Mike Leach: Pistol offense maven?

Mike Leach, now head coach at Washington State, has gone out and hired someone with a little pistol offense pedigree:

One interesting note from the hiring and firing that occupies college football fans for the better part of the holiday season is the hiring of former Nevada and UCLA assistant Jim Mastro by Washington State. Mastro is schooled in the pistol offense, a run-first attack known for cranking out 1,000 yard rushers with regularity. It seems incompatible with Leach’s pass-friendly Air Raid scheme, but it may not be as inharmonious a match as you might think.

Leach protege Dana Holgorsen has worked with integrating the pistol formation and other variants of the scheme into his sets at West Virginia and Oklahoma State. In order to keep his attack fresh and unpredictable in his return to coaching, Leach may be looking to do the same thing by going straight to one of the attack’s sources. It’s a fun tweak, but don’t worry, Cougar fans: Leach will still throw the daylights out of the ball, and then probably pass some more even after he’s all out of daylights, so to speak.

I think this is right: Don’t expect Leach to junk his Airraid anytime soon, though you may see more pistol. What’s interesting is that Leach has talked about the importance of the pistol, contrasting it with, say, the wildcat, which he didn’t think is a lasting change. Instead the pistol, says Leach, will have staying power as it “changes the angles” in the running game. You can see this in the clip below:

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

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

Back to business

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

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

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

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

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

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The double smash pass concept with the runningback deep down the middle

One of the great all-time pass concepts is the “smash” concept, which I’ve previously discussed at length. In the concept, the outside receiver hitches up at five yards while an inside receiver runs a ten-to-twelve yard corner route over the top. This creates a “vertical stretch” on the corner, which is particularly potent against a two-deep Cover Two defense.

The smash is probably best installed with some kind of routes on the backside that attack the middle of the field, that way to keep the safety from overplaying the corner route. Many teams, however, teach the smash to both sides as a “mirrored” concept. This is good, but the problem can come when both safeties overplay the corner route.

But there is a counter. If a team’s safeties overplay the corner route on the smash, you hit them inside. You can have the outside receiver run a delay route back underneath and then upfield underneath the safety, but even better is simply to send someone unexpected into the vacated area: the runningback.

In the example, you can see Oklahoma State call this against a two-deep shell run by Texas A&M. They had overplayed the corner routes, so the variation was simple: throw it deep down the middle to the back in the vacated area. Were Texas A&M to have shown a blitz the quarterback would have checked out of the play (as there were only five protectors), but so long as they got a base two-deep look, the play was there. You can see the result in the video below, after the jump.

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

Given that humans lack clairvoyance, there is no such thing as the perfect play-caller and thus much of the development in football strategy has centered on how to get into (or out of) a given play because the defense is well suited to defend the one that was called. Indeed, quarterbacks have called audibles at the line of scrimmage for decades, and a few years ago the hot idea was calling multiple plays in the huddle.

Let's not make this too complicated

Most famously, Peyton Manning was supposedly given three plays to choose from on every down, though this was likely a bit of hyperbole. Calling two plays in the huddle remains very common, however. The method for this is simple: Two plays are called in the huddle, and then at the line the quarterback either confirms the first play (usually by saying a color) or “killing” the first play which indicates that the second will be run (by saying “kill” at the line). For example, the quarterback might call “Red Right [formation] 24 Wham [run to the right] and 70 curl [pass play].” At the line he’ll either say the confirming word (i.e. “Black! Black!”) or will kill that play so they can run the pass play (i.e. “Kill! Kill!”).

That’s all well and good, but is still cumbersome and, most importantly, the defense can still make the offense wrong after the quarterback has made his decision at the line. Moreover, with the rise of no-huddle offenses, there aren’t as many opportunities to call multiple plays at the line and have the quarterback check into one or another. The name of the game for defenses is confusion and movement, and even at the lower levels you never know how a kid might react. Increasingly, the answer to this has been to package concepts together, such that the quarterback has different options depending on what the defense does after the snap. I previously discussed packaging quick passes with five-step or dropback passes together. This is a great concept, but is quarterback intensive: the quarterback has to look for the quick pass and then reset his feet with depth and then go through another progression — not something every quarterback can do.

The answer has been to combine plays but to simplify the reads for the quarterback. There are three main forms this concept can take: (1) a base run play with a simple pre-snap backside pass concept built in; (2) quick passes combined with a draw play; and (3) quick passes combined with a screen pass. I’ll discuss each in turn.

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

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

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

Video and more doodles after the jump.

