From the SI Vault: In football, everything old is new again
For those of you who believe that the stuff you see in modern football is all shiny and newfangled, this will be a fun little game. See if you can guess the origin of these two quotes -- each from defensive coaches about the difficulties inherent in defending the option offense:
1. "The hammer that has broken things down is the option play. If we just spread people out and let the quarterback drop back and throw, you could play a consistent defense. But now you've got teams with two split receivers, with runners, and with quarterbacks who can run the option as well as throw. This simply generates more offense than any defense can handle. Against standard four-man fronts, a [quarterback] ought to be able to roll out without any sort of fake and get a first down whenever he wanted to expose himself to that sort of thing."
2. "You get paid a lot of money to rush the quarterback -- going up the field. That's what these teams want you to do. That's where the creases, the seams are created for the offense. It's just a little different mind-set. You have to take a different mind-set into those games and play a little bit more at the line of scrimmage than up the field ... If the quarterback keeps the ball, he can't run outside of that blocker. With your inside linebacker, outside linebacker and your safety, you have to decide who's going to slide inside and who's going to slide outside."
The second quote is actually a combined defensive dissemination from two college coaches who helped the Green Bay Packers build up their library of schemes against all manner of Pistol and option plays this offseason -- Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, and Illinois State assistant head coach/defensive line coach Spence Nowinsky.
The first quote is a bit of frustration from the mouth of Arkansas defensive coordinator Frank Broyles -- from 1968.
Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel did an excellent job of catching up with the coaches who were helping the Packers adapt, and the latter quote came from a Sports Illustrated article written by the great Dan Jenkins in the Nov. 4, 1968 issue. Many of the quotes Jenkins got from college coaches at the time look exactly like what you hear from coaches 45 years later, and Jenkins' second and third paragraphs read like they were written last week:
"Like none before it, the current season is a display of what can happen when several trends come together at the same time. Specialized athletes, permissive rules which favor offense and inventive coaches have all combined in 1968 to bring absolute ruin to both defensive thought and ability.
"The result has been an explosive season, one in which, in the first five weeks, the number of plays per game (148.7), the total offensive yardage per game (629), the total points per game (39.3), the number of pass completions per game (23.2), the number of pass attempts per game (50) and the total yards passing per game (299) all proceeded at a record-breaking pace. And meantime, we slump back and listen to results that make us wonder how a sport that produced the Seven Blocks of Granite can suddenly come up with the Seven Dabs of Mayonnaise instead."
Some of the actual numbers can easily be changed for the modern era -- in 2012, the NFL averages for each team per game were 64.2 plays, 347.2 yards, 22.8 points, 34.7 passing attempts and 231.3 passing yards. You knew you were going to see higher passing numbers as a modern-day conceit, but the larger point stands mightily -- as much as we might like to believe that the variable option and speed no-huddle ideas we see now are indeed today's, Jenkins' article tells us that they are most certainly not.
Jenkins writes about "Homer's Triple," or the Houston Veer, devised by then-Cincinnati college coach Homer Rice and forwarded by Houston's Bill Yeoman.
If you run it Homer's way, the tackle gets optioned instead of blocked. You make that hulking soul worry about three things: a give to the runner, a keep by the quarterback or a pitchout. If you run it Houston's way, both the tackle and the end are optioned instead of blocked. Perhaps it should be called Somebody's Quadruple, because the quarterback can also pass as he goes veering down the line.
It might be Kelly's Quadruple now, but the first three parts of the "triple" were well-developed when Kelly was five years old, and many of his contemporaries weren't even born. Just as the Wildcat had its antecedents in the run-based offenses of the 1920s, the current option palette has been around for quite a while -- and in some very familiar forms. The Pistol formation variant was technically invented by then-Nevada head coach (and current Kansas City Chiefs consultant) Chris Ault in 2005, and that's a newer wrinkle. But it would seem that if you superimposed a base option play from the days of Jefferson Airplane over one from this last month, it would be pretty easy to see the similarities in most cases.
In addition to the complexity of the multiple option, college defenses in the late 1960s were dealing with a heavy dose of speed no-huddle when playing specific opponents. That "three yards and a cloud of whatever" may have still worked for Bear Bryant, but other coaches were clearly moving in a different direction.
Even a supposedly staunch traditionalist like Woody Hayes is quoted by Jenkins as saying, "We are now getting plays off every 12 or 13 seconds. We are moving so fast, I frequently can't get a play in from the sidelines. We'll hit 100 plays a game soon."
Again, this was in 1968. Jenkins cites plays-per-game numbers from Notre Dame (93 plays per game), Yale (89), Ohio State (87), Georgia (85), USC and Tennessee (78 each). At the time, this was far more than the NFL averaged -- the Los Angeles Rams averaged 65 plays per game, the Dallas Cowboys 63, the Baltimore Colts 60 and the Green Bay Packers, 57.
Even in the high-flying American Football League, just months away from establishing itself as a true equal to the NFL in Super Bowl III, was fairly traditional in that sense. According to Pro Football Reference, the Oakland Raiders led the AFL in plays per game that season with 70. The New York Jets, who beat the Colts in Super Bowl III, were at 66, as were the San Diego Chargers.
The Cincinnati Bengals, in their inaugural season, averaged just 55 plays per game, which the Patriots and Eagles will most likely rack up halfway through the third quarter in most of their 2013 games. In 2012, the Pats averaged just over 74 plays per game, and the Eagles could exceed that with Kelly at the helm. For those of you thinking that Kelly's rate of play in the 2013 preseason was novel, or new in any respect, Jenkins' article must come as quite a revelation. It certainly did to me.