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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday, August 14, 2005

MORE ON THE "REVOLUTION," OR, STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE
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So SMQ is late to this; given his brief hit on the "offensive revolution" examined by Sports Illustrated last week, along with his recent introduction to a sort of college football blogging community, he thought it would be useful to expand on his ideas of the "revoultion" (it's really an evolution) in contrast to those recently expounded in the "Gang of Six" theory from Heisman Pundit.

As previously stated, SMQ believes the unprecedented mid-major success of Utah, Louisville and Boise State is the result of a good scheme met with talent that is significantly greater than most of its opponents. The execution of these schemes, and the play-calling, more than just the design - because all coaches design good plays on the chalkboard - combined with the talent put these offenses way over the top against weak schedules.

Heisman Pundit's other members, Southern Cal and California (Florida, the sixth, is a member only because of Urban Meyer's arrival from Utah, and therefore its previous performance can't be considered here), has similar results for similar reasons - only they relied more on exceptional talent. What coach wouldn't say, "Let's try to get Reggie Bush matched on a linebacker?" Some things do not require genius.

Some do, however, and making Boise State, Utah and Louisville such big winners is a major feat. Hawkins, Petrino and Meyer deserve a lot credit. So do Carroll and Tedford what they've done at USC and Cal.

But why these six? These were not the six best teams in the nation; Auburn and Oklahoma are conspicuously absent, as well as Texas. They weren't merely the best offenses, either, since Texas Tech and Bowling Green could make their claim there, too. And what is it that makes Heisman Pundit think these six will continue relative dominance in their respective domains of the game, rather than be replaced by other teams or make adjustments to incoporate a new style of play that accomodates available talent, as has always happened in the past? Most importantly, why aren't these "revolutionary" schemes catching on with everybody?

Mainly because they aren't all that revolutionary; where Heisman Pundit sees five teams that reached an unheard of level of scoreboard lopsidedness last year and figures this must be due to a new type of scheme employed by these programs, SMQ saw talented teams running varied offenses that don't do much anyone has never seen before, but do it very, very well against weaker opponents.

Notice it says "weaker" and not "weak," because USC and Cal certainly played respectable schedules in the PAC Ten, Utah, Louisville and Boise each waxed bowl-bound BCS conference teams (Texas A&M, North Carolina and Oregon State, respectively), and Louisville should have beaten an obviously more-talented Miami team in Miami. But...

- USC is the most talented team anywhere. Combine the blue chips with good coaching (motivation, teaching execution, timely play-calling), and everybody is weaker than the Trojans. Its offense was well-conceived and well-executed, but the only thing revolutionary about it was the unusually high aggregate ability level of the young gentlemen which it employed.
- Cal had very good talent, plus outstanding coaching that almost made up for the difference in talent against USC. But Jeff Tedford's success is seen in play-calling and execution, not scheme - SMQ saw this team in person, and it was awesome, but it was because of accurate passing and consistent blocking, not any kind of schematic hocus pocus. He also saw Houston in person, and was far more impressed by the design of the Cougars' passing game, which was dizzying and always resulted in an open man, though one not as able as others at larger schools to separate from defenders by his own athleticism. Houston finished 3-8.
- SMQ also saw Meyer's Utah offense up close at the end of 2003, and it produced essentially a field goal (the Utes'touchdowns in this game came from a short field created by a turnover and a fumble recovery returned all the way). Totally not impressive. But it was playing a good defense, which is more than can be said for anyone it was up against in 2004. Meyer's spread is more innovative than what USC, Cal or Louisville does, but his teams have had less to work with too, i.e., no golden arm (SMQ was not at all sold on Alex Smith as a top prospect), couldn't line up and run right at tougher defenses, etc., but we've seen the same stuff before in Northwestern, Clemson and West Virginia - major conference teams without the talent edge Utah had in the Mountain West last year, and whose limited success was fleeting.
- Boise State's schedule, face it, was lame. Idaho? SMU? The Broncos are innovative, talented and mega-deep by WAC standards, but needed double overtime to beat San Jose State and a missed field goal on the last play to avoid a loss to BYU, and had to come form behind to beat Tulsa by a field goal. Not so hot on defense.

