Every week Chris Brown from Smart Football answers a reader question about football strategy, and therefore raises the quality of your life by allowing you, the informed viewer, to scream "You suck!!!" in a more educated and justified manner. Submit questions for next week's by going to twitter.com/edsbs and firing away. This week's question comes from Stephen Webb, who wondered...
Q: What makes an offense truly terrible?
The short answer: Put on the tape of NC State vs. South Carolina from Thursday night, and just take it in.
Or, since we have footage, Auburn at Mississippi State, 2008.
Baby, you're burning! Because you've set yourself on fire, Messrs. McCorvey and Franklin--ed.
The long answer: Bad offenses typically don't just fail to do one or two things that make it easy to say, "Oh, they did that! They obvious suck and their coaching sucks!" Instead, it is usually the slow, steady burn of a set of ineptitudes that add up to result in nothing good. Most of these bad traits are a matter of degree rather than being simply being a matter of yes/no or present/not-present. With a few exceptions (fill in your own here), most college coaches have gotten their job because they coached someone, somewhere successfully, and when things go awry it is because they slipped away.So I've got a set of non-exhaustive factors that, either alone or apart, are common with really awful offenses. Think of it like "You might be a redneck if ..." but replace "be a redneck" with "have/coach a terrible offense."
- Bad players: You have to start here, even if it is not entirely fair to. But, in college football, recruiting is the most important thing a coach does (though you have to be able to do more than just recruit -- see Orgeron), and most games will still be decided based on talent.
And when the talent is really bad, or the disparity between teams is really wide, there aren't many strategies that will work (and a lot of mediocre coaches can look very smart).
- Grab-bag offense: Far and away, the number one problem from a strategic view is a disorganized, "grab-bag" offense that lacks a definable identity. This isn't to say that you can only do one or two things, but the bad teams almost universally do not know who they are. Say what you will about Tony Franklin at Auburn, but that whole thing was a mess last year because, among other reasons, they had an identity crisis. But this problem is not just germane to coaching changes or new offensive coordinators. Often, teams that have been fine try to "update" their offenses with the new-new thing, and more often than not they regress. There's a completely true old coaching adage that it is less important what system you run than it is the fact that you have a system, preferably one that you know well and can coach. Hence an offense like Urban Meyer's works for a lot of reasons, but one reason is that the entire team is completely committed to it. The same is true for Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech, or Nebraska's great I-option teams, or really any other good team you can think of. They might appear "multiple," but there's an identity there. Again, it's hard to underemphasize this because not only does it make planning coherent, it has its biggest gains probably for practice time: when Meyer or Johnson or Osborne or any of the other committed coaches practice their offenses, they focus exactly on what they will actually do in games, and their stuff all fits together. A grab-bag team might be adding or subtracting stuff week by week, and they never get good at anything.
- Line play, in every phase: It's a cliche, but it's still undervalued. The most important coach on the staff is the line coach. I didn't say most important assistant, I said coach. The head coach gets things organized, brings in the boosters, the OC calls the plays, but the line coach makes the whole operation go. If you'd like to know how Boise State was able to stymie Oregon's fancy spread, the answer is simple: they whipped Oregon's line, which was starting four new guys. Similarly, with all these spread offenses you see a lot who want to throw the ball, but they don't understand pass protection or focus enough on it. There's both a "who" and a "how," and awful offenses can do neither. Runningbacks are nice, but beyond Heisman-winning breakaway speed, the run game won't go if guys can't block. (Note that with modern zone plays, it is not always about driving guys off the ball, it is about technique and leverage. This only increases the need for good coaching on the line.) And even the most high-flying offenses have been grounded by a lack of pass protection.
- Bad practice habits. One thing USC does as well as anyone is that their practices are very fast, and very efficient. Similarly Mike Leach's Texas Tech practices are famous for their complete focus on throwing the ball and working on all the skills necessary to do it well. One thing many fans might not realize is that "team periods" -- i.e. scrimmages, 11 on 11, etc -- are, in most coaches' minds, negatively correlated with being good at fundamentals. In other words, practices are about focusing on individual players, individual and position drills. When you do 11 on 11, the coaching tends to be more diffuse, and more difficult, and guys tend to regress or not get better at the little skills. This is the hardest one for fans to see, but if your team cannot play well or is undisciplined in missing blocks, running routes, and the like, then their practice habits might be poor.
Etcetera. The final killers are general disorganization, a bad personality mix among coaches (think of every staff Tony Franklin has been on, save for Troy), and, down the list, poor planning. One off-shoot of the "grab bag" bit mentioned above is that some teams have a million ways to throw a five yard out, but lack any legitimate vertical stretch play to a part of the field, or they have about 15 ways to run the ball off guard, but lack any well-practiced alternative if the defense shifts to take that away. This is where number of plays does not equal actual tools in the toolbox. And, of course, the more of that you practice the thinner your practice time is spread. Finally, if you'll notice, I mentioned gameplanning -- which is key, but is usually not the difference between a mediocre and an awful team; if you can run your offense you will never be that bad, regardless of your opponent -- and I didn't even mention play-calling. Again, play-calling is important, and in a BCS title game it may wind up being the difference on a single play (though play-calling is all educated guessing, and your opponent can always "guess right," Tecmo Bowl style), but it is wildly overrated, beyond a certain point at least.
In the end, the advice for a crappy offense is much the same as you would give to someone who failed a test. You wouldn't tell them just to take tests better during the two or three hours. You'd say you need to study harder, use your time wiser, focus more on the core, important concepts, and, generally, improve your preparation. If you do that, the test will take care of itself. So it is with football games.
Chris Brown writes for Smart Football, which is really, um...smart. Submit questions for next week's column at twitter.com/edsbs.