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Football Concepts, Schemes, Formations: TDG Football Seminar Week 9

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Let's talk about a functional offense for a bit

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to TDG Football Seminar. We're now in Week 9. This week we look at the evolution of Baylor's offense. Your host apologizes for the late arrival of this week's seminar. With how fun it's been around here discussing bad offense, I didn't want to break the mood.

Our subject this week was one of the doormats of college football before the arrival of a new head coach. That new head coach had won at each of his previous stops, which included multiple state championships at the high school level. He speaks with a country accent, though one honed in Texas instead of Kansas. Art Briles and Jerry Kill share many similarities. As a Gophers fan, I hope that doesn't extend to Baylor's recent coaching decisions related to off the field issues. But when it comes to offense, I wish Minnesota looked a lot like Baylor.

The Baylor of today has speed to burn and an almost video game like plug and play success with new players at skill positions. This was not the case a decade ago. That version of the Bears was hot garbage. As a Minnesota fan, one excuse that must die is that the program was so much worse a decade ago. Minnesota was not the Baylor Bears.

Filling a full seminar on the Baylor offense would itself be multiple posts, so I will focus on two facets of the offense. First, Baylor's multiplicity on each play as it relates to their scheme. Second, how Briles and company rethought the geometry of the football.

Simplicity Through Multiplicity

A brief tangent about an old video game. Back when it was not a walking intellectual property violation, NCAA 13 had RG3 on the cover. In that game, there are no packaged plays per se. What a player can do is run a very simple playbook and go no-huddle. On Heisman difficulty, all one needs are the following plays out of 10 personnel: Y Shallow Cross, Z Shallow Cross, Y Corner, Four Verticals, Y Stick, and a running play of choice. If there are five or fewer defenders in the box, run the running play. If the safeties are playing up, run Four Verticals. If the safeties are back in coverage, pick an intermediate route and read the middle linebacker or the boundary corner and throw to whichever player is open.

I bring that up because Baylor runs a video game offense in real life.

Like Apple, good offense requires a defense to think different. In the case of Baylor, good offense requires a defense to think different and be in two places at once. The Bears use packaged concepts to make the defense wrong every time. When the Gophers line up in a formation, it is rare that they plan to run more than one kind of play. The most misdirection Minnesota gets is some type of option hand off. In contrast, Baylor packages as many different plays together as possible. Here's an example at the 27 second mark.

That's an inside zone play with a quick screen to the top and a inside post to the bottom. Out of one look, Baylor ran three plays at once. Bryce Petty made the decision to throw to the post based on a read, usually a safety. If the safety had made a different decision and stayed in coverage, Petty would have given the ball to the running back. If the corners had been playing off coverage, Petty would have slung the ball to the screen.

Tempo plays a large role in Baylor's success. The Bears are up-tempo to a fault. Art Briles wants fans who leave the game to ask "what did I miss?" The tempo forces defenses to play in their base packages because they do not have time to get into a complex defense. By using packaged concepts, Baylor can keep their teaching simple. The wide receivers do not need to learn a complex route tree. They just have to get open and catch the ball. Lineman do not need complicated blocking patterns. They just have to hit someone for the length of time a Quarterback needs to throw the ball or a running back needs to get past them.

Extreme Football Geometry

Let's talk about math. Football is played on a rectangle. Defenses have a basic choice in coverage. Do I play man or zone? Sure, it's possible for a team to combine them. Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs come to mind. But by and large teams play one or the other. For example, the Gophers play Quarters coverage.

In a traditional offense formation, the wide receivers line up reasonably close to, or on the hash marks. This is a traditional split. Baylor decides to position their wide receivers as far to the sideline as allowed by rule.

The wide splits have a few benefits. First, they dictate to the defense to show their coverage. It's hard to disguise man coverage when a defender's responsibility is so far to the sideline. It's more difficult when Baylor will snap the ball and throw to him on a quick screen for easy yards. Second, the wide splits alter defensive angles. Recall the basic rules of geometry. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Baylor's splits alter the distance of that line. Defenses now have to defend the entirety of the width of the field. Combine that with Baylor's mentality of "score every play." On any down, Baylor will chuck it long. Defenses must account for this possibility.

I've spent a lot of time on the pass game, but the run game is more impressive. Because the defense is so stretched out, Baylor can get a hat on hat from the line. Baylor is a spread team, but the Bears are more than happy to run the ball every single play. Almost always this is a inside zone or power run with basic blocks.

How does a defense stop this offense? The short answer is they don't. The long answer is the following video of the Michigan State-Baylor bowl game last year.

Conclusion

Baylor's success is not the only way to good offense, but it does speak to the advantage of a holistic philosophy of offense. That philosophy could look like Wisconsin, a team that will line up and run power 50 times a game. It could look like Mike Leach at Texas Tech, a team that forgot it recruited a running back. It might even look like Georgia Tech or a service academy. The philosophy does not have to be complicated. At West Virginia, Dana Holgerson takes only three days to install his entire offense.

What makes a holistic philosophy so important? Structure and repetition under constraint. In college with limited practice time, too many plays without structure hinders learning. This is not limited to football. Work on adolescent reading has shown that teaching text structure, the overall organization of the text, instead of text features like headings and sub-headings improves outcomes. Students understand the material better and retain more of it after reading.

In football, the offensive philosophy is the structure, and the features are the plays. Baylor teaches its structure first. Art Briles has spoken about the power of the mind on several occasions. Once a Baylor player knows the structure, filling in the plays are easy. With limited practice time, this approach has led to record setting offenses. For teams with less than stellar outcomes, a reevaluation of teaching methods may be prudent.

Readings for Next Week

We are finished with the chapters of interest in the Art of Smart Football. Next week, we will be talking about offensive line play. There are no assigned readings.