August 19, 2009
Xs and Os from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football. Part of the Doc's Pac-10 Week.
The recent revelation that Norm Chow left USC after the 2004 season in part because Pete Carroll was going to give Chow's playcalling duties to young upstarts Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian was, for those who have been watching through the years, not really surprising. By the time Chow left for the NFL in 2005, the USC offense had evolved from the "BYU Offense" Chow and Lavell Edwards had perfected in Provo -- in fact, the only year that Chow really ran "his offense" was in 2001, when Southern Cal went 6-6 in his and Carroll's first season.
Now, no one is a bigger Norm Chow fan than I am, and his playcalling wizardry was legendary and obvious, particularly in his final game, when the Trojans obliterated Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. But Pete Carroll, Steve Sarkian, and yes, even Lane Kiffin, had been moving the offense from its BYU roots during Chow's tenure, and by the time offensive line coach Pat Ruel was hired in February 2005, much of this transition was complete.
This is particularly relevant this season because, for the first time in Carroll's tenure, he begins an offense without Chow, Kiffin, Sarkisian, and he does not return an experienced starting quarterback. The quarterback situation is still very much undecided, with Aaron Corp both injured and possibly opening up a slight edge on freshman phenom Matt Barkley as the latter struggles against the first-team defense in practice. New offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates (the titles are a bit jumbled -- Bates is officially the quarterbacks coach -- but he will call the plays and design the plans), is tasked with synthesizing the often divergent views of his predecessors into something that an inexperienced signal-caller can handle. And he has to keep his boss happy, something even the legendary Chow could not always do.
Up front. Before Kiffin and Sarkisian (a former record-setting quarterback under Chow at BYU) began tinkering with Chow's passing game, Pete Carroll made one thing abundantly clear after the 6-6 2001 season: junk the running schemes. He wanted to go with the zone blocking schemes that he had seen in the NFL, and to do so he consulted with Alex Gibbs (the line coach who had designed the Broncos' great zone schemes during the Super Bowl years under Mike Shanahan) and Jon Gruden, the boss of Carroll's good friend (and Lane's father), Monte Kiffin. Instead of draws, traps, and counters to serve as misdirection changeups when the defense overreacted to the passing game, the zone stuff -- which everyone uses today -- is designed to get more double-teams, get more of a vertical push, and to provide a nice mixture of power while giving the runner freedom to pick the the crease in the defense.
Somewhat more interestingly, Carroll also wanted to move away from the old BYU "man-blocking" pass protection scheme. Like the running game, pass protection can be either "man" or "area" or zone-based. BYU had always been a man protection team, for a few reasons: a) It emphasizes man-on-man blocking, so every linemen is accountable; b) When designed correctly those matchups can be dealt with best, with a "BOB" principle -- "big on big" (linemen on linemen) and "back on backer"; and c) If the defense does not blitz, the running backs and tight ends can "check-release," meaning that they can scan to see if their man blitzes, and if not, they can release into the pattern. Carroll, however, wanted to move to "gap" or area protection, which, under line coach Ruel, is now almost exclusively the Trojans' method of protecting the passer.
"Gap" or "slide" protection uses "area" principles, meaning that the line will step toward a gap and block whoever rushes the passer in that area. There are more opportunities for help along the line, but there are fewer opportunities for check-releases by the backs and tight ends. Either the Trojans have to plan on getting four or five guys out into the route and throwing "hot," or they have to commit to keeping seven or eight in to block, which is a problem if the defense only rushes three or four. Finally, they have to be careful because in gap protection the running back is often assigned to the edge rushers, which can result in a 180-pound back like Joe McKnight against the defense's best end. Yet the upshot is this: From 2002 on, almost none of what went on up front was what Chow had brought with him from BYU.
Passing me by. The passing issues are more complex, but there are a few themes. Carroll was not happy with what went on in 2001, and for 2002 he demanded that Chow and the staff focus more on quick, three-step drops, more misdirection passes and some deeper, vertical stuff. The trend was to get away from strictly focusing on the mid-range five-step drop passes Chow favored. (Interestingly, although it shares its roots with USC's offense in Lavell Edward's BYU passing attack, Mike Leach's Texas Tech offense went in the other direction, emphasizing those five-step routes almost to the exclusion of everything else.)
Regarding the three-step game, one innovation was the "spacing" concept, but another was the concept of "packaged routes," where the Trojans put different route combinations to each side of the field, and let the quarterback choose which one he wanted to go to. The most common one was a combination of slants: to one side, was a slant and a flat route, which is good against "single-high" coverages (like three-deep zone), and to the other was double-slants, which is good against two-high, or two-deep zone.
The other trends in the offense, evident under Chow but omnipresent once he left, were the rise of misdirection passes -- i.e. bootlegs, half-rollouts, and the like -- and an increased use of vertical pass patterns. Now, some of this was to take advantage of the fact that USC had suddenly become a talent juggernaut: Why not get vertical when all your receivers, running backs, linemen and quarterbacks are headed to the NFL? But this still was a change from Norm Chow's more measured, methodical style of playcalling. The best way to observe this is to simply watch USC play and get a feel for it. The video below is every pass Mark Sanchez threw against Penn State in last year's Rose Bowl (for more than 400 yards!), with a hat tip to Art from Trojan Football on the play-by-play :
The Lane Ultimatum. Much of what later influenced USC's offense can be traced through Lane Kiffin to Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Bucs. Lane, for obvious reasons, was given pretty much free rein at the Bucs complex in the offseason, and he spent a lot of time with Gruden, picking his brain and watching film from around the NFL. Add this to the legwork Kiffin and Sarkisian were already doing to prepare for the gameplans that Chow was entitled to actually assemble and call, and tensions began rumbling there at USC.
Add to this the fact that Chow had flirted with teams about other coaching gigs (and there is little doubt he would have left to become a head coach somewhere), and the fact that this legendary coach was not a hands-on recruiter, and the young guys could see their chance for more time in the limelight. Carroll was obviously inclined to give it to them. The result for the past few years has not been poor, but Kiffin and Sarkisian did manage to add a lot of extra complexity to the offense -- including an expansion of the "packaged" sides concept -- without adding a lot of extra success, particularly after the uber-loaded roster in 2005 went its separate ways. But now that they're both gone, and we have the rather feeble Corp-Barkley quarterback derby, aren't the Trojans well, kind of vulnerable?
Pete Carroll, it is your lucky day. It is difficult to describe how fortunate Carroll was to hire Jeremy Bates to run his offense when he did. This time last year, Bates, only 32 years old, was calling the plays for Mike Shanahan's offense in Denver, which, despite the team's struggles, was pretty darn prolific (second in the league in total yards, third in passing yards). And, unsurprisingly, he coached quarterbacks and did offensive quality control (charting plays, trends, stats, probabilities) under Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. Bates was Carroll's guy, and he fell into Carroll's his lap when Shanahan was unceremoniously fired last winter. Bates has said he isn't overhauling the scheme -- indeed, much of it is probably already what he was doing -- but the word is he is simplifying it a bit:
"I'm going to try to add a couple pieces here and there but it doesn't need a big change or a different offense or anything like that because they've been successful," Bates said. "I just have to adapt a little bit to what they've been doing the past couple years and bring a little of my own offense in, but not much."
It will be interesting to watch where Bates goes with the offense. I have long been a fan of the Trojans' schemes, even after Chow left. But there's one USC tradition I hope he never changes -- the first play is always a bootleg to the tight-end: