To huddle, or not to huddle? That is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler on the field to call
For slings and screens with outrageous frequency
Or to gather round to discuss a play
August 19, 2013
And by talking, bleed the clock to death....
AL BORGES asked himself that question this year. Every off-season the Michigan offensive coordinator studies the most productive college and professional offenses in order to glean ideas that might improve his own unit's production. Over the past few years he has studied a number of up-tempo, no-huddle offenses. Every time Borges pulls up the NCAA total offense stats, there they are near the top: Clemson, Oklahoma State, Oregon—teams with offenses that never stop moving. Each of those teams averaged more than 512 yards per game last season.
Every year more teams see the flash of light and attempt to speed up. In 2008 the FBS average was 67.7 offensive plays a game. In '12 the average jumped to 71.5. This preseason Texas coach Mack Brown has ordered offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to push the accelerator on the Longhorns' offense. Kentucky will move at light speed in '13 if first-year coordinator Neal Brown gets his wish. Auburn, after a disastrous switch to a pro-style offense in '12, hired former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn as head coach. Now that he's in charge, Malzahn intends to make the Tigers move even faster than they did when he ran the offense from '09 through '11, with a high of 70.3 plays per game his first year.
Despite the gaudy numbers put up by offenses that eschew between-play meetings for on-the-fly play-calling, Borges has adopted a more contrarian stance. After two seasons spent tweaking his preferred offense to suit the multiple skills of quarterback Denard Robinson, who was recruited to run Rich Rodriguez's hurry-up spread option, Borges will pull the Wolverines back toward the 1990s. With Robinson in the NFL and Devin Gardner running the offense, Borges's team will move at a methodical pace with runs from the "home position"—behind or slightly offset from the quarterback—setting up play-action passes. "That may seem a little old school and maybe even boring to some fans," Borges says, "but [those offenses] still win. I think Alabama has proven that."
MEANWHILE, IN Stillwater, Okla., Mike Gundy wants an already blurry offense to add another gear. Gundy's Oklahoma State offense has increased its offensive plays per game every year for the past four seasons. In 2009 the Cowboys averaged 68.5 plays and gained 5.4 yards a snap. Then Gundy hired Dana Holgorsen to run the offense in '10, and he fired up the afterburners. In '12, under coordinator Todd Monken, Oklahoma State averaged 78 plays and seven yards a snap. Like Holgorsen (West Virginia), Monken has moved on to a head-coaching job (Southern Mississippi). So last February, Gundy hired coordinator Mike Yurcich from Division II Shippensburg, whose teams set school records for points and total plays and in 2012 led D-II in scoring (46.9 points per game). Yurcich's job is to make the Cowboys go even faster.
Gundy has done this for two reasons. One is schematic. "We think we can stretch a defense," Gundy says. The other reason is more practical. In a section of the country where hurry-up spread schemes reign at the high school level, Gundy believes the best players want to play in an exciting offense that requires a multitude of playmakers. "We feel that young men who are in high school who have an opportunity to touch the football, have an opportunity to be part of an offense, want to play in that style," Gundy says. "They look forward to it. We thought years ago, when we made a change, that there was a benefit in recruiting in this part of the country."
So who is correct—the coach who aspires to be boring or the one who thinks his breakneck offense will win games and excite recruits? Gundy, using the hurry-up style, won the Big 12 and came within a missed field goal of playing for the national title in 2011. Oregon reached the BCS title game in '10. On the flip side Florida won national titles in '06 and '08 by milking the play clock as Borges hopes to do in Ann Arbor. The '08 Gators should have been called the Tortoises; they averaged 62.4 plays, 5.3 below the national average. Meanwhile, Alabama has won three of the past four BCS titles by huddling most of the time and averaging 64 to 68 plays. Of course, the Gators and the Crimson Tide owe much of the credit for those titles to suffocating defenses.
AS COACH HAMLET would say, there's the rub.
"There is a residual effect to all that," Borges says of the up-tempo offense. Everything a team's offense does affects its defense and its special teams. Unlike basketball, in which the five players on offense also play defense, a football coach can make a choice on offense that helps or hinders an entirely different group. In general, the faster a team's offense moves, the more plays its defense must face. Those defenders eventually fatigue and allow more yards and points. In a more specific sense, Borges worries that if he tried to run 80 plays a game, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison might walk down the hallway and strangle him.
Using the numbers that have populated football box scores for nearly a century, defenses that inhabit the same locker rooms as today's light-speed offenses, it would appear, are abject failures. The defenses attached to the top 10 teams in total offense in 2012 allowed an average of 447.4 yards a game. That's terrible, isn't it? When Marshall went nuclear last year, catapulting from 65.6 plays a game to 90.6 plays, its total defense ranking plunged from No. 78 in '11 to No. 119 (of 120) in '12.
