It’s Been a Quarter of a Century That’s Too Long
There is hope, but hope is sometimes a thin reed that one might be better figuring out something more than sentiment to build something viable.
That’s my fundamental purpose in this particular article. Most of my friends and some colleagues are well aware of my ambivalence for the current Offensive Coordinator. Rest assured, though, he’s not alone in my dismissal of constant appellations of brilliance. Our readers are well aware of how I felt about the prior three OCs and frankly, there just hasn’t been a real improvement over the product on the field. The record and struggles since 2017 are a stark testament to the reality.
The conclusion behind the cause is sort of sideways, however. Not everyone can be a tragically mediocre game planner and play caller. There has to be some breaking point in the cycle. There also has to be some way to identify the core cause of the problem. In reviewing hundreds of college football games (I almost never watch the pros) there is just one major focal point that stands out as the place to break the mediocrity trend; the Offensive System itself.
What’s New is Just Old with Different Words
The current “standard” college offense was developed in the 1990s by Urban Meyer at Bowling Green University, and later Utah. He came to national attention with it during the Florida Gator/Tim Tebow era of the mid to late aughts with Florida winning back-to-back national championships in 2007 and 2008. It’s now 2023, and that basic offense is now the standard system in place at most collegiate programs and many professional teams as well. There are two other offenses used in college, but they are rarely seen, and only certain coaches have been able to implement them well; the Mike Leach Air Raid, and the old Power ‘I’ Pro set.
If you look at the history of how Meyer developed his core setup you start to see what he did to “open things up” he increased the spread between offensive linemen (the gaps between each and their location relative to the line of scrimmage). He also placed the quarterback into a more or less permanent position 4 or so yards behind the line. In the case of a pure BG-R/O there was usually a single running back off set to the right or left of the quarterback. From this formation, we won’t talk too much about the receivers because it’s not a passing offense and in the case of Florida Tebow was a sub-par passer, the offense ran more than 90% of its plays. Those places are generally aimed at dynamic “holes” through Zone Gaps in the blocking pattern.
Critical Tip to remember in this scheme is blocking. In old style ‘T’ formation/Pro Power ‘I’/Ace formations run blocking was governed by the drive bocking technique. This type of blocking engages the defender (mostly lineman) in a position where the blocker imposes himself between the defender and the ball, and that engagement is under the defender’s shoulder pads and at +1 to +2 yards in front of the line of scrimmage. The blocker then drives the defender out of the hole which presumably is being formed behind his back. The physical technique is relatively simple but requires the blocker (lineman) to fire out forward, hard, maintain his balance, and physically shove the defender out of the hole. This type of blocking is still used but it’s not common for any Read/Option style offense. I wish that I had a direct count of the blocking styles being executed when, maybe some AI will come up with the answer, but with the R/O drive blocking dropped down into the low teens of percentage of use.
The Read/Option base play set is a simple variation of the old Wing ‘T’ Sprint Draw, only there is a choice to be made and the exchange of the ball to the running back is not guaranteed. If you add the current Run-Pass Option Read into the mix, drive blocking is a serious problem. Lineman can be up to three or so yards past the LOS if you are going to throw, and more than a few pass plays have been spoiled by ineligible receivers downfield. So, there was a need to change the way run plays were blocked and line audibles became common, complex, and critical to the play. Zone blocking changed the perspective on managing the gap potential on the line. The old “1-hole, 2-hole, 3 hole, 4-hole” concept was too narrow for a passive collapsing blocking scheme. What that meant was another flavor variation of the blocking scheme implemented by the Houston Veer. Since the Read/Option is just a more flexible implementation of older option offenses (Wishbone, Flexbone, Triple-option) without the cut blocking on the edges (which is illegal now, anyway) the concept of the pass block as a universal became common.
You’ll notice it when the tackles get into the two-point kick-slide stance as they get ready to engage and fall back into a pocket ideally 3 yards deep. On a run play the tackle that gets passed by a Defensive End is not committing a mortal sin. The object there is to read that end crashing, and the intent of the Mike linebacker. The quarterback then either keeps the ball to run through the best outside gap on a power or blast, usually the B, or C, possible while the running back blocks the Mike or if the Mike bails the quarterback will hand the ball to the running back going through the A-Gap with the defensive end now behind the play. The big difference is where the gap opens and where that defensive end crashes.
