Did Cam Newton flunk the Jon Gruden test?

Setting aside whether there is (or should be) a Jon Gruden test, many on the interwebs have pointed to this video and decided Newton can’t make it:

The argument is that Newton just passes on the long verbiage call and, in not answering, fails the question. Now, it’s clear that Newton’s offense in college was not as complicated as what the pros do, I think the conclusion that Cam is automatically unfit is unfair. He didn’t forget his own plays; he says they did not have it in his offense because everything had to be done from the no-huddle. He says “36″ might be the play name, and they call 36 and up and go. (For what it’s worth, in his book Finding the Winning Edge, put out in 1997, Bill Walsh said the future of football was in no-huddle offenses where the plays were called with single words.)

In the full segment, Cam diagrams a couple of plays and a couple of things were clear to me: (a) he’s a freak athlete, (b) he actually internalized his coaching quite well, as he remembered all the coaching points and axioms from Malzahn (and Gruden said he retained everything in their meeting quite well), and (c) he really does have a long way to go in terms of mastering a complicated NFL system. The upshot is that, while I like Cam’s potential, drafting him number one is risky. But he’s not incapable of mastering an NFL system.

But a final thought. Gruden — rightly, I think — emphasizes to Newton that he is going to have to prepare himself for complicated NFL playbooks and verbiage, because he will be a new employee and that’s what they do. Yet it’s not clear to me that all that verbiage goes to good use; I’m curious if Gruden, if he goes back into coaching, will choose to deluge kids with those insane playcalls or will instead do as Walsh predicted and as Malzahn does, and find a simpler way of doing business. As Cam says in the clip, “simple equals fast,” and as Holgorsen likes to remind his team, “if you’re thinking, you’re not playing.”

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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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.

Quarterback drills with Missouri’s Dave Yost, guru, dude

Let’s play a little pitch and catch with Mizzou offensive coordinator, Dave Yost (h/t Spreadoffense):

When asked how he felt about losing Blaine Gabbert early to the NFL, Yost shrugged his shoulders and recalled an earlier time in his life when things got tough and how he resiliently bounced back.

In seriousness, I once referred to the title of Missouri quarterback as a “glamour position” in college football, and it’s proven to be that, with each of the past three signal-callers (including potential number one overall pick, Blaine Gabbert), making it to the NFL. Whoever Missouri chooses as quarterback for this fall will do well, not least of all because of Yost’s tutelage. They should just use a little more play-action to boost that average yards per attempt.

Deconstructing: Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses as spread revolution

My breakdown of Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses in anticipation of tonight’s BCS title game is up over at Yahoo!. Check it out.

Also, hat tips and thanks to Brophy and the Offensive Breakdown site for some great info (especially to Brophy for the image on the power scheme). Check out great info from both sites on Malzahn’s offense here and here.

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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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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Sentences to ponder

From the Pro-Football Reference Blog:

[Imagine w]e have two teams that both average a whopping 14 yards per attempt. One team completes 100% of its passes; the other 50% (for 28 yards per completion). If I were to model those two, it seems pretty clear that the team that completes 100% would score more. They would score on virtually every possession, only failing to score in limited cases where their 3 consecutive completions net 9 or fewer yards. The 50% team would also score a lot, but string together a few more droughts. I suspect my 100% completion team with 14 yards per attempt would average about 60 points a game, while the 50% completion team would average closer to 50.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have two teams that average 3 yards per [pass] attempt. If one of those teams completed 100% of their passes, they would struggle to maintain drives or even get them started [or would routinely end on 4th and 1...], while a 25% completion team would occasionally string together first downs and get into scoring range. Neither would score much at all, but if I were forced to watch both teams for 24 hours straight as punishment for all my transgressions, I’d take the team with the yards per completion to win in a non-shootout.

slots

And later in the piece:

[I]t is pretty clear that the QB’s in a Don Coryell-based offense (Fouts, all of the Redskins QBs of the 1980′s and early 1990′s, and the Rams and Chiefs recently) are undersold by passer rating relative to adjusted net yards per attempt in terms of the value they provided, and the West Coast passers are oversold, and its because of the different philosophies as they affect completion percentage.

