Joe-Pinions: Sports

12 Jan 2011 – Random Thoughts: NFL vs. NCAA Football

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 12/01/2011

Partly because of the urging of my girlfriend – she comes from the South, after all, where football commands a quasi-religious devotion (particularly college football) – I watched Monday night’s BCS Championship game between the SEC‘s Auburn Tigers and the Oregon Ducks from the Pac-10 (which will be the Pac-12 next year).

I’ve told her in the past that I generally don’t enjoy watching the college flavor of football.  I guess I’ve been conditioned to love the NFL version a lot more.  I think the reason why this is so is the years of admiring, absorbing, and studying the Bill Walsh way of doing things; his West Coast offense has been so successful, many of its own constituent parts have been adopted by much of the NFL (though it’s very rare to see a team embrace Walsh’s system wholesale and in its entirety these days).

In contrast, the Walsh offense is relatively rare in the NCAA.

Instead, there is a great variety of offensive philosophies and systems in college football.  They are known by many esoteric names:  Run and shoot; the option, in its myriad forms (including the currently popular “spread option”); the spread (including specialized types like the “Air Raid” run by ex-Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach); and the generic and vague catch-all descriptor “pro style” offense.  These different types of football offenses are as much defined by the predominant modes of attack they employ  (passing-biased, as in the case of the run-and-shoot, or run-biased, as with the option) as the formations (or, positional deployment of skill position players on the offfensive side of the ball) these offenses typically use.

Take the spread offense as an example.  As the name suggests, the offense’s skill position players are spread out across the width of the field parallel to the line of scrimmage, which typically provokes a similar response from the defense (i.e., the defense has to deploy its players across the width of the field as well in order to ensure the offense’s skill position players are covered with adequate leverage, or position relative to an offensive player).  With its skill position players spread out horizontally, the offense has now therefore dictated terms to the defense by forcing it to declare at least some of its intentions; through the various defenders’ alignments the quarterback can usually determine the general type of coverage (man-to-man, zone, or combo), as well as whether or not any dogs/blitzes ought to be accounted for.  Knowing (or at least having a very good idea) what your opponent wants to do is a huge advantage in football, and the spread offense is designed to reveal clues of the defense’s intentions prior to the snap of the football.

Contrast the spread offense with an old-school style of offense, the triple option.  Typically, teams that run the triple option as its primary mode of attack like to have “tight” formations; where the spread offense spreads its players horizontally across the field, the triple option tends to compress its formations.  The ends of their formations line up close to the offensive tackles, usually with tight splits (i.e., distances between players on the line of scrimmage); the backs are also usually arrayed close to each other, often stacked atop one another (i.e., lining up one behind the other, perpendicular to the line of scrimmage).  Compressed formations give the offense several options, depending on how the defense deploys its players, without ever betraying its intentions:  The quarterback can hand off to one of the backs whose sole action during the typical triple option play is to dive into the line of scrimmage (advantageous if the defense has a weak interior to its defensive line and linebacker corps); he can choose to run with the ball towards either side (the side is usually pre-determined by the play call, or it may be a line of scrimmage adjustment depending on the defense’s alignment and leverage), trying to sweep around his offensive line and up the field; or he can run with the ball towards one side, then pitch the ball to another back who runs a few yards from him once the defense commits to stopping him, therefore giving the other back plenty of free space to run.  The triple option obviously can attack you in one of four ways (remember that there is always the option to pass), but the defense never knows beforehand which option the offense will use.  Where spread offenses are designed to decrease the defense’s capability to be deceptive, deception is the triple option’s most profound basic principle.

Despite the variety of offensive styles in college football, none of them capture my imagination.  As I said earlier, one of the reasons why I think this is so is the proliferation of the use of not just components of Walsh’s West Coast offense throughout the professional ranks, but evolutions of the original system itself.  Several teams run systems derived largely from Walsh’s (Mike Shanahan‘s in Washington, D.C.; Andy Reid‘s in Philadelphia; Pete Carroll‘s in Seattle; Mike McCarthy‘s in Green Bay; Gary Kubiak‘s in Houston.).

I’ve acquired a very strong bias for certain elements of Walsh’s offense.  I love a timing-based passing attack; I love precisely-run pass routes; I love the multiplicity and variety in formations and personnel groupings; I love the various quarterback drops from under center — 3-step, 5-step, 7-step, with/without hitch steps, roll-outs, sprint-outs, waggles, bootlegs — and almost despise shotgun alignments (Walsh used the shotgun – ironically a 49ers invention, by 1960s head coach Red Hickey – exactly ONCE in his entire career in the Bay Area, combining his stay in San Francisco and his two tenures at Stanford); I love the quarterbacks’ high completion percentage in a well-run Walsh offense; I even love the terminology and language of the system (it’s just so much fun to say “Red Left Slot Open, 322 Scat Denver“, “Blue Right, 22 Texas“, or “Double Wing Right, F Short, 2 Jet Flanker Drive“).

I just love the West Coast offense, and in college it’s relatively rare to find schools that run some form of it.  I can think of only two schools off the top of my head that still run it today:  The University of Washington Huskies – coached by Steve Sarkisian – and the Lane Kiffin-led University of Southern California Trojans.  UCLA under Tom Donahue and Karl Dorrell tried to run the WCO in the past with mixed results, and BYU under Norm Chow and LaVell Edwards won a national championship running the WCO in the mid-1980s.


I honestly didn’t intend this to be an ode to the WCO.

It was supposed to be a semi-serious attempt to examine why I don’t like college football nearly as much as professional football.  Instead, I got sucked into revealing some of my feelings about the WCO (perhaps the way the linebackers get sucked into following a halfback’s track, leaving a void in the middle of the field when a play like “Green Right, Pass 92 Iso, X-Y Double In, Z Post” works like a charm).

But yeah, college football just isn’t my cup of tea.  For one thing, has too much shotgun for my personal taste.  The current favorite trendy offense, the spread option, is a hybrid of styles, the love child of the spread offense and the option, with some run-and-shoot DNA mixed in for variety (and vertical stretch explosiveness).  It is run predominantly with the QB in the shotgun position.  You just don’t see enough quarterbacks dropping back from under center; you don’t see the variety in launching points that the various dropback types create.  You don’t have a clock to the passing play like you do with a dropback-based passing attack (the QB’s steps, in effect, functions as the clock on which the entire play’s timing is based).  To me, shotgun is just too boring.  The QB catches the flying snap, watches the O-line set up the pocket, sidesteps away from the pass rush, and then waits for his guy to get open.  And I can’t quite see the quality of the receivers’ route running skills either.  I get the sense that, in college, it’s strictly a battle of athleticism between the receivers and the defenders; the receiver gets open primarily through superior speed and agility, and not as much from positioning per the play’s design.

I’m just rambling now.  But yeah, the 2011 National Championship game between Auburn and Oregon featured two teams that run similar offenses (forms of the spread option), but “interpreted” slightly differently due to the relative quality of their personnel.  In the end, Cam Newton’s Auburn Tigers won because they executed their version of the spread option better.  Newton did a better job than Oregon’s Darron Thomas in choosing which option (dive, run, pitch) was best on running plays, and throwing from shotgun.

I think I only saw one solitary snap from under center the entire game that I can remember (Darron Thomas took the snap under center with Oregon backed up deep in its own end zone, and running back LaMichael James was tackled in the end zone for a safety in the second quarter).

It wasn’t a good game for me to watch.

But that’s just me talking.

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