September 30, 2010
Sometimes, in college football, the strategies teams use take a quantum leap forward, marking off one epoch to the next, like when the pro style splitbacks and I-formations of the 1990s gave way to the age of the spread in the decade that just passed. More often, however, the evolution is more subtle: A tweak here, a wrinkle there, a new counter.
On that timeline, the last ten years were the age of the guru and the genius on the blackboard. But the one we're entering is the age of the tinkerer, the coach who can teach his fundamentals and find the tiny advantages that best uses his talent. Similarly, the age of "the spread" (however you want to try to define the term) as a decided schematic advantage may have peaked, but the dual-threat quarterback it ushered in is clearly here to stay.
The statistics tell the story: The leading rusher in the SEC is a quarterback, Cam Newton of Auburn, as is the leading rusher in the nation, Michigan's electric Denard Robinson. Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor is off to the best start of his young career and at or near the top of every Heisman list. That the backyards of Bo, Woody and Pat Dye are the domain of these ambidextrous talents is a testament to how far football has come.
Or is it how far backwards it's gone? Although both Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez and Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn molded their offenses in the modern "spread" tradition, the tactics they're using to exploit their dynamic signal callers' talents reach more backwards than forwards, into the always fertile soil of football history, where yesterday's banality is tomorrow's novelty.
In Cam Newton's case, Malzahn, whether intentionally or simply by stumbling onto some of the same great ideas that others had before him, has incorporated some of the great option concepts of the 1960s and 1970s. (And I don't just mean reading a defensive lineman). For Denard Robinson, however, Rich Rodriguez has reached back farther still, to run a system that Fielding Yost might have recognized as a cousin to his own "point a minute" attack 100 years ago.
Gus Malzahn, who I've called the "magus of the up-tempo/no-huddle spread offense," is not afraid of reinventing himself to go with what works. His career path – from high school genius to a brief, ill-fated stint as offensive coordinator at Arkansas to architect of the nation's most prolific attack at Tulsa, and finally to run an SEC offense for real at Auburn – has seen him go from known as a pass-happy bombadier to the orchestrator of the most productive ground game in the SEC.
Malzahn's focus has never been schemes, per se, but instead with how they can be combined with his beloved up-tempo style. Blessed with an entirely different breed of athlete than he's ever had at his disposal before, though, Malzahn's running game has quickly evolved to Newton's frightening potential as a runner. Already, the Tigers' best play this year is not one I saw much of, if at all, with the pedestrian Chris Todd at the controls last season: The "inverted veer," also known as the "dash read."
The play is a combination of the three elements: a) The zone read, because the quarterback is in the shotgun and reads the defensive end; b) A speed sweep because the runningback runs laterally and tries to get to the corner; and most importantly , c) The old school veer option, because the quarterback and running back attack the same side of the field, which better marries the option part of the play to the blocking. This last point cannot be overemphasized, because it solves a problem inherent with the zone read: Namely, that the quarterback can make the right read but the play still be a bust, because other players may have not made their blocks.
With the veer, on the other hand, it's the read that enables the double teams to the frontside, and thus all frontside defenders are either optioned (where they cannot be correct) or double teamed (where they are overpowered).
The inverted play uses this same logic but, well, inverted. The defensive end is unblocked and the quarterback and running back attack him to either side, just as with the traditional veer. But the traditional veer sends the running back inside (i.e. the "dive back") while the quarterback steps around (and often has a third option, a pitch man). This version inverts the two, as the runner runs laterally and, if the unblocked defensive end chases him, the quarterback steps inside. Note that this allows the offensive line to get a variety of double teams up front:
For Auburn, this set-up makes perfect sense based on its personnel, as well. The running back, often a speedy guy like Onterrio McCalebb, threatens the defense laterally, which opens up the inside running lane for Cam Newton, a hulking godzilla of a quarterback. And that is what happened against South Carolina, time and time again:
Malzahn, of course, isn't content to draw this up one way and to let it go. As the video shows, Newton's long run against South Carolina came on the basic four wide version diagramed above, but Auburn went back to this concept throughout the game – with variations. Near the goal-line, Auburn used the play with an unbalanced line, and Malzahn often wasn't content with just traditional veer blocking, instead leaving the defensive end unblocked while using "Power O" blocking with a pulling backside guard leading the way for Newton. (Note the similarities between the inverted veer concept with a pulling guard and one of Urban Meyer's favorite plays, the "crazy" shovel option.)
