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Don't Be Fooled: The Future of Offense Is Simplicity

With Stanford, it’s easy to see where NFL attacks are headed. While it may look complex, it's anything but. Plus, I answer your Mailbag questions

Stanford's Kevin Hogan gets the offense set against Army.

Stanford's Kevin Hogan gets the offense set against Army.

WEST POINT, N.Y. — The future of offensive football doesn’t have to be no-huddle, and it doesn’t have to be breakneck. It just has to be varied, and it has to put thoughtful pressure on the defense. It has to be the next move in the chess game. “A philosophy of probing,’’ Stanford coach David Shaw says here, after the Stanford-Army game on Saturday. “Probing, and wondering, ‘How is the defense going to react to this?’ ‘’

We’re living in a great time for offensive football. Here on the banks of the Hudson on a glorious Saturday for college football, one team, undermanned Army, ran the triple option, where the quarterback can hand to a big back, run himself or pitch to a trailer. The other team, Stanford, ran everything. Such as:

• A pro style shotgun, with one back, one tight end and three wideouts.

• A pro style I, with two backs, two wideouts and a tight end.

• An empty-backfield shotgun, with four wides and a tight end.

• A pistol (the shorter version of the shotgun) with sidecar backs on either side of quarterback Kevin Hogan and three wides.

• A pistol, with one back, two wides, and a tight end and slot tight end next to each other.

• A heavy formation, with three tight ends and two backs.

• The Weird Wildcat (my words, not Shaw’s): a back taking the snap, three tight ends, and a guard, 316-pound Joshua Garnett, as another (slot) tight end to demolish anything in his path.

• A classic old-time power I, with three backs and two tight ends. (Get the point? David Shaw loves the tight end.)

• And something I don’t know what to call: Before the snap, the tackle, tight end and slot tight end shifted to the right (sort of what Chip Kelly did at Washington in Week 1) to create a huge gap outside the guard.

“I’m going to quote my old boss, Jon Gruden,’’ Shaw said, standing in a tunnel outside the Stanford locker room after the 34-20 win over Army. Shaw was a Raiders quality control coach under Gruden for three years, and Rich Gannon’s quarterback coach in his fourth year with Gruden, 2001. “He would say it every single day: ‘What you want to do on offense is present the illusion of sophistication but all in all remain very simple and basic.’ So very often we’ll throw a whole bunch of different stuff at them, but we’re going to run a basic day-one installation play. Something we’ve run thousands of times. Something very, very simple. But for the defense, it looks very complicated. So we want to present these illusions, then run a regular play that we just want to execute right.’’

Shaw was happy to run some heavy-protection packages but still score out of them. Out of the power I with Hogan under center, Stanford sent only two receivers out on one play. Both backs simply acted as extra protection for Hogan, and, with eight kept in to block, the fleet Ty Montgomery beat double-coverage and caught a 46-yard touchdown pass in stride. Same thing later, with a little more illusion. Keeping seven in to block with Hogan in the pistol, Stanford had wideout Kelsey Young motion in from the right and follow running back Tyler Gaffney out of the backfield in a double-wheel-route concept up the left sideline. Army, confused, covered only one of them, and Gaffney caught an easy 23-yard touchdown.

On this day, the Cardinal ran 56 plays, and you never looked out on the field and said, “I’ve never seen that before.” (Well, the double-wheel thing maybe; that was unusual.) The formations and movement were offputting at times. But the plays, no. Watch the Eagles, under new coach Chip Kelly. Lots of misdirection and quarterback movement and some of the strangest formations you’ve seen, but watch the plays themselves. “This is not a difficult offense,’’ Mike Vick said in training camp.

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“That’s why I love Chip Kelly,’’ Shaw said. “He knows that I love him. He used to say it all the time and no one would believe him. He would just laugh, one of those smirk laughs that he has, and he would always tell people, ‘What we’re doing is not hard. We’re doing it faster, and we’re doing it with big kids who are smart kids.’ We’re like that—changing formations, making our players communicate, communicate, and the ball is getting snapped and they’re running something very simple. Now, with Chip, he gets the ball to DeSean Jackson in space, he gets LeSean McCoy in space, he’s created the same thing. So it’s not just schemes, it’s the combination of schemes and personnel. If you’ve got the guys to do it, to get guys in space, you can make big plays.’’

(Jon Gruden) would say it every single day. ‘What you want to do on offense is present the illusion of sophistication, but all in all remain very simple and basic.’

