Smart Notes – Big 10, Holgorsen, Muschamp – 12/14/2010

Well that’s just disappointing. The new Big 10 logo:


Couple this logo with the new Big 10 division names — Leaders and Legends — and you have, well, yawn. The new championship trophy for the Big 10 will be called the “Staff-Paterno Championship Trophy,” and the trophy for best quarterback will be called the “Griese-Brees” trophy which, while appropriate (it honors two former Purdue QBs who went on to win Super Bowls), sounds strangely dirty. Brian and the mgoblog commenters have generally better division name ideas and logos.

2. Holgorsen, the search. Dana Holgorsen, orchestrator of Oklahoma State’s number one ranked offense, is rumored for a few different jobs. Florida fans are clamoring for him to join Muschamp’s staff at Florida, though this is based only on a few datapoints — i.e. that Muschamp’s defenses struggled at times with Leach’s Airraid at Texas Tech (where Holgorsen was a longtime assistant) and with Oklahoma State, and that Muschamp worked with an Airraid head coach previously in Chris Hatcher — but and not any actual sources. We do know that he interviewed for the head gig at Pittsburgh, and the talk now is that he will join West Virginia, either as offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting, or simply as head coach if Bill Stewart is shown the door after the bowl game.

Regardless of how all this plays out, we know one thing: Holgorsen’s offenses are good. In the last few years, first at Houston and then at Oklahoma State, he has taken the basic Airraid framework developed by Mike Leach and Hal Mumme (who Dana not only coached with but also played for at Iowa Wesleyan) and added his own stamp. I’ve discussed some of this previously, though there is much more to say (it will make a good summer project, which would be aided by the generous donation of game film — hint, hint). For now, I’d say the biggest overarching differences between Leach’s Airraid and Holgorsen’s offense are:

(A) Leach focuses on the Airraid staples, and makes a total commitment in his offense to the mesh play, which combines a high/low vertical stretch (a corner route over a runningback in the flat) with a horizontal stretch (two shallow crossing receivers and either runningbacks or receivers in the flats). This is a great play, but because the receivers show their intentions immediately at the snap, the play can be subject to pattern reading. Leach combats such tactics by “tagging” or altering specific receivers’ routes on the play while keeping the overall structure intact, Holgorsen instead generally prefers to build his passing game off of “vertical stems,” i.e. the receivers all begin their routes by releasing vertically and only show their intentions when they make their break. Now, this is not to say that Dana doesn’t use flat routes or crossing routes — staples of all modern passing games — but instead simply means that the basis for the offense comes from the vertical releases and the pressure this puts on the defense, and he prefers to save those adjustments for specific situations he can call out. Exhibit A in Holgorsen’s offense is four verticals, which he (along with then-fellow Texas Tech assistants Sonny Dykes (Louisiana Tech HC and former Arizona OC), Robert Anae (BYU OC), and Bill Bedenbough (Arizona co-offensive coordinator)) explains in depth in this coaching clinic article.

(B) Holgorsen is more patient than Leach, in that he is more willing to run than his mentor was. As he told Sports Illsustrated’s Andy Staples:

Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen couldn’t help but laugh this week as he created a composite of several dozen similar conversations that took place in the near-decade he spent as coach Mike Leach’s eye in the sky at Texas Tech. Leach would growl into his headset and ask why the Red Raiders’ quarterback took a sack or threw an incomplete pass or an interception.

Leach: “Who was open?”

Holgorsen: “Mike, I know you don’t want to hear this, but there wasn’t anybody open.”

Leach: “What do you mean there wasn’t anybody open?”

Holgorsen: “They dropped nine people and they double-covered all our guys. There was nobody open.”

Leach: “Well, how’d they get pressure on the quarterback?”

Holgorsen: “Well, because one guy can’t block one guy for seven seconds.”

Between games, Holgorsen would entreat Leach to call a few more running plays to keep the defense honest. Leach — who, to be fair, won an awful lot of games doing it his way — usually declined and kept right on calling passes….

“For so many years, I was scheming up plays, I was talking to Coach Leach, I was trying to find specific pass plays to run against a whole bunch of defenders — which gets tough at times,” said Holgorsen, who still calls Leach regularly to talk Xs and Os. “Having [RB Kendall Hunter] back there makes it easy to call plays, because you hand it to him, and he gets yards. Then if you’re not getting yards, there’s usually a pretty good reason for that.”