Passive/Reactive vs. Aggressive/Dictatorial
The point is that the offense is largely passive and reactive to the defense. It’s heavily dependent on reading keys, and as more big money careers are on the line, coaches are less and less willing to leave it up to the players to make those dynamic reads before the play. We saw, repeatedly, over the last two, or even three, OCs that they strictly limit the choices during the play. The impulse negates the entire purpose and concept behind the option, and almost no players wanting to do more than ride the pine are going to buck the system that has developed. The end result of the institutional passivity and reactivity on offense has been a difficult drag on the game. No matter what you call it, Spread Option, Power Spread (as in the current OC), Bowling Green Read/Option, Run-Pass-Option, it’s essentially the same offense with self-imposed limitations on what can be called and what can be run by the players.
Yes, there are those who still feel that running the ball is the “thing,” and the reality that comes home is that first, the run is exceedingly inefficient in moving the ball and scoring points. Remember that Points per Minute of Possession is a key element in winning games. The more you can score in the least amount of time, the more chances you have of winning. If it takes a running team 8 minutes to score a touchdown, and a passing team can score 3 TDs in those 8 minutes, who is going to win the football game?
In few places in any of these offenses are stocked with aggressive downfield passing routes that take advantage of play action, pre-snap motion, and patterns into coverage gaps (not just dicey jump ball tosses at single coverage). Few of the offensive sets are designed to stretch yardage schedule from 4 yards per play to at least 8. The common reality of third down and long is not a good thing. Coaches should be looking for 2nd and short. Thinking and planning should always be downfield.
The problem with running plays AT the line of scrimmage is simply that more often than not the team will achieve the line of scrimmage. A bubble screen that is thrown 4 yards behind the line and only nets three is not going to make a 1st down when 5 yards are needed. A low percentage 20-yard fade route is going to result in a punt on 4th down more often than not.
Third and too long, and three-and-out were too often the refrains from a good deal of the season in 2023.
And That’s Where This All Leads
With the return of 95% of the “Bad Boyz”, Bhayshul Tuten (and presumably Malachi Thomas), Kyron Drones is set with the tools that he needs to have an extremely successful season. There is a warning in all of what was just explained in the prior description. The offense is old. It’s going on 30, with its parent styles going on 50. In all of those variations the run is primary and the ‘brilliant’ still plan on bashing their heads against block walls for a couple of yards here or there in hopes of one or two breaking for big yardage. Defenses have changed greatly in the last 20 years. Defenders are faster, stronger, and operate with far more on field flexibility than the offenses that oppose them.
It’s largely become a contest of Tic-Tac-Toe where there is no winner, just a loser. The game is always a cat if no one makes a mistake. What results is inconsistency in play calling, game planning, and ultimately in execution of the offense because the offense is heavily dependent on pure talent on the field executing a limited number of plays.
Putting a Crowbar in the Packing Crate
One answer to the mediocrity inherent in the Read/Option is the Air Raid. The promise of stretching the field by actually passing the ball far more often than the oldsters are comfortable with really appealed to its implementers, like Mike Leach and Chip Kelly.
Let’s go back to the Read/Option for just a minute because it does have some pass plays. The problem with that is, the passing is frightfully passive and only seems to get aggressive when it’s a full-blown emergency. There are four basic patterns (no matter the formation) in the Power-Spread series; the bubble, seam (sometimes off of a wheel), cross, and fade. In every case except the cross, the play is relatively slow to develop, and either depends on yards after catch, or contested catches to move the ball. Often patterns are short of the line of scrimmage (bubbles and tunnels are not actually true pass patterns). The next problem is that many of the patterns are often short of the sticks when a first down is needed. Too often a very low percentage fade route is called with some forlorn hope of getting a jump ball to fall into the right hands, or a penalty.
In addition, throwing a bubble screen at an attacking defense is just point-blank stupid. Hoping to isolate a wide receiver or running back on a one-on-one situation behind the line of scrimmage is a down and distance schedule killer. Rarely do those plays make it further downfield than 3 or 4 yards, and more often than not they are stopped right around the line of scrimmage.
Fade routes are often fights for beach balls sailing over the sideline and everyone’s heads. There have been successes with the wheel and crossing routes, but often the crosses aren’t run deep enough to grab the needed yardage for the first down.
