What were the seminal offenses/defenses of each decade?

Inspired by this post, remember the definition of “seminal” when answering. Think of it (as it was in the original post) as The Great Gatsby was to books in the 1920s as X was to offensive/defensive schemes in Y.

Here are my picks. Add your own:

1900s – 1910s: Single-wing.

1920s: Notre Dame Box.

1930s: I’d like to choose the TCU/Dutch Meyer/Sammy Baugh spread offense but I’m not sure this counts as seminal. I leave this one for the readers.

1940s: T formation.

1950s: “Pro-style” offensive schemes of Paul Brown (Cleveland Browns), Weeb Ewbank (Baltimore Colts), and Vince Lombardi (Packers), and the 4-3 defense developed by, among others, Tom Landry as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. Almost everything in the current NFL is merely a footnote to the 1950s.

1960s: Veer.

1970s: Wishbone.

1980s: West Coast Offense and Zone Blitzes.

1990s: Zone blocking and multiple-eight man front defenses.

2000s: Run-first spread offense and, to a lesser extent (though incredibly important on the lower levels), the Airraid.

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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Football doesn’t have to be that complicated

Overheard at a coaching clinic:

Coach 1: “We just couldn’t stop you guys from hitting the speed out. We used our Tango technique, then switched to the Dragon Claw alignment, and even whipped out the Lombardi Kung Fu grip and we still couldn’t handle it. What are you guys doing to make that that route so effective for you?”

Coach 2: “Our fast kid runs it.”

Charlie Weis’s Offense: The Sequel

Charlie Weis, he of the “decided schematic advantage,” is back coaching an offense in college football, this time with Florida. Spencer Hall does a good job explaining Weis’s offense and what Gator fans might expect — or at least as good of an explanation as is possible considering the contradictions: Weis considers himself pro-style, yet once tried to unveil a spread option look to start a season before promptly abandoning it; at Notre Dame his offense’s achilles heel was his teams’ inability to run the ball, and yet when he went back to the NFL his team lead the league in rushing. As Spencer says:

The pattern is that there is no pattern, run/pass-wise, and that he seems genuinely happy to adjust to the tools he has on hand.

I think that’s right. I expect Charlie’s offense at Florida to actually be less of the go-for-broke-let’s-hit-the-home-run fest it became under Clausen. At that stage it had become so erratic that either Clausen, Tate, and Floyd shredded you for big plays or they failed to connect, often in critical situations — it had a Madden-esque feel to it by the end. The year with the Chiefs was likely good for Charlie in that with an average NFL quarterback, only a few outside playmakers and good runningbacks, he had to turn to the run game.

And in the NFL, you don’t make the run game better by adding option plays or doing anything too exotic like the college guys. Instead, you find as many ways as you can to run the inside and outside zones. And Charlie’s big wrinkle with the Chiefs was the same one that a lot of NFL teams adopted: the unbalanced line, or simply an extra offensive lineman. The Chiefs did this, the Ravens did it, and even Stanford, under Jim Harbaugh, often did it too. The reason why you do it, particularly on zone runs when the quarterback is not a threat, is obvious: create more gaps to run through and for the defense to worry about. Compare this lineup with Michigan (note that I’d just throw it to the slot receiver here):

With this (I’ve highlighted the extra lineman and one of the gaps created by having two tackles to that side):

The whole point of zone running is to block the defenders in those zones and to create vertical running lanes; creating the extra gaps should help create additional running lanes. In this instance, it worked brilliantly for Charlie (and it helps having Jamaal Charles). Indeed, I think this is the wildcat offense‘s lasting legacy for NFL coaches — more about unbalanced lines and playing with gaps than having a quarterback who can run.

When it comes to throwing the ball, I expect Charlie’s offense to look much like it did at Notre Dame, though, at least in the early days, there will likely be more of an emphasis on screen passes than downfield shots. But when he does throw downfield, you can expect to see the old favorites: quick slants, stick concepts, deep “go” routes, and the deep cross. Indeed, the deep cross was a feature play of his both at Notre Dame (see the second clip in the video below)…

And a favorite with the Chiefs, as shown in this video.

cross

Ultimately, I don’t expect Charlie to be in Florida for long, but that doesn’t mean he won’t leave his mark — a positive one. He’ll likely be there no more than two years, maybe three, before he leaves to become a college head coach again (yes) or another NFL spot. Charlie will only be able to handle working under someone else for so long. But I think the Muschamp-Weis situation will be fine: Will will defer to Charlie on the offensive side and he’ll provide an impressive sounding board (more on that in a moment), and Charlie will genuinely enjoy just getting to focus on creating gameplans, coaching quarterbacks, and calling plays. In the long run (and assuming he has a lot of success at Florida), Muschamp will probably end up with a coordinator whose roots are in the college game with college players, much like the guys Bob Stoops has worked with over the years. But Will undoubtedly wanted real-deal-NFL-guy to both be there as a recruiting pitch and for his own psyche — long-term NFL experience is one thing his mentor Nick Saban has that he does not (Muschamp spent one year with the Dolphins under Saban).