Indeed, in the final cut-up in the clip above, Newton throws a touchdown pass to the backside tight-end after faking the inverted zone read play. Increasingly, football is a game of the subtle variation, and Malzahn is a master tinkerer.
While Cam Newton might be football's most intriguing physical specimen, Denard Robinson is undoubtedly its most exciting player. Just a few games into his sophomore season, the only remaining question surrounding "Shoelace" is concern about his durability as he serves as both major general and primary foot soldier in Rich Rodriguez's spread attack. Robinson's unreal running abilities are typically compared to Pat White of West Virginia, another Rodriguez dual threat, but I see the use of Robinson resembling that of Clemson's Woody Dantzler, an early prototype for what Robinson (and Newton) now showcase on a weekly basis.
At West Virginia, Rodriguez paired White with another dynamic runner, Steve Slaton, and relied primarily on the traditional zone read concepts; the wrinkles came by adding a pitch man or a bubble screen as a third option. Rodriguez's offense took this step after he hired Rick Trickett as his offense line coach (currently assistant head coach and offensive line coach at Florida State). At Clemson, however, Rodriguez's spread was still nascent, and a surprising amount of the offense really did consist of Woody Dantzler just running around.
Some of that's evident in the workload. In his senior year at Clemson, Dantzler regularly carried 20 or more times in competitive games while also putting up 25 to 30 passes, ultimately running or throwing himself on well over two-thirds of the Tigers' offensive snaps when the game was competitive. Michigan has held him back a bit against overmatched UMass and Bowling Green, but Robinson ran or passed on 51 of Michigan's 68 offensive snaps against UConn, and on a whopping 68 of 76 snaps in the thriller at Notre Dame. In three years under Rodriguez at West Virginia, Pat White's share of the offense never amounted to 50 snaps.
Rodriguez has actually made the one-man show an art form by going back, earlier than the great option teams, to the pure single-wing attacks. (Apologies to Brian Cook who I once disagreed with for saying the spread evolved from the single-wing; it really didn't, but Rodriguez is trying to prove me wrong.) But he's done it within the scope of his system, which remains truly simple: inside zone, outside zone, some quick passes, play-action, screens, and some counters, but the primary play – the one he really wants to run – is the outside zone. And who better to run it with than Denard Robinson?
There's more to say about how zone runs work, but, basically, the "covered" offensive linemen (those with a defender lined up directly in front of them) will take a little bit more of a lateral first step and try to "reach" the defender – that is, get their body in position to seal the defender from chasing the ball outside. The runner aims for a point outside the tight end, though he can cut it upfield wherever a seam appears. The lead blocker's job, if there is one, is to attack the force player to the outside, or otherwise block the first unblocked defender that shows. This is all well and good, and has been done for years; any NFL fan can tell you that the outside zone has been incredibly popular since at least Alex Gibbs' Broncos teams in the 1990s, if not much farther back.
But nobody runs it quite like Rodriguez right now, or, maybe I should say that nobody can run the ball quite like Denard Robinson. If part of the evolution of the spread has been to come up with increasingly complex counters to control the backside of a zone read, Rodriguez's new approach is to have his supersonic quarterback ignore the backside entirely, take the snap, and run the outside zone to one side, and simply find a crease:
The above play is not a zone read or a read it all; it's a quarterback sweep, with outside zone blocking and a lead blocker. With two tight-ends and a lead blocker, it's not even clear it's a "spread offense" at all. Moreover, don't take the simplicity as criticism: the outside zone with Denard Robinson as ballcarrier can have plenty of wrinkles, and it is probably the best play in college football right now – ask Notre Dame:
Of course, part of the narrative about Denard are his improved passing skills, something both he and Cam Newton need to continue to develop. But so long as they have wheels -- and their coaches are looking for the subtle adjustment that can spring the big play, they're going to win plenty of games.
Recently, Steven Johnson in the pointed out in the Wall Street Journal that "ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we've inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they've been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage."
So it is in football. The last ten years were the age of "The Spread," a period of incredibly rapid change at every level of football. You can't go to a high school game without seeing a fundamentally different game than the one played only a decade ago. But I don't see those huge, sweeping changes for the next decade. Instead it will be the age of the tinkerer, where subtle tweaks instead of wholesale changes to offensive or defensive schemes, will be what decide games. The hero coaches will be more Thomas Edison than Albert Einstein, putting spare parts from football's extensive history to new use. So long as the players are as good as Robinson and Newton, they'll be plenty of interesting to study.