(C) Holgorsen is also less patient than Leach, however, because the (relatively, at least) greater willingness to run sets up more downfield throwing opportunities. Hal Mumme’s philosophy for the Airraid was “throw the ball short to people who score.” I think Dana Holgorsen’s philosophy has been shortened to simply “score.” This makes sense, too, because there’s good evidence that it’s better to go for chunks of yardage — explosive pass plays — than to simply try and dink and dunk it down the field. Now, in the early days of the spread the dink and dunk was an exceptional strategy, because defenses were unprepared and five yard completions, through the miracle of yards-after-the-catch, often turned into ten- or twenty-yard gains, but now it’s not so easy. Thus, the ability to use aggressively schemed pass plays with misdirection — play-action, fake screens, action passes, etc — is the hallmark of the best passing offenses: Holgorsen’s, Gus Malzahn’s (Auburn), Chris Petersen’s (Boise), and Bobby Petrino’s (Arkansas).

Ultimately though, there are more similarities than differences and, as Holgorsen says (see the video clip below where he talks philosophy), the common thread unifying all the best “Airraid teams” is the way they practice: simple assignments, with specific, football focused drills that allow their players to get maximum repetitions. Many teams preach this but the Airraid guys have figured out to how make practice really work; and really, there is no other way to be successful than to start with how you practice.

3. Muschamp, boom. Florida has hired former LSU/Auburn/Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, and I found out about it in much the same way as most of the national media did: because Tim Tebow tweeted it (apparently from the Heisman ceremony?):

This is a good, if risky, hire. The reality is if you’re hiring a new head coach you are essentially left with two types of candidates: the Nothing But Upside, Wow He’s Fiery/Smart/Personable, But He’s Never Been a Head Coach and the He Seems Fine and Has Head Coaching Experience But Why Is He Available? Occasionally a guy emerges who seems to have it all — like Urban Meyer when he went to Florida originally — but as we’ve seen problems can still emerge there and Florida didn’t exactly get to time it’s choice, as Meyer forced its hand.

How all this ends up is anyone’s guess — and a lot will depend on what kind of offensive staff Muschamp brings to Gainesville — but for now enjoy a couple of good Muschamp stories, courtesy of Chris Hatcher, who was head coach at Valdosta St. while Muschamp served as defensive coordinator (as told to Spencer Hall):

By the way, Chris Hatcher, once you catch him, is happy to tell stories about Muschamp, the new Texas defensive coordinator. There are a few. He once called Hatcher four hours after practice to rage about non-contact whistles costing his players sacks in practice. He also watched Muschamp coach a whole game wearing a makeshift turban made of athletic tape and a headset.

“Third game of our career. We’re playing Southern Arkansas, and we just signed a deal with CSS TV. We’re the first I-AA game they broadcast. I look down the sideline before the game, and a grad assistant is putting pre-wrap around Muschamp’s head. His headset had been smashed to pieces on the plane ride, and he had to find a way to keep his headset on, so he had it taped to his head. He looked like The Red Badge of Courage.”

Hatcher is laughing out loud as he says this, but wants me to make sure Muschamp gets the props, as well.

“Please include this in the article, though: He may the best football coach I’ve ever coached with. He has a knack for getting his kids to play so hard for him. The best, by far, at his job.”

Done. But just try to picture Muschamp without a tape turban this fall after reading that.

4. Quick hits.

– New Miami coach Al Golden works out to the Final Countdown.

Cam Newton does Letterman’s Top Ten.

Gus Malzahn deals the Commodore a blow.

Hunter S. Thompson, Conan O’Brien, guns and hard liquor. (h/t EDSBS.)

– Josh Heupel, former Mike Leach protégé and National Championship winning QB at Oklahoma, will be the new OU playcaller. Showing that the holy grail in college football right now appears to be the quest to get the success of Mike Leach’s offense without the baggage of Mike Leach with it.

The Times reviews a new book about Jim Thorpe. Key quote:

In contrast, and perhaps not surprisingly for the author of a highly praised biography of Burt Lancaster, who played Thorpe in the 1951 film “Jim Thorpe — All American,” the book’s second half, which covers Thorpe’s spotty film career, brims with life in its depiction of Hollywood during the 1930s and ’40s. Thorpe existed on the fringes of the studio system, trading on his name and playing mainly small roles as an Indian, but he was also not afraid of anonymous manual labor, as when he hired on with Standard Oil to paint things like gas stations and trucks. “Can’t keep the wife and the kids in food on ancient glory,” he told a sportswriter in 1930, when he was 42. …

…Drink and profligacy speeded his business failures and estranged him from his relatives. His plight wasn’t helped by the string of bars he invested in or was hired to appear at, like the Sports Club in Los Angeles, “a small, dimly lit bar and grill on a noise-ridden street,” as described by the journalist Al Stump, who produced what Buford calls “a haunting portrait” of the man: “He was weak, pliable, irresponsible and sometimes unruly, and he contributed to his own downfall.” He was also “the embodiment of this country’s eternal treatment of the vanishing Indian . . . under­paid, exploited, stripped of his medals, his records and his pride.”

