The Offensive Minds That Did Not Ruin My Life

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.

Kelly RPO

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.

Kelly RPO IZ Kelly RPO bubble

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.

MalzahnT

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.

MalzahnT2

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.

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Jameis Winston: #Smart

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This off-tackle run had the potential to go for a big gain, thanks to Jameis Winston.

Notice at the beginning of the GIF, New Orleans has a defender crashing the edge outside of the second tight end. If the tight end stays on the line, the defender has the advantage at the point of impact because it is a compacted area and, generally, if a defender has a few steps to gain momentum like that, he can set the edge. Seeing this disadvantage, Winston removes the outer tight end from the line of scrimmage, tipping the space advantage in the tight ends favor as he would then have plenty of room to set up his engage.

To no surprise, the defender adjusts accordingly and steps back, theoretically giving himself enough room to beat the block in a different way. What this is really doing is clearing out the space between the two tight ends, giving the running back a clear lane. On paper, this adjustment would have lead to a huge gain. Instead, the inner tight end gets blown off of his block and the right tackle fails to get to the second level quickly enough to pick up the linebacker.

No matter what adjustment Winston had made, this play was doomed because of the talent that Tampa Bay sports up front, but this adjustment on a good team leads to a big gain. Winston, in just his second NFL regular season game, made a critical adjustment that he knew *should* have opened up the play.

Winston is a special player. He is going to be really good for a really long time because of this level of mental processing.

The Offensive Minds That Ruined My Life

For those who have a passion for that they do, their drive for success tends to be in the underlying belief that they can do better than those who already have that job. In my case, that dream job and passion is offensive coordinating, and that belief is strong with me. Over the past three years or so, I started to take football more seriously, viewing it as less of a game and more of an outlet for myself. In studying the game closer, one begins to understand and appreciate the more driving factors of the game, namely play design and play calling. As I went on learning and watching football, these driving factors became my passion, and so villians in the field were created.

Dave Schramm and James Franklin- these are the men that compel me to do what I want to do. In this order, these two offensive minds have made me miserable at some point in the past few years, and one of them still does. Analyzing Derek Carr running Schramm’s offense was hellacious due to Schramm’s ignorance and redundancy. Similarly, Franklin brought his high school offense to Penn State and forced it upon a much more advanced quarterback, sparking a large disconnect and regression from America’s should-have-been poster boy Christian Hackenberg.

At the core, these two are the same evil. Their offenses are founded on (very) high percentage passing, inside zone and stripping power from the quarterback. Others that fit this description, such as UCLA’s Noel Mazzone, do a much better job of being creative and manufacturing space, whereas Schramm and Franklin’s offenses are as bland as a box of Cheerios. That being said, there are a handful of differences between the two, albeit both of them still being completely incompetent.

In his final two years at Fresno State, Carr threw the ball 1,170 times in 26 games, good for a staggering 45 throws per game. Had Carr been throwing a multitude of concepts, spreading the field and keeping the game interesting, it would not have been such a drag to watch. Of course, instead of any sort of creativity, Schramm’s offense was largely the same three plays: wide receiver screen, a pre-determined “go” route throw and inside zone, which is an interior running play. Though, with Fresno State having an abysmal offensive line and mediocre talent at the running back position, the inside zone was not used in “normal” volume. Schramm instead used screens as his extensions of the running game, so to see Carr throw 15-20 screens in a game was not uncommon.

Where this dumbed down scheme became most infuriating is that it seemingly stunted Carr’s growth as a player. Aside from the lack of exposure to natural pocket play, Carr’s intelligence was being put to waste. In the small sample of plays in which Carr was truly asked to step back and read the field, he shredded zone coverages and found the open man with ease, often using veteran-like eye movement and well timed pump fakes. Intelligent quarterbacks do not come around near as often as they should and for one to have been, for lack of a better word, wasted like Carr was, is a shame.

As if Schramm could not possibly have been any worse, he left Carr out to die quite often. Most of what Schramm had installed did not have any sort of failsafe vs an impending blitz. The most glaring example of this was Fresno State’s game against San Diego State in Carr’s senior year. SDSU consistently showed five, six or even seven rushers, yet Schramm kept calling for four and five receiver sets with no extra blockers. If you can do the math (Schramm could not), Carr was at a large disadvantage for any throw that was not an immediate screen. To no surprise, this was one of Carr’s worst performances and one many of his disbelievers often pointed to as an example of his fear of rushers. Carr did look frightened in that game, but free rushers on every other snap is going to scare any passer.

Since Carr’s departure, Schramm has made marginal strides to open up the offense, though it is still largely monotonous. Fresno State does not have the quarterback talent to open up any further regardless, but Schramm’s legacy will always be that he did nothing with the talented quarterback that was handed to him.

To that same note, the glaring flaw with Franklin is that he too has done nothing with a talented quarterback. In fact, Hackenberg was a star his freshman year under Bill O’Brien and he looked like a bonafide stud, but the monotony and simplicity of Franklin’s offense has killed Hackenberg’s drive as a player. It is a backwards situation. More often, the system/player clash roots in the quarterback not being smart enough to run the system, whereas Hackenberg is too smart and advanced for Franklin’s pedestrian offense.

Franklin’s offense has a bit more to it than Schramm’s did, though Franklin’s questionable play calling balances the equation. Most of the passes in Franklin’s offense are screens, quick slants and hitches. In other words, it is a simplified West Coast offense, yet it lacks the key element to a West Coast offense: synchronization. A West Coast offense is designed for the quarterback to hit a certain step at the same time his receiver hits a specific depth or makes his break, theoretically creating an impeccable timing dynamic that the defense can not stop. Franklin’s offense tends to ask the quarterback to make just one step, wait on the throw and then pass the ball. Hackenberg does not work well under those conditions.

If there is anything we learned from Hackenberg during his year under O’Brien, it is that he works much better when the play correlates with where he is in his drop. When routes are breaking at the top of his drop or he is able to move to his next progression during a hitch up in the pocket, Hackenberg clicks. This is why a more traditional 5-step drop based system fit Hackenberg more than a 1-step based drop system does. Alas, Franklin could not make any sort of adjustment to the talent he was given and has left those talents to rot.

Franklin’s system alone is an infuriating watch, but his situational play calling is the cherry on top of his mess of an offense. Namely, Franklin is a menace to himself on third down. As opposed to putting the ball in the hands of his most naturally talented player, Hackenberg, Franklin often opts for inside zone- an even more head scratching decision considering Penn State’s offensive line. Time and time again, Franklin fails to convert on third down through his stubborn approach and he has yet to think that maybe, just maybe, letting the quarterback make a play on third down is the best bet, unless it is a very short yardage situation.

More or less, the issue I have with both of these offensive minds is that they have done an outstanding job at stunting, or even reversing, a talented quarterback’s growth. Seeing as quarterbacks are my pride and joy, restricting one of the few quarterbacks with talent is an unforgivable offense. While I have a great deal of brilliant offensive minds that inspire me to become an offensive coordinator, like Chip Kelly, Kyle Shanahan and Gus Malzahn, the blemishes in the industry like Dave Schramm and James Franklin drive me to be something better.