Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys and Third Level RPO/Packaged Play Reads

Dallas Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott had about as good of a preseason debut as any rookie could ask for: Prescott finished the game 10 of 12 for 139 yards and two touchdowns, including a perfect strike to receiver Terrance Williams down the sideline. But as impressive as that throw was, Prescott’s most impressive trait was his calm and poise: In an opening weekend when higher profile rookie QBs like Jared Goff and Carson Wentz looked at times shaky and off-kilter, Prescott looked like a vet. So while there’s no need to get the hype train rolling too fast — it was one preseason game, and Prescott was facing almost entirely backups and guys who likely won’t make the roster — it was a great start.

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.

Corey Coleman

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:

Prescott

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.

Farewell to Peyton Manning: Quarterback, Gamesman

Peyton Manning announced that he has played his last down of football, and it’s a sad day for any football fan, particularly this one. It’s also simply difficult to fathom a football season that doesn’t include him: His NFL career spanned an incredible eighteen seasons, which, when combined with his four seasons as a starter at Tennessee, means he’s been the starting QB of a major college or NFL team for the last twenty two years; it’s been a very long time since we’ve had football without Peyton Manning’s exploits to marvel at. (And, albeit in the pre-internet/recruiting services age, Manning was as high profile of a recruit out of high school as they come; here’s a long-form Sports Illustrated piece on him from 1993.)

peyton-manning12I’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:

DigPump

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.

touchdown

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Alabama’s Lane Kiffin: Master Copycat

The hallmark of Joe Gibbs’s Washington teams of the 1980s and 1990s was the Counter Trey or Counter Gap play, which featured the backside guard and backside tackle (two members of the Hogs) pulling to lead the way for John Riggins and Washington’s other powerful backs. The play became synonymous with Gibbs and Washington, and many credit his success with it as the reason why it is so ubiquitous in football today.

Kiffin

You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song

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.

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Smart Notes — Christian McCaffrey’s Halfback Option, Holgorsen’s Power Football, Belichick on Marv Levy, Emory & Henry Formation

McCaffrey’s Y-Stick, Halfback Option

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.

christian

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.

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New Grantland: Inside the Evolution (and Oregonification) of Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Offense

It’s now up over at Grantand:

At Florida, Meyer’s offense revolved almost entirely around the quarterback. From 2007 through 2009, Tim Tebow led the SEC in pass efficiency while also leading the Gators in rushing yards, and the lasting image of those UF offenses is of Tebow plunging into the line on power runs. That approach worked with a 6-foot-3, 235-pound rhinoceros at quarterback, but with Tebow off to the NFL in 2010, Florida’s offense began to fall apart, and the Gators limped to an 8-5 finish. Meyer stepped away from the game in 2011 to spend more time with family, and during that time he was able to study many of the sport’s most innovative coaches and schemes. When Meyer rejoined the coaching ranks and started searching for a coordinator who could mesh the newest trends with what Meyer had done before, he asked around for suggestions, and several of his closest friends in the business suggested the same name: Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Herman.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: June Jones’s Retirement, and the Lasting Influence (and Possible End) of the Run-and-Shoot

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Yet Jones’s most important contribution to football will be his association with the run-and-shoot. It was an offense he first encountered as a record-breaking quarterback at Portland State while playing for Darell “Mouse” Davis. The run-and-shoot was developed by Glenn “Tiger” Ellison.2 Sometime in the mid-1950s, Ellison stopped to watch a group of kids play backyard football. Instead of huddling and running off-tackle, as his team did, the kids played a free-flowing game. The quarterback ran around while his receivers improvised ways to get open. Ellison’s insight was to channel his players’ improvisational instincts into an offense that could be run at any level. The run-and-shoot was born.

Some years later, Davis refined Ellison’s insights into a few four-receiver formations and a handful of pass concepts, where each receiver had the freedom to run three, four, five, or sometimes as many as six different adjustments, based on how the defense played. One “play” in the run-and-shoot could become, on the fly, the equivalent of 20 or 30 plays in a traditional offense. “The concept of reading the coverage, nobody did it,” Jones told CBSSports. “Nobody in the NFL [in the late 1970s and early 1980s] allowed their receivers to read coverage. If you’re running a curl, you’re running a curl. That was it. There was no conversion.”