Can the West Coast Offense be taught anywhere besides the NFL?

Is it possible to run the “West Coast Offense” — the offense credited to Bill Walsh and those of his “coaching tree” — at any level other than the NFL? The answer is not necessarily clear. Indeed, despite being the most prevalent offense in the NFL, the WCO seems designed to overwhelm any college or high school team attempting to install it, whether from the voluminous playbook, playcalls that sound like something from NASA, or the difficult throws that only NFL guys can make. Despite its wonderful aspects and results, there’s a reason that many a high school coach with the best of intentions has junked the West Coast Offense after a few miserable games to return to some simpler and more trusted approach that has the advantage of being something his kids can actually do.

west coast

One, two, three, throw

Yet it must be possible to run the west coast offense at the lower levels, isn’t it? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because the most important elements of the offense can definitely be applied to the lower levels, while Jon Gruden’s extensive call sheets can be left aside. The no is just that: you won’t be able to run every formation, motion, and play in Holmgren’s Packers playbook, but fortunately you don’t have to. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about installing the WCO. The wrong way is to download a WCO playbook and try to install Walsh’s verbatim. That approach is also known as suicide. Instead, to use the offense at the lower levels (including college)  — or even to merely understand why the WCO and is such a good offense — it’s necessary to focus on the offense’s core principles.

1. Timing-based, ball control passing game. Routes are timed to match receiver steps and quarterback steps, with a healthy mix between 3-step and 5-step drops. It’s not about long bombs (though it has these too), but instead about efficiency. This is probably Walsh’s defining legacy. Most of Walsh’s plays existed before he came around — you can find Paul Brown and Sid Gillman using them, among others — but Walsh’s passing game exploded because he was essentially the passing game’s first risk manager. Although quarterbacks had long been able to sling the ball — for example, Joe Namath threw for over 4,000 in 1967 — Walsh’s quarterbacks became great by what they didn’t do: they didn’t throw incompletions (Walsh’s quarterbacks consistently completed over 60% of their passes, and occasionally closer to 70%), they didn’t throw interceptions (the interception rate per pass attempt went way down) ; and they didn’t take sacks, owing to Walsh’s meticulousness about their not holding on to the ball too long.

To compare this to the prior generation of signal callers, in 1977 the Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl despite Ken Stabler’s 20 interceptions; in 1978 the Steelers won the Super Bowl despite Terry Bradshaw’s 20 interceptions; and, in 1978, the Steelers won the Super Bowl and won more games … despite the fact that Bradshaw threw 25 interceptions. (In 2009, only three quarterbacks threw 20 or more interceptions: two rookies, Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez, and Jay Cutler, who had some issues in that department.) Moreover, if you roll the relevant passing stats together you get a useful stat called “Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt,” which averages how many yards are achieved per passing attempt (which usefully combines completion percentage and average yards gained per completion), with the adjusted part being the subtraction of yards to account for interceptions. has an in house version of Adj. YPA quite similar to what I’ve described, and the upshot is that Walsh’s quarterbacks, Montana and Young, average between one and a half and two adjusted yards per pass attempt more than Hall of Famers from an older generation, like Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Stabler, Bob Griese, and so on. The difference was the efficiency, the careful approach, and the timing.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying that it’s really important to focus on the details. It’s one thing to say that the WCO “treated short passes like runs” and used a “ball control approach to the passing game,” but it’s another to make pass plays so routine that they really become as second nature to the players as a handoff off-tackle. You do that through intense drill-work and matching routes, reads, and drops.

