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Should Texas Consider Moving Jamaal Charles?

I mentioned in this week's Postgame React that I thought it was worth discussing whether it made sense to use Jamaal Charles in a capacity other than how he's currently employed. The motivation for the sentiment arises from Jamaal Charles' continued struggles with fumbles, his relative ineffectiveness in the red zone, and many fans' general perception that he's unable to get moving downhill consistently in Texas' current offensive scheme.

I sort of tossed the idea out for discussion without thinking through the topic thoroughly myself, but I wasn't surprised that a number of commenters agreed that it was worth considering.

I think the proper starting place for this topic is to look at Texas' running game as a whole and go from there. I'm interested in two questions: How well is Texas rushing the football relative to national averages and how well is it rushing the football relative to what its opponents have typically allowed?

Texas Rushing in 2007

We start with a look at Texas' 2007 rushing averages, their ranks in the national pecking order, and their change from last season. Charts? Charts!

It's pretty shocking that the numbers in 2006 and 2007 are, practically speaking, identical. However, it's worth noting that Texas' most profound rushing problems in 2006 surfaced in the back half of the schedule, when the production declined markedly, dragging down the overall season numbers. This year? We'd better hope things don't regress down the stretch similarly or we'll finish with some disturbingly low rushing totals.

Through eight games, the 2007 Longhorns are an average rushing team - we have been neither noteworthy nor incompetent. As always, context counts; to that end, let's look at Texas' yards per attempt this season side by side with opponents' yards per attempt for the season.

Texas struggled in the season opener against Arkansas State, got on a nice roll against TCU, UCF, and Rice, returned to being average against Kansas State and Oklahoma, sliced up Iowa State, and were average against Baylor. We've seen some good things from the running game this season, but it remains inconsistent.

How We Got Here

The above numbers neatly mesh with the commentary from most observers of this team: the Longhorns are positively average in the running game. Let's take that a step further, though, and ask the secondary question, because that's the one we don't discuss often enough. Namely, what does the average rushing production mean for the offense as a whole?

Colt McCoy has been dealt a significant amount of criticism this season. As has been discussed here numerous times, part of that seems to be a problem with McCoy himself and part of it is an indictment of quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Greg Davis. We haven't discussed this much, but I think there's a third causal factor: the pedestrian running game has forced Texas to rely disproportionately on Colt to have a good/great day on offense.

Before the season began, many of us (myself being at the front of this particular line) thought this would actually work out well for the Longhorns. The working theory was that McCoy could stretch defenses thin with the passing game - deep balls to Limas, intermediate stuff to Quan, and heavy doses of the near-unguardable Jermichael Finley.

That hasn't worked out nearly as neatly as we hoped it might. Limas hurt his wrist in August, tried to play through the injury but wasn't effective, and has now been shut down for the year. To compound that problem, McCoy hasn't been as accurate this season as we'd hoped, and he's struggling to throw well the deep balls in the vertical passing game. Texas' opponents, meanwhile, have made adjustments on defense, maneuvering safeties in position to focus on the middle-deep passing game without worrying much about Texas' run game. Throw all this stuff together and it's easy to see why Texas hasn't been anything near the offensive juggernaut that many of us hoped for.

Diagnosing The Problem

If Plan A (use Colt to stretch the defense, which in turn will help the running game) is out the window, it's time to talk about a Plan B. Limas ain't coming back, Colt's had more than enough time to show he can do this all on his own (too much to ask), and the running game has been merely average.

Let's ask the tough questions, then: Where do we distribute the blame for Texas' average rushing production and how might the coaches improve it?

Candidates For Blame

Offensive Line: The line play is certainly something we could harp on, but it would be a misdiagnosis of the problem. After all, NFL talents Sendlein, Blalock, and Studdard were here last year, blocking just as they had in 2005 when Texas shattered the offensive record books. Texas was average running the football last year, despite the talent on the line.

McCoy's struggles: Colt's inability to be the passer we wanted and needed him to be thus far have been a significant problem for the offense, but they don't explain the struggles in the running game. As noted above, every team but Rice this year has invested considerable defensive capital on taking away Texas' deep passing game. They've more or less challenged Texas to get it done on the ground alone - a test we're not able to pass with any consistency.

