwing in the same way it might to raw speed or quickness. Yet it comes up so often. There are many high-profile “athlete-quarterbacks” who are world-class athletes but aren’t very accurate. They can throw a spiral and an accurate pass or two, but because of their latent talent the theory is that the best thing to do is just to “let them play” and the last thing you should do is “overcoach” them. The old myth comes back: Just coach their feet; ignore the upper body.

But that’s only the most high-profile example. There are thousands of high school kids that receive almost no coaching of their passing mechanics. At best they get a few throwing drills. The result is thousands of young players who are given no the opportunity to develop. For the great-athlete quarterbacks, the lack of coaching puts a cap on their success and hurts their team’s passing games. For the less talented kids, they simply never see the field or get moved to new positions. If they ask for help, it’s that same refrain again: “Let’s work on your footwork.” Yet aren’t the feet are the farthest appendage from where you throw a ball from? Don’t you throw it with your arm?

Lack of coaching or not, the expectations remain: Perform at a high level or face criticism or the bench. The “can’t coach a throwing motion” myth prejudices the careers of many young men. Not all quarterbacks make it to the NFL but all want to succeed. Ignoring the upper body is like only coaching half the kid.

Ironically, the same coaches who preach a “footwork only” gospel also throw out plenty of meaningless buzz-phrases in lieu of actual coaching: “Follow through,” “Come over the top more,” “Raise your elbow,” “Turn your shoulders more.” This double standard of non-coaching and coaching-via-cliché is confusing — for both the coach and the kid.

If all you know are the same old cliches then you’re insulting your players’ intelligences, and if you’re insulting their intelligences then, over time, you will prove yourself to know very little. Because the stuff you’re saying won’t work. It might work a time or two, but you won’t have all the answers, as so much of it will be guessing on your part. And once that happens the players will start just fiddling with it themselves, drawing their own ad hoc conclusions about what works best. The result is typically not pretty.

Can you improve a quarterback’s throwing motion? Yes, but it’s important to use the right methods. As stated above, the old way is to focus on footwork only and then sprinkle in clichés throughout practice. Our way is different. We teach quarterbacks to “self-correct, not self-destruct,” through a central focus on the arm. We do this by teaching simple biomechanics concepts that are universal and non-negotiable, and yet provide powerful results that inform the footwork to support the entire process.

Here are two simple biomechanical examples to improve a throwing motion in the wrist and elbow. The wrist should be pronated, or turned over, on the release (see the images below), yet there are countless ways the wrist can move and only some are correct — the bad variations can create problems.

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You be the offensive coordinator/quarterback: Dealing with the blitz

In my most recent post for Dr Saturday I discussed some of Florida’s struggles on offense. The particular topic was some of Florida’s struggles in pass protection in all phases: accounting for potential rushers, sustaining the blocks, the receivers getting open on time, and the quarterback delivering the ball on time. In the post I showed what went wrong on the play, as the video below shows.

But it’s much easier to show what went wrong than it is to answer: What would you have done differently? Specifically, let’s say you are the OC who can signal a play in or you are the quarterback with a menu of checks and calls at the line. Your squad lines up in five wide, on third and goal (your team is leading), and the other team is showing a man blitz. Here’s what you see (the receivers are all covered down by guys showing man-to-man).

1_empty

You know they have at least a possible six guys to blitz against your five, if not more if they don’t cover down on one of the slots at the snap. Below is a diagram of the play Florida had called — a double smash concept. Note that the rule for the outside receiver’s in man is to convert the route to some kind of pivot route to the outside.

1_EMPTYSMASH

So what do you do here? Here is a non-exhaustive list of options. You make the call.

  1. Stick with the play as called. Although they have one more guy than you can block, your other guys should protect well, the QB should step up in the pocket, and throw the corner route (or another route) before the blitzer gets there. It was an execution problem.
  2. Call timeout. You can’t block all their guys, and have a bad playcall. Try again.
  3. Check to a short, three-step pass. Yes it is third and goal but better to throw a short completion with a chance to run it into the end zone.
  4. Check to a three step fade pass. You need to throw it into the end zone but don’t have time for any other play that gets it into the end zone.
  5. No need for a check, but the play should have a “sight-adjust” built in, where if the QB and receivers both read blitz they break off their route for a slant. Yes this read can get muddied against zone blitzes, but this is the right situation for it. Everyone should read this on the fly.
  6. Check the play to a receiver screen. Same philosophy as the short pass — get it to an athlete with some room to run, though this time with some blockers.
  7. Check to a quarterback trap or draw. You have an excellent runner at quarterback, why not use him? Yes it is third and long but you avoid the dangerous play, and if you block the trap or draw right and their defenders are too aggressive, you might score.
  8. Stay with the same playcall, but make a call to shift one of the split receivers in tight to be an extra blocker. Yes they can always blitz one more than you can block, but might as well put on a full six-man gap scheme and force the extra rusher to come from further away.
  9. Shift a receiver in to act as a runningback for a more advanced run play, like the speed option or a zone read. This is basically a full audible with a change of formation and playcall. Note that the defense could adjust too, given this opportunity.
  10. Some other option I haven’t listed.

