Smart Football has moved!

Please check out the new site, All future updates will be made there.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Smart Notes - Oct. 24, 2008

1. "How To Make Friends and Influence People" - By Tony Franklin

So Auburn is still awful. And Tony Franklin's post-mortem interview the otherday revealed little about the situation, though it reaffirms a basic coaching truth: it's always going to be about more than Xs and Os. Yes there's the old Jimmies and Joes, but it's also whether or not your colleagues actively dislike you. That never helps.

2. Spread Worth Watching

Texas Tech and Kansas play this upcoming weekend. For all the talk about the rise of awful spread teams, these two squads still get it right. Interestingly both Mike Leach and Mark Mangino worked together at Oklahoma, and after Leach left to take the TTech job Mangino basically ran Leach's offense the year OU won the title. But now, don't get them confused. While Leach still runs his Airraid offense, Mangino's has evolved into something of a more traditional -- but still unique -- spread offense. (They run the absolute heck out of the smash package, and they run it better than just about anyone else.)

And although Rich Rod's Michigan tenure, along with failed spread experiments at Auburn, Virginia, and others may have sufficiently freaked out any head coaches, athletic directors, and boosters at major programs from making a switch, both Leach and Mangino should get serious consideration for top jobs at major programs.

3. Nick Saban, Football Historian

Nick Saban is a good coach, alright? And he's been around for longer than people realize. So it warms my heart in a special way to hear him making a point that I've made on many occasions: Football is a game of repeating cycles, with what went out one year coming back the next. In a recent interview, Saban got all fired up on the topic (prompted by a discussion of the Wildcat offense):

...Now the Crimson Tide coach really starts waxing poetically about the past. You mention a running attack... He went deep into the memory bank for this reference. Back to being a defensive assistant on a West Virginia team that lost 52-10 to Oklahoma in 1978.

"I've been coaching for a long time, aight?" Saban said. "Played Oklahoma when you couldn't even see the other sideline because the crown of the field was so heavy, when they tried running downhill, and they were moving. They had (David) Overstreet, (Billy) Sims, and guys that could run fast anyway, they didn't need any help. And so, I've been through that. And them horses that pull that wagon around every Oklahoma scored, [darn]-near died, because they had to do it so much the day we played them."

His final point was a good one: "All this stuff comes around," he said.

"One of these days," he warned, "when old the guys like me don't coach anymore, and the young bucks who grew up defending four-wides and everything, somebody's going to run the wishbone, and they may not know a thing about how to stop it."

Let's unpack this a bit. The main point is a simple one: good schemes ebb and flow, and knowledge bases change so, as he says, defensive coordinators who have done nothing but face spread teams may not have good and ready answers when a spread team comes around. There's not much new in football (contrary to the beliefs of some fanatics unlearned in football's history). Further, Saban is a great coach, but he knows what it is like to be unprepared. The worst I ever personally saw a Saban defense perform was back when he was at Michigan St. when they played Purdue, which was quarterbacked by Drew Brees at the time.

Purdue 52, Michigan State 28

Drew Brees had over 500 yards passing and five touchdowns. And oh-by-the-way, it was Michigan State's homecoming. Whoops. Saban's defense was simply unprepared for the precise, pass-first spread offense Purdue was using.

But the point about football knowledge is one illustrated by Saban himself. The next year Purdue was arguably better (they went on to the Rose Bowl and had beaten both Michigan and Ohio State), and Michigan State crushed them 30-10. So the point is that, while I agree with Saban that what goes around comes around in full force, I disagree that, in the future, coaches will have to start from scratch.

Defenses do not forget. Football might be cyclical, but its history is recorded. What worked once might work again, but the answers are also right there on the game film to be retrieved; there's no guesswork necessary. Saban might be right that the wishbone might come back -- it's an exceptionally well designed offense, and with the right talent, any offense can work -- but no one will succeed simply by resurrecting football's dinosaurs. Someone will have to put a new twist, or a new spin on it. So a restatement of the rule might be that football is cyclical, but it evolves at every step.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Linemen Splits

This doesn't always come up, but one of the most interesting games within the game in football are the splits between the offensive linemen. Some teams use a lot of wide splits, with as much as three to even six feet between linemen, while others keep it closer to roughly a foot, or even toe-to-toe. But like everything else in football, what kind of splits you take is informed both by what the defense does and what your philosophy is.

