November 12, 2009
Xs and Os ahead of undefeated Cincinnati's Friday night showdown with West Virginia, from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football.
It must be something unique to the American psyche that we are not satisfied if someone is a success within their field; we must have geniuses. Karl Rove or David Plouffe become tactical geniuses within the political realm (depending on your persuasion); Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro become "acting geniuses"; and then there's the football world, where everyone from Bill Walsh to Mike Leach to Nick Saban are not merely effective coaches, they have attained de facto MENSA status. One otherwise well written article about Oregon's Chip Kelly was entitled "A Beautiful Mind," likening the Ducks' success in the spread option to John Nash's pioneering, Nobel prize-winning work in game theory.
When the spread was still in its nascent stages, Brian Kelly had the genius moniker thrown about. He began his coaching career at Assumption College, where he also played, then took a spot as a graduate assistant at Division II Grand Valley State. There he rose to the head coaching spot only four years later, a job he would hold for the next 12 years. It was at GVSU that his version of the spread took hold, and while Kelly was an early mover to regular multiple-receiver sets and a better spread run game in the vein of Rich Rodriguez and others, he was different in that he didn't have his quarterbacks do much reading. Instead, Kelly's running game remained basically power football with pulling guards and tackles, all from the shotgun. But he did not lack for success: His 2001 GVSU offense remains one of the most potent in college football history at any level, averaging more than 58 points per game.
He refined his scheme as head coach at Central Michigan from 2004-06, before replacing defensively-minded Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati, where he's in the midst of guiding the Bearcats to the most successful season in school history for the third year in a row. By the time he took over at UC, the spread was no longer the new, new thing; it had trickled down from the innovators, permeated through the early adopters and become the province of hacks as well as forward-thinking coaches looking for an edge. Instead of hanging on to the identity of schematic genius, Kelly has been content to cast himself in a far less exciting but far more important role: As a damn good fundamental football coach.
Take his very basic approach to the passing game that's made a star out of every obscure passer who operates it. Aside from preparing his players so well -- of which the best evidence is his continued success at multiple, generally disadvantaged stops -- the one feature of Kelly's passing game that differentiates it from most others is its foundation in the concept of "vertical stems." It sounds more complicated than it is.
Most modern pass defenses (the good ones, anyway) take their cue from something Nick Saban has done for years: "Pattern reading," i.e. actually identifying the specific pass patterns and concepts that their opponents like and anticipate them based off the initial steps of each receiver's route on a given play. The easiest routes to pattern read are those that begin with some initial movement in a particular direction, like shallow crossing routes and routes that cut immediately to the flat. The "mesh" routes below are some of the easier ones to "pattern read":
I don't want to overstate this, as the above pattern is excellent against man coverage, and of course the receivers can fake the initial routes and redirect somewhere else, but it nevertheless limits the range of options. Note too the other collateral effect for the defense: Safeties don't have any immediate threats deep. Now, again, a receiver could fake short and then go long, but defenders won't be forced to backpedal so quickly.
The basic things you notice are that a) The receivers divide the field into fourths, thus making it difficult for either one or even two deep safeties to defend all four; b) The receivers burst off the line immediately with no fakes or stutter-steps, which forces the defensive backs immediately into retreat position to respect the deep pass; and, most importantly, c) The receivers give away no information -- they might go deep or break short, or break inside or outside. (Also the running back serves as a nice checkdown as he has an option route and can basically find the open grass.)
For example, imagine a few basic concepts off the exact same look: The receivers to the left run a double out or double comeback combination (the outside receiver breaks directly for the sideline, while the inside receivers curls inside and then works back outside looking for the open window, or breaks upfield if the defense is out of position to the outside), while the receivers to the right run a high/low pattern where the outside receiver runs a square-in route a few yards underneath a deeper route by the inside receiver. The running back may leak out into the flat where the receivers have vacated.
Put yourself in the position of the secondary: This pass concept looks exactly like the four verticals play up until the moment the receivers break into their respective routes. Kelly's quarterbacks, whether Tony Pike or Zach Collaros, often release the ball while the receiver is still running straight downfield, before he has made his break. And, particularly with the mobile Collaros, there is an ancillary benefit to making just about every pass pattern look like all verticals: The retreating secondary opens up room for the quarterback to scramble. Collaros had well over 100 yards rushing against South Florida, and over 75 and two touchdowns last week against Connecticut.
Ultimately, this is basic stuff -- the Bearcats have added plenty of rollouts and play-action looks for the shorter, nimbler Collaros -- and the focus on Kelly (as with just about all other coaches) shouldn't be on whether he's a genius who has a chalkboard answer for everything you draw up, but instead on whether he gets the most from their players. Just about every guy who has lined up for Kelly in recent years has had success, and his teams have won consistently. There's a reason he's the hottest name for bigger coaching jobs, and while he's a bright guy when it comes to Xs and Os, it has more to do with his ability to coach players and prepare teams in the details.
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Chris Brown writes the strategy and philosophy site Smart Football and also contributes to the New York Times' Fifth Down blog. You can reach him at chris at smartfootball.com, or follow him on Twitter.