Diversity is so important in offensive football—always has been. Illusion is too. In Week 1 against Green Bay, San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman moved his physical wideout, Anquan Boldin, everywhere—in the two slots and two wide sides at least 10 times apiece. He ran him out of bunch formations. He set sort-of legal picks for him. And Boldin caught the ball 13 times for 208 yards. On Sunday night, with the Seahawks determined to beat Boldin up and nullify him at Seattle, the noise and defense conspired to take Boldin out of the game, and Colin Kaepernick could never find another weapon to replace him.

In Philadelphia, it’s going to be interesting to see if Kelly can keep Michaek Vick healthy. He’s on pace to run 120 times and to be sacked another 32 times, and it’s unlikely he’ll make it through the season taking that kind of punishment at 218 pounds. Running an uptempo offense, with a quarterback getting hit a lot, could require a second and maybe third quarterback to play this year, and though Nick Foles is, I’m told, very much a Kelly favorite, who knows how that offense changes with a quarterback who will stay home more.

Stanford has a stay-at-home big quarterback like Foles. Hogan is smart, like Foles. I don’t know how Foles would change what the Eagles do, but I do know a smart and accurate passer, without wheels, can still run it well. But with Vick or Foles, the Kelly offense will still be malleable. “There’s some really smart NFL guys that are going to sit on their hands and say let’s see what happens,’’ said Shaw. “Are they going to wear themselves out? This is a tempo and pace these guys are not used to. That’s the only question that I have. I love what they do; we’ve copied some of the things they do. But I believe every NFL player has a certain number of plays. And every time they run a play, you peel back. It’s like peeling back a day in the calendar. We’ll see.’’

Maybe the difference between Shaw and Kelly is that Shaw puts more of a premium on shielding his quarterback. It certainly appeared that way against Army—though, certainly, Hogan is not going to get the kind of pressure from a weak team like Army that he’ll get from Arizona State and Oregon. But the moral of the story from Shaw is the same as it is with the other smart young offensive minds infiltrating the NFL game: If you don’t like change in offensive football, you’re going to love irrelevance.

And now, for your mail ...

MOVING TOO FAST. Is it not odd that in an era where player safety seems to be the buzz phrase zipping around, the league welcomes a coach who’s essentially turning up the speed of the game beyond what any player is used to? Grizzled vets who’ve known one speed since pee-wee ball are gulping air at the quarter’s end, thinking it’s halftime.  Exhaustion erases form, thereby making mistakes both more likely and more frequent.  Poor form on a tackle can lead to paralysis.

I like Chip Kelly’s style. I like seeing well-paid pros push the envelope. It’s part and parcel of the ways sport can inspire and improve us all. Just seems odd that the NFL, while touting safety on one hand, embraces what one would think is clearly increased risk with the other.


How do you legislate the speed of the game? If a coach wants his QB to snap the ball with 18 seconds left on the play clock, do you propose to make that illegal? Do you propose to say that you can only run a certain number of snaps every game? Coaches are going to do what wins. If playing fast wins games for the Eagles, Kelly will keep doing it, the same way New England does it with Brady running a lot of no-huddle. Regarding safety, I just don’t know. It stands to reason that running more plays does increase the risk of injury. But I simply don’t think that you can legislate that a team should play at a certain pace.

On Coach Kill. I am a longtime reader of MMQB and have never written before, but your question about the University of Minnesota allowing Jerry Kill to coach football was insensitive. People in the workplace who have epilepsy are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a parent with a child who has epilepsy, I know the concerns about my son having seizures at work—he is a high school teacher and wrestling coach. Plain and simple, it is discrimination if his employer was to limit his ability to earn a living doing what he loves. The ADA requires his employer to make accommodations so that he can “enjoy equal employment opportunities.” As long as his doctor clears him for his duties, his employers would be in violation if they tried to remove him from his position for having seizures.

Tim, Ocala, Fla.

I’m simply asking the question about how practical it is to have a college football coach on the sideline or in a locker room, going down more than once a year, on average, with a seizurein full view of a television audience and a stadium full of fans. I’m not trying to be insensitive. I’m trying to be practical. It just seems the wrong job for that. Am I wrong? Probably. Am I being insensitive? Maybe I am.

Greg Schiano took the ball out of Josh Freeman's hands at a key time in Sunday's loss to New Orleans.


