August 27, 2009
Xs and Os from the proprietor of the essential . As part of the Doc's SEC Week. Read part one.
In the 1990s, Steve Spurrier was the King of Offense. He passed -- no, blitzkrieged may be more accurate -- and wise-cracked his way to SEC title after SEC title and a national championship. Danny Wuerffel became the original Heisman-winning Gator quarterback/pious Christian (I don't think Steve qualified for the latter when he won the award), and he made stars of receivers as diverse as Reidel Anthony, Ike Hilliard, Jack Jackson, Chris Doering and Travis McGriff. But all that was more than a decade ago.
Spurrier left for the NFL, where he did not set the world on fire, to say the least, and his tenure as Ol' Ball Coach in Chief at South Carolina has been generally middling as well. Other than a few marquee wins, including one over his former Gators in 2005 (his and Urban Meyer’s first year in their new digs), Spurrier's Gamecocks have consistently averaged in the middle-to-bottom third of the SEC in nearly every offensive category. While a number of factors go into this -- most notably his failure to even settle on a quarterback for longer than a quarter or two, let alone develop one over a full season -- I think it is worth putting the blinders on and just looking at how Spurrier's scheme helped propel the Gators into the national elite, where they remain despite a tradition of pre-Spurrier mediocrity, and why that hasn't been so easy the second time around.
Pass, run, fake, pass. Upon taking the job at South Carolina, Spurrier explained to Sports Illustrated what made his offense go: It's a style of offense that uses a lot of draw plays and play-action off that," says Spurrier. "We try to audible more than some people. A lot of times our quarterbacks are reading coverages and searching for the best play."
This was a very honest answer. More specifically, his offenses at Duke and Florida were based off an offensive triumvirate that, while appearing simple, nevertheless put defensive players in a bind. Unsurprisingly, Spurrier began with the basic dropback pass. He preferred then, as he does now, deeper drops -- including the now-rare seven-step drop -- because he liked to throw downfield. But the first look was just the quarterback dropping straight back, while the line pass blocks.
When he looked to run it, however, he managed to simulate the same deep drop with the "lead draw." This play works just like it sounds: The quarterback retreats like he is going to pass, then hands it off to a running back who has mimicked a pass blocking motion. Usually a fullback or tight end type acts as a lead blocker. Maybe more important than the quarterback's dropback action on the play, however, is the action of the offensive line. Because it is a draw, the offensive tackles basically just pass block and let the defensive end run upfield. Their job is just to make sure the ends can't double back. The interior linemen initially show a pass set, and then attack the defensive linemen and linebackers. Errict Rhett, Fred Taylor and Earnest Graham racked up a lot of yards on this play.
And then, the final twist of the knife: The play-action pass off the lead-draw, where Spurrier got his really big plays. The quarterback begins like a pass drop, fakes the draw handoff, then pops up to look downfield for his receivers. Again, though, it’s the line that is so important. As Bill Walsh once explained, the play-action off the lead draw is maybe the best play-action pass of them all, because the linemen can simply pass block -- there is no worry about a giveaway that it is a pass. These three concepts together allowed Spurrier’s offense to throw the ball down the field, over and over again, while still controlling the defense's front seven. And, with the extensive use of draws and run fakes, he was able to keep extra guys in to protect when he wanted to set up his big pass downfield.
Below is an all-too-rare example of Spurrier using the fake-lead draw pass to hit a big play early in his tenure at South Carolina, a play known in his system as "Mills" -- keep an eye on the tight end, who runs his route to about 10-12 yards to hold the safety, allowing the post to come free over the top:
Find the grass. This only tells part of the story. The other reason Spurrier's guys could get so incredibly wide open -- and also why his offense literally could not "turn off" when his teams were drubbing a Kentucky or some other sacrificial lamb at the Swamp -- was that he gave his receivers the freedom to adjust their routes on the fly. His favorite play is known in his system as "Ralph" (to the right) or "Lonnie" (to the left). (Incidentally, Spurrier's system far and away wins the prize for for best play names. In the football world, where play names are notable only for their descriptiveness ("Z shallow cross") or their pedantry (any polysyllabic pro-style west coast offense playcall) Spurrier's play-names -- "Biddle," "Corkers," "Righty/Lefty," "Ralph/Lonnie," "Mills," "Bopper,"; "Wheelies," and, of course, "Steamers" -- are refreshing.) Here's “Lonnie,” in Spurrier’s own handwriting, against different coverages:
Spurrier gave his two outside receivers the ability to adjust their routes based on the coverage. On the backside, the receiver either ran a deep square-in at 15 yards or a post route. He ran the post if the defense left the middle of the field "open" -- i.e. two split safeties, each on the hash, in a two-deep zone -- or the square-in if the defense had a deep middle safety that would take the post-away. But the primary route was on the front side. This receiver could run either a corner route or a post route, depending on the coverage. His job was to get a sense of where the cornerback was playing him: If the corner played off and deep to the outside, the receiver would push to 15 yards and just come back to the quarterback. If the corner stayed short, the receiver wanted to push ("stem") upfield before breaking to the corner.
