Curtis Painter's Implosion. I do feel for Joe Tiller, a perfectly decent coach who brought the spread to the Big Ten when it was still considered a novelty, went to a Rose Bowl and whose tenure in West Lafayette should be remembered as an unambiguous success. But one of the banes of my existence in preseason was the unfathomable hype for Painter, led by Mel Kiper, who anointed Painter the top senior quarterback prospect in the country despite his wretched mark (0-14 from 2005-07) as a starter against BCS conference teams that finished with a winning record. Painter subsequently tossed one touchdown to six interceptions during the Boilermakers' 0-4 Big Ten start -- during which Purdue scored 6, 3 and 6 points, respectively, against Penn State, Ohio State and Minnesota -- and was benched just in time to watch a redshirt freshman who began the season at running back light up Michigan for a season-high 48 points in November. In short, I was right and Mel Kiper was wrong ... so wrong, in fact, he'd dropped Painter to No. 2 on his list of the top senior quarterbacks by December. Way to eat crow.
For starters, I totally agree about Kiper. Aside from the fact that almost no one knows how to properly evaluate quarterbacks (scroll down for a discussion of Malcolm Gladwell's "quarterback problem"), it is well known in football circles that Kiper is just a fan -- he possess no uncanny scouting skills. (But who really does?) There's nothing wrong with that, but all he brings to his "rankings" and assessments is exactly the same thing you or I would after watching a lot of games on TV and checking the stats. That's it. No more, and no less. Kudos to him for doing what he does, but that's all it is.
But I think Curtis Painter's woes (great against weak teams, mediocre to poor against good ones) can be partially explained as a data point in a larger story. This story gets back to my discussion of the rise of the terrible spread team, and even my earlier post about whether the spread has reached its apex as far as helping the little guy beat the big goliaths with lesser talent.
Painter never started under the original Purdue offensive scheme architects, namely Joe Tiller plus Jim Chaney. Chaney left to go to the NFL (now he's with the University of Tennessee), and in stepped Ed Zaunbrecher, who had followed great success coaching offense at Marshall with some success doing the same at Florida under the Zooker and less at Illinois. When Zaunbrecher got there Tiller had already decided to move in some new directions with the offense. But, while there were differences the problems wound up being many of the same things, because of the talent and overarching philosophy.
In many ways, under Zaunbrecher I liked a lot what Purdue was doing. If I had to compare their offense to anyone else's in terms of structure and schematics it likely would have been the New England Patriots under Belichick/McDaniel -- one-back sets with a tight-end, shotgun, and lots of base, simple 5-step concepts like the snag, all-curl, three-verticals, four-verticals, underneath option routes, and smash. This was slightly different than the original Tiller model with Chaney when Drew Brees and Kyle Orton had been there, which was more no-back and more three-step drops.
(Compare the quick drops and completely spread sets that Brees tended to operate from with the longer developing plays used with Painter. Some of this is styles--Painter probably had a stronger arm than Brees, and Brees was a quick decisionmaker with a quick release. And some of the evolution was necessary. But it's worth pointing out the slightly different styles.)
In any event, the Tiller-Chaney-Brees model of four and five wides and three-step drops began to turn somewhat stagnant against the big boys; it's not a phenomenon entirely unique to Painter. Kyle Orton began the 2004 season as a Heisman contender and then Purdue rattled off loss after loss and failed to generate enough offense. And the reasons were simple: by then, if you spread out Wisconsin, Michigan, or Ohio State, they had guys who matched up with all your receivers, and if you had any advantage at all they could still put a floater or robber defender to bracket him and take him away.
But, despite the changes with Zaunbrecher, the exact same pattern emerged, except almost even more brutally. From about 2002-2004, with the Chaney short-passing model, Purdue would manage a number of completions, all of them for very, very short yardage, no run after the catch, and would hope to break a play or two. You saw a lot of that with Zaunbrecher, but mixed in were a lot of very difficult to complete downfield passes to guys who were not open. The week before, against Syracuse or even Minnesota, they'd look like the Patriots. Against Penn State or Ohio State, they looked like Syracuse. Though Zaunbrecher was more willing to stretch the field, against these top teams they could not shake anyone free. Plus, this exposed the quarterback to pressure and the line to certain protection issues, something that had not been as much of an issue with the previous quick-release approach.
In my 2006 article, I wrote this about where the spread was headed:
The offense has arguably become the opposite of an equalizer, it has become an amplifier: if you are talented you can really rack up the points because no one can cover Vince Young, Ted Ginn or the like one-on-one, but if you're not, you just get sacked and no one gets open.
So -- and I recognize that there were other issues at work like play-calling and Painter's at-times erratic decision-making -- but to me Purdue and Curtis Painter became an object lesson for the effect of the spread. When they played out of conference opponents or Big 10 bottom dwellers, they lit them up: their offense worked perfectly to create matchups and generate plays that garnered chunks of yardage at a time. But against the big boys, they got manned up, pressed, jammed, and blitzed into oblivion.
And maybe even Purdue's new head coach, Danny Hope, who coached with Tiller back in the Brees days and this past season, has noticed this. He chose not to retain Zaunbrecher and has instead hired Gary Nord from Florida Atlantic, who spent the last two decades as Howard Schnellenberger's offensive coordinator. If anything, his offense is NFL-esque, but almost a throwback to the early 90s of the Cowboys under Aikman and 49ers with Steve Young. Maybe it will be a success, or maybe it won't. But the days of Purdue being spread-only are likely over.
Tiller? Definitely a success at Purdue. Maybe his biggest fault was that his idea was so good it got copied and assimilated too quickly.
Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis.