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Smart Football, Vol. 1: Scheme Stability

This is the first installment of what we hope will be a regular series throughout the rest of this summer and the 2007 football season. The format is simple: I've got a lot of questions about the strategic side of football, and we've now got a resident expert who's going to join us to talk through some of the more nuanced topics of the sport. BON, please say hello to Chris from Smart Football. He runs a fantastic site exmaining football strategy, and now he's bringing the fun over to us. Enjoy and chime in with your own thoughts in the comments below.

Chris, I want to start with the idea of adjusting your scheme to fit your personnel. One of your last blog entries talks about this on a theoretical level, which I want to get into a bit today.

In 2004, Texas' offensive coordinator adjusted the offense the Longhorns were running to account for the personnel he had on hand. Namely, he implemented a "zone-read" spread attack that utilized his superstar quarterback.

After Vince left following the 2005 championship, Davis was put in an awkward position, having to choose between restructuring the offense to suit his new personnel situation and trying to see if Texas could still thrive in an offense similar to what worked so well with Vince Young.

Before we get into Texas specifics, let's tackle the theoretical aspect of this. What's your opinion of what a coach should do when put between a rock and a hard place like Davis was? Is it more prudent to teach a new offense around the new personnel? Or, was Davis right to look at his situation and conclude that teaching a new offense to a young quarterback was riskier than sticking with the scheme McCoy had learned during his redshirt season?

Good questions, Peter. The revolving-door-of-talent problem is one of the most difficult problems a gameplanner will face.

For starters, I don’t believe it is ever "prudent" to junk your system and teach some entirely foreign system. It may be the right move, but it is always drastic. The goal instead is to have a system flexible enough so that you never have to completely go back to square one. Without being an expert on Texas, I don’t think they had to do this at all, even if the triggermen were as different as they were.

Why is this the case? Think about the huge sunk costs a team simply gives away by training its players and coaches in a given system and then chucking it for an entirely new one with new schemes that require new skills.

But your question stems from basic common sense. "Yesterday we had Vince Young, today we don’t. We have to change something."  But what, exactly? And what is the difference between installing a new system and just being "flexible" within your existing system?

To answer these questions, let’s think about what a football offense is. On one level, a football offense is no more than a collection of all the various things you could do to attack the defense and score points. In a world of perfect information and where teaching time is zero (think Keanu Reeves in the Matrix: "Woah, I know Kung Fu") all teams would run Madden football offenses: you could run any and all plays, formations, concepts, and gadgets you wanted, and you could even trade for an entirely new QB in week six, the day before your game, and that new QB would have full mastery of your complicated and multifaceted offense on gameday.

In real life, of course, you actually have to use your limited practice time to teach, practice, and execute these concepts.  Moreover, players can only absorb so much. So you are constrained by what you can effectively teach.  Bill Walsh could take over any team in the country, but his players could only run what passing offense he could import to them in whatever time allotted.  This is the most significant constraint on building a system and gameplanning, as it makes all your choices of what to include and not to include significant.

(In a bit of a digression, the NFL can be so sophisticated because it is essentially a 24/7/365 sport.  If a professional player cannot master the offense or defense then they will fire that player and find someone who will, while in college or high school you are limited by the kids you have.  This gap has narrowed somewhat, however, with more widespread information and better teaching tools.)

Football offenses are generally made up of units - QBs, runningbacks, receivers, offensive line - and each unit has its own rules, information, and concepts that it must learn in order for a given play to work.  So the first constraint is just how good you are at teaching your offense to your players and then how good you are at getting them to execute on gameday.

There is a second, important, but slightly less profound constraint. Once you know that you cannot run every single system and every play ever designed (i.e. a Madden offense), you need to fit them together in a way that (a) works together, and (b) reduces how predictable your offense is by combining formations, looks, and actions. This is the simple idea that you don’t want the other team to know what is coming. You become predictable if you always runs the ball from the I formation and always throw it from spread formations. Even more problematic is when a team lines up in a quirky formation and always runs a particular bootleg or gadget play, thereby telling the opposition exactly where the ball is going.

All this background may be painfully obvious. But the point is that when a coach crafts his scheme, he must craft it well enough so that: (a) he has enough tools to attack any defense he faces; (b) his offense fits together in a way that complements itself and doesn’t give away what he is doing before the play begins (and even after that); (c) is condensed enough that it can be effectively taught to his players so they may execute it; and (d) ensures there is significant carryover from year to year.  