There are more route packages in the playbooks, you can see them for yourselves if you look up the various historical playbooks, but having the courage and foresight to call them, and use them is another matter. Most OCs seem to be stuck in the same dreary pattern of calling a play, then calling an audible, neither of which work well, and then being stuck in 3rd down and long. Of course, the wild card in all of this is the skill position players and how they react after the snap. What happens when the play breaks down and there is time to riff? Is your talent good enough to wing it? That really seems to be the big difference between all of these teams running the same pedestrian offense. How many OCs pat themselves on the back for calling a brilliant play when what really happened is that it didn’t work, and the skill players made up the difference?
Slow to Go with Passive and Reactive
Since the abandonment of the T or Power I formation (QB under Center) there has been a frustrating change in the speed at which plays develop and complete. Many programs have abandoned the huddle and the play shuttled in by key player exchanges for the “Check with Me” fiasco that is now nearly universal. The shotgun formation was first deployed regularly in the NFL by Dallas in the Tom Landry -Roger Staubach era. The intent was to give the quarterback a few extra steps back into the pocket so that short routes had time to develop. Few running plays were ever called from that formation, and few teams routinely operated from it, either.
The advent of the Spread’s poor man’s mimic of the West Coast Offense (which is more Air Raid than Read/Option) added the option merge on the running game. The net effect though was a radical speed and power diminution in most running plays. Whoever runs the ball runs it from what is essentially a flat-footed standstill. This contrasts greatly with the QB under center and the running back taking the handoff with a three-yard head of steam. The speed difference between an R/O A-gap run and an old-fashioned Dive play is a critical second or even more. You could see the effect in the Louisville game when the Cardinals ran inside plays from a pro-set power I. The defense was struggling to deal with the drive blocking and the speed at which the running back made it to his mark in the LOS.
If you add the lack of execution speed with most running plays to the herky-jerky slow pace of actually deploying to the line of scrimmage and getting the play actually started, the critical problem in the current offensive scheme is made worse. This issue was also highlighted by the Michigan sign stealing controversy from this season. The simple fact remains, if you don’t signal from the sideline, they can’t steal them. This phenomenon is not particularly new. But it developed as a compromise with Chip Kelly’s concept of an accelerated execution pace. The problem was and remains that OCs do not trust their offensive talent, in particular their quarterbacks, to handle the reads and audibles necessary to adjust the play before the snap. There is a rabbit hole sort of lure for this particular subject, so we’ll keep it simple. What happens is the pre-snap read discipline is lost. The level of trust between coaching staff and players is lowered, and the offense becomes passive and reactive.
We’ve discussed how to fix the problems before, so we’ll just touch on them briefly. First, the OC needs to be on the sideline to deal directly with his players. Assistants can be in the booth with the binoculars and notepads. Second, plays need to be called and executed as called with the plays chosen to dictate to the defense, not react to it. Signaling from the sideline should be minimal with direct communication between offensive players and the play calling OC.
On the field, from the offensive structure, the OC needs to disabuse himself of the advantage of single coverage. Defensive players are too fast and talented and too often normally put in one-on-one situations. This means that pass patterns need to be set up to gain the required yardage at the catch, not depend on yards after catch to make the line-to-gain. The places to run routes are between 5-12 yards downfield, under the zones, and in the seams between the zones. Intermediate routes in that range, on 3-4 second execution times will cut apart most defenses, routinely.
Teams need to alter their shotgun only approach and mix up the under-center formations with the shotgun formations. Quarterbacks must be comfortable sprinting back, or out, in the pocket. Up Tempo means that, not the phony “check-with-me” sideline audible nonsense. Structure each play with an audible to take advantage of pre-snap reads, but don’t surrender the initiative in the situation. Dictate to the defense, don’t let it dictate to you.
The problem is that all of the above fixes fly in the face of the current coaching ethos and pathos. What has developed over the last 20 years is a talent bound inconsistent mix of unpredictable results. That binding to talent is unfortunate because most talent across most teams at any level is fundamentally average.
It’s Time for a Change in Talent Dependence
If coaches want to call themselves and each other brilliant, then it’s high time for some OC to mend their methods, reshuffle their playbooks, and change their tracked thinking. There are certain aspects of the current Read/Option (Option Spread) offense that work and can be take advantage of. No one system is perfect. All have their weaknesses and strengths. The big problem with the current offense is that if the quarterback cannot or will not run the QB Power or Blast, and cannot take the dive up the gut, the defense can quickly shut down the slow and predictable run game. Add to that, if the quarterback cannot execute the four basic RPO passes, or the receivers can’t turn those limited route packages into yardage then there is also no passing deflection enabling runs.