2. Meticulous gameplanning. If his legacy is not about reducing the risks of throwing the ball through a disciplined approach, it is by revolutionizing how coaches prepare for games through simple organization: scripting plays, analyzing tendencies, self-scouting, probing defenses to look for weaknesses, and so on. As with his plays, none of Walsh’s innovations here were truly new, but his approach obviously worked because not only was his success outsized but so has been the success of those who coached with him — those that were able to observe his methods.  Applied to the lower levels, it is about having a plan for gameplanning, designing practices around what actually happens in games and using as many “situational” or “game-like” scenarios as possible, and treating the creation of the scripted plan and playcall sheet as tools to be organized during the game (when you have the least time to think and things are craziest). You don’t need to produce 200 page scouting reports (like this one which Mike Shanahan and co. made for the Denver Broncos as they prepared for the Indy Colts in 2002) but the creation of a thorough plan will make you a better coach and will make your practices more focused on the things that matter.

3. “Balance” between running versus passing. Now, I have written a lot about notions of balance but and how I don’t think traditional notions — an equal number of runs or passes or an equal amount of passing and rushing yardage — is a useful way to think about the concept. But there is no doubt that the West Coast Offense wants to be balanced in a meaningful way: the defense must fear both the run and the pass. Now, again, the WCO is a pass-first offense, so I think the best way to think about whether your team has sufficient balance is to contrast the offense with offenses that don’t care about balance, like the Airraid teams or run-heavy option squads. And the best way I know of to determine that is to ask whether the play-action pass is a legitimate threat. For many pass-first spreads, the play-action pass is a non-starter because the run is an afterthought. But it is also the main source of the West Coast Offense’s explosive plays.

Indeed, Walsh as Walsh explained:


More on the “Pistol” offense

Although I don’t consider the “pistol offense,” as pioneered by Chris Ault at Nevada, so much an offense as merely a useful formation which adapts well to a variety of schemes, there’s no doubt that Ault has had outsized success with it. Last season, Nevada averaged a staggering 344 yards rushing per game, on an even more staggering 7.39 yards per carry. Now, the offense took several games to get going (and against the meatiest part of Nevada’s schedule, no less), but it’s clear that the concept is here to stay and that it can be the foundation for an explosive attack.

Indeed, the pistol has been adopted by other teams as well, as this video from the Big Ten Network discussing Indiana’s use demonstrates (h/t Shakin the Southland):

Shakin the Southland buttresses this video with a lengthy discourse on the subject, drawing on some of my past work and a great American Football Monthly piece by Mike Kuchar. See parts one and two of Mike’s breakdown.

As I’ve said before, however, whether the pistol is a “system” or a “formation” is secondary to the results, and when it works

When the offense is rolling (which it is most of the time these days), the pistol gives a team the best of both worlds: It has at its disposal all the Urban Meyer/Rich Rodriguez spread offense stuff, like the zone read and other gadgets, as well as the advantages of a “traditional” I-formation or pro-style single-back attack. Among these are that the runningback, aligning as he does behind the quarterback, tips no hand to the defense on the direction of the play, and the offense can get both good downhill running and play-action off those looks.

The test of the pistol will be, as it is for all offenses, along two vectors: First, will Nevada break through? But second, what will its ongoing influence be? Regardless of how this season turns out for the Wolfpack, I think the “pistol’s” legacy is safe.

As a bonus, below the jump I’ve got a video of one of my favorite Nevada plays, the “horn play.”


Smart Links – Nick Saban breaking down film – 8/4/2010

The modern maestro of defense, Nick Saban, lectures crane-necking coaches on how he prepared for the BCS Title game against Texas (h/t to reader Alex Bruchac):

Shocking commentary on how to be an offensive genius, by Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo:

A year of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno followed by a season without them will make you realize things. “I think I have learned, too, you have to have good players,” he said. “I think good players help you win football games.”

“But coach, I need a run up!” Article on dealing with players from the British American Football Coaching Association, i.e. the association for people who play real football in England. The site is worth a visit, as you don’t always see football coaches on this side of the Atlantic poppin’ their collars:


Eleven Warriors has a nice breakdown of some expansion answers from the Big Ten media days.

Expanded Season Revenue: The NFL’s real math problem, from Tom Gower. An excerpt:

[H]ow much more would the NFL make if the regular season was expanded to 18 games and the preseason was cut to 2 games? . . .

Why is Roger Goodell advocating for the players to play less and make less money per-game? Doesn’t he know that the NFL won’t really make that much extra money from moving to an 18-game season? The question to that is almost certainly yes, so why does he do this?

[T]here really is a level of popular discontent over the 4-game preseason, especially from media people and season ticket holders who feel like they’re getting screwed. These people, especially the latter, are probably wrong. . . . Proposing an expanded regular season allows Roger Rex to make nice with these people.

