Dancing with what brung ya’: from Bill Walsh to Urban Meyer to ?

I’m currently reading Michael Lewis’ excellent The Blind Side, about the recruitment of current Ole Miss left tackle Michael Oher.  (Yeah, I know I’ve taken my sweet time about it).  One reason Lewis does such a fine job in his books is that he has a reporter’s eye for pertinent detail, and this one’s no exception.

In The Blind Side, an important thing Lewis explains to his readers is why Oher’s talents are such a valued commodity to the men who recruit Oher to come play at their schools.  And for this, Lewis goes back to the person who is the seminal figure in almost every football offensive scheme developed over the last three decades, Bill Walsh.  Walsh’s particular stroke of genius was to recognize that an offense structured around a low risk, high efficiency passing attack could be at least as successful as one based on a ground game, as traditional NFL offenses operated at the time.

As with many such insights, Walsh came to this out of necessity.  The pro offenses he cut his teeth with early on had horrible offensive lines.  Walsh made a virtue out of this particular necessity:  by replacing a reliance on a ground game and a down the field passing game which had almost no chance of success given his personnel with a short, controlled passing attack, he negated, or at least minimized, a weakness and in so doing created an extremely successful design for the modern football offensive attack.

The proof of this was in the pudding.  As the talent base of Walsh’s teams increased, so did the success of his strategy.  And, as in most such cases, success breeds imitation, both on the pro and college levels.  There’s hardly a place in American football these days that doesn’t take the concept of maximizing completion percentage in a short passing game as gospel.  Walsh won the revolution, comrades.

All of that came to mind as I read this piece by ESPN’s Ivan Maisel about the spread and the latest wrinkle, the no-huddle offense.  Everything old is new again, seemingly.

… Tempo is nothing more than the latest offensive weapon in the battle over which side dictates the action at the line of scrimmage…

Except that Mark Richt will be the first one to tell you that the no-huddle isn’t the latest anything.  It’s a new arrow in the spread option quiver, that’s all.

I love how Auburn’s Tony Franklin has become the offensive guru du jour for many by saying stuff like this.

… In fact, Franklin said, if he sees a bad play forming, say, the defense loaded up on the side he wants to run it, he calls the play anyway. Just rip the bandage off quickly and get it over with. Why?

“Well, because my belief is eventually, the tempo will win,” Franklin said. “It may not win early but eventually it’s going to win. Because eventually, what’s going to happen is one, they’re not going to get lined up properly. Two is that they’re not even going to get their hands on the ground sometime before we run a play. If that means that I have to have three or four really bad plays in a game, that’s OK.

“If you think about it, how many times do you have an extremely complicated NFL offense that has six shifts and motions before the snap, with these geniuses, and they run it and they lose two yards. I could have done the same thing in a lot less time. I’ve always thought I’m as smart as them. I’ll just lose it faster.”

Cool.  Except this circles away from what brought the spread option into vogue to begin with – coaches like Rodriguez and Meyer saw the spread as a means of lessening the talent differential they faced at their non-BCS conference programs by emphasizing one on one isolated playmaking.  Franklin seems to be taking this into… well, call it a post-spread era where the point of the spread attack isn’t to reduce the disadvantage of talent disparities.  And that should be expected as the spread goes mainstream.  After all, Auburn isn’t Utah or Tulane.

So what’s it all about for him, then?  One goal would be indicated in that quote above from Maisel’s piece.  Franklin sees tempo as another way of trying to break down a defense, different certainly, but equally as valid as using a power running attack to bludgeon a defensive opponent’s will.  But another consideration comes from Meyer himself.

When will defenses catch up with the spread?

UM: I think they already have. Defenses spend their time now preparing for it. We’ve certainly been stopped. Our first year (at Florida), with the personnel we had, I don’t want to say it was comical, but it was. To believe that we moved the ball, I still wonder how that happened. But teams didn’t know how to defend it. That same offense now … teams understand how to get lined up, how to defend it. We had very good personnel last year. That’s why we moved the ball. [Emphasis added.]

And there’s your full circle.  Meyer has had this emphasis on speed in his recruiting classes not because he likes seeing his guys run foot races (OK, maybe he does, but stay with me on this) but because he realized that SEC defenses would catch up eventually and impact the effectiveness of his scheme.  In the end, for Meyer talent wins out.  The thing is, Meyer’s had several classes to plan for this.  Franklin won’t have had the same luxury for this season.  All of which makes you wonder how well things will go on the Plains in 2008.

Finally, there’s this from Mark Richt, in an excellent Q & A session at The Red and Black which you should read in its entirety.

On why the tight end is key in his offense at Georgia…

“Because the tight end here has always been one of the top four receivers. And by having a tight end attached to your line, and your back here, you can actually have a seven man protection. You can run the ball better. If you have your fourth receiver flexed out you can only have a six man protection. You know, defenses know they can bring certain blitzes and guarantee a free man to hit the quarterback. It changes the whole dynamics of your running game if you don’t have a tight end.”

On whether or not utilizing the tight end like this is the downfall of the spread offense…

“You can, but the people that live in it always have a lot of offense where that ball is caught and out. You come here, it’s like, bing, deal them little fast guys out there and see how you like that. That’s their answer. Unless they have a really great QB runner. Florida, West Virginia. You know, those two are great examples of teams where if the QB is a runner, that changes the dynamics of everything. Because now your tailback can be a lead blocker for your quarterback. And now one defender must remove himself from the running game.”

On how Richt has become the inverse of the trend. Initially in his days at FSU he spread the field and now he’s going to a more pro style running attack…

“It is funny that way, in some ways it kind of bothers me to know that now the rules have changed. We can’t and shouldn’t change our personality because we have good tight ends. Because we have great runners. Because we have a quarterback who is the style of player he is. Not that Matthew (Stafford) couldn’t handle a spread set, he could, but a lot of teams would love to have the personnel we have to be as balanced as we are, in the run, to run play action. We can still spread and throw the ball, we’re diverse enough to do that. We just haven’t had that personnel right now.[Emphasis added.]

Who you have is at least as important as how you deploy your talent – or at least it should be if you know what you’re doing.  Between the scheme changes and the clock rule changes, that should mean interesting times in the SEC this season.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Dancing with what brung ya’: from Bill Walsh to Urban Meyer to ?

  1. John

    As a footnote, its interesting to remember that Bill Walsh credited former UGA qb and 49er’s coach Johnny Rauch with teaching Walsh what became known as the west coast offense. And Rauch credited the Wally Butts offenses he ran at UGA as the inspiration for his offense.

  2. Xon

    I’m sorry, but now that’s the fourth time I’ve read that Richt quote on the tight end as the downfall of the spread offense….and what the heck is he saying? “You can, but …the ball is caught and out.” And from there, it’s all downhill.

    I’m not dumb, but I have no idea what is being said here. I’m guessing that this is on the reporter, we need better context for what Richt is talking about, and probably Richt’s words need to be edited a bit to make them make sense, or the original reporter needs to clean his recorder…?