So why would any coach want to go faster on offense? Because when the offense goes into hyperdrive, it renders the old numbers fairly meaningless. Yes, Gundy's Cowboys allowed 421.7 yards a game last year, but they also finished seventh in the nation in plays faced per game (79.5) because their offense and most of the offenses they played elected to go up-tempo. In all, Oklahoma State gave up 5.3 yards per play, which ranked 42nd nationally. That means we need to throw out the old numbers when looking at no-huddle teams and use different metrics.
Bill Connelly has developed just such a statistic. Connelly, author of Study Hall: College Football and Its Numbers, used to crunch data for the state of Missouri's school system. Six years ago he started a Missouri football blog. Connelly wanted to find advanced, Bill James--style stats to help him interpret the on-field performance of the Tigers, but he found few available. "I loved baseball stats," Connelly says. "They just made a lot of sense to me. But I didn't love baseball."
So Connelly began developing his own football stats. It's difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison of college football teams because offensive schemes vary so widely. Texas Tech (Air Raid) and Navy (triple option) play the same sport in the way that a Chihuahua and a Saint Bernard are members of Canis familiarias. If not for the spectrum of breeds between them, they'd have no obvious link. In 2007, Connelly hit upon a formula that helped provide more accurate comparisons of teams running disparate schemes. He calls it S&P+, and it measures the success of each play after adjusting for differences in tempo. (Connelly borrowed the tempo-adjustment idea from college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy, whose advancements in pace-adjusted data make it possible to compare Louisville's run-and-gun squads to Wisconsin's grind-it-out teams.) In S&P+, teams are measured by the following criteria.
SUCCESS RATE Success is defined as gaining 50% of the necessary yardage on first down (i.e., five yards on first-and-10), 70% on second down and 100% on third or fourth down. To measure defensive success, use the inverse. Did the defense stop the offense from gaining the necessary percentage of required yardage?
EQPTS PER PLAY (PPP) Every yard line is assigned a point value based on the expected number of points scored by an offense playing from that spot. (The closer to the end zone, the higher the value.)
DRIVE EFFICIENCY Last February, Connelly added a component that measures how successful teams are based on the field position they create.
OPPONENT ADJUSTMENTS Because no one wants that Week 2 matchup with Savannah State to skew the data.
Using this more advanced data and the S&P+ formula, that same Oklahoma State defense that finished ranked 80th in total defense last year now ranks No. 12. Oregon's defense, which ranked 44th in yards allowed because opponents got so many possessions following Ducks touchdowns, moves up to No. 2. Oregon's defense is especially interesting because coordinator Nick Aliotti has created a system that seems to go hand in hand with the up-tempo offense designed by Chip Kelly and inherited by new coach Mark Helfrich.
While most defensive coordinators generally play the same cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers and rotate only defensive linemen and the occasional extra defensive back, Aliotti rotates everyone. He has compared his substitution patterns with hockey line changes. With more than 20 players logging snaps, fatigue is less of a factor. Aliotti's scheme also helps the Ducks pile on points. His defense takes risks by sending heavy pressure in an attempt to force the opposing quarterback to throw interceptions.
For those who don't trust proprietary formulas, there is a quick-and-dirty statistical analysis that identifies efficient teams almost as well as S&P+. Subtract a team's average yards per play allowed from the average yards per play gained. For example, national champion Alabama's offense gained 2.77 more yards on each play than its defense allowed (6.95 gained--4.18 allowed=2.77). At the other end of the spectrum, Pac-12 doormat Colorado fielded a defense that allowed 2.73 more yards per play than its offense gained.
SI went back over the last five years' worth of data to cross-reference these efficiency numbers with the average number of plays run by each team. (Teams that won fewer than six games in a season were eliminated; an awful offense can skew the data because no matter how fast it wants to go, it must give the ball away after three plays if it doesn't gain 10 yards.) For teams that won at least six games between 2008 and '12, the ones that averaged more than 75 plays had a median per-play differential of +.64 yards. Teams that won at least six games and averaged fewer than 75 plays a game during that period had a median per-play differential of +.66 yards. The slower offenses, which allowed their defenses to stay off the field longer, did slightly better. Score one for Borges and boring.
USING POINT differential offers a different result. The 75-plus-play teams had a median point differential of +9.9, while the slower teams had a median point differential of +6.5. Since the goal of the game is to produce more points than the other team, that's a 3.4-point advantage for guys such as Gundy and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, whose Tigers ran a whopping 100 plays in their Chick-fil-a Bowl win against LSU last season.
Morris believes in the no-huddle because its flexibility at the line of scrimmage gives coaches and quarterbacks a larger margin for error. "As a play-caller, back in the huddle days, you always tried to get in the perfect play," Morris says. "It was all predicated on how the defense lined up. Now we don't care how the defense lines up. We've got answers. That's the key." Morris doesn't need the perfect play now. He needs only for a linebacker to set up out of position or a safety to be so tired that he misses the coverage call. As long as quarterback Tajh Boyd can recognize those defensive deficiencies, the Tigers will be successful. This is especially true as the defense fatigues. "We can get anybody to play a quarter or a half of football against us," Morris says. "But what do you do in the third and fourth quarters? That's the staple to the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. The third and fourth quarters."