Bill Parcells’ four rules for drafting a quarterback

As announced on Monday Night Football, via Blatant Homerism:

  1. He must be a senior, because you need time and maturity to develop into a good professional quarterback.
  2. He must be a graduate, because you want someone who takes his responsibilities seriously.
  3. He must be a three-year starter, because you need to make sure his success wasn’t ephemeral and that he has lived as “the guy” for some period of time.
  4. He must have at least 23 wins, because the big passing numbers must come in the context of winning games.

Blatant Homerism also notes that, of the seven quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl in the 2000s, five — Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning and Trent Dilfer — met all four requirements when drafted.

So readers, discuss: When drafting a quarterback are these non-negotiables, helpful guideposts, or completely irrelevant?

Tressel’s new calling: Ball control . . . passing?

Buckeye Football Analysis recently broke down Ohio State’s tactics in their Rose Bowl win over Oregon. The verdict? The Tresseller rose above his reputation as football dinosaur and outschemed famed schemer, Chip Kelly. Specifically, Tressel channeled his inner Bill Walsh by having Pryor use a lot of ball control passes, including one play Buckeye Football Analysis highlighted in particular, namely a packaged combination of “snag” to one side and “double-slants” to the other.

Packaged concepts” refers to the fact that Tressel has put different route combinations to either side: To the left he has put the double-slant combination, while to the right he has the snag combo. As BFA points out: “First, it was part of the quick passing game so it allowed Pryor to throw before the blitz came. Second, putting these routes to each side actually provided three coverage beaters.”

One of these was a simple man-blitz beater in the slants: If Oregon blitzed and played man, Pryor could immediately throw the slant. Indeed, he could do this against regular man coverage too, as he did in the clip below.

Against zones, Pryor had a few options. One was to simply hit the slants again if that’s what the defense gave him by its alignment. He does this effectively below:

Another would be to work the “snag” combo. The snag is a variant of the smash, where one point is to get a high-low with the corner route and the flat route (except now the flat is controlled by the runningback), with the added dimension of an outside receiver running the “snag” route — a one-step slant where he settles inside at 5-6 yards. This gives you a “triangle” stretch, where you have both a high/low read (corner to RB in the flat) and a horizontal read from inside to outside (snag route to the RB in the flat).

And the best part for Pryor is that these are all quick, immediate routes that (a) give him options against the blitz, and (b) provide controlled passes against zones too as the receivers settle in the voids. I don’t have any video of OSU throwing the snag side, but here is an example of the Steelers using the play to win the Super Bowl, and some Airraid/Mike Leach based cut-ups of their snag play, Y-corner (which is actually basically the same, with snag to one side and a form of double-slants to the other).

So the final question is, how does Pryor read this and know where to go? I don’t know what keys Tressel is giving Pryor, so I can only say how I would teach it. Note that both the snag combo and the double slants are both designed to attack either (a) man coverage or (b) two-deep zones, so the main key you’d give your quarterback — go one way if there is one deep safety or another if there are two — is out. This doesn’t mean it’s poorly designed, it’s just a different goal. (This is how most pro teams package snag as well.) Instead you probably give the quarterback a pre-snap key along the lines of: “go to the snag side unless…,” where the unless includes (1) a man-blitz or other man coverage where you have a good matchup (see the first video), or where the defense is just giving you the slant by alignment (the second video). From there the QB can make a judgment on whether he likes the snag or the slants based on the alignment of the linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. Another possibility, though one I probably wouldn’t use, would be to read the middle linebacker and choose whether to go to the snag side or the double slant side based on where he went. That would give you a good key on those two routes, but I wouldn’t use it because it doesn’t tell you much about the corner/flat combo or the outside slant to the other side.

Two final thoughts. One, unless it is a blitz and the quarterback can’t get it out (hence the slants), the snag is the more versatile combo as, even if the defense is in a three-deep type coverage, the “snag” receiver can usually find an open spot and get you five to six yards as an outlet. And, finally, there is a final advanced technique you could use that I plan on expanding on in the future. It is the packaged three-step and five-step combination. Basically, you put a three step drop combo to one side with a five-step to the other. The QB can look to the three step side first — which should be open versus a particular coverage as well as a blitz, as sort of an automatic hot route — then, if that’s not there, the quarterback would reset his feet for depth and swing his eyes to look for the five-step combo; here, the snag (though whether snag is three-step or five-step depends on what depth you run the receivers’ routes at). In the future I will talk about how to package this and even let the quarterback pick the three-step combination at the line.

But that is all for a later post. For now, viva la Tresselball.