Offense wins championships: College Football Playoff proves scoring has supplanted defense as way to win it all
The quote has been an accepted, even revered, tenet of football since it first rumbled forth in the baritone voice of coaching giant Paul “Bear” Bryant: “Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships.”
Scoring was style. Stopping the opposition from scoring was substance.
This was gridiron gospel, reinforced by Bryant’s defense-first dominance at Alabama over a quarter century, from 1958-82. Five national championships claimed during that time were fueled by 59 shutouts, establishing a program ethos that made tackling the top priority. But it wasn’t just an Alabama thing — it was a football thing. Virtually everyone believed defense won championships and built their teams accordingly.
Ol’ Bear would hardly recognize modern college football, a sport that’s shifted so rapidly toward the exact opposite of his credo — offense wins championships.
Look, specifically, at Bryant’s former school. Alabama continued to win titles with defense under Nick Saban from 2009-17, but the new-look Crimson Tide is positioned, for the first time, to win a title behind a record-setting offense. Unless, that is, ‘Bama is outscored Monday night in the College Football Playoff championship game by Clemson, itself on a record-smashing offensive tear. The two programs gave us surprising shootouts in the 2015 and ’16 CFP title games (45-40 Alabama in the first, 35-31 Clemson in the second), and this could be a third.
Led by dazzling young quarterbacks who could be the No. 1 picks in the 2020 and 2021 NFL drafts, Alabama sophomore Tua Tagovailoa and Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence, the playoff finalists are No. 2 and No. 4 in America in scoring: Alabama at 47.7 points per game, Clemson at 44.3. They are No. 2 and No. 3 in yards per play: Alabama at 7.89, Clemson at 7.33. They are No. 3 and 4 in yards per game: Clemson at 530.4, Alabama at 527.6. All those averages are on pace to be school records.
“I said before the season started this year, we were going to have a different kind of team this year,” Saban said. “It certainly worked out to be that way.”
[Open for scoring: How Nick Saban’s evolution changed Alabama]
The only team whose offense ranks ahead of both finalists is playoff semifinalist Oklahoma, which leads the nation in all of the above categories and has broken the all-time FBS record for yards per play (8.60). This is the first time that three of the nation’s top five offensive teams have made the College Football Playoff. While that sample size is small — five seasons — the trend is large.
To be sure, both Alabama and Clemson are excellent defensively — the Tigers are second nationally in fewest yards allowed per game and the Tide is 13th. They are complete teams. But neither Saban at Alabama nor Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has had a top-five offense before this year. Their current penchant for blowing up scoreboards represents what is happening in the sport. When an old defensive dog like Saban, age 67, is learning the new tricks espoused by 35-year-old offensive savant Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, you know times are changing.
“Sometimes you’ve got to outscore people now,” said Hall of Fame former coach Steve Spurrier, who helped modernize the passing game in the 1990s while winning a national title at Florida. “It could be the new trend. I think the fans love a high-scoring game. TV certainly loves it.”
One no-huddle RPO at a time, the strategic paradigm has steadily shifted in college football — and seemingly beyond, in the National Football League as well. Offense does a lot more than sell tickets these days, and the changing times and tactics have taken us to an inflection point that begs the question: How did we get here?
The NFL is considered the apotheosis of all sporting strategy, but the history of football shows that much of the innovation grew from the grass roots. That is the case here. The offensive takeover is a trickle-up phenomenon.
The simple pitch-and-catch culture of backyard ball influenced the Friday night high school game, which in turn changed what we saw on college fields on Saturdays, and eventually infiltrated the Sunday NFL product. Then came a Monday night — Nov. 19, 2018, to be exact. When the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 54-51 in an outrageous scoring duel that featured two young gunslingers who were groomed in spread offenses, it felt like the final flag-planting in a new era.
“College offenses in 2018 are high school offenses in 2004,” said Greg Tepper, managing editor of “Dave Campbell’s Texas Football,” which has covered the sport in the Lone Star State since 1960. “It’s just the way that it works, this is where the innovation happens.”
[How the combination of high school offenses and 7-on-7 have changed football]
Said Texas coach Tom Herman: “I think we’re all products of what comes to us. In other words, I think the high school game for us has become so dynamic that these kids have a better understanding and experience level at some of this. That takes many offenses in college to the next level. NFL teams take note and want to figure out what’s going on. I think it’s all kind of grassroots, to be honest with you. It’s time. It’s time.”
It’s time for offense to rule football, with an endpoint that remains unclear. (Games routinely in the 60s and 70s? Will defenses catch up? Will fans eventually decide that the football equivalent of ice cream for every meal is too much?) And it’s time for offense to win championships.
That was literally the case in college football on the conference level in 2018. Of the six top conferences — the Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast, Pac-12 and American — five were won by teams that also led their leagues in total offense. That might be a first. The lone exception was the Pac-12, where Washington led a grossly underachieving conference in total defense while ranking fifth offensively.
