This article was written by Keith Grabowski, offensive coordinator at Baldwin Wallace University. You can follow him on twitter at @CoachKGrabowski, and see his monthly columns at American Football Monthly, where he posts new articles on the first and third Tuesdays of each month.
The option play has gained a resurgence in football with the popularity of the spread offense. Relying heavily on the run, option football forces a defense to be disciplined and play their responsibilities. It’s still a very sound way to attack defenses, but requires a commitment to running those base plays over and over. The spread has allowed teams that attack with option and to carry an effective passing attack that utilizes the spread to get the ball to players in space. The zone read and bubble have become a staple for spread option teams as well.
With Chip Kelly going to the Eagles, there’s been much hand wringing about whether Chip Kelly’s offense will work in the NFL, whether he’ll bring it to Philly verbatim, and so on. I honestly don’t know the definitive answer – I am not sure Chip does — but I’m certainly looking forward to watching. Nevertheless, I expect Kelly to evolve his offense and, more importantly, tailor it to the personnel he has in Philadelphia. But whether it will work will probably be as much a function of things unrelated to the offense, like the mastery of the roster, drafting and salary caps, his ability to coach, train and teach professional versus college players, and how he generally adapts to a pro game that is in many ways just different. But, knowing how bright Chip is, I have a difficult time believing that it will be schemes — and certainly not from too much fidelity to a certain scheme — that does him in.
I guess I need a new visor
Unfortunately, much of the analysis around these questions is exceedingly weak, because there is such little knowledge of what Kelly actually does. I wrote a lengthy piece this fall centering on Kelly’s actual philosophy and approach, and I think that perspective is the right one to start from, as his individual schemes have always evolved at Oregon and undoubtedly will even more so in Philadelphia. But if you want to really know how his offense works, there is no substitute for study, and in football study begins with the film. That’s what his opponents have had to do, and they almost universally come away impressed. That includes Monte Kiffin, the former Southern Cal foil and now defensive coordinator for in-division rival Dallas Cowboys:
Monte Kiffin, NFL defensive coaching legend, was standing at the top of the ramp outside the Coliseum late Saturday, about an hour after his USC Trojans fell to the visiting Oregon Ducks 53-32; in the process, Kiffin’s crew had given up 599 yards to Chip Kelly.
Kiffin was trying to assess the mind-boggling precision of the Ducks’ offense that he had witnessed first-hand and was in midsentence praising how “innovative” Kelly is when the Oregon coach happened to walk up behind him to shake his hand as he made his way to the Ducks’ bus.
Kiffin, caught off guard, smiled, and told Kelly “good job” and came right back to talking about how impressed he was by what these Ducks can do. It’s hard not to think that Kelly must seem like he’s in a lot of defensive coaches’ heads.
“That guy is such a good coach,” the 70-year-old Kiffin went on to say as he watched Kelly exit the Coliseum. “I respect him so much just from watching their tape. It’s the discipline they have. The offensive line does a great job. The receivers do a great job of downfield blocking. They don’t beat themselves very often.”
“I mean, you’re hanging in there, but then they just get you. You get a lot of guys up to stop the run and then, they play-fake. You can’t get beat like that. Arizona State played them like that and they get four or five big plays. I don’t think it’s so much the tempo, it’s really just that they execute so well.”
The first place I’d recommend going to learn more about the offense, particularly for those with a comfort in independent film study, is this page at Brophy’s site. He has all-22 game film cut-ups, organized by play and pass concept, from a few years ago for almost all of Chip’s offense. It’s an excellent resource. (I would pay particular attention to the passing game, as if there’s anywhere that I think Chip will need to develop his offense it is there.) On the flipside, Coach Hoover has an excellent series on defending Oregon’s offense, particularly from a 4-3, a subject that also will be much discussed all offseason.
From there, I highly recommend much of the analysis at FishDuck, an Oregon site which has spent the past several years doing film breakdowns of Chip’s offense. Some of the information is slightly outdated — Chip began adjusting the alignment of his backs more often so as to not give away the play, though as stated in the article he usually built up keys and tendencies in order to set up defenses for later and break open a big play — but there’s probably no better introduction to the nuts and bolts of Chip’s attack than the following. Happy studying.