Now, no team would give their quarterback this many options at the line, but most teams give their quarterback the ability to get into at least three of these. Some (like the sight-adjust) is either built into the offense or it isn’t.

So what is it? You make the call.

The slant concept: Iowa’s game winner

Iowa, a team that seems to thrive on dramatic finishes, pulled off one of the biggest of Kirk Ferentz’s tenure last weekend against Michigan State, as Ricky Stanzi threw a touchdown pass as time expired for the Hawkeye victory. The play itself was as simple as it gets: The old slant/shoot combination, which dates back at least as far back as Paul Brown’s teams. Bill Walsh of course made it even more famous, as his receivers frequently caught slant passes and took them for long touchdowns.

As you can see, it worked very well, as Michigan State played man coverage and went with an all-out blitz. Stanzi was able to deliver the ball before Michigan State’s unblocked defender (who came from Stanzi’s right) could get there. The slant’s quickness is one of its advantages.

In the play, Stanzi went to his single receiver — i.e. his split end — who had single, man coverage. But on the other side Iowa ran the same slant concept except with three receivers: The outermost guy ran a slant, the inside slot ran a slant as well, and the H-back, the innermost receiver, ran to the flat.

iowaslant

This leads to the other aspect of the play, the wrinkle that helped it succeed: The motion by the H-back/tight-end before the snap. He began on the left side of the formation and motioned across. Why was this relevant? Watch the clip above again. What did Michigan State do? A single defender followed the H-back across — a clear indicator that the defense was in man coverage. Knowing this, Stanzi knew that his backside receiver was one-on-one, and he went to him.

But what if they hadn’t reacted this way? Had Michigan State, rather than having a man follow the H-back instead “bumped across” so that a defender on the offense’s left merely repositioned slightly to account for the new receiver, this would have indicated that the play was zone. And unless the zone was very unbalanced to the single receiver, Stanzi would have no doubt looked to the three receiver side as a kind of flood for the zone. His read would have been the flat defender: if he widened for the tight-end in the flat, the slant should be open; if he hangs back then the tight-end ought to be open in the flat.

So Iowa won the game using one of the most basic plays in football, but they didn’t do it without a bit of knowledge about what they were getting into. Now, it bears noting that modern defenses can disguise their man or zone reactions to motion, but it remains a useful tool. It certainly was that for Iowa.

(H/t Brophy for the video.)

Quarterback film study with Mike Leach

Excellent article from rivals.com. Do read the whole thing:

That brings us here, to Texas Tech’s football complex. It’s almost 6 p.m., and it’s time to get to work. A visit from Kansas looms, and it’s time to watch film with one of the nation’s most innovative coaches and his crew of quarterbacks.

Tech quarterbacks have led the nation in passing six times in nine seasons under Leach, and this season’s group is assembled in a meeting room adjacent to Leach’s office to watch film of the A&M debacle. Taylor Potts, Seth Doege, Steven Sheffield, Garrett Riley and Jacob Karam sit at a long conference table. Most slouch or recline, feet propped on a nearby chair and necks craned at a big screen.

X’s and O’s are scribbled on a nearby greaseboard. A phrase is scrawled along the top of the board: “Reads = QBs. Have your eyes in the proper place and deliver the ball to the right player at the right time.”

Wearing a black “Texas Tech Football” pullover and cargo shorts, Leach sits at the head of the table like a pigskin CEO, in front of a paper plate that once was covered with pulled pork, baked beans and coleslaw. His gray hair mussed, Leach surveys a schedule for tonight’s 8 p.m. practice as he sips iced tea. The room is silent, then Leach flips the lights and the show begins.

This is the official start of game week and the first of several film sessions for Leach and his quarterbacks, who already have watched film with the rest of the offense.

