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Minnesota Football: On Tracy Claeys and Offensive Philosophy

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

GoAUpher: Some interesting thoughts here, with a dash of SartT's trademark edge. Would recommend!

I will attempt to make the following case:

  1. Variability was intentionally introduced to the Minnesota offense by the offensive coaching staff (henceforth LZK, which is short for Limegrover, Zebrowski, Kill) for reasons that are certainly defensible
  2. Claeys seeks to remove this variability for a different set of reasons that are also defensible
  3. It’s hard to predict with certainty if the offense will change in a way that will help us win more games, but it will make us happy and drive us crazy in ways specifically different from the existing offense

I will examine what we’ve liked and not liked about the offense of the last four years, and consider what offensive philosophies are likely to lead to such a set of circumstances. I will address specific quotes from various members of the coaching staff that might illuminate the situation, and look at different philosophies that might seem more in line with Claeys’ personality. I will shamelessly exploit "gut feelings" and similar bullshit. Finally, I will address what specific effects we might expect to see in the seasons to come.

What’s been good? What’s been bad?

When we think about the offense we saw at TCF over Kill’s tenure, as fans we seem to address it in very different frameworks. Many will talk about personnel, but I will not be doing any of that. What I really remember is game-by-game variability. If you prefer more negative language, you might call it maddening inconsistency. I don’t remember "the Minnesota offense". I remember "Haha remember when Philip Nelson bombed Purdue into the Stone Age", or "LOL CORN DEFENDING JET SWEEP", or "It’s Kent State, I guess we’re just going to poop a football and try again next week", or "What the fuck was that pass-first bowl offense?"

Some of these things were awesome; some of them made me tear my rapidly-thinning hair out. What’s the unifying theme? They were all tailored pretty specifically to the opponent. LZK saw a specific coverage defect in Purdue’s secondary and annihilated them. LZK saw that San Jose State was DC’d by Greg "Gerg" Robinson, and so we might expect their players to be badly coached on something option-y like a run-run zone read. LZK saw no reason to be fancy against Ohio, and so nothing fancy was deployed against Ohio. Far from incoherent, I think the problem is saying "we can categorize Minnesota’s offense as X" and actually meaning "almost to the point of exclusivity, Minnesota prefers to do X". LZK were passionate fans of identifying a specific flaw in an opponent’s defense and then basing that week’s playcalling around attacking that flaw.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that all of these shits and motions actually worked. I think an illuminating example of the downside of this approach was the 2013 Iowa game. I’ve mostly drunk the memories and feelings away, but as best I recall, we came out attempting to base the entire offense on Philip Nelson. In retrospect, this was a poor choice, because Nelson was unable to execute the called plays well enough to move the ball. Couldn’t hit a guy to save his life (and a lot of that could be on the WRs). I posit that one very reasonable interpretation is that Nelson and the WRs weren’t used to playing that way. You’re never going to look all that polished if you’re trying to do something for the first time, and by design, there is a lot of first-time execution in the LZK offense. Note that another phrase for "not all that polished" would be AAAUUUUURGH MADDENINGLY INCONSISTENT. This issue might also result in, say, an offense that can’t score on the first drive or two to save its fucking life. I’ve never seen one of those or anything, but it sounds like something that might make fans a bit stabby.

I argue that this mindset was probably a good one at NIU. Once the program was able to get going, the Huskies generally were either much more or much less talented than the opponents they faced. They probably needed to be offensively inventive to challenge a Big Ten team on the opponent’s home turf, but they could get a lot more base-play practice in against bad MAC teams. It seems plausible that this would result in an offense that looked less mistake-ridden than the one we’ve seen; Chandler Harnish never looked lost and confused, because he and his receivers were more able to stay on the same page from game to game. Note that this might also be a good philosophy at a mediocre-to-bad Big Ten school like 2012 Minnesota, where you simply don’t have the developed talent in a position to play strength-on-strength with the big boys.

The opposite mindset would be that of Chip Kelly, or Lloyd Carr, or Nick Saban. That list seems incongruous if you think of it in the run-vs-pass context, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about Processing the fuck out of somebody. Narrow your list of plays substantially (keeping, say, 75-80 percent of what we do) and just run that shit into the ground at practice. Get it to the point where you might not be all that inventive but you never, ever shoot yourself in the foot. One of the more illuminating things I read in a 2012 Grantland (RIP) article was that there is no traditional coaching done at an Oregon practice. Practice is for reps. Correcting mistakes is done in the film room. You have very, very limited practice time in college football, and you must maximize the usage of that time. To me, this sounds like the antithesis of the LZK high-variability offense, which requires hands-on teaching throughout the season. It also sounds like the sort of idea that might appeal to a self-proclaimed numbers wonk who wants a more analytical approach to his team.

I think this is the specific reason we have seen the departure of Limegrover and Zebrowski. Fundamentally, they see variability as a tool. Claeys sees it as a weakness. Both schools of thought are right.

So things will definitely be better?

Let’s not pretend that because Oregon does X means X is always right. The downside of this philosophy is that if you’re practicing something that sucks, you are going to suck at maximum suckitude rates. It means that if some link in the chain breaks down, you might be boned. I will go to my grave thinking a healthy 2015 Minnesota team (if you prefer, the 2014 version) would have torn Baylor or TCU to pieces in the wretched conditions those teams played in a few weeks ago. It’s raining buckets but we’re an offense predicated on finesse. Furk.

It also means that even if you're super duper awesome A+ 1000% elephants, if there’s another team that is constructed in such a way that it is particularly well-suited to defending your offense, you might be in deep shit. I’ll just insert this here, because I think the point needs no further comment.

Minnesota’s offense under LZK frequently wasn’t good enough to win the game against a better team. However, absent an apocalyptic depth chart (I was in Evanston this year, you don’t have to remind me about it), they never looked so completely hopeless that there wasn’t even a plan. They often punched above weight against a team that most would say was superior — in particular, I am thinking of the Ohio State games of the last few years, or against Michigan this year, or against Nebraska in 2013. The same offensive mindset (variability is okay, attack the weak point) brought us one win and nearly another at the cost of, perhaps, an Illinois loss in 2014, or a Syracuse bowl loss in 2013, or aneurysms against Kent State.

Prognostications

So, will this be good? Will we win more games this way? In 2016, will we have the talent to out-execute most teams? I dunno. I will, however, make some predictions.

  • I predict that Minnesota will look much more consistent. We will not have any games where we pack it in against Kent State and just run into a wall of beef in hopes of a 10-7 win. We will not zone read SJSU to death. We will not do either of those things because Leidner or whoever needs to be practicing the same pitch-and-catch with his receivers that he’ll need to execute against Iowa or Northwestern.
  • Leidner will look really, really good, and it will surprise everyone. it shouldn’t, because once he gets going he can string together several games of high-level play, and this is exactly what we should have expected from LZK’s offensive mindset.
  • We will probably do more early scoring, because the offense will not be trying something new very often. Note that "scoring on more first drives" doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as "better".
  • We will probably see more games where the offense just looks completely hopeless against the defense, because they have been able to figure out what’s coming and we have no clever counter-punch. I hope it’s a very few more, but it’ll happen. We’re not going to out-talent the entire conference.
  • We will occasionally shriek at the offense, "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU EVEN DOING!?" as they attempt to out-bland the other guy. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it will not.

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