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Snag, stick, and the importance of triangles (yes, triangles) in the passing game

When Sid Gillman revolutionized and all but invented the modern passing game, he did it through a “conceptual” approach to pass plays based on three “pass concepts”. Because football is governed by its immutable twins of strategy — arithmetic and geometry — these remain the foundation for all effective pass plays:

Simple stuff

  1. Vertical stretches — These place two or three receivers at different levels vertically up the field to “stretch” the defense. Examples include the smash concept and the frontside flood concept (see here for a diagram and here for  a video). Another name for these are high/low or hi/lo reads.
  2. Horizontal stretches — These place two, three, four, or five receivers horizontally across the field or a portion of it to “stretch” defenders from left to right or right to left (or inside to out or outside to in). Examples include all-curl.
  3. Man or “object receiver” reads — These are not necessarily distinct from the above horizontal and vertical stretches, but the focus is on having a route or combination of routes that will defeat man-to-man coverage. Examples include the mesh concept from the Airraid, bunch passes and option-routes.

These three categories essentially made up the full panoply of choices for the passing game for, well, for a really long time. But at some point — most notably with Bill Walsh’s 49ers — a “new” concept began emerging, though it wasn’t actually new at all but was instead a very clever twist on what Gillman had synthesized. Walsh realized that you could combine the horizontal and the vertical stretch to create a kind of “new” stretch, though one made up of both of Gillman’s first two categories. Moreover, Walsh often combined the two zone beaters — the horizontal and vertical stretch — with the third category, the man beating concept, into a single “triangle” read that also was designed to defeat man coverage. If the perfect pass play was the Holy Grail of modern football, then the triangle is its best personification to date and Walsh its Galahad.

But let’s take a step back to understand why the triangle stretch works, along with its negatives. The best vertical or horizontal stretches use more than two receivers, with three or more receivers being used in various “zone flood” routes. If you caught the defense in the right look it was mathematically impossible for them to defend you: If you ran the three-level flood route against Cover 2, they had two guys (a corner and a safety) to defend three receivers; and if you caught a Cover 3/4-under defense with your all-curl concept, it was easy pick’ins:

All this has been detailed before, and if you can identify what coverage you are facing it is still better to run a true three-level vertical stretch or five-receiver horizontal stretch against the right coverage — if you get that right, there’s very little the defense can do. But, of course, it’s not so easy to figure out what coverage the defense is in before the play; indeed, with the advent of combo coverages and pre- and post-snap shifts, it’s often is difficult to even determine what the coverage was even after the play.

Enter the triangle stretch. The insight behind the triangle is that the horizontal and the vertical stretch are combined to create a single straightforward read for the quarterback that provides answers no matter what the defense presents.

All of the major “new” (in relative terms) passing concepts are based on a triangle read. The weakness of the triangle stretch is that it’s typically only possible to only get a two-man horizontal or vertical stretch, whereas with a true “flood” you can place three (or more) receivers across the field on a given plane to truly defeat a defense. This limitation means that a triangle can be throttled by certain coverages that rotate to the triangle side.

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Airraid screen game and wide receiver blocking

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

And wide receiver blocking drills, after the jump:

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Why every team should install its offense in three days (and other political theories on coaching offense)

Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia’s new offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting, has frequently said that his entire record breaking offense can be installed “in three days.” And, now that his three days of spring practice are up, he said on day four his team will simply “start over,” and will run through this install period three or four times during the spring. Wait, what? Hasn’t Holgorsen been a part of record breaking offenses for more than a decade, including the last three (at Houston and then Oklahoma State) as head orchestrator? Doesn’t saying you can install your entire top tier Division-I men’s college football offense in three lousy days seem a little bit like, I don’t know, bullshit?

Entire offense, three days -- power through

It does, but only because “complexity” is too often accepted as an end in and of itself and because we undervalue gains from specialization. As Holgorsen says, “no one” in his offense will play more than one position; he doesn’t even want someone to play both “inside and outside receiver.” The idea is a simple one: with limited practice time and, to be honest, limited skills, kids need to focus on a few things and to get better at them — the jack of all trades is incredibly overrated. While Urban Meyer’s Florida offense thrived for a time with Tebow and his omnipositional teammate, Percy Harvin, I’d argue that this reliance on a “Percy Position” — a guy that can play most every skill position on offense — eventually does more harm than good. I’m all for getting the ball to playmakers in different ways, but I am not — and neither is Holgorsen — a fan of doing it to the detriment of repetitions and becoming a master at your given position. It’s nature versus nurture on the football practice field, and I side with nurture.