Throughout the 21st century, as formations spread and tempo quickened and passing skills sharpened, offense has inexorably increased its advantage over defense. In 1999, FBS teams averaged 25.6 points per game; the current season average is 29.6 — an increase of 13.8 percent. Yards per game is up 9 percent from ’99. Yards per running play is up 15.1 percent. Yards per pass attempt is up 6.2 percent, to what is on pace for an all-time high national average of 7.4.
Specifically, college football is a dramatically improved sport in terms of passing. Accuracy is up, touchdowns are up, yards per completion is up, interceptions are down. With one game left to play, the 2018 national pass efficiency rating is an all-time high of 134.66.
This will be the third straight season where the NCAA record for individual pass efficiency will be broken. Baker Mayfield set it in 2016 at 196.38, then broke his own record in ’17 at 198.92. The new record holder will either be Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (currently at 205.19 with a game to play) or Mayfield’s successor at Oklahoma, Kyler Murray (in the clubhouse at 199.20).
Compare those numbers to the best college seasons from the current superstars of NFL passing: In 2004 at California, Aaron Rodgers had a rating of 154.3, which would be 17th nationally today; in 2000 at Michigan, Tom Brady had a 138 rating, which would be 52nd; and in 1998 at Purdue, Drew Brees had a 137.8 rating, which would be 53rd.
While scoring and yardage totals have been relatively flat at the top of the sport the past few years — 2016 was a high-water mark for offensive production — perhaps the biggest trend of late is the increased offensive prowess in the middle and lower tiers of the FBS ranks. Just about everyone can spread the field, play with tempo and throw with competence.
It may come as cold comfort to Miami freshman quarterback N’Kosi Perry that he is the best 100th-rated passer in FBS history. His rating of 114.95 would have been 67th in 1999. And Nevada’s Ty Gangi, this year’s No. 60 passer, would have been in the top 25 in ’99.
“The biggest change has been the precision and execution of the quarterbacks and receivers,” said Clemson’s Brent Venables, who has been coordinating college defenses since 1999.
“It seems like people are catching the ball better than they used to,” said Washington State coach Mike Leach, the sport’s most avid practitioner of the passing game over the last decade.
Throwing and catching have been part of college football for more than a century, since Notre Dame’s Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne were credited with popularizing the forward pass in 1913. But aside from occasional flare-ups of productivity here and there, passing remained a primitive endeavor for decades after that Fighting Irish landmark.
The American Southwest became an incubator for creative football concepts in the 1930s — and in some ways that’s never stopped. Texas Christian advanced the passing game under coach Dutch Meyer with quarterbacks Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien. Upon retirement in 1952, Meyer wrote a book entitled “Spread Formation Football” which in part championed the short pass.
A decade later, Tulsa produced the first outrageous passing numbers, breaking multiple NCAA records and earning that obscure program national fame. Quarterback Jerry Rhome was a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1964, and receiver Howard Twilley was runner-up in ’65.
But what Tulsa started couldn’t be sustained, because the wishbone and veer option offenses swept the sport in the late 1960s — also starting from the Southwest. Fullback dives and halfback pitches from tight formations prevailed for a long time, before defensive speed (think Miami and Florida State) forced a movement toward more pro-style offenses and better passing.
Then in the 1990s, aerial football took its next steps. By the 1996 Sugar Bowl between Spurrier’s Florida team and Bobby Bowden’s Florida State team, five-wide-receiver sets stretching from sideline to sideline were starting to appear. That same year, the state of Texas caught up with California by launching seven-on-seven passing tournaments. Suddenly the offseason was filled with flying footballs.
By the end of the decade, the spread option was moving from fringe locations like Division II Glenville State (where Rich Rodriguez was the coach) to major programs. Urban Meyer was deploying the offense at Bowling Green. Chip Kelly was tinkering with uptempo offense at New Hampshire and Gus Malzahn was doing the same at an Arkansas high school. Art Briles and others were prying the ceiling off the perceived limits of offensive football in the Texas high school ranks, priming the pump for wide-open attacks in the state’s college ranks.
Within 15 years, Rodriguez had taken West Virginia to within a game of playing for the national championship. Meyer had won three national titles. Kelly and Malzahn would take teams to the BCS Championship Game. Briles would transform Big 12 doormat Baylor before being fired in disgrace.
The quarterback position gained even more status thanks to the spread, with QBs having the ball in their hands all the time. The best athletes wanted to be quarterbacks — the throwers working on their running ability and the runners improving their passing skills.
“You put your best player at quarterback and started snapping the ball instead of putting the best player at tailback,” Meyer said. “Everyone started to see, you can take your best player and let them touch the ball 65 times a game.”
That’s when Vince Young happened.
When the long-striding, 6-foot-5 Texas quarterback became the first FBS player to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 while leading the undefeated Longhorns to the 2005 national title, the mega-athlete QB began to bloom as a concept. Tim Tebow followed. And Cam Newton. And Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota and Lamar Jackson, to name a half-dozen Heisman winners.
Now everyone wants runners who are throwers, and throwers who are runners.