To understand why splits matter, you need to understand how defensive fronts align. Typically, most defenses are taught to align on the basis of where the offensive guys align, which makes sense because those defenders are trying to get through or around the blockers to get to the running back or quarterback. So defensive linemen and linebackers were told from the earliest days of football to align "on the inside eye of the guard," "heads up the center," or "on the outside eye of the tackle." The linebackers had similar instructions, though they aligned behind the offensive line. Over time, defenses got better at mixing up these alignments, even before the snap. We've all seen linemen shift from the outside eye of the guard to the gap between the guard and center, or simply align late. All this is designed to confuse blocking schemes.

So as offenses became more complex, it became necessary to give linemen rules that would allow the run play to be blocked no matter what games the defense played, and to do that you needed a nomenclature that could be communicated via playbook as well as on the sideline (or at the line) in the heat of a game. This system became known as the assignment of defensive "techniques" to each defensive player. The credit for it is typically given to Alabama's legendary coach Bear Bryant, though he gives much of the credit to Bum Phillips. Below is an example of the numbering system.

Note that this is not the same as "hole numbering," because it is about where the defender aligns not where the run is designed to go. Although it looks a bit confusing, this system is used at literally every level of football, from pee wee football to the NFL. Below is another diagram with slightly different nomenclature, though it also specifies the "gaps." (Hat tip to the USC Trojan Football Analysis site for the image.)

So now that we know that defenses align based on where the offense aligns, and we know that offenses identify defenses based on the alignment, we can discuss splits. It's a bit of an oversimplification, but the choice is basically between tight or wide splits. I begin with tight splits.

Tight Splits

Tight splits are the most common. In fact, most people probably don't think of them as tight, but merely notice when they see "wide splits." Below is an example of a typical alignment.

The advantage of tight splits are easy to see: Linemen are close to each other so you can get good teamwork between them; there are few or at least narrow gaps between them; and the line is constricted to keep defenders away from outside runs and quick outside throws.

The teamwork part cannot be underemphasized. One reason that tight splits are so common is because zone running and slide protection is so popular today. Zone running requires linemen to step in a direction, double-team guys in their area, and then one of them works up to block the linebacker. If the linemen are too far apart, you cannot get a good double-team, and the play won't go. For slide protection, linemen slide into a gap, and work together to create a fence for the QB. Any unblocked rushers must come from the outside, as the priority is to prevent a blitzer or linemen up the middle.

The point about gaps is similar. But the point about constricting the line for outside plays is underemphasized. Most teams, when they want to run an outside option play or a sweep of some kind, will have their line condense in by cutting their splits. That way a fast runner can get outside quickly.

Wide Splits

Wide splits are more interesting. Traditionally, the teams with the widest splits were option running teams. That might sound surprising, but the reason was is that they used a lot of man blocking rules (i.e. block your man, rather than zone an area). More importantly though, by splitting out, because the defense aligned on the basis of where the offensive linemen were, the guy the QB was reading was split out. So if on the triple option you wanted your QB to first read the defensive tackle ("T") and then the defensive end ("E"), you'd split your linemen out to give him more time to make each successive read. (Hat tip: Hugh Wyatt)

You also simply created wide running lanes inside by having your linemen split out so wide. If you watched the old Nebraska teams, while they didn't take enormous splits, they did have wide ones for both their inside option plays and inside man blocking runs.

But there's a new trend for wide splits, and that's with air-it-out passing teams like Texas Tech. Traditionally passing teams took very narrow splits to stop inside penetration, Texas Tech takes exceptionally large splits. Their rationale is a few-fold: (a) make the pass rushers come from farther away and enlarge the pocket, (b) open up throwing lanes for the quarterback, and (c) because they throw so much, all they need is a block or two to have an effective draw play -- the defensive ends aren't even really a factor. They can do this because they are almost exclusively a "man" pass protection team, just as the old Lavell Edwards BYU offenses were. (Indeed, Mike Leach's offense is a direct descendent from BYU's offense, he spent time there as an assistant, and many of his other coaches had experience at BYU as players or coaches when Edwards and Norm Chow were there.)