Kelly’s anecdote about his old high school team suggests another possibility. Chip Kelly’s offense works not because it’s a gimmick, but because rather than choose sides between old and new, Kelly’s teams straddle history. Oregon is successful because it does well what good teams have always done well, albeit with a slightly more modern wardrobe.
“We spread the defense so they will declare their defensive look for the offensive linemen,” Kelly explained at that same clinic. “The more offensive personnel we put in the box, the more defenders the defense will put in there, and it becomes a cluttered mess.” Twenty years ago, Kelly’s high school coach ran the unbalanced, two–tight end power-I, so he could execute old-school, fundamental football and run the ball down his opponent’s throat. Today, Kelly spreads the defense and operates out of an up-tempo no-huddle so he can do the exact same thing.
Time will undoubtedly tell whether Kelly’s offense can work in the NFL, but my vote is that it will. It would require Kelly finding the right players, but a Chip Kelly–coached NFL team would win for the same reasons that the Chip Kelly–coached college team wins. Behind the speed, the spread, the Daft Punk helmets, and the flashy uniforms, Oregon ultimately wins with old-fashioned, fundamental, run-it-up-the-gut football. I think everyone, even fans of the spread offense, can appreciate that.
Read the whole thing. In addition, I’ve got some additional stuff I left on the cutting room floor that I hope to put on the site in the coming days.
The below cut-ups are of Purdue’s quick passing game from the 2006 season. Although Purdue threw for 4,000 yards that season, they’re not the greatest cut-ups in terms of offensive execution as it was Painter’s first year as a starter and Purdue had begun its decline under Tiller. But I think it’s very good teaching tape because the the passing concepts are very common ones, the formations — two-by-two, ace, trey, trips, etc — are used by virtually every team in football, and as a result the film is very good for studying the defenses. And in that vein if you watch the film by studying the alignment and techniques of the safeties, whether you can spot the blitzes pre-snap, and where the soft spots in the defense are, you can then begin analyzing where you would’ve gone with the football. Many of these quick passes here are checks at the line; as a result it’s good to think about whether they were the right checks and the right decisions on where to throw the ball.
Ever since the rise of the T-formation and the modern notion of the quarterback as passer and team leader, young QBs have received varying amounts of training for the position. If his father was a coach — like Elway’s was — or if he happened to live in Granada Hills, California, he might learn the sophisticated skills necessary to continue developing. But if not, it was unlikely that he’d ever receive that sort of necessary coaching. The long history of quarterback draft busts has taught us that athletic ability alone does not make a quarterback. A great quarterback is instead one of sport’s oddest confections: He is the athlete whose success depends as much on his brain as on his body. One can’t help but wonder how many would-be great quarterbacks never had the chance to develop because no one taught them the intricacies of the position; like some football equivalent of Gray’s Elegy, who knows how many mute inglorious Mannings remain forever obscure to history.
In recent years, however, the situation has changed. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are harbingers of an approaching age of quarterbacks who are both better athletes and better trained at a young age than ever before. In a decade or so, the debates about a player like Tim Tebow — that NFL teams must choose between quarterbacks who are passers and quarterbacks who are athletes — will seem quaint and ridiculous. Nowadays, coaches at the lower levels put their best, smartest, most charismatic kids at quarterback and develop them. The new age we’re entering will be something of a Hunger Games for young quarterbacks: By the time they reach the NFL draft, they will be among the best, most talented, brightest, and best-trained candidates we’ve ever seen. Instead of asking ourselves what traits we prefer, we’ll be asking why we ever thought we had to choose.
Good stuff from former NC State, New York Jets and Arizona State assistant and current UCLA offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone. Particularly good stuff on practice philosophy and how to have base plays and how to solve problems (i.e. with constraint plays). Says he goes into a game with no more than about 32-35 plays, total. Also, make sure to watch the eighth and last video, as it covers Mazzone’s packaged concept where he combines a quick three-step pass combo with a slow screen to the other side, which I’ve discussed previously.
Update: The videos have been taken down. There’s a comment that the clinic asked the person who uploaded them to take them down; if so, I didn’t know they were uploaded without any permission. I will try to address some of Noel’s stuff in the future on here.