At some point it might be interesting to grab some time on an AI (really predictive analytics) and get one to digest some big data facts about statistics and reality in football evaluations. The reason being is really driving into the stacks of known data for the last 20 years to tease out the real numbers versus the aberration that we often see. The statistics that would be useful would be the following to give you an idea:
Average yardage gained on run plays without the big gain exceptions.
Everyone knows the score on this one. Joe Running Back gets credited with 9 yards per carry, but the defense blew their coverage twice in the game for nearly 100 yards. Other than those two carries, he toted the rock 18 times. What was his real average, not the gross average?
Pass yardage minus Yards after Catch on passes at or behind the line of scrimmage.
This was really the false effect of the West Coast offense, and the short dinky dunk ultra-high percentage pass completions that ended up acting mostly as pitches instead of true passes. Some great passing quarterbacks might not look so great if their overhand pitches were taken out of their stat base.
Percentage of successful plays as called versus plays that break down and are improvised on the field.
This one is critical because if you watch enough football, you begin to see a pattern where a very high percentage of the big saving plays, for any reason, critical first downs, long passes, gash touchdowns, etc. are actually broken plays that the players riffed their way through.
There are more, but you get the concept. What happens is that the current average offense is completely talent dependent. Now, don’t misunderstand, talent is truly important, but the offense is supposed to be adapted to maximize the talent in the locker room. Too often too many OCs with their demigod complexes demand to hammer talent into their pet system instead of reshaping the system to make the offense better.
You can see the results of this sort of blunder in the brutal inconsistency of many offenses at both the college and pro levels. Doing a better job of eliminating the gash, and riff plays from the analysis would probably show nearly all of the OCs out there, that their talent is saving them from their scheme, not their scheme making the talent better.
The upshot is that programs have serious problems maximizing their talent at all levels, and those problems are made worse as the talent level reduces. Teams of 2- and 3-Star Talent playing in the peloton of the field are adversely affected by ineffective play calling and game planning. There just isn’t the talent to sustain a team through a 12-game season when most of the offensive plays executed as called, fail.
The Final End Point in the Saga
The reason for this entire deluge is pretty simple as it relates to the Hokies. The team is getting all of its starting skill players at Wide Receiver, Quarterback, and Wide Receiver back for 2024. With the exception of Wright, the core potential starters at Tight End are coming back, too. This is exceedingly grand news given the pressures of the transfer portal, but there is a background noise concern.
The 2022/2023 Offense (remember, the system not the players necessarily) is presumably the one that will be deployed in 2024. That’s not a good thing. Unless there was a full-blown pressure emergency like the furious comeback attempt for the NC State game, the base offense is plagued by all of the negative issues that dog every Option Spread offense. The results in 2024 are likely to be similar to 2023 with that continued fits and starts unpredictability being the hallmark trait.
The coaching staff has to figure out how to loosen up the play calling. They need to take notice of the middle of the field 5-12 yards in front of the line of scrimmage. Screen passes do have their place, but as an exception, not as a routine way to do business. Running Quarterback powers and bellies repeatedly is going to have a serious long-term disabling effect on Drones. Serious attention needs to be given to the abilities of the Tight Ends and Slot Receiver Positions on crosses and seams out in serious positive yardage.
Consideration needs to be made for working from under center some higher percentage of the time. Adding that one different formation flavor gives the defense one more thing to think about especially with the potential speed of a Bhayshul Tuten or Malachi Thomas coming at them full tilt. It also improves some of the short yardage misdirection potential and puts the QB sneak into play without the disastrous delays that are stalling out play executions deep in the red zone.
And there needs to be a change in the trust level. Teach the quarterbacks to be quarterbacks not video game avatars. Give them plays and audibles (gee, I remember when they were called “automatics” that’s how old I am) and execute those plays. Don’t react to the defense, make the defense react to you.
Above all, put down the video game controller attitude and go back to coaching people. Structure your system to your players, don’t try to ram them into your system.
It’s been since the mid-90’s that most football programs have run the same offense with tweaks and name changes, but it’s basically the same slow developing, passive, reactive, offense. It would be interesting to see someone come up with something new.
That’s the challenge. It’s time to change.