The obvious concerns are that if one guy gets beat in pass protection then there is no help, and also that there are wide gaps for linebackers to shoot through. For the latter, Tech feels like they can hurt that in other ways, through quick passes, screens, outside run plays, and traps. And they also feel that they can simply teach their linemen to be smart and reactive, and still stop that kind of penetration.

For the former problem though, the answer is simply that they have to have good blockers. They freely admit that they put their linemen one on one a great deal of the time, but their philosophy is that if someone gets to the quarterback, everyone knows who got beat. More and more teams have been adopting this strategy.

As a side note, I observe that Leach went to this trend after he got away from having a two-back formation as his primary one for passing downs. With a two-back offense you can stop a lot of overload passing threats to either side, but with a one-back formation -- Leach's current primary version -- the wide splits were necessary to take those extra rushers out of the play. For more on all this, see my old article here. And you can get a flavor for what Texas Tech does in the video below:


So in sum, the choice of what splits a team uses will vary by play. Some will rely on teamwork and overwhelming force to overpower the defense, others will play games with varying them to set up the play they have called, and others, like Texas Tech, build it into their philosophy. As a final thought, many of you might think: Hey, if you always go tight splits for outside runs and wide for inside runs, won't the defense catch on? The response is the same one Bill Walsh would give when he heard this concern: If you have built a tendency (like running inside whenever you go wide splits), you simply self-scout, figure that out, and then confuse the defense by breaking your own tendency. Some of his biggest plays came when he broke his own tendencies.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Auburn's offense might be bad, but don't call it the spread, the Airraid, or the Tony Franklin System

I recently wrote piece about the "Rise of the Terrible Spread Team," and while I didn't have this season's Auburn Tigers in mind, that's the connection a lot of folks made. And with some good reason: Auburn brought in Tony Franklin, a "spread guru," with the hype that the spread had come back to the SEC and that Auburn would light people up. And, it uh, hasn't happened that way. Hundred yard passing games seem like the norm, and the games Auburn has won have been on the strength of their defense. Most Auburn fans are fearful as the SEC season heats up, as everyone knows you need to be able to score to win games in that conference.

So public enemy #1 is now Tony Franklin. I might have bought into this, and agree that his offense has failed. Except they aren't even running his offense.

What do you mean, you might (reasonably) ask? They look "spread" to me (several wide outs on the field), they are in the shotgun, and they also suck. Yes, yes, and an emphatic yes.

But the system (or the "The System" with a trademark symbol) that Franklin was (supposedly) hired to run was the Airraid offense he learned from Hal Mumme and Mike Leach when all three coached together at Kentucky. (At the bottom of this post is an addendum explaining a bit more about the Airraid.) Franklin of course had a famous falling out with Mumme, as Franklin thought he had been thrown under the bus, that Mumme was either willfully blind to the cheating done at UK by one Claude Bassett, and as a result of it all - the bad pub, the book, etc - Franklin was blacklisted from coaching. So he reinvented himself as a spread offense consultant and he marketed Mumme's system to high school programs across the country. (His most prominent client was Hoover High School, which, with Franklin's system, went from mediocrity to the highest level of football success: a reality show on MTV.) Franklin later surfaced at Troy University, where his offense succeeded, and he was hired by Auburn, presumably to run what he'd been coaching and selling for over a decade.

Despite outward appearances, that assumption is wrong. Every coach I speak to says the same thing: I don't know what they are doing at Auburn, but it ain't the Airraid. So what's going on? I'm not an insider, but my best sense is that the other coaches on the staff (including Tuberville) never bought into the system - maybe because Franklin did a poor job selling it internally, or maybe he thought he didn't have to - and now their offense is simpl a muddle, a grab-bag of pseudo-spread garbage. This seems to be general sentiment among the smart money in football. For example, as one high school coach, who is also a client of the Tony Franklin system, said:

I live in Alabama and I attended the game between [Auburn] and Tennessee. I also am an offensive coordinator for a high school football team that runs the [Tony Franklin System]. From what I have seen this year from AU, this is not the system.