And Weis will be a great resource. He is generally known as an NFL “pro-style” guy all the way, but it’s often forgotten that, back in the 1980s, Weis spent the decade shuffling between high school and college programs, where he ran a variety of offenses, some of them quite surprising. From a post-game interview with Weis from 2005:

Q: Coach, after watching Saturday, this question begs to be asked: Did your career path ever intersect with Mouse Davis?

WEIS: I did visit with Mouse Davis back in South Carolina when we had the run and shoot. We talked to Mouse Davis, we talked to John Jenkins not Father John Jenkins, by the way Mouse Davis, John Jenkins, those run and shoot guys. Yes, we went from the veer to the run and shoot at South Carolina. We spent some time with all of those run and shoot guys.

Q: Was influences of that evident on Saturday?

WEIS: No. What you saw Saturday [ND did a lot of 5 wide stuff and quick three step passes], first of all, run and shoot always has a back in the backfield. It’s either a two by two or three by one, which trips are spread; okay, that’s number one. And you always have a run element, so empty (backfield) really doesn’t come into play.

This brief excerpt of his own words is the best summary of Weis that can be given: irascible, somewhat condescending, and incredibly knowledgeable.

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.

Third, you just run your offense but try to find your three or four scoring plays. (more…)

Smart Notes – Venn Diagrams, Bowl Ratings, Kragthorpe – 1/20/2011

On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings, via Google Books. (Click to enlarge.)

Bowl Ratings drop 9%, via WizOfOdds:

A lot of this was predictable since so many bowls were moved to being on ESPN (and thus not on network television), but still an interesting datapoint.

The Fulmer Cup lives, over at EDSBS.

Kragthorpe to LSU? The word is that Louisville’s former head man is LSU’s new offensive coordinator. Believe it or not, this could actually work. Kragthorpe didn’t have much success at Louisville, but he (like Crowton?) is a smart guy, as I’ve written about previously here and here. Miles will take care of the program, so we’ll see if Kragthorpe has more success as just the OC.

Posnanski on the playoffs. Check it out here. Joe wonders:

The question, I think, is this: What’s the competitive point of an NFL season? Is it to determine the BEST team in the NFL? Or is it to give us a fun and easy-to-follow trail on the way to our Super Bowl party?

Journal of not-at-all-surprising. Jonah Lehrer on the importance of vacation:

And this is why vacation is so helpful: When we escape from the places where we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities — corn can fuel cars! — that never would have occurred to us if we’d checked in with the office everyday.

Too often, we fail to consider the ways in which our surroundings constrain our creativity. When we are always “close” to the problems of work, when we never silence our phones or stop responding to e-mail, we get trapped into certain mental habits. We assume that there is no other way to think about things, that this is how it must always be done. It’s not until we’re napping by the pool with a pina colada in hand — when work seems a million miles away — that we suddenly find the answer we’ve needed all along.

Quick game. Joe Paterno to return to Penn State . . . Packers’ Ted Thompson vindicated for picking Rodgers over Favre . . . Eleven Warriors points out that Adam Rittenberg was wrong about the “Tat 5″ . . . Auburn’s place among BCS Champions, by the numbers.

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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Smart Links – Strategery round-up – 1/3/2011

Along the Olentangy has some great previews of Arkansas in anticipation of Ohio State’s bowl game. As Ross notes, Petrino’s likes to gash the opposite over the top with big plays, including on the great “Mills” pass Spurrier made famous:

millsy

And when not throwing the deep ball, Petrino’s favorite series is the shallow or drive series. Ross observes that Petrino mixes and matches where the dig will come from as compared with the shallow (i.e. from the same side or opposite the shallow) but that Bobby likes to send the back on a wheel route to clear the way for the shallow:

shallow

Sometimes though — as shown below against Alabama — the defense fails to cover the runner on the wheel route.

Read the whole thing.

I’ll have more to say about this, but Runcodhit has some excellent stuff about Oregon’s run game concepts. Specifically, it combines the outside zone play with the read of the defensive tackle or three-technique. (See also here.)