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: The Cowboys’ Jason Witten: Master of the Option Route

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Despite its backyard beginnings, there are specific coaching points on an option route. The first thing Witten must do is identify the defender over him and attack that defender’s leverage on his release from the line, typically by running directly at him. By running right at that defender — which is usually a linebacker or safety — Witten forces the defense to reveal how it is playing him. There are basically two things that can happen: The defense will either play zone or man-to-man. This does not always mean that what Witten identifies is literally what the defense has called, particularly in an NFL with increasingly complicated coverages, but by classifying them this way Witten is able to cut through the confusion and defeat whatever technique he faces.

Read the whole thing.

Tim Tebow’s Last Chance

I watched Tim Tebow play before I had any idea who he was. I occasionally feel oddly fortunate for that fact, as very few people can say the same. Since at least the time he was a freshman at Florida, his reputation — really, his mythos — has preceded him: from heavily hyped Florida recruit to Heisman winner to on-campus living legend, and then to shocking first round draft pick to fan (and Skip Bayless favorite) to New York Jets sideshow, it’s become effectively impossible to watch Tebow play without also seeing the incredible amount of hype and baggage that follows him. This talented but flawed quarterback — born to Christian missionary parents in the Philippines, raised in Florida and, for a time, the face of football’s spread offense and read-option revolutions — has come to embody alternatively the dreams and nightmares of so many football fans.

Simpler times

Simpler times

In 2013 one therefore can’t simply “put on tape of Tim Tebow” and evaluate him as a player. Instead, in what may be his one truly great skill, any attempt to evaluate Tim inevitably results in something else: you end up also evaluating yourself, whether you realize it or not. Include me in this, too.

But in 2005, on the recommendation of one of my coaching buddies, I taped a game Tebow played in, without knowing who he was. As high school football has gotten more successful — and commercial — there’s been a rise in featured “matchup” games set up by promoters and marketed to fans as well as TV networks. This game, between Hoover High School of Alabama, and Nease High School in Florida, was a made-for-TV concoction designed to pit the most high profile team in Alabama against the most high profile high school quarterback in Florida — and maybe the country. My friend recommended taping it fundamentally because of the offenses: Hoover, under then coach Rush Probst, was a “client” of now-Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s “System” and had ridden it to several Alabama state titles in recent years. Nease, meanwhile, had exploded into one of the most explosive teams in the country using a kind of hybrid spread offense which combined zone reads with downfield passing to average close to 50 points a game. (While one might wonder how much you can learn from watching a high school game, remember that this was 2005 and we’re still talking about both of those offensive systems today.)

When I began watching the game two things became clear very quickly: Hoover was the far superior team at essentially every position, but the Tebow kid was basically carrying his team. Nease lost convingly, 50-29, but Tebow racked up over 422 yards of offense, including 398 through the air, and could’ve had 500 yards if his receivers would’ve avoided some costly drops. I don’t much care for recruiting, but Tebow — about whom I knew nothing before I began watching — jumped out at me to the point where I took some scouting notes on him, notes which I recently dug up:

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Designing a Complete Passing System — Excerpt from Dan Gonzalez’s “Recoded and Reloaded”

The below is an excerpt from the new book by passing guru and friend of Smart Football, Dan Gonzalez, titled Recoded and Reloaded: An Updated Structure for a Complete Passing Game at Any Level, which expands and builds on his earlier book, Concept Passing. You can find the book on Amazon and CreateSpace.

For all the talk in football about “systems” — the Air Raid system, the West Coast Offense, the Run and Shoot, a Pro-Style System — there is very little discussion of how does one go about building an effective system, and what makes a system effective. There are a few cliches that everyone throws around when discussing systems, that each seem to contradict each other: they have to “have answers” while being “simple”; they have to be “easy to learn and communicate” but be “flexible” enough to account for “multiplicity”; and they have to be “cutting edge” and “new” but still rely on “sound football principles.” This isn’t to say all of this can’t be accomplished — I believe they can — but it’s clearly not easy. I put a significant amount of thought into this as I wanted to rework my existing passing system.