There are no stats to check Morris's claim, but a huddle coach would argue that such a pace would wear down Clemson's defense as well—especially if the Tigers' offense can't connect on consecutive drives. "That's the nightmare of a team that wants to go fast," Georgia coach Mark Richt says. "You go three and out twice and the other team grinds it out for five minutes apiece, you're in trouble." Richt, whose team opens at Clemson, essentially described the way rival South Carolina beat the Tigers the past two seasons. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier scrapped his pass-happy Fun 'n' Gun for a read-option-heavy, clock-control offense that has allowed the Gamecocks to go 22--4 the past two seasons. In its wins against Clemson in 2011 and '12, South Carolina's offense held the ball for 77 minutes, 15 seconds, including 23:19 of the second half of last season's 27--17 win. So how could South Carolina stop such a powerful offense? Simple. The Gamecocks' defense didn't need the perfect play call, either. It had Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney, the 6'6", 274-pound defensive end who is the favorite to be the first selection in the 2014 NFL draft, is such a disruptive force that he alters almost every play. Add some excellent defensive teammates, and the Gamecocks don't need to make massive strategic adjustments between plays. They could play an offense such as Clemson's straight up because, at least in the past two seasons, their players were better than Clemson's players.
That may sound like an argument against a hurry-up offense, but it actually could work in favor of the hurry-up for teams capable of recruiting elite athletes at nearly every position. Texas coach Brown remembers a conversation with his then defensive coordinator Will Muschamp during his team's 2008 matchup against Oklahoma, which averaged 79 plays that season. Muschamp would signal a play, and his players would consult their wristbands for their assignment. "The ball was being snapped, and they're running 20 yards, and we're still looking at the wristbands," Brown says. "Will and I decided let's throw out all the calls, play base defense and let's play." After falling behind 21--10, the Longhorns rallied for a 45--35 win. In the end Texas leveraged its superior athletes on both sides of the ball. A team in that position increases its advantage by moving faster on offense because it can stop other fast-moving offenses by playing base defense with athletically superior defenders.
This is why Texas A&M's success in 2012 should worry Alabama's Nick Saban. Saban's defense is designed to stop grinding offenses such as LSU's, but the Crimson Tide's 240-pound inside linebackers and 315-pound nosetackles aren't designed to chase a mobile quarterback who may be on the field for 80 plays. Against most hurry-up teams that wouldn't be an issue because Alabama's superior offense would steamroll the opponent's inferior defense, and the Tide's defense would make enough stops to ensure an Alabama win. But Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin also has access to elite defensive talent. If Sumlin recruits well enough, he'll have a defense that can play toe-to-toe with the Tide. The Aggies won't pitch any shutouts, but they'll make enough stops to allow their turbo-speed offense to pile up the points they need to win. That's exactly what happened last year when Texas A&M shocked Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Although 'Bama has tinkered with a hurry-up at times, Saban, no surprise, is not a fan. He and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema have even argued that hurry-up offenses represent a safety hazard because more plays create more potential hits and more fatigue and therefore more injuries.
IN THE END, varying tempo may be the best method. For all the praise former Oregon coach Kelly got for training his team to go fast with a holistic approach that turned practices into track meets, Kelly rarely kept the throttle open for an entire game. He'd lull a defense to sleep by milking the play clock for part of a series, then run the same play three or four times in rapid succession. "The kind of no-huddle that bothers me," TCU coach Gary Patterson says, "is the one that doesn't do it every snap." That's why West Virginia's Holgorsen, a Mike Leach and Hal Mumme disciple, had his quarterbacks convene a huddle after most plays during spring practice. "You've got to be able to do both. You've got to be able to mix it up. I've always been a big proponent of changing tempos," Holgorsen says. "If you're just fastball, hurry-up offense every single time, that's easy on defenses. If you have the ability to change your tempo, that's what drives defenses crazy."
Michigan's Borges can handle the occasional change in tempo, but his research hasn't convinced him he needs to floor it on an every-play basis. "If you're willing to redefine good defense and say that good defense is giving up 400 yards a game, then go for it," Borges says. "Because some teams are winning in an up-tempo offense, and it's a darn good way to go about it. I don't have issues with it. I have issues with it here." TCU's Patterson, who still calls his team's defense, has used a no-huddle scheme mixed with a more traditional one in recent years. He will speed up or slow down his offense as he sees fit, but he sees no need to declare a preference. "It's still about finding a way to score one more point.... The thing that people need to realize is that you've got to find some way to do something no one else knows how to do," Patterson says. "Or if they do know, you're just doing it better."
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