From the quarterback's perspective, this made perfect sense. The curl route should come open inside the linebacker or flat defender that the inside receiver has widened by running a route to the sideline. Against a two-deep look, however, the defense has the flat and inside covered, so Spurrier wanted to put the cornerback in a bind by putting one guy in front of him and another behind him -- a high-to-low read.
In this way his offense was always right: You play him in Cover 2, he throws the corner, you play him in Cover 3, he throws the curl. If you blitz, then his quarterback was responsible for seeing that and audibling the play to a quick pass or quick screen. When all this worked, it was a thing of beauty. For example, one of the greatest offensive performances I've ever seen came in the 1995 Florida-Tennessee game, where Spurrier's team scored 48 unanswered points after trailing by double digits to beat a Peyton Manning-led UT, 62-37. Danny Wuerffel had six touchdowns, with the majority of his yards and all of his touchdowns coming on a grand total of three plays. One was Ralph/Lonnie, which Spurrier used to ignite the rally by throwing curls when UT backed off and corner routes for touchdowns when they went to Cover 2. He also dialed up the simple "smash" pattern against Tennesse's Cover 2 defense, scoring again. Tennessee then tried to switch to Cover 4 or "quarters" coverage, and Spurrier called Mills (shown in the video above) and a deep-pick or "scissors" play, where the outside guy runs a post and the inside guy runs a corner route. Finally, completely floundering, Tennessee called for all-out man blitzing, and Spurrier simply called for extra pass protectors and went back to Ralph/Lonnie, this time throwing the corner route against man coverage.
What gives? So if all that is so great, why isn't it working now? There are plenty of reasons that have nothing to do with Xs and Os, of course, but the scheme is not wholly innocent. This is because, one, others have adopted many of Steve's great schematic innovations, so they are no longer that innovative, and second, he hasn't really evolved with the times; his core system is basically the same. This hurts him in the passing game because he asks his quarterbacks to make a lot of difficult throws from deep drops, thus exposing them to hits and missed reads. But the real issue is on the line.
Famously, Spurrier was nearly blitzed right out of the NFL. This did not come as a shock to many in the coaching cognoscenti. I had a friend sit in on a clinic Spurrier gave while at Florida. He diagrammed a play, showed a route, and showed what the QB's read was. Another coach in the room, while pointing to one of the symbols on the whiteboard, meekly asked, "Coach, what if they blitz that guy?" The second-hand report was that the OBC kind of scowled and said, "They'll never do that." And that was that. Except it wasn't: In the NFL, that guy blitzed, and defenses since have never forgotten. Spurrier's protection schemes are not known for their sturdiness, which is a problem when you not only want to throw it, but you want to throw it deep.
Even more important than the passing game, though, has been Spurrier's complete inability to have a legitimate run presence, which is an integral part of making his pass-run-fake trio work. South Carolina has finished last in the SEC in rushing the past two seasons, and finished 11th in 2005. Even worse, the Gamecocks' per- carry average has been equally awful, coming in below 3.6 yards a pop three of his four years and at a dismal 2.9 per carry last year. The one outlier, 2006, was the Gamecocks' best offensive season over the last four seasons by far. Ironically, however, that was also the year where converted receiver Syvelle Newton started about half the games and did a fair share of running himself -- including the dreaded zone-read -- though Blake Mitchell also put in about five of the best passing games of Spurrier's USC tenure (before he too regressed and collapsed as a senior in ‘07). But the fact that 2006 was the year that Spurrier had to stretch and fundamentally change what he was doing, yet was also his offense's most productive year, is troubling to the system.
Revolving doors. If Spurrier wants to find a model for how he could update his offense for the SEC, the blueprint might be laid out by none other than Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino. While studying Petrino a few years ago when he was at Louisville, I discovered something interesting: He had completely subsumed Spurrier's entire gameplan and blueprint within his scheme. Petrino first got up to speed on offense studying Dennis Erickson's one-back spread attack, and he ran that offense at Louisville as offensive coordinator under John L. Smith, when the Cardinals led the nation in total offense in 1998. He then skipped off to the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he picked up all the funky computer database and statistical analyses of the pros, but also developed his power run game. When he returned to Louisville as the head coach, he combined those two influences with Spurrier's aggressive, play-action game -- even going so far as to borrow many of the names, like "Mills" -- and set records with Stefan LeFors and Brian Brohm as trigger men. Petrino has many faults, but offensive ingenuity is not one of them, and there's even reports this year of him experimenting with pistol sets, to stay ahead of the curve.
The point is that the core of Spurrier's system is still great -- throwing the ball well, setting up plays with fakes and counters, and giving players freedom to succeed against a variety of circumstances will never go out of style. But if Spurrier wants some ideas on how to succeed with his own system in today's football world, he may want to take a peek at how Petrino has succeeded in updating them.