FanPost

Jim Chaney, Norm Chow, the Spread, and You: What the Heck Does This Offense Look Like, Anyway?

So we're in Year 2 of the Jim Chaney era.  Given all the upheaval around the team, this can only be considered a Good Thing.  However, retaining the offensive coordinator across coaching upheavals doesn't necessarily mean that the offensive scheme will be maintained  Sure, the basics of coaching will stay the same - how do you handle fundamentals, you run a stick route like this, and so on.  When your boss breaks the land-speed record for playcalling cliches, what the heck else are you going to do?  So we might do a little bit of everything, but only if it works, but we have this other guy who might be useful and brings some stuff to the table so I guess let's get him involved too and wait, what about this other guy? 

Now, that's not good enough for me.  I prefer to deal in knowns, and to that I have to take a trip down memory lane.  So what do we know about Chaney, exactly?  Well, we know he came from Purdue where he worked under Joe Tiller, spent some time as an OL coach under Scott Linehan in St. Louis before coming back to college under Kiffin.  Take these in order, and let's do some homework to figure out what the heck we'll do this year.

The Purdue Years: You Like Passing?  We Like Passing.

Joe Tiller was one of the modern forefathers of the spread passing game (in many ways descended from the functionally-deceased run-and-shoot game, although not entirely so - but that's an entirely different discussion).  The offense at the time was largely unseen - relying predominantly on three-wide, four-wide, and five-wide sets with three-step drops from shotgun.  The focus was primarily on the short passing game - which is still pretty frequent these days. We've seen the basics of this for years and they're not super-complex.  Basically, it turns into a math problem - get two guys in a position against one defender and you should be able to complete a pass to one of them.  With three step drops, typically you can end up in an effective 2v1 or 1v0 situation, since the defender may not have time to react to the specific route - provided they're run with enough variation and you don't have a corner convinced he's going to, say, jump a curl route.

Chaney was Tiller's right-hand man in all of this, guiding a series of Purdue teams to bowl games in every year he was an offensive coordinator - most notably the 2000 Rose Bowl.  For a program that historically hasn't been much above .500  - and hadn't won anything of note since 1967 - that was a big deal.  The impact of his offense can't be understated; at the time, he was one of the innovators in the game.  With the level of sustained success, there was no reason that he shouldn't be able to perform in the NFL.

*Aside: For all the talk of Airraid and how crazy everyone went over Mike Leach, he ran the tarnation out of mesh routes (which are typically short) and screens.  It worked because there was nearly always someone open in the 3-10 yard range, and you'd just roll the ball down the field, force the defense to stick seven guys in coverage, and then run the ball a few times with a screen or two mixed in there.  That doesn't scream "deep threat", does it?  (As an aside, the pinball offense at Houston uses deeper stem routes as its base instead of the typical short-passing game that defines most spread teams.  That's why they're a blast to watch, but protection is key there since you need time to allow players to get deep.  I think they use five-step and seven-step drops for this, but I'm not sure)

Scott Linehan, or The NFL-style Offense Makes No Sense to Me

I'll admit; I don't get why nearly NFL offense looks the same.  As a result, I can't read a whole lot into any offensive evolution Chaney underwent, and to a large extent, that's actually not a huge deal.  Part of the reason NFL head coaches can struggle when they come back to college is an inability to un-simplify.  For Chaney, this wasn't a huge deal - as an offensive line coach for multiple seasons, you learn to get very good at communicating blocking schemes and styles to a changing group of players very quickly.

If Chaney was going to learn zone blocking techniques anywhere, he was going to learn them here.  I wasn't able to trace out roots to, say, Mike Shanahan, but the tendency of the NFL to homogenize itself pretty quickly would lend to think that Chaney refined zone blocking here.  (Purdue did use zone blocking in its running game, although I can't seem to get video of that.)

Kiffin and Chow: Simplify

What have you done for me lately?  Lane Kiffin pretty much blatantly installed his offense (yeah, I know, save your shock) - of course, he spent his formative years learning at the knee of Norm Chow, which ain't bad as far as these things go.  As it was, what Kiffin brought wasn't necessarily foreign to Chaney, either.  Three-wide and four-wide sets?  Check.  Zone blocking?  Check.  Short passing game?  Check.  The biggest difference was one of personnel; Purdue didn't run with a lot of tight ends / fullbacks in tow, but Chaney was exposed to that in the NFL.