It seems to me that Franklin is getting told what to run on offense. Tubs wants to run the ball to set iup the pass and Franklin likes to set up the run with the pass. I never saw any hurry up offense from AU at this weeks game . . . . Franklin has said that to be sucessful in this offense you must be good at the screens, and get a lot of snaps (maybe like 80) on offense. I dont think I have seen but maybe four screens all year and I don't think they are close to getting 80 snaps.

I'm not ready to blame Tommy Tuberville; he's an extremely smart guy and coach. But I do wonder: why in the world would you bring a guy in who knows one system extremely well but one system only, and then not run what he knows? And even if the pressure was on from the AD or the boosters to go spread, why not pick a twig off the Rich Rodriguez or "running-spread" tree? Instead, they picked a guy whose background was in a pass-first spread, and then they shelve the passing concepts. It really boggles my mind.

Now, this is raw speculation, but here's my best guess: Franklin comes in, and does not bring in any other staff. The rest of the staff does not buy into this system. They didn't think it would work, and Franklin has not convinced them. They are convinced they don't have the players (more on that in a bit) and that either they can't go too spread too quickly, or they have to keep some other elements, or the play-calling is off, or something. Plus, since he didn't bring the rest of his staff in, Franklin had to coach the coaches in his offense, and at that he apparently did a poor job.

Once you start going in multiple directions on offense, you lose focus, and all the paranoia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In college there is simply not enough time to try to do everything. It's the converse of Bobby Bowden's old quote about defense: If you try to stop everything, you stop nothing. Here we could say if you try to be everybody's spread, you're nobody's spread. And Franklin knows this. From an interview he gave over the summer:
The spread is a formation, not an offense: Some people spread the field to run it, like West Virginia. Others spread the field to pass it, like Texas Tech. It’s what you do after you spread the field that defines your offense. We spread it to figure out what is going to work in any particular game and then we just do that. At Troy we basically ran it half the time and threw it half the time. We just always took what the defense was giving us. [Note: Troy rolled up 488 yards in a 44-34 loss to Georgia last November.] Our plan at Auburn is to throw first and run second but if we find a running play that works, we’re going to do that. I’m not hung up on who gets the ball and how we do it. I just want to score points.

Yet they have clearly lost focus. Again I'm not blaming anyone. You could still plausibly argue that if Franklin came in to run a system and he can't convince the coaches and players, then he's failed at an important part of his job. That said, if someone hires me to run an offense at Auburn University of all places, I don't expect to have to spend most of my time convincing my colleagues of what I'm doing. But that's how it goes. Yet make no mistake, the rest of the coaching staff has not bought in. As Tuberville is now saying:
"We don’t run Tony Franklin’s spread offense,” Tuberville said. “This is Auburn’s offense. It’s like our defense. We’re going to run what works and what
we’re going to match up better with the other team. Everybody has to do that. You can’t put a square peg in a round hole. Why would you do that?"

Well, it's not like they ever tried. Setting aside whatever merit this statement has as a matter of diplomacy, it's bogus as a factual matter. Or at least bizarre. If you hire a guy to run a system, why can you then say, oh, after the fact, we don't have the talent. (But did in our bowl game?) Remember: the reason this guy was hired was because at Kentucky, the offense rolled up yardage and points in the SEC, and Franklin, while he was at Troy, rolled up yardage on big name schools (read: Georgia). Auburn has the horses, and when you're going to switch, you just switch.

But, what about QB? They don't have a QB, the critics say. Or they say that their guy Todd is noodle-armed, and you need the other kid, Burns in there. Now I really don't want to wade into a fan battle about who is the better QB (though I observe the rule of thumb that the backup QB for a struggling offense is always the most popular guy in town), but I will say that all you need for this offense is a game manager. Todd appears to be that, though, again, the offense itself just isn't being run correctly.