For this last point, Texas provides a great example: Vince Young was a special, unique talent, but it was clear that sooner or later he was going to be gone, and eventually you were going to have to run your offense with another QB who did not have Vince’s special talents.

So how does a coach create an offense that is small enough and coherent enough to be taught and executed with sufficient diversity to be effective?

Let’s look at the running game, which you would imagine must have changed significantly since Vince left. With Vince Young, Texas typically put Vince in the shotgun and often ran the "zone read." (See: here.) With a less mobile QB, you might put him under center and put the back in the single back set. Yet, everyone else’s assignment is the same, and even for the runningback, while his footwork may differ, his aiming points and coaching points remain the same.  The only difference is (a) how the defense reacts and (b) what you want to emphasize.

(Editor's note: Greg Davis actually decided to keep Colt McCoy in the shotgun, and tried to run a similar offense to what Young was excelling with. What's most fascinating is that - as Davis adjusted what he did with Vince Young to suit his strengths - so too did Davis adjust mid-season in 2006 to McCoy's strengths. In any case, Chris' point is illustrated well here. Davis hasn't blown up his scheme with personnel changes; instead, he's made minor adjustments to a successful scheme. That keeps things consistent and teachable.)

We turn to the blocking schemes. Whether you use the zone read, the traditional one-back zone, or the zone with a lead blocker, the important thing is you are still using a "zone" blocking scheme for your offensive linemen.  This gives each offensive linemen certain rules depending on who is in front of them, who to combination block with the other offensive linemen, and who will move to the second level to block a linebacker.  Did Texas need to change this when Vince departed? No. If their rules were well-crafted enough, they should not really care.  With a new QB you may see different defensive fronts, you might be more or less effective at running in general, but as far as schemes are concerned, it’s not an issue.

To emphasize what I mean, let’s look at Vince Young again. With Young, Texas’s typical set had had four line of scrimmage receivers (three wide receivers and a tight end) and two running threats (the actual RB and Vince Young).  This meant that defenses could not afford to run two-safety defenses, because teams that did (a) had insufficient men "in the box" to play the run, or (b) they left certain receivers uncovered for quick passes, like USC did in the championship game.  Over the course of the year with Vince Young, the passing game opened up because the defense - even on passing downs - was very concerned with the run. Was Vince going to take off? Was Texas going to get its big offensive line there for the runningback? Who had the ball? The back or Vince?

With a dropback QB like the ‘Horns have now, the calculus is more like you see in the Pros. Take the Patriots with Tom Brady. They use a great deal of spread, one-back, and one or two-tight end sets, along with the zone running game. Brady is no threat to run, so the "game" becomes whether Brady will hand it off to the runner or will he keep the ball for a play-action pass. Often, defenses sit back with two deep safeties or some kind of deep shell coverage, and thus open up the run game.

The point of all this, is that it is not a matter of "changing offenses," but instead just about telling your QB to line up under center instead of gun and ... that’s about it. From there it is just adjusting to the defense. You may mix in the zone-read stuff, but it becomes complementary rather than the emphasis. The reason is simple: defenses react to what they fear. One reason Vince had such a great QB rating the Championship year was in part because he had improved as a thrower, but maybe even moreso because everyone was so scared of the running game or Young’s scrambles.  This dramatically affects the defense and the types of coverages they face. (For further discussion of this topic, see here and here.)

(Editor's note: As noted above, Greg Davis wound up keeping Colt McCoy in the shotgun, but Chris' point still stands. Davis left Colt in the shotgun because (in my view) even after the run game sort of sputtered out a bit and it became clear McCoy couldn't run the zone read, McCoy showed tremendous talent as a passer and thrived with the extra time and vision from the shotgun.)

So the moral isn’t that you need to redo your offense every year - God help you if you do. Instead you begin with a base playbook and you just emphasize certain parts some years more than others. If your offense is well designed, everyone keeps their same assignments and you have the same plays, but maybe you used a few different formations or personnel groups and, at the end of the day, you called fewer zone reads and more play-action passes.  The goal remains, as always, to make your offense look complicated to the defense while simple for your players.

Thanks, Chris, for the chat. I'm already looking forward to Volume 2.