. . . . I don’t think the NFL is, or at least should be, particularly serious about the 18-game season. If my numbers are close to right, it doesn’t make anywhere near as much money as you’d expect from a basic 16 to 18 game comparison, and the players really don’t like it. It is, instead, primarily a negotiating tactic and media ploy, and should and will be dropped when the labor negotiations get serious.

If Sam Bradford is worth 50 million guaranteed, what is Tom Brady worth? From the Pro-Football Reference Blog.

I’m not a big Fantasy Football guy, but if you read one thing read “Fantasy Drafting: How to Maximize Value by Position and by Round,” by Chase Stuart.

The Itch of Curiosity, from Jonah Lehrer’s new digs at Wired:

Because curiosity is ultimately an emotion, an inexplicable itch telling us to keep on looking for the answer, it can take advantage of all the evolutionary engineering that went into our dopaminergic midbrain. (Natural selection had already invented an effective motivational system.) When Einstein was curious about the bending of space-time, he wasn’t relying on some newfangled circuitry. Instead, he was using the same basic neural system as a rat in a maze, looking for a pellet of food.

Defensive back fundamentals, from Brophy. One of my favorite things about Brophy is he is a big believer in “show, don’t tell.” Watch the clips already.

– Finally, below the jump a great catch by Arizona State’s Kerry Taylor. Make sure to watch the full video (h/t Offensive Musings blog). Also, it’s a great example of a “sluggo” route:


Sean Payton breaks down his Super Bowl script

From the New Orleans Times-Picuyane, via reader Justin. Sean Payton discusses several plays, including four verticals and stick.

Below is a diagram of the second play the Saints run in the video above. The second video in the series (which is the more informative of the two videos) can be found after the jump.


Smart Football Super Bowl Preview: Manning vs. Brees

Give the media two weeks before the Super Bowl and they will find every weird angle to take to fill the void: Who has the best food (uh, not Indianapolis); what U.S. Presidents are like what Super Bowl (In a matchup between Super Bowl III, with Broadway Joe, against Thomas Jefferson, the third President, Jefferson won because he “wanted it more.”); and opinion from every blustery ex-player and coach that can be found. But now that the game is here, there’s one aspect that absolutely is at the top of my list: The game features arguably the two best quarterbacks in the league who run undoubtedly the best — and most interesting offenses.


The show Peyton runs is amazing not only because of its effectiveness, but also because of its simplicity. Indeed, in all but specialty situations they have basically two personnel groups — two wide receivers, two tight-ends, and one running back and three wide receivers, one tight-end and one running back — and they have run the same few plays for the last decade. They rarely shift and instead rely on Peyton to get them to the line and find the appropriate play.

The theory for all this is simple. Although a defense has some options and disguise some things, there are only so many things a defense can do: they might be able to disguise press or loose coverage, or rotate the secondary or send an unexpected blitzer, but they can’t move a cornerback from one side of the field to the other after the snap, and there might be blitzers but there are only so many candidates. As a result Peyton gets his team to the line and surveys the defense. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore typically sends in three plays: two passes and a run or two runs and a pass, and Peyton makes his choice among those three options. Typically, Manning gets the ball snapped with under six seconds left on the play clock; he both wants to take his time surveying the defense and limit late shifts before the snap.

And Manning’s menu of plays are both simple and have been constant for a decade. For runs, he basically has three choices: outside zone (the most common), inside zone, and draw (there are a few others mixed in as well). Believe it or not, the run game comes basically verbatim from what the University of Colorado did in the early 1990s (except for the option runs, of course) — football is not as complicated as people think.

For the passing game, on early downs they run a lot of play-action, where the goal is either to beat the defense deep (through post routes and go routes) or to hit a deep void with a deep crossing route or corner. (The deep crossing route concept is described here.) Another go-to concept is three-verticals, though Manning likes to look for the inside slight off play-action as a quick throw right behind the linebackers. (Video below courtesy of Brophy.)

Play-action from under center:

Play-action from shotgun:

On passing downs and when Peyton is in the shotgun, you’ll see most of the traditional routes that other teams run, but far and away his favorite is the “levels” play. It’s almost idiotically simple — the inside receiver runs a ten-yard in route (often Dallas Clark) while the outside receiver (Reggie Wayne, most typically) runs a five yard in-route. Typically the linebacker runs with the slot and the quick five yarder is open, but once he’s hit that a few times Manning will hit the inside square-in for an easy first down.


I’ve described the “levels” concept (with video) previously here. Below is another diagram showing what typically happens with the coverage: