The NFL game right now is truly fascinating. It’s evolving in so many interesting ways. Many traditional staples remain, but different concepts and tactics have taken hold. This has been particularly evident on the offensive side of the ball, where the infusion of what were once viewed solely (and negatively) as college schemes become more and more prevalent. There has been increasing integration between Saturday football and Sunday football, the most noticeable, of course, being the read option and the Pistol.
There’s more to it than that, however. It’s the mindset and mentality of offensive coaches in the NFL, many of whom have now come from the college ranks and have therefore coached offensive concepts utilized extensively in the NCAA. One thing that’s extremely important to remember, and will be the driving force behind the further assimilation of college and pro football is this: coaches coach what they know. That may seem simplistic, but it’s true.
Think of Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. He has coached a spread offense for a long time, and has been extremely successful with it. In his years at Oregon as both offensive coordinator and head coach, the Ducks were annually among the highest scoring offenses in college football. Kelly’s philosophy is not complex -- in fact, it features some of the same principles utilized by the Run-and-Shoot advocates from many years ago. The reason you spread the offense with 4 receivers (both 2x2 and 3x1 sets) is to spread the defense. That defines the number of defenders in the box for both the offensive line, and the quarterback. It’s a numbers game, as all football is. How many players will the defense align in the box? That number then determines how many safeties will be deployed deep. Will they play with two deep safeties, limiting the box count, or one deep safety, adding one to the box count? The concepts are basic.
In college, with the hashmarks so far apart, there is a clearly defined wide side of the field that must be defended. If you split three receivers to the wide side, and the defense plays with two deep safeties, then they can only have 5 defenders in the box. It’s simple math. If the defense aligns with one deep safety, they can add a sixth defender in the box. That leads to two possible results. One, since the offense is now outnumbered with 5 offensive linemen responsible for six defenders in the run game, it brings the quarterback into the equation. He has to read the extra defender, forcing that defender to account for him. That only works, however, if the quarterback is a viable running threat. If not, you’re simply outnumbered in the run game. The second factor is man-to-man coverage on the outside in the passing game. The single high safety cannot cover that much ground that quickly to make plays outside the hash marks. You’re forcing the secondary to defend the entire field, both horizontally and vertically, and ideally taking advantage of the one-on-one matchups.
It struck me watching Oregon’s offense that there are two critical elements to the success of Kelly’s offense, an offense whose foundation is the running game despite the spread formations: Manipulating and adding gaps by the use of personnel and formation, and the viability of the quarterback as a running threat. Those who believe otherwise do not understand the conceptual and schematic underpinnings of Kelly’s offense. It’s an option run game, with the quarterback as the initial decision maker. For those option concepts to be maximized, the quarterback must be a runner. He won’t have his quarterback run “power” 10 times a game, but any option offense requires a quarterback who can run.
That’s why the Eagles brought back Michael Vick, and signed Dennis Dixon. Both are viable running threats. Both have good arms. Many in Philadelphia may be rolling their eyes right now, but every coach has a vision of what he wants his offense, and by extension, his quarterback to look like. Vick and Dixon fit Kelly’s profile.
Sure, there are questions. Vick’s inconsistency as a passer, plus his inability to be available for a full season, always raises red flags. Dixon was Oregon’s quarterback in the coach’s first year as offensive coordinator in 2007, and was the ideal embodiment of a Kelly quarterback: a passer who can run. He was well on his way to serious Heisman Trophy consideration when his season ended with a knee injury in the tenth game. Dixon has only started three NFL games, none in the last two years, so he’s really an NFL unknown at this point.
But that misses the larger point -- Kelly wants his quarterback to be the precise combination of orchestrator and playmaker. It’s a tough combination to achieve in the NFL, no matter what offense you run. Steve Young talks about it all the time. You must, to be consistently successful, be an orchestrator first. It took Young years to intuitively understand that. The reason it’s so tough to accomplish is because of the passing element, and all the subtle details that go into it. Here’s an absolutely essential point, arguably the most important one, that often gets overlooked: you do not have to be a top level passer in college to be a dominant quarterback. That has yet to be the case in the NFL.
The question then is this: Can Kelly, with his running concepts and passing schemes, camouflage or even overcome passing deficiencies and limitations in his quarterback? I would have to see that to believe it, but I’ve learned over the years to be more open to new ideas than I was years ago. Perhaps the result of more integration of so-called college ideas into the NFL, especially on the offensive side, will be that lesser quarterbacks can execute efficiently, that scheme mechanics will produce a higher percentage of easier throws against defenses that have been compromised.
I think of the Washington Redskins this past season with Robert Griffin. He’s not a lesser quarterback, by the way, but that’s not the point. Mike Shanahan and his staff did such an outstanding job with both the Pistol and read option, and all the option elements that derive from them (Washington was the only team that utilized triple option concepts with any regularity) that Griffin had many easy throws (by NFL standards) to open receivers in the middle of the field. All the backfield action created large voids in the defense. It gave linebackers and safeties an awful lot to process in a very short period of time, and the result was often indecision and uncertainty. I’d watch tape of the Redskins offense, and sometimes linebackers did not move for two seconds after the ball was snapped trying to decipher all the movement in the backfield. Remember the overriding point: Griffin was a dangerous running threat, and defenses had to account for him with a mix of personnel and scheme.
Another element of Oregon’s offense that really stood out when I studied it was how well Kelly utilized spacing in his route combinations to the wide side of the field, especially to the 3 receiver side in 3x1 sets. That’s a critical difference between college and the NFL. The wide side of the field in college provides many more opportunities for combination routes that can break down the defensive coverage. Kelly was a master at defeating zone coverage, and dictating favorable one-on-one matchups versus man coverage. And of course, much of his pass game started with action in the backfield that impacted both linebackers and safeties, and created even more space in the secondary.
It will be interesting to see if Kelly can do the same in the NFL. When you break down Oregon’s offense from recent years, you notice a lot of receivers running wide open in the secondary. Those are easy throws for the quarterback. As I mentioned earlier, we saw some of that with the Redskins and Griffin. Will Kelly be able to do the same based on his schematic concepts in the backfield? It is one reason I believe strongly that he will consistently utilize backs LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown in the game at the same time in different and multiple formations. Kelly is a proactive and aggressive thinker. He will want five legitimate big play threats on the field at all times. He wants to make the defense react to his offense. He wants to widen the field, not squeeze it down. His goal is to increase the space to defend, not limit it.
Chip Kelly will be the next litmus test in the continuing integration of college football and the NFL. He’s the first head coach to come from a spread offense background, with dazzling success on his university resume. Will his offense find success on Sunday afternoons? As is the case with every NFL offense, no matter what the conceptual foundation, it begins with the quarterback. You can conceal and suppress a lesser talent or inconsistent play in college, you cannot in the NFL against a much higher level of competition week-in and week-out. My guess is Kelly already knows that.
The question then is this: how will Kelly compensate for erratic quarterback play? That will be one of the most fascinating questions of the 2013 season.