I began by trying to simplify the existing system. But, while simplifying a structure to accommodate beginning learners is relatively easy, as all you may need to do is simply be a matter of stripping away layers from a complex organization, you might be left with something very incomplete. You might be “simple” but not have “sufficient answers.”

Because of my coaching background, a system overhaul required not only accommodating the most basic in features; the ability of the scheme to “grow” into a complete pattern system is a non-negotiable as well.   So what makes a pattern system complete?  As a fledgling coach, the great Homer Smith’s influence on how I conceptualized the passing game could not be overemphasized.  His willingness to correspond, send me game and drill footage, and converse with me crystallized my vision of what I wanted in my system.   The first page of my quarterback manual reiterates what he imparted to me, namely the characteristics I’ve outlined below. It’s my belief that any well designed passing system must have all of these traits.

  • (1) It gives receivers the opportunity to defeat tight man coverage.  This is more than simply having one or two “pick” plays (Figure 2-1) that a team uses.   It encompasses development of release and separation techniques on individual routes, and the emphasis of accuracy and timing on the part of the passer, and having viable options that can separate from man coverage on every pass play.

1

  • (2) Prevents conflict between receivers.  Figure 2-2 shows an example of receivers whose pass routes “bleed” into one another.  In other words, the routes are so close in proximity that two defenders can cover three offensive people.

 

2

Our stretches are designed to isolate a specific defender, and make sure there is enough space so that one defender cannot cover two receivers (Figure 2-3).

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Long live the Air Raid! The Air Raid is Dead?

The Air Raid offense — the pass-first attack developed by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach from the old BYU offense — is seemingly everywhere. In the last couple of weeks, Cal hired former Leach and Mumme assistant Sonny Dykes as well as his offensive coordinator, the mercurial Tony Franklin; Southern Miss hired Oklahoma State’s nouveau guru Todd Monken, after he impressively orchestrated the Cowboys attack over the last two seasons, both with a future first round quarterback and while rotating three different quarterbacks; Mark Stoops is bringing prodigal son Neal Brown back to Kentucky to run the Wildcats’ offense; and Kliff Kingsbury, fresh off his tutelage of Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, returns to his old stomping grounds at Texas Tech to become one of the youngest head coaches in college football history. These new hires, together with existing Air Raid programs, brings my count to ten different college football teams that will all be using some variant of the Air Raid in the fall of 2013.

“OK, loser has to chug a six pack of Red Bull.” “No, the winner does that.”

And when you throw in teams that I consider part of the extended Air Raid family, like Oklahoma, UCLA, and Indiana — offenses heavily Air Raid influenced even if they don’t quite fit the definition — you have thirteen different schools whose offenses are direct descendants of the ideas Mumme and Leach developed at places like Copperas Cove high school, Iowa Wesleyan, and Valdosta State. And last season, nine of the top twenty offenses in the country were among this group — and we’ve only added more Air Raid schools to the mix. As someone who has had his hand in this offense in one way or another for roughly fifteen years, the feeling is not quite vindication; it’s more like contentedness: yes, this is where it all was undoubtedly headed all along, the questions were only how and when.

But there’s another element, maybe less of a feeling so much as it is a realization: This may be as good as it gets. The larger trends are going to continue independent of this offense, contra the wishes of Nick Saban (and, admittedly, maybe every defensive coach in the country): for the foreseeable future at least, the game will continue to get faster and more wide open at basically every level, and athletic directors will continue to hire hotshot offensive coaches who promise yards and points to draw crowds and eyeballs for TV, something increasingly important as schools crane their necks to be noticed in an era of conference realignment. This factors are not unique to the Air Raid, and other attacks, primarily Chip Kelly’s at Oregon, are arguably more famous.

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