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Friday, July 10, 2009

Was Spurrier's offense a failure in the NFL?

Or was it the man that failed?

I vote the latter. Yet, the story to this day, as reflected in some of the (very thoughtful) comments to my recent NFL Offense piece, is that Spurrier's offense failed in the NFL and that this is a significant data point in the storyline that "college offenses don't work there." But I find very little to support the broad form of this statement, and certainly I don't find it very generalizable to what people usually think of when they talk about "college offenses."

First, a modest defense of the efficacy of Spurrier's offense in the pros. He did not set any records in his two years in the NFL. His teams went 7-9 in 2002 and 5-11 in 2003, at which point he quit. His vaunted offense consistently finished in the bottom third of the league in every major category, usually ranked between 20th and 25th in categories like points, total yards per game, passing efficiency and yards per attempt, rushing yards per attempt, and so on. (Source: Pro-Football Reference.) Yet does that make his offense a complete failure? Or just merely weak? And what of the players he used?

Consider two teams whose offenses finished in this same territory in this past 2008 season, with offenses ranked in the bottom third of the league: the Pittsburgh Steelers and, lo', Washington Redskins. The Steelers were 20th in points, 22nd in total yards, and 24th in yards per play; the Redskins finished 28th in points, 19th in yards, and 23rd in yards per play. Now neither offense is considered elite, but neither offensive coordinator has been filed with the epitaph that "their system does not and will never work in this league." They just need to get better, no? (The Steelers' offensive weakness was obviously offset by a great defense, and some of it too was caused by an unexpected in the running game.)

Moreover, the NFL puts a premium on players, who did Spurrier have running his schemes in the Pros? Try these names:

Quarterback: 2002 - Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, and Patrick Ramsey (rookie); 2003 - Patrick Ramsey and Tim Hasselbeck (yeah, the other Hasselbeck).

Runningback: 2002 - Stephen Davis (who missed four games) and Kenny Watson; 2003 - Trung Canidate and Rock Cartwright.

Receiver: 2002 - Rod Gardner, Derrius Thompson, Darnerian McCants, and Chris Doering; 2003 - Laveranues Coles, Rod Gardner, Darnerian McCants.

Seeing this list, wouldn't the bigger surprise be that the offense did in fact finish higher than bottom third of the league? Indeed, NFL films, in its typical chicken-salad-out-of-chicken-scraps season review tried to turn Gardner and Thompson into some kind of modern day Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, as the video below shows:

But a more realistic appraisal -- and a bit of history (Thompson was out of the league by 2004, and the other leading receiver besides Coles, Darnerian McCants, was out of it by 2005 -- reveals something altogether different. See the below "highlight" video of some of Gardner's best dropped passes:

Of course both Stephen Davis and Coles were legitimate players and did not help much (and Davis apparently felt unwanted or incorrectly used), but without a quarterback the rest is moot, and you're not going to win many games with a combinations of Matthews, Wuerffel, Ramsey, and Hasselbeck at the helm. Indeed, no one else has won with them. The problem was that Spurrier tried to.

The second point is that, even if you call Spurrier's time in the NFL a total bust, offense and all, it's just not a great example to use in the general argument about "college offenses" not working in the pros. When people have that discussion they are usually talking about why an option-based or a spread offense won't or can't work there. But what is Spurrier's offense if not pro-style? He relies exclusively on a dropback passer, he frequently uses a fullback, and the routes he uses came from the NFL. Insofar as his offense had some kind of unique element (at least for its time), it was that he let his receivers read coverages on the fly and adjust their routes accordingly -- a technique more complicated and thus more appropriate to the advanced NFL. See the below diagram of Spurrier's variation on "smash," whereby the receiver can run a curl underneath the cornerback against cover three, or will break for the corner if the cornerback stays close to the line.

Moreover, his offense was largely based on a very pro-style dichotomy: his base run play was the lead-draw, which allowed his linemen to largely pass set and his QB to get a look at the defense. The basic diagram of the play is below.

And if the defense came up on him he went to play-action off of a lead-draw look. This was ingenious, because he could both show a run play yet his linemen could pass-set and his quarterback could get a look at the defense downfield. See one of his most common plays below, where combined with the lead-draw were routes where the receivers also adjusted their patterns on the fly based on the coverage.

Focusing so heavily on the lead-draw and fake lead-draw also gave him the advantage of setting up his normal dropback plays as well. Check out the highlight video from the 1996 SEC Championship for some good examples.

And compare all this with what Urban Meyer does at Florida now. That is what people mean when they say "college offense." And if they don't mean that they mean the option of a Nebraska or what Paul Johnson does at Georgia Tech. Regardless whether you buy those arguments, the success or failure of Spurrier's drop-back and play-action pass-based offense seems wholly irrelevant to the discussion.

Then why did he fail? As I indicated at the beginning, to me, it was not the offense, it was the man as head coach. Being an NFL head coach is about many things, but calling the plays is a very small part of it, and it is a part that can be (and maybe should be) delegated to someone competent. As stated above, the talent situation was a huge mess and was in total flux, with a bunch of Florida cast-offs (I loved Chris Doering and Wuerffel in college but come on), several high-priced busts (Chad Morton?), and no quarterback to speak of. These are faults that reflect on the man, but not necessarily on the schemes. And really, the narrative is that the schemes probably got too much hype all along, as is common. (And keep in mind that Joe Gibbs won only six games in 2004 and only five in 2006.)

