Baylor's Art Briles and that punk offense in Waco
WACO, Texas -- When Art Briles gets existential about a new twist on Power or four verticals, the flow of his West Texas lilt slows from syrup to honey. "Creating a football play is like writing a song," the Baylor coach, speaking deliberately, said a few weeks ago. "Before that song's written, it never exists. It's not out there. It's just vapor."
Given that Briles works 25 miles south of Willie Nelson's hometown of Abbott, Texas, it would be easy to compare Briles' coaching style to the songwriting of the Red-Headed Stranger. But the man who wrote Crazy and On the Road Again takes life a little too easy to be compared to the up-tempo Briles. Given the timbre of his magnificent voice and his knack for telling a story, a more apt comparison for the coach might be Johnny Cash. It's easy to imagine Briles humming When the Man Comes Around as he watches Bears offensive coordinator Phillip Montgomery signal in a downfield shot to quarterback Bryce Petty.
Still, even imagining Briles as the Man in Black doesn't quite fit with the offense he created while scribbling on hundreds of yellow legal pads after a Texas Class 2A high school playoff loss in December 1984. Want a better musical analogue? For the true Dark Side of the Moon-meets-Wizard of Oz experience, cue up the Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop the moment Baylor center Stefan Huber snaps the ball to Petty on the first play of a drive. The auditory and visual sensations will be similar. Bop blasted out of the grooves of the Ramones' self-titled debut album in 1976, and it told the world the following things:
• This will go fast.
• This will defy convention.
• In about two minutes, your face will be rocked off.
Those statements also pretty much sum up Briles' offense, though the Bears rarely need two minutes to rock an opposing defense. In the 132 seconds that it takes for Bop to play, Petty and his crew -- whose average touchdown drive in 2013 is 88.1 seconds -- would have more than enough time to score a touchdown, kick the extra point and chug a Gatorade on the sideline.
To better understand why Briles designed his offense to play this way, pick up a copy of this week's Sports Illustrated and read the tale of how the high school football quarter from hell sparked the growth of the scheme that has no playbook. To better understand why Briles' offense has been so successful at Houston and Baylor, keep reading here. The fifth-ranked Bears, who are currently 7-0 and lead the nation in scoring offense (63.9 points per game) and yards per play (9.06), will face their stiffest challenge to date when Oklahoma comes to Waco on Thursday. This is what the Sooners must face.
Every team adjusts its tempo to stress the defense it's facing. Alabama can step on the gas or go steamroller slow. Oregon has made speed -- in terms of both 40 times and the pacing of everyday life -- as integral to its program as uniform design. When the Ducks press the nitrous button during games, few foes can catch their breath.
Briles' philosophy is similar to the one that former Oregon coach Chip Kelly instilled in Eugene, but Baylor may move even faster than the Ducks, both in practice and in games. When the Bears drill their offense, the ball always moves forward. There is no symphony of whistles when a play is executed improperly. The offense moves to the new line of scrimmage and runs the next play. Corrections can be made in meetings. The plays won't be run perfectly in the games, either. So Baylor just keeps going, sometimes running as many as four plays a minute.
Game officials do not set the ball quickly enough for a team to move at that speed all the time, and some plays must be changed at the line of scrimmage. But in a 59-14 win at Kansas on Oct. 26, the Bears' first-team offense ran 12 plays within 15 seconds of the end of the previous play in a little more than two quarters of action. One play began a mere 11 seconds after the preceding play had been whistled dead. "That puts us in our rhythm," Petty said. "That's when we can dictate what [the defense will] do."
That pace barely provides enough time for a defensive tackle to return to the line of scrimmage and get in his stance, much less for a defensive coordinator to signal in a stunt that could confuse Baylor's offensive linemen. "That's the beauty of our offense," left tackle Spencer Drango said. "A lot of defensive coordinators like to call in these elaborate stunts. With our tempo, they can't do it."
Still, as anyone who has watched college football over the past 10 years knows, a lot of teams press tempo. What makes the Bears truly unique is how far Briles stretches a defense. Kelly, Urban Meyer and the other spread innovators talk about stretching defenses vertically and horizontally, but Briles gets more than anybody out of the field's 53.33 yards of width. As the coach at Stephenville (Texas) High in the early 1990s, Briles moved his widest receivers outside the yard numbers. Sure, some teams station a receiver at the numbers if they are snapping the ball from the near hash mark. But Briles puts them mere feet from each sideline no matter where his offense is positioned on the field.
This takes away the option of having those receivers run out routes. They simply don't have enough room. It also means that they can't come down to help block on most runs. "You give up a lot of game-book football -- which is OK for us," Briles said. "We're not trying to be like everybody else. We're trying to be different."
Briles, however, gets more than he gives up. Unless a defense has a secondary full of future NFL players, the cornerbacks are completely on their own with the Baylor receivers. They can give no help to stopping the run. The two safeties must be used to shade to the wide side of the field, meaning a third safety has to cover a slot receiver on the short side. That leaves four linemen and two linebackers -- or three linemen and three linebackers, the combination Oklahoma will likely deploy on Thursday -- to deal with the rushing threats posed by Petty and tailback Lache Seastrunk (9.1 yards a carry), who operate behind an offensive line led by a projected first-round NFL draft pick (left guard Cyril Richardson).
Blitzing also carries more risk than usual for the defense, because the Bears are likely to line up in a four-receiver, one-back set. With the Baylor receivers spread so wide, the odds are that one of them will find a hole in a zone, or beat one-on-one coverage. Or Briles, who bases much of his offense on the Veer he ran as a receiver for coach Bill Yeoman at Houston, might just opt for simple and nasty. "If you don't watch it, you end up working on things that he might do twice [in an entire game] and he'll kick your butt with just the zone dive," said Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who got his butt kicked twice in three meetings with the Cougars when Briles was at Houston (2003-07) and Bennett was the head coach at SMU (2002-07).
The most important aspect of the Bears' offense has nothing to do with routes or protections. It's the attitude Briles has instilled at every head-coaching stop he's made from Hamlin (Texas) High to Baylor. In nearly every case, Briles has taken over a team with little history of success and turned it into a consistent winner. When he took over at Stephenville, where he went on to win four Class 4A state titles, the Yellow Jackets hadn't won a district title in 36 years. They hadn't beaten rival Brownwood High since 1963. In 1990, Briles' third season at the helm, a film crew from the Discovery Channel wanted to produce a segment on Texas high school football. Briles chose the Brownwood game. Stephenville's winless streak died with the cameras rolling.
Just as he did with the Yellow Jackets, Briles has convinced the Bears they can beat anyone. "A lot of guys weren't accustomed to winning," Bears tailback Glasco Martin said. "The mindset has definitely changed. We expect to win."
The players know that might be hard to believe. They know conventional wisdom dictates that -- as they hit the teeth of their schedule -- better defenses will slow their offense. They don't care. They aren't changing. They're going to keep rocking and forcing everyone else to adapt.
"There was a storm when I said Baylor is a 'but' team," Petty said. "'Baylor wins, but this. Baylor scores points, but this.' Every time we go out and play, it doesn't matter how good we do. There's always people who say, 'But this.' Honestly, that's how we like it."
A punk attitude for a punk offense.