Now What?

Well, we know what we saw last year.  I don't think I'd expect much different, as the things that our offense did well last year should be the things our offense does well this year.  Tauren Poole (and if he falls, David Oku) should be able to function as the primary RB, and they should be successful if the offensive line does its job (and they don't wander too far away from the one-cut running style a zone running game needs; line dancers can go to Cotton Eyed Joe's for all I care).  I'd expect a steady diet of inside zone, outside zone, and power.  I don't see much of a need to run reverses, counter-treys, or the like with this personnel grouping, and if that's going to happen we certainly won't see it this week, and we'll be sick of seeing it by Week 3.

One other thing that we won't know about: option routes.  In a nutshell, option routes are a WR choice designed to take advantage of the coverage ("I take five steps straight up the field, check the safety.  If he's in spot X, I run route A; if he's in spot Y, I run route B").  They originated from the old run-and-shoot days but we were co-opted by Tiller during the Purdue years.  Chaney used them; Kiffin generally didn't.  As much as I would love to say we're going to heavily use option routes, receivers can't clone themselves in the middle of a play to show where else they could be, but I'd expect to see some of these mixed in as the season goes on. There's no reason not to do it if Simms and, say, Denarius Moore can handle it.  It fits the system well.

For the passing game, I expect the shotgun game to ramp up a bit from where we were at last year.  Right now, we lend very well to 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB sets - which work from shotgun and from under center.  Going to shotgun will allow Matt Simms little more time (which is a big deal) and it won't really sacrifice the route tree, as the typical short and intermediate passes are still viable, and that additional quarter to half-second is all that's needed to spring a guy deep.  Score!

But it breaks down; going to shotgun when you don't have a legitimate shotgun-running solution will hurt the passing game.  Any kind of option game is basically toast, Simms isn't fast enough to be a credible threat on a zone read, and we don't use motion for WR carries except as a gimmick.  This makes things difficult; sure, you can only use shotgun for passing plays and only use under-center for running plays, but unless you're playing, say, UT-Martin, you're not going to be able to use your talent base to counter the obvious giveaway in your playcalling.

*taps on shoulder*

Oh.

Ummmm.  Hang on.

But it breaks down; going to shotgun when you don't have a legitimate shotgun-running solution will hurt the passing game.  Any kind of option game is basically toast, Simms isn't fast enough to be a credible threat on a zone read, and we don't use motion for WR carries except as a gimmick.  This makes things difficult; sure, you can only use shotgun for passing plays and only use under-center for running plays, but unless you're playing, say, UT-Martin Miami (Ohio), you're not going to be able to use your talent base to counter the obvious giveaway in your playcalling.

Better?  Good.

There are a couple solutions here: one is to use a dropback passing game (Chow's solution), one is to develop a shotgun running game (Meyer, Rich Rodriguez, Chip Kelly, and others), and one is to just go full-hog with the spread (Tiller's option).  Of the three, I'd expect Chow's solution to hold for us, especially early.in the season.  I'm thinking this if for no other reason than we haven't heard otherwise; Dooley runs a tight ship but you know someone would've dropped a line somewhere about how they were psyched to be running "the spread".  Hence, Chow it is - for now, and get used to the short passing game.  What's that mean?  It means stick, curl, corner, and a host of other stuff you could call West Coast offense but really isn't once you get into the details.

The problem with this is the same problem we ran into last season - teams stacking 8-9 up close to deal with the running game and short passing game, and the offense stagnating.  However, Chaney is better equipped to handle this than Kiffin was, precisely because of his experience under Tiller.  I expect much less reluctance to go shotgun for extended periods of time, go four-wide, and run some vertical routes to get stretch.  Of course, I can also see a bunch of shotgun, going four-wide, and running mesh and stick routes until the cows come home.  But I'm going to hope it's four verticals instead.

This is a problem that will need to be addressed soon, but I don't think we'll see a solution this week except in the form of busted coverage.  But we'll need an answer soon; I don't know about you, but I'll be counting the number of plays we run out of shotgun.  If we're going to learn anything this week, it's going to be what else we can have up our sleeve, and I'd take the guy who helped define a movement over most of the other guys out there.

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