SCHIANO’S CALL. In analyzing Greg Schiano's decision late in the game against the Saints [up 14-13, with 4th-and-3 at the Saints' 29], you left out perhaps his best option—going for the first down. If Tampa Bay makes it, the game is over. If Tampa Bay doesn't make it, Brees still gets the ball back, but with slightly more yards to go to win the game than with the missed field goal. Still, the field goal was Schiano's worst option. Even if Lindell (a shaky kicker in big moments—go back to Buffalo's 2004 finale against Pittsburgh) makes the field goal, I'm not sure I bet against Brees going the length of the field for a touchdown in a minute.

Josh, Buffalo

Schiano obviously has zero faith in Josh Freeman to convert on fourth down there. My feeling is simple. It’s going to be pretty easy for Drew Brees to travel 35 yards with no timeouts and 60 seconds to get in field goal range. Now traveling 60 yards with no timeouts? That’s at least more of a challenge. But, I would agree that the best solution would be to have a quarterback you trust to convert on fourth down there. The Bucs don’t have that.

HOW LOUD IS TOO LOUD? Regarding the crowd noise in Seattle, I've served as the compliance officer for several companies in a couple of different industries. If the noise level reached 136.6 decibels or if sustained periods over 85 decibels were recorded in the workplace, the ownership of a company is required to have a hearing protection program that includes monitoring of employees who are exposed to such noise levels, implementation of engineering controls to reduce the noise exposure, provision of hearing protection if the engineering controls do not work, and training in hearing conservation for all employees. (OSHA's Standards for Occupational Noise Exposure, 29 CFR 1910.95). We would also cover our backsides by providing hearing protection to all visitors to the workplace (e.g. the fans in Seattle). The only industry exempt from the standard is oil and gas. Any idea how major sports avoid this requirement?


Well, that extremely high noise level in Seattle is the peak; it doesn’t happen for a very sustained period. But I do understand your thought about the risk of extended exposure to loud noise. I guess what I would say is that what the fans in Seattle were subjected to is no louder than what kids are subjected to in, say, a metal concert. So I doubt you’re going to get a watchdog group to be very worried about fans being exposed to a loud stadium.

FINE FIFTEEN MATH.A week ago, Green Bay lost a very close game at San Francisco. You ranked San Fran No. 2 and Green Bay No. 6. This week Seattle took San Fran to the woodshed, and Green Bay blew out Washington. You dropped San Fran to No. 3 (behind Seattle) and Green Bay to No. 12. Now of course, I'm oversimplifying these games, but can you please explain how Green Bay dropped six places after blowing out Washington? If you believe home-field advantage is so important in Seattle, shouldn’t it carry at least some meaning in the San Francisco/Green Bay game that Packers came pretty close to winning that won on the Niners’ turf?


Each week I judge teams based on where I think they would rank if they were playing each other at a neutral field. I have very little respect for Washington right now. I don’t consider blowing out Washington much of an accomplishment. Their secondary stinks. So what has Green Bay accomplished so far? They lost a game to a really good team. They beat what could be a really bad team. I hardly think that for a team that still has major questions about its defense, which Green Bay certainly does, it’s outrageous to have them outside the top five or six teams. Plus, many other teams that have played well and proven something in the first two weeksSan Diego and Miami for instancemade big jumps in my eyes. I wouldn’t take it too seriously. If the Packers play great and straighten out their defense, they’ll be in the top five.

THANKS, MIKE.I wanted to follow up on my chance meeting with you this past Saturday while you were at the Army-Stanford game. I walked up to you while you were strolling along the reservoir in Black Knight Alley. I love your column. I am currently stationed at West Point, but during my previous assignment I deployed to Afghanistan multiple times. During football season, would spend late Monday nights reading your column. It at least helped me get through three to four months of the trip. Great Work!  Go Army

Mike, U.S. Army

Talk Back

Got a question for Peter? Send it to and it may be included in next Tuesday's mailbag.

I so appreciate you checking in with me and introducing yourself. You, and so many people like you, are the reason I have this great job. So I should thank you.

A.J. OVER JOHNNY. Despite the fact that I don’t regularly agree with your views, I do enjoy your column. What picked my noodle this weekend was your blatant disregard for the true MVP of the Alabama-Texas A&M game: ’Bama quarterback A.J. McCarron. I don’t get it. On one side you have  Johnny Football, a guy everyone hypes as the second coming. I saw him make bad throws and get rescued more often than not by his HUGE receivers, who were a clear mismatch for ‘Bama’s small corners. On the other side I saw a guy who tossed four TDs, drove the ball downfield when it counted, didn’t make mistakes and stayed calm in a pretty hostile environment. Not to mention that he actually won the game! But there’s no mention of A.J. McCarron in your column. Seriously Peter? Nothing?