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Monday, January 19, 2009

The rise and fall of the spread via Purdue's Curtis Painter

Dr. Saturday recently wrote about his guiltiest pleasures of this past college football season. One of them was Purdue Quarterback Curtis Painter's rather miserable season, despite all the preseason hype from so-called experts like Mel Kiper.

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.

Brees-Tiller-Chaney clips:


(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.


Chris Miller said...

I agree on Cheney, thought he was on his way up. He's been stuck at the base level in the pros, though. I think he's adaptable more to talent than convention, but certainly the spread does work a lot better in PAC-10 type conferences where playing defense is optional.

I think he'll be fantastic back in college again at UT, and will probably have to anchor recruiting for a team that includes a crusty pro veteran who I can't see doing a lot of begging of teenagers.

squirrelyearl said...

Great post. Thanks.

dakotapalm said...

First of all, I love your blog, and i've learned alot from it. Second, you touched on it here, but what roots/family tree is that of the 1990's Dallas Cowboys [Aikman, Irvin, Smith] offense? What other offenses could i study that would be similar? Thank you for the direction, if you have the time.

Anonymous said...

sardonic beholder, The cowboys offense from the 90's would be the Air Coryell/Norv Turner/ Ernie Zampese/Joe Gibbs offense, there's a bunch of playbooks floating around the internet... current offense that run that version or style of offense in the NFl would be the Chargers,Cardinals,Ravens and Dolphins,There were more but, a lot of coaches have been let go....

Anonymous said...

With Orgeron and Lance Thompson joining Lane Kiffin at UT, I don't think Chaney will have to anchor recruiting.

Jon E said...

Interesting read. My (limited) observation of Painter was that, yes, he required more time in the pocket, but also that his decision-making was slow. Passing is best as a timing endeavor, and Painter was not timed up as well as the likes of Brees. That, and the fact that I think Purdue went the way of USC under Lane Kiffin- a vanilla passing game with emphasis on horizontal and vertical stretches, but little oblique stretches and crossing/pick plays.

Anonymous said...

Iowa has had very good success against Tiller and the latter-day offenses by NOT manning up, NOT blitzing, NOT Jamming. Rather, Parker (evidently, also, Ferentz) doesn't believe a college team can execute 10-15 consecutive short plays successfully, much less run that stuff inside the red zone. The spread doesn't work without truly all-world wide-outs who are good enough to out-run well-positioned zone defenders who are not trying to stop the short stuff. A disciplined Cover-2 will give up the yardage but not the points.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's fair to say that the spread offense has fallen off just because a particular team or teams aren't executing their offense as efficiently.

If a team is just flat out better than yours it really doesn't matter what you run on offense you're going to have issues.

Missouri last season had one of the most prolific spread attacks yet when they faced Texas and OU they could've been running the west coast offense and it probably wouldn't made a difference.

Anonymous said...

The Colts ended up drafting Painter late. Caldwell stated he wants to keep 3 quarterbacks up from 2 in previous years. I imagine Sorgi will be #2 with Painter learning the offense. Painter should be #2 by 2010 or 2011.

RRanney1 said...

While I do agree the spread changed at Purdue over time, I do think that getting back to basics and utilizing the offense as it was ran under Brees is the key.

The offense changed when we went to Hance, a running threat, and then it changed more when we went to Orton an absolute statue with a big time arm (though we only later learned he had little to no accuracy on his long ball). It changed again when we went to the spread option under Kirsch and then Painter. The great crime there was that we didn't stick with the spread option as it has continued to have great success elsewhere, we merely tried to do it all in one year and while it boosted the running game we all of the sudden forgot how to pass and almost never ran pass plays off the spread option.

Beyond that, it seems like later Tiller offenses were built upon a lot of pass patterns intended at hitting receivers running in stide while it seemed like the vast majority of Brees' throws were to WRs standing almost completely still or running horizontally as opposed to vertically. While hitting guys in stride led to more highlight reel plays, those plays really were a very small part of Brees' arsenal as most of the throws were simply move the chains types of throws or 4-5 yard passes that essentially replaced the running game.

If we get back to more of a "safe" passing attack and stick to it more consistently while also improving our rushing attack, then we can get back to being an annual bowl team and stay consistently in the upper half of the Big Ten. Don't worry about the damn highlight reel, just keep moving the chains.