The upshot of this adjustment is it makes irrelevant the typical games defenses play to counteract “midline-esque” run plays, because if the linebacker scrapes inside to take away the quarterback he is widely out of position for the outside zone to the sideline. (For bonus material, check out this post about zone blitzes with split-safety defenses.)

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Gaining leverage on overhang players and access to the “alley” against odd fronts

[Ed. Note: The piece below is by Mike Kuchar, a defensive coordinator and researcher with the new site, X and O Labs. Mike previously wrote a piece for Smart Football called “Breaking Down Boise,” about Chris Petersen’s Boise State offense.]

Defenses across the college and prep ranks have been forced to adjust to the rise of four receiver spread formations.  Commonly referred to as “sub” personnel, our researchers at X&O Labs have found that many four defensive line teams have shifted to three down linemen structures to match speed with speed.  What started out as nickel packages has grown into an every down defenses.   Coordinators are replacing one of their defensive linemen with linebacker/safety hybrids to combat speed and defend the width of the field.

After surveying over 2,000 college and prep coaches, we’ve found that the most difficult challenge when facing odd front teams is finding a way to occupy the alley defender (usually an outside linebacker or drop safety).  Often taught to be the force player, it’s this overhang player that can cause problems for offenses wishing to push the ball to the perimeter.  Sure, it’s offensive pedagogy to attack the B gap bubbles vs. odd front teams, but it’s only a matter of time until defenses try to take that away by slanting or stemming to a four-down front pre-snap. Eventually, you’ll need to get to the perimeter, so why not save time by getting there immediately?  Our researchers at X&O Labs have sifted through feedback, and we’ll show you how to do just that below.

Case 1: Using Tight End Structures, Particularly 11 or 12 Personnel

Even if you don’t have a tight end in the program, start to develop one.  Over 80 percent of coaches polled by X&O Labs attack odd defenses by using various tight end formations. Whether by using 11 personnel (one tight end, one back), 12 personnel (two tight ends, one backs), or 21 personnel (one tight end, two backs), the tight end is pivotal in the run game.

We’ve all seen how productive spread offenses like Oregon, Boise State and Florida have been within the last three years.  What separates those teams from traditional spread teams is the implementation and execution of the tight end on normal downs.  According to our research, using a tight end in spread personnel accounts for two valuable advantages:

1.      It changes the structure of the defense: No longer can that safety/linebacker play in space, which is exactly what he wants to do.  Now he’s forced to cover down on a bigger, stronger opponent giving you leverage to get to the alley.

2.      It provides for an instant mismatch in the run game: Many of these hybrids don’t like to get their hands dirty.  These types, who usually weigh in the 180-210 pound range, are forced to balance up and fit in the framework against bigger tight ends.

X&O Labs’ Coaching Analyst, Mike Canales, who is also the associate head coach and offensive coordinator at the University of North Texas, contributed heavily to this Coaching Research Report.   Canales has modeled his spread scheme after studying a ton of what Oregon does to attack the perimeter with their speed sweep and option series.  “Anytime we’re going to get odd fronts, like we do when we play Louisiana-Monroe, we need to make some adjustments to our scheme,” said Canales.  “Teams are going to give you a six-man box, regardless of what you’re putting on the line of scrimmage.  Handling that overhang player with a six box is a bitch.  You can’t stay in 10 personnel with no tight ends because those slot receivers aren’t big or strong enough to handle safety types one-on-one, so you need to get into 11 or 12 personnel to force the defensive coordinator’s hand.”

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Packaging three-step and five-step passing concepts into the same play

Modern defenses are very, very good. Too good, in fact, for successful offenses to expect to be able to simply call some traditional play in the huddle — ye olde 24 Blast or 42 Boot Pass — and be able to simply line up and run it with any hope of sustained success. Not only are defenses sound, defensive coordinators and talented defenders have become masters of deception, and the game has increasingly become a mental as well as physical struggle.

I would've liked this concept

Fortunately, defenses aren’t yet — due to the immutable laws of arithmetic and geometry which apply with equal force on a football field — magical, meaning that all defenses always have weaknesses. The trick is to find them and, as Spurrier says, to put your kids in position to win. The goal is to try to tilt the advantage back to offenses. There are essentially three strategies:

  1. Line up in a formation and let a coach or a quarterback change the play. You see this whenever Peyton Manning or some other NFL guy audibles at the line (though his options have usually been narrowed to two or three before the snap), or when a no-huddle team lines up and looks to the sideline for guidance. The idea is that, while it is still pre-snap and the defense can still move, it has given away certian clues, including personnel and general structure.
  2. Use multiple formations and motions to confuse the defense or gain an advantage in numbers or leverage. This approach tries to turn the defense against itself by never giving the defense a chance to get settled or to identify what the offense may do. Moreover, sometimes the defense simply fails to adjust, and the offense gains some new advantage. The downside of this approach is it leaves little time and fewer clues for the offense to make adjustments, but the idea is that “motion causes emotion” (to use the old adage) and the offense has an advantage in that it knows where it is going. This is the method employed by Boise State.
  3. Give your players options on their assignments for after the snap. Just as it sounds, this is the principal governing all “option”-esque attacks. The macro idea here, pioneered by Tiger Ellison, is that backyard football is not played in a static, overly orchestrated way, and instead the natural inclination of kids to run around and make decisions on the fly — and so should it be in real football. This can manifest itself in different ways, from the triple option to the spread option to the passing game. Each play provides a superstructure but freedom within it. The idea is you don’t need much else, except for the players to begin adapting and making the rights reads. As said in Remember the Titans, “I run six plays. Split veer. It’s like Novocain. Give it time. It always works.”

A few years ago, it was possible to achieve unheard of success by designing a new play, or sometimes simply by joining the bandwagon and going spread, especially if you had better athletes. Now, the innovations are ones of communication and organization; much of the talk this season centered around Oregon’s fast-paced no-huddle, particularly its fascinating playcalling system. For now, most of the biggest schematic ideas have been hashed out and the question now is how to make it all work together. Packaging pass concepts together — i.e. putting different pass concepts, each designed to beat particular pass coverages or families of pass coverages, to each side of the play — is not new. But it is limited in its own way (more on those limits in a moment), and there are ways to incorporate more of the above ideas into a single concept. Moreover, when done correctly, it’s possible to continue to be multifariously (and deceptively) simple, by using the same handful of pass concepts in new ways.

Problems with the traditional approach of packaging pass concepts. Almost any coach trying to call a pass play, face buried in the Denny’s menu of the playcall sheet, is forced to answer that age old question: Will it be Cover 3 or Cover 2? (Or Cover 4 or man or a blitz, and so on.) The problem is that, no matter how good your pass it is, due to the particular horizontal or vertical stretch it uses, each pass play is better against certain coverages than others. At most, a play might be good against two defensive concepts, and certain plays — like snag — are handy utility plays to get completions against most coverages but that doesn’t mean that they literally work against everything. One potential solution is to “package” different concepts to each side, again with the traditional way being to put a “Cover 3 beater” to one side and a “Cover 2 beater” to the other. (If you want a refresher on basic pass coverages, check out this piece.)

Three problems, however, quickly present themselves with this simplistic answer:

  1. The quarterback only reads half the field, determined based solely on the alignment and movement of a couple of defenders. If the quarterback is either wrong or the receivers fail to get open, the play is essentially a bust.
  2. The side the quarterback throws to is usually determined based on the safeties (or sometimes the middle linebacker). It does not take into account blitzes. It’s possible to include anti-blitz solutions too, but this becomes yet a third read — that might be inconclusive.
  3. Typically, the pass concepts put to each side are effective against those defensive concepts, but they typically do a poor job of dealing with interior or floating defenders, who can turn a quarterback’s good read into an interception. Relatedly, the pass concept may not work at all against combination coverages or roll coverages, which can give false keys.

The third point is worth elaborating on briefly. Shown below is a typical “packaged” five-step drop combination: the curl/flat combination to one side with the smash or corner/flat combination to the other.

This play should work, as the quarterback ought to see that the defense only has one single safety and he thus looks to the left side, with the curl/flat combination. But the packaged pass concepts don’t do anything to control those interior players. The same would be the case if the defense lined up with two deep safeties and he worked the smash side, to his right. There are ways to solve this problem, but there’s an approach that solves (or at least greatly improves upon) all three issues raised above.

Three-step and five-step, together. The idea for this solution came from two sources: the old run and shoot “Read” play and the book, Concept Passing,” where Dan Gonzalez describes something similar. The broad idea is to achieve multiple things in one play-call, but to sequence it so that it all can actually be done by a high school or college kid. The run and shoot “read route” put a “quick” or three-step-esque (remember that the run and shoot used half-rollouts) to one side, while putting the old favorite, the “switch” to the backside. See below:

Against any kind of blitz or tight-man, the quarterback would deliver the ball to one of the outside receivers (typically the slot running to the flat) off his third-step. If the defense covered that, he would finish his drop, step up, and read the two backside receivers running the old switch, which was just a form of the “seam read” from four verticals but where the two receivers criss-crossed at the snap. In his book, Gonzalez describes a more pro-style application; here is my take on it.

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