To highlight the absurdity of this situation, let's think of the last time a big name school hired an offensive coordinator to run the Hal Mumme offense: Bob Stoops, when he went to Oklahoma from the U of Florida, hired Mike Leach as his offensive coordinator. Why? Well as defensive coordinator with Florida, Stoops said that they only team that had an incommensurate level of success against them was Kentucky. Stoops noted that UF's talent level was far superior, yet stopping Kentucky was maddening for Stoops. So Stoops said: I want that.

Compare this to what is happening with Tuberville and Franklin. Back in 1999, Stoops hired Leach and gave him free rein to install his offense. (In fact, I have a coaching clinic talk where Stoops said that he ordered Leach not to change anything that first year, because he wanted exactly what he saw with Kentucky.) And who was Leach's QB at OU? A noodle-armed guy named Josh Heupel. And their receivers were a bunch of converted running backs and defensive backs. Yet I didn't hear the same cry that "Oh, we'll spread it out when we get the athletes." (News flash: if that's your approach, it'll never happen.) Now, I also observe that Stoops too wasn't entirely comfortable being a spread it all the time guy, and Leach happily went on to Texas Tech where he could be as much of a mad scientist as he liked. Yet OU stuck with the exact same system the next year with Mark Mangino as OC, and won a National Title. But Stoops knew what he was getting when he hired Leach, and most importantly he let him do it.

Which of course, again, draws us into questions about what the hiring process was like. What was Franklin told (or what did he ask?), and who wanted him to come to Auburn? Tuberville, or various boosters or administrators? I have no clue. Maybe in the end, this is beside the point: they aren't good at offense right now, so they need to do something the coaches buy into. If it's not the Tony Franklin system then it should just be whatever they can find that will help them score a touchdown every once in awhile.

Airraid Addendum:

As an addendum here I wanted to expound briefly on what I mean when I say that Auburn isn't running the Airraid system. The Airraid is basically two things:

First, it is a small collection of a handful of pass plays, largely derived from the Norm Chow/Lavell Edwards BYU offense of the 80s and early 90s. The most prominent of these are the mesh (see here under "62" for the read), the shallow (see also here), the stick, and then mostly screens.

Second, it is an approach. Specifically, it is a patient, analytic, probing approach to attacking the defense. You have a few formations, you have your base plays (which you have repped continuously), and each has a structure and individual routes but receivers are given enough freedom within each to get open, and QB's are allowed to check plays at the line. Since there aren't many plays, they are practiced over and over again; you might see Texas Tech run the same plays with only slight variations ten times in a given game, often back-to-back-to-back, and a different receiver might get the ball on each one. I can't stress the analytic, probing part enough. Often you don't know what the defense is doing or will do, but you take a piece of the field, you attack it with some route concept, and you take your completions where you can get them. In Hank Stram's phrase, you matriculate the ball down the field.

And what is Auburn doing? I don't really have a clue. They basically line in just a couple of formations, run the outside zone over and over again. They don't run the mesh, the shallow, or the stick concepts. They have some very basic pass plays, mostly based on the four-verticals concept or sometimes a smash pattern. But that's really about it. It's just a bizarre approach that hints at dissent among the staff. The irony is that the whole point of the Airraid was to take the Vince Lombardi approach - run a few plays exceptionally well - and apply that to a pass-first offense.

As a counterpoint, only some video can do justice to how different the approaches are. Compare Auburn this season:

With a cut-up of Kentucky against LSU (talent gap, anyone?) while Mumme, Franklin, and Leach were all there (and take note of how easy so many of these completions are - just short dump offs to the running backs, screens, and quick passes):

UPDATE: Franklin has been fired, and the spread experiment at Auburn ends. Just to clarify as I expect some further scrutiny of this post, I really don't mean to entirely absolve Franklin of blame. One possible hypothesis is that Franklin himself had done too much adapting of his offense - either at Troy before he got to Auburn or while he was there - that undermined its core. But I'm not sure if that's the most plausible solution. Seems me to like it was a tough situation for everybody, with quite possibly everybody getting into it not with their eyes wide open - head coach, offensive coordinator, and position coaches. Hopefully, for Auburn's sake, they can move on from here. As I predicted previously, the offense will probably improve some just by having less conflict amongst the staff. But it won't improve by too much, at least not this season.