For as many villains as we create in our desired industry, we create just as many idols that we aspire to be. These idols, for me, are quite unlike men like Dave Schramm and James Franklin. They are innovative, brilliant and cunning, yet none of what they do is particularly revolutionary or odd. All of them run efficient offenses that birthed some of the most exciting quarterback play that we have seen in the past five years or so, not to mention how well their offenses can run the ball. There is a wide number of offensive minds that I could point to as having some influence on me or that I simply admire, though there are three who are quite special to me.
Chip Kelly, Gus Malzahn and Kyle Shanahan are three of the best offensive minds that football has to offer. All three of their offenses differ from each other, yet the same general principle is the same: find the easiest way to create space. Kelly’s passing attack and tempo elevated Oregon to the national spotlight and earned him an NFL job with the Eagles. Malzahn’s blend of old-style and new-style football birthed Cam Newton’s special Heisman season and has continued to make Auburn a force in the SEC. Lastly, Shanahan, my personal favorite, has put his spin on a handful of simple concepts to make them special.
For quite some time, it was common for Kelly’s offense to be called a gimmick. It is not a gimmick. Much like a high functioning West Coast offense, the key to Kelly’s passing attack is execution. In simple terms, Kelly’s offense is a numbers game. He is trying to move players and align them such that his quarterback can pick the advantage pre-snap and roll with it. Due to the nature of Kelly wanting to always find the numbers advantage, a building block in his offense is the idea of packaged plays, or RPOs (run/pass options). Most commonly, this will package something like inside zone, an interior running play, with a quick screen.
This an example of a typical RPO set up. In this situation, Kelly would want to motion/shift the tight end out to tighten the 3 x 1 trey. With this motion/shift, the linebacker will either show man and follow him or show zone and stay put. If the linebacker vacates the box, the offense has the numbers advantage in the box to run. If the linebacker stays, there is a 3 vs 2 passing advantage to the right side of the formation.
On the left, the linebacker moved from the box and gave the offense room to run, whereas the linebacker stayed put on the left, which could allow for any number of quick throws to that side.
These plays are forcing defenses to beat themselves, which may be where the “gimmick” feeling comes from. As outstanding an idea packaged plays are, they are no gimmick. Packaged plays can be more complex than this and work even better with a quarterback who is a threat to run (look at what Tennessee is doing with Marcus Mariota), but even old man Peyton Manning can run packaged plays and he did last season.
The secondary aspect to what makes Kelly successful is the effect of his tempo. Early on in games, the tempo is more of a nuisance than anything as players are still, for the most part, fresh and ready to play. By the time the second half rolls around, defenses are winded and can not keep up with the quick hitting throws and brute force of the inside zone. Granted, this season has not been the greatest testament to Kelly’s genius, but that is largely due to the fact that the personnel he chose at both guard positions are horrendous. His scheme does have an Achiles heel in the sense that the execution must be very sound, but Kelly has certainly found a wonderful way to attack defenses.
With a few similarities to Kelly from a philosophical standpoint, Malzahn is a little more old school. Malzahn’s offense may run out of the shotgun, but for all intents and purposes, much of Malzahn’s offense resembles the Wing-T.
Here, Malzahn stacks two tight ends on the right side of the formation, one behind the guard/tackle almost like a fullback, and has one back at either side of the quarterback. The play action here is meant to look like a stretch play with a pulling lineman. With as brutalizing as Auburn’s rushing attack can be, LSU bites hard on the fake, though once they forget the fake, they leave one player unaccounted for.
The running back meant to kick out the defender had it been a real run play is able to slip the defenders near the line of scrimmage on a wheel route. With the receiver on the side of the formation running a go route to clear out room, the wheel is left wide open for a huge gain. Though, the brilliance of this all is simply the formation.
There are so many things Malzahn could do out of this formation. For one, he has power to the right side of the formation, so a zone run would pick up a nice gain. Auburn could also run a read-option in which No.11 kicks out to the left side to clear out one of the defenders at the second level. They could run a pitch-sweep to the strong side. Heck, even a quarterback power out of this formation would be dangerous, though plowing through piles was not exactly Nick Marshall’s strength.
Cam Newton, on the other hand, had a knack for quarterback power. This is not the most successful example I could have pulled, but the general idea of the concept is here. One side of the formation brings a pulling lineman to kick out the defender and clear the rushing lane. This play did not work quite like it was drawn up because the running back is not able to drive on his block, though Newton, as strong as he is, still comes out of this play with about five yards. That is a successful play.
Now, Malzahn is not the first or only offensive mind to do this, it is just that there are very few others who are able to successfully incorporate the concept like Malzahn can. Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen are the other two major names that have had a good deal of success from this play, using Tim Tebow/Cardale Jones and Dak Prescott, respectively, as human bulldozers.
Another small note that is interesting about Malzahn is that his claim to fame was littered with high-powered passing offenses, much like he had at Arkansas State just before he ended up at Auburn. Centralizing his attack around the run was new to Malzahn, yet he brilliantly adapted and has since been one of the most brilliant offensive minds in college football.
Adaptation is a quality that young Shanahan possesses as well. Shanahan is emerging as one of the best offensive coordinators in the NFL. For some time, the narrative seemed to be that his dad, who he coached under in Washington, was why he was getting as much attention as he was. As the past few years have unfolded, it is evident that Kyle Shanahan is brilliant in his own right.
What Shanahan did with Robert Griffin from a schematic standpoint was outstanding. He simplified reads, fed off of play action and kept RG3 moving. This simple blend enabled RG3 to stretch the field, both with his arm and his legs, well enough to earn a rookie of the year award. Sadly, RG3 battled injury and was never able to replicate his success, but Shanahan had the perfect system in place for him. That said, it is Shanahan’s post-Washington career that really caught my attention.
For the most part, Cleveland’s offense was talentless outside of the offensive line. Brian Hoyer was the quarterback, there was a carousel of running backs and the only dynamic receiver was Josh Gordon, who missed part of the year via suspension. Despite all of that mess, Cleveland fielded a respectable offense because of Shanahan’s ability to create space.
This is a smart way to run the counter. Instead of an elongated hand off that wastes time, Shanahan gets the ball to the back quickly and lets him dictate the speed of the plat. Once the entire defense is flowing to the right side to defend what looks like power, the running back follows the fullback cutting across the formation. The fullback seals off the box defender and gives the running back room to pick up seven or eight yards.
There is a great deal more I could say about Shanahan, though I have already done so: http://www.footballsavages.com/kyle-shanahan-one-leagues-best-coordinators/. That piece was written about a year ago when I first became attached to what Shanahan was accomplishing in Cleveland. It goes over a lot of his foundation concepts, both run and pass.
Kelly, Malzahn and Shanahan have been the three most positively influential offensive minds that I have gotten the privilege to see. Though, as I said earlier, there are many other great offensive minds out there that I appreciate, including Josh McDaniels, Gary Kubiak, Sean Payton, Mike McCoy and Hue Jackson, to name a handful. If there is anything/anyone that I strive to be like, it is any of those three critical figures. All of them are masterful and have touched me in a way that attracted me to the profession, and for that I thank them.