The 2000s were undoubtedly the decade of the spread offense. We’re still feeling the reverberations of the tectonic shifts; what began in backwater practice fields, the synthesis of old ideas with new ones, is now omnipresent — overexposed, quite possibly — on most levels of football, and even the NFL is now beginning to adapt. Some of this charge is led by innovative coaches; some by fan request; some simply by players too good to not be part of a changing landscape.
Sons of the spread
The spread was not born on November 4, 2000, when lowly Northwestern, coached by the late Randy Walker, defeated Michigan, but that was the day it no longer belonged to the fringe: It had been conceived long before, from a variety of parents, but that day it was born to the world, live on our TV screens. I’ve previously written about the game and what it meant going forward.
Northwestern defeats Michigan 54-51. This is shocking enough. Northwestern scored fifty-four points against a Michigan team known for great defense and great defensive talent. Doubly shocking. Quarterback Zak Kustok threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns. Not so shocking from a spread quarterback in victory. We’d seen the run and shoot before; Drew Brees, also in the Big 10 playing for Purdue, commonly put up big passing numbers in a spread-to-pass system. Indeed, don’t they always have to throw for this much to win? That’s why they get in the gun, right?
But wait, there’s another stat.
Northwestern Rushing: 332 Yards; 6.64 average per carry. 332 yards.
What? Three-Hundred and Thirty Yards rushing?
How did they do that? Yes their running back had a huge day, but the yards that also made everyone sit up and take notice were the 55 yards from Northwestern’s quarterback, Zak Kustok – hardly Vince Young or Pat White [or Cam Newton] in raw athleticism. But the light went off across the country. If Zak Kustok can do it, maybe my guy can too. And even if he’s not superman just the threat that he can make the defense pay if they over pursue by getting me eight yards, then let’s do it.
And if by the threat of the quarterback, that opened up my runningback for the huge day, then we’d really have something. The gateway for the ubiquity of the spread — by definition, a system with multiple receivers — was not by appealing to every coach’s impulse to be Mike Leach and throw it 50 times a game; believe it or not, most coaches do not want to be Mike Leach. Instead if you could show them how to run the ball for 300 yards and score 54 points against an historically great rushing defense, that is something people will sign up for. Walker and his offensive coordinator, former Oklahoma offensive coordinator and current Indiana head coach, Kevin Wilson, were traditional, power, tight-end and fullback guys. If they could make it work — against that opponent — well, there was hope for everyone.
More than a decade later, maybe the spread is already past its prime. (more…)
In fall 2009, a reader emailed me about a spread run scheme TCU used to close out a tight victory against Clemson. The scheme featured a runningback and the quarterback running to the same side — as opposed to the traditional zone read, where the two ran in opposite directions, along with playside blocking from the line. I’d seen something similar before, possibly from Urban Meyer’s team at Florida, but apparently Clemson’s excellent defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele had not seen it, or at least not from TCU. Indeed, since he hadn’t yet seen the tape Steele wasn’t even certain of how to label the concept, but he noted that it had been a significant factor in TCU’s victory:
Inverted veer works better when this is your QB
TCU quarterback Andy Dalton found almost all of his success on the ground on Saturday by employing a new play that the Clemson coaching staff had not seen on film, and Dalton seemed to run almost at will through the line of scrimmage and beyond. . . . Steele said that the play with Dalton carrying was really the only play the Tigers had not seen on film as they studied the Horned Frogs last week.“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. . . .
“Not to get too technical, but on the zone read, the quarterback fakes to the running back going this way and the quarterback goes the other way,” Steele said. “What they were doing was faking zone read one way, the quarterback would step like he was going this way but they would pull the guard and chase it the other way. It was a new look. We got over there and drew it up, got it adjusted out, but we were doing it on the fly and adjusting it on every call.