Oh yeah, defense. Cal and USC played it pretty well (well, except for Cal in the bowl game, obviously), but their "Gang" brethren from the smaller conferences were sporadic about it. Heisman Pundit, staying true to his name, doesn't seem to care a whit. Here's what he thinks separates a team from the rest of college football (SMQ's thoughts interspersed):

1. You must have exhibited offensive dominance, reflected in blowout wins becoming routine occurrences.
That was certainly the case for USC, Boise State, Louisville, Utah and Cal last year.
In 2004, yeah. Surely he didn't just pick the teams with the highest average margin of victory this last year and lump them together by a couple common threads disguised as a some kind of trend. Let's move on.

2. You must never have been shut down by an opposing team's defense--unless it too was a member of the Gang.
After all, a member of the Gang would have some familiarity with sophisticated offenses, as they would see it every day in practice.
They wouldn't, really, since defense practice against other teams' offenses, the one they're going to see on Saturday, not their own; if a team is better at stopping an offense similar to its own, its because offensive coaches can give the defensive coaches some insight as to how certain aspects of the system work and what gives their own offense problems. But other members of "the Gang" didn't shut each other down, really, unless you consider the 23 and 17 points scored by USC and Cal, respectively, against each other "shut down," which SMQ would not because of these two teams' defenses.

Anyway, all defensive coaches are good enough at figuring out tendencies and schemes; the difference (assuming talent levels are equal, or close) is how well players are coached to execute and, as importantly, play-calling. Defenses are confused by the crafty use of a scheme, not merely the scheme itself.

3. You must have a very efficient passer
Every quarterback in the Gang of Five finished in the top 13 of the passing efficiency rankings, with Jared Zabransky being the lowest rated at 147.0. Lefors of Louisville and Smith of Utah were 1-2.
Good teams have good quarterbacks, especially good passing teams. Jason White was a two-time Heisman finalist. Jason Campbell was a first round pick. The logic here is that the system creates the passer, rather than vice versa, which certainly isn't the case with Leinart or Aaron Rogers (not that they didn't benefit from good coaching and plenty of surrounding talent), although you could make an argument about the others, especially bust-in-waiting Alex Smith. There were eight other quarterbacks in the top 13, not all of whom are future NFL studs - solid passers are everywhere.

4. You must be able to run the ball with success when the other team knows you will be running.
This is an example of how output (yards rushing) does not necessarily relate to input (the emphasis a team places on running). The great Houston offenses of the late 1980s had a back named Chuck Weatherspoon who was a 1,000 yard rusher while averaging almost 10 yards per carry. The reason he had yards was that every time Houston ran the ball, it was a complete shock to the defense. If the defense knew Houston was running Weatherspoon, he would get nothing. The casual observer would think "Oh, Houston has a running game." Nope. That's why stats can fool you. Houston couldn't run when it needed to. Texas Tech is the same way, which is why you see shotgun empty backfield formations inside the opponent's five. A Gang of Five offense can line up and get four yards when it needs to.


5. You must be able to pass the ball with success when the other team knows you will be passing.
You can look no further than the Wishbone teams of the 1980s. Their receivers would average 25 yards per catch with regularity. But the reason for that was that every time they passed the ball, it was a surprise. A Gang of Five offense will produce an open receiver in almost any situation.

These previous two points can basically be boiled down to this: a team can not be one dimensional.
Point Four is more solid than Point Five, because SMQ cannot think of a dominant passing team that has won big without the ability to run as well. But there are excellent teams in the recent past with only pedestrian passing games.

No team can win without being opporunistic on all fronts - rushing, passing, defense and special teams - but the mid-nineties Nebraska teams were as at least as dominant as USC is today (49-2, three national titles over a four-year span, without getting into the lopsided scores), and of course they were pretty one-dimensional with the ball. Heisman Pundit's likely response is that he's only referring to teams from the past five years, but it's hard to see how those Tommie Frazier/Lawrence Phillips teams could have been stopped by today's defenses any more than those of a decade ago. Also remember that, far as they've fallen, Nebraska is still fewer than five years removed from a national championship game appearance with an option-based attack.

More recently, Virginia Tech (1999), Ohio State (2002) and Auburn and Texas (hey, the 'Horns were 11-1) last year have succeeded mainly on the run, and survived with opportunistic passing in key moments (think Craig Krenzel against Purdue and in the Fiesta Bowl, both moments when the opponent knew he'd be throwing). What's wrong with hitting big plays by "shocking" your opponent with a well-timed play-action pass? It's a testament to do something well enough that opponents have to load up to stop it to the extent it sacrifices other responsibilities. That's good play-calling. If you have loads more talent than your opponent - the case for the vast majority of games played by "the Gang" last year - and are confusing it with good play-calling (not just a good scheme, because SMQ is telling you, defenses know how each play is designed), you're going to be able to run and throw. But all coaches are smart enough to know their team needs balance, and to design - or steal designs for - good rushing and passing plays. The difference is which coaches call the right play at the right time, teach their players to execute it properly and, above all, have the talent to outgun the opponent.