“I think just five, six years ago when we were recruiting quarterbacks, they were either pro-style quarterbacks or athletic-type quarterbacks,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know that that even exists anymore really. They all have to extend. They all keep plays alive. How many times is Kyler Murray really dropping back and making a play from a pocket? If you just look at [Alabama backup QB] Jalen Hurts and what he did against Georgia [in the SEC championship game], he made his plays outside the pocket. I really think you start with the quarterback, the quarterback’s athleticism.”
Said Hal Mumme, father of the “Air Raid” offense: “[Texas high schools] started turning out quarterbacks. In the old days we looked at quarterbacks to find an athlete that looked like he can throw. [Now] every quarterback, they’re all athletes and they can all throw. They spend all summer throwing.”
While quarterback plays were increasing, some of their defensive reads were decreasing. Teams began shifting to a “Check With Me” offense in which calls were made from the sideline by coaches after the teams had lined up — taking much of the pre-snap audible duties out of the QB’s hands and simplifying their task.
“[Quarterbacks] know pre-snap a majority of the time where they’re going to distribute the ball,” said Pete Golding, co-defensive coordinator at Alabama.
“So much more goes on pre-snap,” said Venables. “It’s not even close how much that has changed. They’re trying to avoid negative plays by checking the sideline.”
With the increased diversification of quarterback skills came the latest strategic tweak — the run-pass option, or RPO, which is now permeating a previously skeptical NFL.
Trying to pin down the birth of the RPO is like excavating for the birth of modern man — the bones are buried everywhere. The idea behind the concept is not new. Ohio high school coach Glenn “Tiger” Ellison, considered one of the fathers of the run-and-shoot offense in the late 1950s, once said, “We made every pass look like a run and every run look like a pass.”
That became a basic tenet of the RPO philosophy, which puts a burden on linebackers and defensive backs to astutely decipher what’s coming at them after the snap.
Part of what makes that difficult is the fact that college offensive linemen are allowed to block three yards downfield on any play, pass plays included, which creates a “false key” for defensive players to read. (A rule Northwestern coach and former All-American linebacker Pat Fitzgerald likes so much he referred to RPOs as “Communism” this season.) When a play is blocked like a run but turns into a slant pass in the seam, the defense is often fooled.
“It really makes the field wider to defend,” said Mike Williams, a former NFL front-office administrator who now is the director of personnel for Collective Scouting/The QB Collective.
“It happens so quick and they hit those in-between seams. The ball can be at the numbers five to seven yards down the field in a heartbeat, right after you have to determine, run or pass. You get those linebackers stepping up, puts those linebackers in a very difficult position. There’s not enough time to react to it.”
The question: Why did it take so long for the spread offense (and the RPO) to trickle up to the NFL?
Explaining the strong initial resistance gets a bit into the X-and-O weeds, but the traditional spread offense put the quarterback in harm’s way more often than pro teams were willing to accept. The play was based on the quarterback reading a defensive end and being a ball carrier much of the time — which means he was being hit a lot. Running NFL QBs have short shelf lives.
But when the scheme evolved to reading second-level defenders and putting less of a premium on QB mobility, the play suddenly became more palatable at the pro level.
“For many years, people thought you had to run your quarterback [in the spread offense],” Herman said. “And those guys get paid $20 or $30 million a year, and they think that running them gets them hurt. We start doing RPOs to help that. Instead of reading first-level defenders, now you’re reading second-level defenders. ‘Oh well, OK, you can gain a numerical advantage without running your quarterback.’ The NFL was, ‘OK, tell me more.’
“I think that’s where the RPOs kind of changed the game in the NFL because it wasn’t the numerical advantage from the quarterback running the ball. The numerical advantage came from putting second-level defenders in conflict.”
And so pro football caught up with Texas high school ball.
From scheme to athletes, the offensive takeover of football seems self-perpetuating. From high school to college and now the NFL, the best athletes are playing quarterback (Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are two pro-level examples who will be leading teams in the upcoming playoffs). And if the best offenses are winning, then the best offensive coaches are going to be the most sought-after in the job market.
When you combine that with the first half of the original Bear Bryant credo — offense sells tickets — it further strengthens the bull market for head coaches with offensive backgrounds. Especially with empty seats a growing problem for college athletic departments to address. Of the 20 FBS hires made for the 2018 season, 18 were offense-first coaches. At the NFL level, young offensive minds like Sean McVay (Rams) and Matt Nagy (Chicago Bears) are all the rage. It’s why a college coach who was fired last month with a losing record, Kliff Kingsbury, is, rather incredibly, going to be interviewed for vacant NFL head-coach positions. It’s why Ohio State turned over its Cadillac job to first-time head coach Ryan Day, a gifted play caller.
“I know the trend in the last few years,” Venables said. “I can understand ADs at some schools saying, ‘Hey man, we need to sell tickets.’ But it doesn’t mean you can’t hire a defensive coach who breaks scoreboards. Look at Nick Saban.”
When it circles back to Saban, the revolution seems close to complete. Heir to Bear, defensive genius — and now, overseeing one of the great offenses in college football history.
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