Put another way, if your offense is well designed you don’t need to move a guy around to get him the ball. As one of Holgorsen’s assistants at West Virginia explains:

“Wes Welker at Texas Tech caught over 100 balls two years in a row and he played ‘H,” Dawson said. Michael Crabtree caught over 100 (at Texas Tech) and he play ‘Z.’ I had two receivers back to back that caught over 100 and that played ‘X.’ Then I had a guy catch 119 that played ‘Y.’

“It just depends on where that guy lines up,” Dawson continued. “The ball finds the play makers. Regardless of where you line them up. The ball finds the play makers. That is just the way it works out.”

If you’re looking for the guiding principle here, it is not one specific to football. Instead, it is (at least) as old as the opening of the Wealth of Nations:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.
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How can a pass-first team score more touchdowns in the red zone?

I received this great question from a reader:

We run the Airraid offense, and we’ve noticed that it’s very easy to move the ball down the field to the 20 but then it gets really difficult as the field compresses. We can’t power run because that’s not what we do and it’s hard to throw a lot of stuff because the field is compressed. The options shrink dramatically. Any suggestions?

This falls into the “easier said than done” category, but at the risk of stating the obvious here are some thoughts.

First, and I think Dan Holgorsen has moved in this direction, is to take the philosophy that you need to just run the stinking ball into the end zone. Gus Malzahn (who runs a more run-oriented offense) recently said this was his goal line philosophy to a group of high school coaches. It’s not exactly what you do as an Airraid (or run and shoot, or one-back spread) team but you should have some kind of package — two-back power, that three back set Holgorsen uses, maybe use an H-back, or even a wildcat type deal — as it’s important to get the ball directly forward. I think a lead blocker is key in short yardage because the defense can cover your offensive linemen and thus free up their linebackers to fill. (I think a lead blocker is overrated on normal downs and distance, however, but obviously the advantages to the spread diminish as you get closer in.)

Second, you can create some kind of other little package for “scoring” plays. Georgetown College of KY used to do this. Here is an excellent article describing their methods. They were a true run and shoot team under Red Faught and the later staffs, but also developed this little short yardage special situations package where they used the Delaware Wing-T and a handful of plays off of it — some runs, a speed option, a shovel pass, bootleg, and so on. I think doing something like this is highly doable and doesn’t ruin the rest of your offense. You only need a few plays. They averaged something like 70 points a game over a few seasons. Don’t just say you’re going to be an I-formation team and run the other team over. The Delaware Wing-T thing worked because it was so weird — unbalanced set, wingback — but also completely consistent with their philosophy with all the misdirection and set-up plays despite not being the run and shoot stuff they ran the rest of the time.

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Teaching a quarterback where to throw the football

If your quarterback can’t deliver the ball to the open receiver, it doesn’t matter how well designed, well protected, or otherwise well executed your pass plays are. Surprisingly, however, this supposedly natural skill — the ability to locate and throw the ball to an open receiver — is taught in a variety of ways, some more effective than others. To my mind, there are really essentially two legitimate methods: the progression read and the coverage read. (The illegitimate way is to simply “scan” across — the most common tactic when a quarterback who gets in trouble — but this should never be taught to a young quarterback as an every down technique.)

Progression Reads: A progression read is designed to have two, three, four, or five sequential choices of where to throw the ball. It is important for the quarterback to pre-read the coverage to get an indication of the coverage, but, more importantly, a progression read requires the quarterback to know where each of the receivers will be given the pattern called. This kind of read calls for throwing the ball with rhythm drops — i.e. on a five-step drop, the ball is thrown to the first receiver when the fifth step hits (the “rhythm” throw), the second receiver after a hitch-up or gather step (the “read” or “gather” throw), and the third receiver after resetting the feet.

Limitations of progression reads:

  • A tendency to stare at the receiver that is first in the progression, which attracts other defenders.
  • It is frustrating for coaches to watch because they can see that a receiver who is later in the progression is wide open. Thus coaches need to know the progression as well as the quarterback — the QB’s job is to throw it to the first open receiver in the progression.
  • Quarterbacks will lose patience or think that because the first receiver in the progression was thrown to the first time that he won’t be there when the play is called again. Progression reads require the coach/quarterback not have their mind made up ahead of time.

Coverage reads: The simple form of this requires that a pass concept be called and the quarterback is told to “throw it to this guy if the defender does this; throw it to that guy if the defender does that.” To make this work, the coaches and quarterback must understand the exact coverage called; there might be five receivers deployed but the coverage determines which two or three are “live” for the quarterback. In essence, the quarterback reads defenders, who dictate where the ball will go.
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