Tonight, though, the quarterbacks will review clips from the previous day’s game with just Leach. The players are given Mondays off. On Tuesdays, the quarterbacks watch film cut-ups of the upcoming opponent’s defense. On Wednesdays, the quarterbacks watch more film of their foe along with film from the previous day’s practice. That’s repeated on Thursdays and Fridays.

“This is where the scheme meets the reality,” Leach says before the film session. “On Mondays, when the players are off, the staff pores over film of the opponent and develops the game plan. It’s a long day. I probably end up watching about 30 hours of film a week. The quarterbacks probably watch about eight.”

The formula works. Since arriving in west Texas in 2000, Leach has become the face of this school, making Texas Tech one of the country’s most dynamic – and talked-about – offenses. You think of Texas Tech, you think of Leach, his mad-scientist attack and his fascination with pirates.

In the film room, the video has rolled for less than a minute before Leach spots something he doesn’t like from Potts. This will happen often on this evening. Potts was seeing his first action since suffering a concussion against New Mexico on Oct. 3; he ended up being benched at halftime and replaced by Doege.

“What did you see here?” Leach asks. “[Wide receiver] Detron [Lewis] really wasn’t open. You should have gone to this guy. You had leverage and he was open there for a moment. You can’t hold the ball that long.”

Potts’ final numbers didn’t look bad, as he completed 25 of 36 passes for 310 yards with two touchdowns. But he also had two interceptions and lost a fumble, and after the game, Leach described Potts as “statue-like.”

On the screen, Potts is getting sacked. “You have to feel this and step up,” Leach says. “It’s only one guy and he’s not on your blind side. You need to step up and avoid this.”

As Leach runs the play back – again and again – he lobs critiques at his pupils in a conversational manner; he doesn’t raise his voice, though he occasionally curses. It’s essentially a one-way exchange throughout the entire session, as the quarterbacks either offer a “yes, sir” or a nod.

On the screen, Potts is throwing an interception in the end zone. “No, we can’t have that,” says Leach, using a laser pointer to highlight an open receiver that Potts missed. “We don’t practice that, do we?

“We have an entire offense that needs to listen better. If you see that the group is anxious, huddle them up to calm them down. Make sure your messages are delivered with confidence. You need to relax. For whatever reason, you are struggling.”

Still, Leach doesn’t want to harp on the negative too much. It’s important to inject a positive message. There’s still a lot of football to be played this season.

“What did you see on that play?” Leach asks.

“I thought the receiver in the boundary was covered, so I looked to my option cutting over the middle,” Potts answers. “It looked like he was open, but their defensive back closed quickly.”

On the screen, the Tech offense rolls on.

“I think we are playing at a pretty high level here,” Leach says. “Go through your progressions. Nice job here, Seth. But I know you guys can do better.” . . . .

Doege is soaking it all in on this Sunday night. He watches and listens as the second-half tape continues to cycle by with him under center. This is his big chance. A quarterback controversy may be brewing in Lubbock, and Doege may end up starting this week against Kansas. He wants to be ready.

“That check is good, but we have some guys who are trying to do too much,” Leach says. “You did a good job on your reads. You found the hot receiver.”

Doege nods and says, “Yes, sir.”

“Good job moving your feet and staying out of trouble,” Leach says. “But when the safety went here, you should have gone here with this throw.”

On the screen, Doege drops back and fires a nice pass – which is dropped.

After about an hour, Leach has seen enough.

“Someone hit the lights.”

The first film session of the week is finished. Leach has Potts wait in the film room and tells Doege to wait in his office. Leach wants to talk to each quarterback in private, presumably to tell them who will start against Kansas.

The one-on-one sessions last about 10 minutes before the quarterbacks leave to get dressed for practice. Leach scribbles some notes on his practice agenda. There’s lots of work to do, and Leach will be back in his captain’s chair later.

Now, he pulls on a jacket and heads toward the stadium for practice. It’s cold out, about 40 degrees. The door closes behind him. The next game is six days away.

And here’s a quote from a drop caption in the article: “I would say Kliff [Kingsbury] and Graham [Harrell] liked [watching film] the most of all of my guys,” Leach says. “Those two were sons of coaches, so I think they came by in naturally. They really enjoyed it and were like gym rats.”

(H/t doubletnation.com)

On Florida’s offensive struggles, especially in pass protection

Read all about it over at Yahoo!’s Dr Saturday. Thanks as always to the Doc for the digital space.