6. You must throw to your tight ends and running backs with regularity and from your base formation.
That means that you don't completely betray your intentions by bringing in packages for certain situations, much the way that Oklahoma would bring in Kejuan Jones as a third-down back, for example. About 95% of the time, his presence meant a pass. This was a very important point in the Orange Bowl and worthy of a brief digression:

The guy on defense whose primariy responsibility is to cover the tight end is the strong safety. The defender whose primary responsibility is to cover running backs out of the backfield is the outside linebacker, usually the weakside backer. That's Football 101. When I looked at the matchups before the Orange Bowl, I realized that Oklahoma doesn't throw to its tight end very much and doesn't throw to Adrian Peterson out of the backfield (AD had all of four catches in '04, I believe). Logically, I posited that that flaw in Oklahoma's scheme would have the effect of freeing up USC's strong safety and outside linebackers to cheat up and play the run, thus effectively neutralizing Adrian Peterson. That meant that all USC had to do from there was get a pass rush with its front four and force White to make plays. As it turns out, USC's strong safety (Darnell Bing) made a season-high 10 tackles, while the weakside backer (Matt Grootegoed) not only had 7 tackles, but also was able to float around in coverage against receivers and grab an interception. To wit, it would not have been possible for these two players to have been this successful in this game had they been burdened with the usual responsibilities of their positions.

The fact that most SEC offenses--save Auburn--do not throw to their tight ends or backs creatively or with regularity out of their base formations lends us to believe that teams like Georgia would be at a distinct disadvantage against a team like Boise State. The point is granted by many that Boise may be able to move the ball at least somewhat on Georgia. What many then point out is that Boise will not be able to stop Georgia, since Boise is not known for its defense. But, we believe that the disadvantage to UGA from seeing the system thrown at them by Boise's offense will be greater than the disadvantage thrown at the Boise defense by UGA's rather vanilla offense. In other words, Boise's defense won't be seeing anything it hasn't seen, while Georgia will be seeing things for the first time. This should enable Boise to control the tempo of the game, especially early on. The only remaining question is this: Is UGA's talent advantage so overwhelming that Boise can't overcome it with its scheme? Given Boise's performances against teams like Oregon State and Louisville--teams with pretty good talent--and Georgia's trouble with teams like Ga. Southern and Marshall--teams with less talent than Boise--I would answer that question in the negative. Throw in an erratic D.J. Shockley in his first start and Georgia may be playing things even more conservative than usual, which of course will play right into Boise's hands.
As Heisman Pundit's critics have noted already, SEC teams certainly do throw to their tight ends with regularity, as much as any conference except the PAC Ten. Why HP'd single out the SEC, SMQ doesn't know.

Anyway, Meyer's offense at Utah didn't use a tight end at all in the passing game, and his top backs last year combined for only 14 catches. Louisville doesn't use its tight end a whole lot, either (it did in the John L. Smith days, which were as prolific), but Petrino does throw to his backs.

Not that doing so would set these offenses apart, because many teams throw to tight ends and running backs often from base sets - I'm thinking especially Virginia, Purdue, N.C. State and, more than any of these or any of "the Gang," Oregon (79 catches, ten touchdowns between its starting tight end and tailback in 2004) - without boasting an unstoppable juggernaut of an attack. Notice something else about all those teams? They're all major conference teams with merely average major conference talent, and throwing to backs and tight ends hasn't gotten any of them above a merely average record.

7. You must have offensive formations and plays that regularly confuse the other team's defense
This is understood by just watching the games. Again, going back to the Orange Bowl, all one has to do is see Oklahoma in a run defense while USC is in an empty backfield with five wide to see that the Sooners, despite a ton of talent, were overmatched by the Trojans' scheme. Watching Utah all year was amazing, as their stuff routinely gave defenses fits. Miami's great secondary looked silly against Louisville.
Well, yeah - every coach tries to confuse defense with certain sets. But again, the confusion comes from effective, unpredictable play-calling, not just formations or design. The scheme sets the foundation for success, but any defensive coordinator worth his salt will have all that down on paper and in his players' hands by Tuesday.