I couldn’t tell you if TCU got the play from somewhere else or dreamed it up themselves, but in our increasingly interconnected world, that play — which I dubbed the “inverted veer” because it had the same read as the traditional veer but “inverted” the option with the quarterback now the inside man and the runner the outside man — has spread across all levels of football. By the end of the 2009 season, several teams had begun using it, but it’s real significance would come last season: The play was everywhere. Big 10 teams like Ohio State and Purdue (to use two on the opposite end of the spectrum) used it; it spread across conferences like the WAC and Conference USA; in the first part of the season, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez racked up tons of yards with this play, most notably going for 240 yards against Kansas State on primetime; and, finally, Cam Newton rode the play to over 1,400 yards rushing, a Heisman trophy, and a national championship. And it goes without saying that, given the play’s popularity at the college level, countless high schools across the country installed it in the spring and fall.
But with the play’s popularity has come complexity and variation; we’ve evolved past the days of Kevin Steele diagramming the play and the defensive response on a greaseboard on the sideline. Let’s walk through the elements of the play, some of the choices available for blocking, and some of the defensive responses.
This unbelievable set of videos is courtesy of Brophy. I don’t know what he had to do to obtain these (nor do I want to know), but you’re all the beneficiaries of what was undoubtedly some unspeakable sacrifice he made. Brophy has put up roughly six or seven hours of video; check out parts one and two.
The context is that Alex Gibbs, then offensive line coach for the Atlanta Falcons while they had Michael Vick at quarterback, visited with Florida’s staff to learn about potentially adding some quarterback read plays to his vaunted zone schemes (the same scheme they ran with the Denver Broncos). Florida’s staff, meanwhile had just spent their first season in the SEC to decidedly mixed results.
Pistol Offense DVDs, by Chris Ault, and Coaching the Spread Offense, edited by Earl Browning (same guy that does the Nike COY clinics). I just ordered these so I can’t yet give full reviews just yet. The Pistol DVDs by Ault are self-recommending, though if you’ve seen them, please let me know your thoughts. The table of the contents of the book can be found here; I take it that this book includes old Nike COY clinic articles/talks packaged into one volume. Again, any insight is appreciated.
- The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. This book is better than I expected (all 832 pages!) though I suppose that is both evidenced by the fact and maybe because I read it in non-linear fashion: I expected to only read the parts I cared about so I began when Buffett joined the hedge fund of his mentor Benjamin Graham, but found myself backtracking and then finishing the book straight through, as Buffett went from local Nebraska stock-picker to the buyer of entire companies he is today. Buffett comes across as a genuinely nice guy, enjoyable to be around, and slightly but affectionately odd,. Yet the lesson I primarily learned was that you don’t become the richest guy in the world without being obsessive, and that includes obsessiveness to the point of neglect of your family. Buffett isn’t a bad person, but obsessed with money and more interested in his own business dealings than with really anything else in life, and it’s clear what he wanted from a wife was more caretaker than anything else, as evidenced by his bizarre yet amicable separation from his wife who hooked him up with one of her own friends to be her successor (Buffett would still go to public events with his legal wife, Susie). Tom wrote a review of The Genius, which is about Bill Walsh, and said it reminded him of the Snowball. I had the same reaction, though in the opposite direction. About the Walsh book, Tom observed: “After finishing the book, and including the description of Walsh’s open and notorious adultery (see Buffett above) and general neglect of his family, I’m starting to firm up my belief being a great football coach is incompatible with the rest of humanity is about. Walsh was, comparatively at least, acclaimed for his interest in stuff other than football, but his obsession with the game and its tumults is at odds with that reputation of his.” It’s likely that this kind of obsession is not only a hallmark of successful coaches, but many professionally successful people as well.
- Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices, by Noah Feldman. I don’t necessarily recommend this book to those who aren’t predisposed to book-length works about Supreme Court justices, but the subjects here — Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson, and William O. Douglas — are as good as it gets as far as judicial biographies go. Hugo Black went from former Ku Klux Klan member to civil rights champion; Robert Jackson began as a country lawyer and ended up maybe the greatest Justice on his Court and the chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials; Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard law professor and close confidante of Roosevelt, was known as a leading liberal scholar and architect of the New Deal, but once on the Court became known as one of the more conservative justices while the Court marched forward on civil rights and the first amendment; and William O. Douglas was, well, unlike anyone else, as described by a fantastic review by Judge Richard Posner (ignore the title of the blog post here; the article was originally published in the New Republic):
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