Jamaal Charles: The question of the day: Is Charles part of the problem here? First, a look at the numbers:

On the stats alone - no, it's not particularly fair to say that Charles is problematically ineffective. Nor do we need to look at Charles' stat line to say that he's a special kind of football player. We remember him matching Reggie Bush in yards per rushing attempt in 2005. We remember his 80 yard touchdown run up the middle against Oklahoma. We watch replays of the 72 yard touchdown reception against Iowa and shake our heads in amazement. The guy's a special talent.

To say that Charles is the primary problem with the Texas running game is neither fair nor accurate. There must be something else.

The Scheme: If it's not the line, not the quarterback, and not the tailback, then... yeah. We've got a problem in scheme. That's a post all of its own, but let's just break this down to its most basic elements, follow the logical trail, and see where it leads us:

  1. In 2004, Texas changed its offensive scheme to fit Vince Young
  1. Young thrived in the shotgun, zone-read system
  1. Young's tailbacks thrived in the shotgun, zone-read system
  1. McCoy took over for the departed Young
  1. That offense didn't suit McCoy's strengths well
  1. Starting with the game against OU in 2006, Davis unleashed a vertical passing game with McCoy
  1. Opposing defenses weren't prepared for this attack. McCoy thrived.
  1. With Texas succeeding in this McCoy shotgun attack, no fundamental adjustments were made to a quickly faltering running game
  1. 2007 begins with Sweed hurt and McCoy perhaps showing lingering effects from his own injury
  1. Defenses keep their safeties deep, taking away Texas' 2006 bread and butter
  1. Passing game now has issues of its own, while running game remains average
  1. ???

And here we are. Step 12 really needs to be an adjustment of some sort. Though Texas can probably skate by on the status quo and win 9 or 10 games this season, the wiser approach would be to think more fundamentally about how this offense can improve. And lest folks object that I'm trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater, let's take a moment to remember that a similar sequence of steps in 2003-04 led to Step 1 in the above chain. Greg Davis and Texas made a fundamental change in the offensive scheme to suit our personnel. With that in mind - this idea needn't be construed as radical, controversial, reckless, or change for the sake of making change. It's just Football 101. Coaching ABC's. The building blocks of sustained success. Whatever you want to call it.

What Next?

There's some room for debate among quite a few of the points above, but I feel strongly that the ultimate conclusion - that some fundamental adjustments would be wise - is sound. Assuming that's true, what can/should the coaches think about doing?

There are two realistic, base changes that the coaches can consider in an attempt to improve the Texas offense going forward:

  1. Begin transitioning from Colt McCoy to John Chiles, in an effort to rebuild the zone-read offensive firepower from 2005.
  1. Accelerate the transition from the McCoy-based shotgun pass attack to a more balanced system featuring increased power rushing.

Which idea is better is another fascinating conversation, but I'm so sure that (1) is not a move the coaches want to make that I'm going to focus on (2). And in the context of a more traditional offensive scheme, with Colt more often under center and running plays esigned to go straight ahead, often through tight spaces... well, is Jamaal Charles the best tailback for that?

Charles excels in open space. He makes big plays when he can get the ball away from the cluster of the pile. He often struggles with making positive yardage from the running plays of our current scheme. He doesn't love running between the tackles.

He might not be the best tailback to employ for the kind of adjustment that this coaching staff may (should?) find it necessary to make. Moreover, redshirt freshman Vondrell McGee does thrive running between the tackles. He's a different tailback than JC, and though I'm pretty sure McGee couldn't do what Charles did alongside Vince, I'm not sure Charles can do as well as McGee might alongside Colt.

Long story short: if we're not going to change the quarterback to better suit the scheme, then we ought to consider changing the scheme to better fit the personnel. In that scenario, Charles may no longer be Option 1 on the depth chart. Further, finding a sexy role for Charles as an all-purpose receiver would be a nice way to utilize him in different spaces, giving him the chance to make the big plays that this offense desperately needs. With Limas sidelined for the season, this question is all the more interesting, because Texas needs more gamebreakers lined up at receiver. Guys who will stretch the field, keep the secondary honest, and open up a real running game. One which, I'm prepared to argue, Vondrell McGee could anchor with aplomb.

Thoughts, questions, criticisms? Requests for shorter posts?