8. You must have a modicum of talent.
This seems to be the area that confuses people the most about the Gang of Six. While scheme is a great equalizer for teams that lack talent--look at the BYU team of 1990 that beat Miami--to be truly outstanding you at least need good talent in the skill positions to go with that scheme. USC is a good example of a team that has superior talent and scheme, a combination which we hold to be the main reason for their current dominance. Teams like California have good talent all around, while Louisville is closing fast to that level. Boise and Utah offset talent gaps--compared to the others of the group--with the best schemes out of the Gang of Five. And now Florida is set to join USC as a team with both outstanding talent and scheme, which is why we believe the Gators will be the next great power in college football and the primary challengers to USC.

So, a great scheme is not a complete substitute for lack of talent. You must have some talent to succeed. And of course there are always going to be cases where too much talent overwhelms a decent scheme. But solid talent with a great scheme should almost always beat out great talent with a lousy scheme. And that's why we pick Boise to beat Georgia.
Well, duh (except for the part about Boise beating UGA - SMQ doesn't buy it, though he wouldn't be shocked).

9. You must use the entire field.
So many 'conventional' teams are content to play ball control and field position, running safe off-tackle plays and the occasional simple dump off to the running back. The Gang of Five forces linebackers to cover running backs and for corners to match up with tight ends. They spread the field and go short, or bunch things up and go long. They send tight ends on streaks and fullbacks on wheel routes, utilizing motion and exotic formations to free their talent into space. Above all, you would never label them 'conventional.'
This is great, if you have enough speed to threaten people deep. But Texas Tech uses the whole field. Kentucky used to, too. So does Hawaii. But these teams aren't talented enough to run by anybody decent. Are coaches at these schools just too dumb to send a tight end on a streak? They've never in all their years come across a fullback wheel? The scheme is limited by the talent running it.

It's disheartening that Heisman Pundit is so dismissive of "conservative" offenses, since this approach is very effective for less talented teams. A team like Northwestern or Maryland, which may have below average talent, can shorten games, play sound, disciplined defense, and only need one or two big plays at the right time to win against more talented teams, and come out with a surprising season; teams with good-but-not-great talent - Tennessee in '98, VA Tech in '99, Ohio State in '02, Auburn last year - can take this approach to a championship level. Teams that throw the ball everywhere, on the other hand, tend to give up points because passing lengthens the game and therefore gives opponents more shots, and needs half a dozen big plays to keep up.

10. It is sophisticated, not complicated
The Gang of Five does not run the traditional West Coast Offense, which is a very complicated system that has rarely worked in college (see Paul Hackett, Bill Callahan and soon to be Charlie Weis). The WCO as we know it comes primarily from Bill Walsh and the 49ers (though some would argue with that, and I wouldn't necessarily object). The styles exhibited by the Gang of Five--all different from each other in a few ways, but all related by philosophy--come from the lineage of Don Coryell and Norm Chow--the two wide-open offense gurus of the early 1980s. Whereas in the WCO, the quarterback and the receiver must both make reads and adjustments from a playbook the size of a phone book--a dicey proposition for most 19-year-old college players--most of the adjustments in the Gang of Five offenses are made by either the quarterback alone or the receiver alone from a few basic formations. In other words, the implementation is simple. Hence, the execution bears more fruit.
SMQ, having not seen the playbooks from a West Coast or "Gang" offense, can't comment on the veracity of this assessment, nor Heisman Pundit's credentials for making it. His best guess, though, is that this difference is overstated. All passing games require a lot of reads; some running games, like the option, do, too. Again, not that this necessarily affects execution in the end as much as talent, practice, hands-on coaching and play-calling.

ANYWAY, it does seem that what Heisman Pundit has really done is pick the teams with the biggest margins of victory in a single season and suss out a few common threads, most of which are common to many or all winning teams. But to suggest this style of play is ultimately more successful, or that these particular programs are going to have significantly more success using them, over the long run seems to ignore the game's recent history. Teams are always rising and falling using different systems; "dominant" Boise State was only 8-4 just two years ago, and before that played in something called the Big West. Louisville and Cal were both 8-5 in 2003, the same year Utah lived and died with ball control and defense. Here's guessing HP can draw up a new list next January of equally dominating offenses who excelled for the same reasons as the current "Gang" - exceptional talent (relative to opponents), execution and play-calling - and it won't be the same six.
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7:06 AM

Comments:
That's a really long retort, and well-reasoned. I think, perhaps, that some of my points were not adequately put across. I certainly did not just pick five teams with biggest scoring margins. Not even close. Your post is just really too long to respond to at this time (sorry).
 
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