They were ingenious but that is different from him being a genius, and of course he had the talent at Florida to make it go. He also, it must be said, arrived at the right time in history when the spread and pro-style offenses had really just begun to supplant an older, earlier way of thinking, especially in the SEC. But in addition to the lack of institutional advantages for Spurrier in the Pros as opposed to his time at Florida, he also lacked the preparation to make it go. I don't know about discipline and all that, but there were enough stories of the franchise's disorganization to affirm that he did not have a handle on the bundle of intense personalities that makes up any NFL team, and certainly did and continues to make up the Washington Redskins in particular.

Yet there was one scheme criticism that got much play that was in fact true: his inability to gameplan pass protection. Spurrier won his first NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals where his offense scored 31 points, but in his second, against the Philadelphia Eagles and blitz-happy defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, he was fundamentally outcoached on the way to a 37-7 blowout. And that was the beginning of the end.

But he was not outcoached in some fundamental "college offense won't work in pros so there" way, but instead he fell victim to the 80/20 principle I talked about: Spurrier ran a pro-style system, and if you're going to do that in the pros you better be ready for the meat grinder that is their film study. Johnson, a wily guy who has been around the block a few times, devised one blitz after another that got to the core of Spurrier's protections and never let him out. (Incidentally, this gets to one of the common criticisms of my NFL bit, which was that I couldn't be serious saying that the NFL wasn't complex. But I never said that; I said it was bland yet, within that blandness was incredible complexity on the micro scale. A lot of college guys have said if you introduced more macro variation you could reduce the micro complexity -- i.e. a million blitzes you have to gameplan for -- but that's something for later.)

So what's the verdict? Spurrier failed, but it was not his "college offense" that let him down, it was the man, his overall lack of control of players, his roster management, and his own coaches, and in no small part the inadequate planning that went into his "pro-style attack."


Jon E said...

This begs another question: why have Florida QBs never excelled in the NFL?

Unknown said...

Chris, Great Blog. As a Redskins fan and football junkie, Spurrier's offense is something I've spent a lot of time defending. As you aluded to in your post, many think Spurrier's offense failed but his pass concepts were quite sound and often times many people were open downfield during his Redskins tenure. The ultimate problem was his lack of using solid protection schemes. In high school and to some degree in college you can get away with having a RB take on a DE on occassion(though thats a match-up I don't ever like), but in the NFL that is a recipe for failure and thats what he did on a few occassions in the NFL. He also ran many deep route combos in 4/5 WR sets and if you are going to do this consistently at any level, sufficient hots and sight adjusts must be built in to deal with all the blitzes. If he had protected a little better, his offense would have been in the top 10. I'd love to see what Spurrier would do if he had another crack at it.

Doc said...

I think the reason for his failure was just that he couldnt be the Taskmaster in the Pros like you can college, and that he simply never had a good QB to run it.

The QB position is the main reason he has faultered at USuCk now.

Tyler said...

You have to accept that just because the Redskins had other problems, does not necessarily mean the offensive schemes did not exacerbate the issues.

Well, you also can't ignore the struggles he has had at USC. I've heard some different opinions on why Spurrier has failed at USC now. The most obvious one is the quarterback one as alluded to by an earlier commenter, but I don't completely buy that. It certainly explains some of the struggle, but you can't convince me that every quarterback he has had at USC has been this consistently bad. As previously noted, the quarterbacks he was working with at UF certainly were pretty marginal talents themselves.

Stan said...

Woody Widenhofer's Vandy defenses did very well against Spurrier. I asked him about it during a visit there and he said that Spurrier's offense used the same few concepts all the time. What made it look difficult was the way he was able to use so many different formations, motion, etc. to get matchup advantages.

Homer Smith ten years later wrote basically the same thing on his blog.

Brad said...

My personal opinion is that the game had passed Spurrier by well before he ever went to the skins.

Spurrier was an inovator at Duke. He threw the ball and ran a pro style offense when many other teams didn't. That gave him a great advantage. Plus he was a great teacher.

Early on when he got to UF he was still ahead of what everyone else was doing, but by the time he left tons of teams passed the ball first and his schemes were not that original. He was still a great teacher and UF's talent advantage still allowed him to dominate.

But in the pros where he had no talent advantge he failed to update his protection schemes and it was clear that the game caught up to him. Same thing goes for South Carolina, he just isn't that inovative anymore to the point where he can elevate his teams above their talent level.

Anonymous said...

Way back in August 2005 when ND fans actually liked him, Charlie Weis was a little bit blunt in his assessment of Steve Spurrier:

"Well, first of all Steve's a great coach. I think one thing that's a little different, though, is those defenses in the NFL, they'll figure you out in a hurry now. I mean you're just sitting there, and every time they blitz, you're going to throw a slip screen. That's what he did. Everyone in the league knew it. He was going to throw a slip screen and everyone would be playing the slip screen."

There were a ton of articles that were written when Spurrier took the Redskins job about how Spurrier thought it was silly that some coaches worked all night. I think Steve Spurrier wasn't really willing to put in the time necessary to be a successful NFL coach.

Anonymous said...

I believe Spurrier had losing records to both FSU and Miami (arguably the only other programs of that era with comparable talent to those UF teams). Why is that?

Unknown said...

Talent on the field and simplicity in his some of his play designs certainly contributed to his failure in the NFL.

However, he probably could have lasted awhile longer had he hired experienced NFL assistants instead of some of the boobs he had for buddies, like Jimmy Ray Stephens on OL.

With pro assistant coaches, they might have been able to have more advanced protection schemes and give his qbs more time to throw.

Anonymous said...

It seemed to me that Spurrier's offense is designed in large part to take advantage of defensive mistakes and mismatches. In the NFL you are simply not going to have the blown coverages without safety support or the LB who cannot cover a screen play. As a Redskins fan I spent all sunday asking why we are throwing wide reciever screens and 3 yard crossing routes the whole game. It doesn't work when the defence is full of 4.4 corners and 4.6 LB's.