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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.


Anonymous said...

First, an observation. This situation reminds me of Gus Malzahn at Arkansas a couple of years ago. Basically his offense was shelved as well. That staff didn't buy into what he was doing either.

Second, I have a question. Was Franklin's offense at Troy similar to the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach kind of offense? It seemed like the Troy QB was a running QB as well as a passing QB. Leach's QB's don't run with the ball at Texas Tech. The Air Raid is much more about passing, but when I looked at the box scores for Troy games (I never saw a game), the QB seemed to have a lot of rushing yards. Based on that, I wondered if Franklin's style was a little different.

Chris said...

At Troy, they had a guy who was a little bit more of a dual threat. So they did some of the zone-read stuff there that they currently do at Auburn. To me, that doesn't make you qualitatively different. Chris Hatcher, another former UK coach, Mumme disciple, and now D-II head coach (won a D-II title as Coach of Valdosta St, now at Georgia Southern), has done something similar. And he's certainly a true-believer: he put out tapes explaining the offense.

So, yes, there is always some adaptation to the type of talent you have, but the foundation of the offense are the concepts and a pass-first mentality.

Anonymous said...

Auburn ran the real spread offense the 1st four games and it wasn't working. They didn't switch to the "a little bit of everything" offense until the Tennessee game (which is the video of the Auburn offense you posted). Also, when Auburn actually mixed the offense up against Tennessee was when they scored their only offensive touchdown. The "little bit of everything" offense actually Tennessee. Franklin just went back to the spread after the second drive of the game.

CHM97 said...

Sounds like a classic "management" problem @ big time corp. You hire an great advertising agency pay them $20 million and when they come in with the new ideas you tell them they are wrong and we will run it this way. Rule of thumb hire the best people pay them and listen.

Chief said...

To say UK was out talented by LSU is a bit of an overstep IMO. UK had Tim Couch at QB, who I'm not sure if AU has had a QB near his college talent level in recent memory (not even J Cam). While I completely agree we aren't running what we were sold, even before the UT game where we started doing the mash-up offense, I think UK had more talent in a few areas than we do, and they made a big difference.

Phil said...

yeah, same thing as what happened to Malzahn at Arkansas,

look at what he's doing at Tulsa now, and tell me who knew what they were doing back then

I was a GA at a team who played Arkansas that year, and I remember our coaches laughing at Arkansas having a "high school" coach running their offense, and thinking that their coaching friends on Arkansas's staff that had NFL experience were getting screwed, just funny to think about that now that Tulsa puts up 50 each week, Mustain sits on the bench at USC, and none of those coaches are at Arkansas anymore.

Some of those coaches with alot of traditional experience have nothing but contempt for coaches who come up any other way.

Anonymous said...

Franklin was just fired.

I'm not going to call out a coach as I know it's a tough duty, but there is one coach involved in this that has made a ton of errors and I am NOT talking about Franklin.

The head guy is saving his hide with this cowardly move.

Anonymous said...

Whoa. Chris just got a coach fired. That's got to be some kind of an award for a blog. Waaaaaay better than your other award.

Anonymous said...

Interesting timing of this article in light of Franklin's firing.

Obviously there were some major differences in ideology between Tuberville and Franklin.

Given Franklin's prior incident where he was blackballed following his Kentucky tenure and now this, one has to question if Franklin has some personality issues.

That being said, it could very easily be a case where Franklin was just in a couple of difficult situations for reasons of bad luck or otherwise.

Ultimately, I suspect Franklin is still a very capable coach, but may not work out well in certain environments.

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Anonymous said...

I don't know if the experiment is over or not at Auburn. Ole "double T" says he will keep using the spread, or elements of the spread. I don't know if anyone on that staff has enough experience with the spread to run it adequately. Without Franklin there, they really will be experimenting.

Anonymous said...

Experiment over. Results: suck. Problem: coaching. Solution: public execution, then hiring a pirate.

Jonathan said...

Love the blog and this post in particular. Auburn hired Franklin a year ago after their offensive coordinator left to take a job, just before their bowl game. The purpose of it was that they needed more offense AND the Franklin system was easily learned. The key, as you mentioned are base plays that include the mesh to keep the defense honest and give the QB two options for short, but effective passes.

Last year Auburn & Tuberville were in a panic and were happy to have Frankin's help. The result a huge offensive night and a huge win.

Fast forward to 2008 and what's changed? I think the number one issue was that the Auburn coaches didn't like that Franklin was getting so much media coverage and accolades. I think this even went as far as Tommy Tuberville and while you'd hate to think a coach would sabotage his offense, it seems that might be the case.

Franklin's system is easy to run and learn and you don't need a QB with a "gun". The key is to have a QB that can go through some progressions and a team willing to run short screens and meshes. Eventually it opens up the run and then you go back to the pass. The defense will get tired running so many plays and it will further open up the offense more.

I've seen the system work with my son's high school team, who struggled with a Wing-T that was put in decades ago. Last year 2-8, this year 9-1 and going into final 16 of Washington State 1A playoffs this weekend. Offensive numbers are up, scoring is up, and the crazy part is that they're rushing for about 240yd/game. The passing definitely opens up the rush and not the other way around.

This is a sabotage job by the coaching staff and then DID throw Franklin under the bus. Alas, I guess scoring a lot of points and winning games is less important to the Auburn coaches than it is the wrest away the limelight from Tony Franklin.

Auburn might have some short term success, but they'll go back to the stagnation that led them to Franklin in the first place.

Anonymous said...

That is some good stuff. I love the breaking down of plays and concepts. Keep it up!