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How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Pro-Style Offense.

At this stage in the season, it's pretty well time for fans of teams who don't have a shot at a national championship to begin wondering who they'd most like to see actually win the thing.  Sometimes it's a matter of not watching a rival win it.  Sometimes it's just hoping the SEC doesn't win one yet again.  Sometimes it's just the color of the helmet.  But we all decide that, at the very least, there's one team out there that we'd be least disgusted to see win it all.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the name of the team, the color of the jersey, or even the geography of the conference, but rather a matter of principle of opinion.  Now, my opinion might change again at the drop of a hat, but for one week, I finally have an actual reason to pick somebody - the Alabama Crimson Tide.

My reason comes as a reaction to this opinion at Team Speed Kills:

The conference sure would be a lot less interesting without Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin, but after watching Alabama and Tennessee play, I'm willing to make that sacrifice.

Year2 is fully entitled to his opinion, and I completely respect it.  I understand where he's coming from, and we can set aside any pro-Florida innuendo behind his preference for Alabama and Tennessee to jettison their coaches as I really don't think he meant it in that manner.  But the disinteresting nature of pro-style football at the collegiate level comes entirely from a matter of personal subjective preference, not from the systems themselves.  And before I go any further, since I have shown a tendency to come off as judgmental against people themselves, let me again repeat that it's perfectly ok for Year2 to have his opinion and I'm not begrudging that in the least.  But an opinion - even mine - is nothing more than an opinion, and it's worth separating out some of the objectivity from the subjectivity.

NFL Coaches in College Football

The SEC should outlaw former NFL coaches from taking jobs in the league.

Year2 was quite serious about that point, and I can understand where he's coming from.  A lot of college football fans don't appreciate the uber-chess match that the NFL has turned into, where coordinators spend about 245 hours in each 168-hour week pinpointing the exact weaknesses of the other team.  Not everybody is a fan of this:

And that's perfectly understandable.  I enjoy it, but it's a matter of preference, not of any substantive objective quality.  And if NFL coaches were to try this very thing at the collegiate level, they'd fail quite miserably.  Charlie Weis has learned this very lesson, as his 'superior schemes' have done nothing for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish except require 3- and 4-year veterans to populate the starting roster simply because they're the only ones to have studied those schemes enough to be able to do anything with them.  Heck, we at Tennessee learned that lesson last year, and the UCLA Bruins learned it under the Karl Dorrell days.

The thing is, Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin really can't be rightly thought of as "NFL coaches".  Aside from one brief stint with the Oakland Raiders, Kiffin's entire experience (short as it is) as a coach or coordinator has been at the college level.  Saban had his brief stint with the Miami Dolphins, but he made his name with the Michigan State Spartans (where he upended the rivalry with Michigan) and the LSU Tigers (where he created the werewolf behemoth that one a national championship under his tutelage); referring to him as an 'NFL' coach because of a couple of average seasons doesn't do justice to the dominance he's always displayed at the college level and glosses past the fact that his present schemes are really no different that the ones he ran at LSU and Michigan State.

The other 'NFL' coaches in the league include Steve Spurrier and Bobby Petrino - neither of whom made their names at the NFL level and neither of whom were hired at their present institutions because of NFL experience.  Both of them run pro-style offenses to varying degrees of success at the moment, and Petrino's Arkansas has been anything but disinteresting so far this year.

Quite frankly, the NFL tag really doesn't mean a whole lot.  If a coach tries to implement a full-on NFL system, complete with the eleventy kajillion hot reads (which is 6.5 more than the eleventy billion you're used to), it's going to fail.  All 'NFL' coaches in the SEC right now understand that; the systems in place are not NFL systems by the full sense of the term, but are simplified to suit the limited practice time and experience of the players.

There is a breed of coaches who are NFL coaches.  They are the ones who will spend every waking moment thinking of strategy and perfecting their machine for a battle of equally-staffed opponents.  There is a breed of coaches who are college coaches.  They enjoy the recruiting game and are more focused on creating a few strengths rather than eliminating every weakness.  But the superior DNA in both coaching gene pools have one trait in common:

Eliminating Mistakes is More Important Than Style

It was an excruciatingly boring game between two teams playing it by the percentages, ...

The ultimate priority of eliminating mistakes is absolutely true regardless of system.  The poster child for the non-pro-style system right now is the Florida Gators, who have a legitimate shot at a third national title with a spread-type offense.  They are undefeated right now for one reason:  they minimize mistakes.  They play the percentages.

Just watch the Gators offense of this year.  They're not flashy.  They're not innovative.  They're actually surprisingly predictable:  Tebow up the middle; Tebow zone read; Tebow handing off to the end around; Tebow on the dump-off pass.  If there's any poster child for boring-yet-effective offensive play this year, it's the Florida Gators.  But that's the whole point:  it works.  Why should they take risks when the boring stuff wins games for them?  Tim Tebow is not yet a comfortable passing quarterback; his bootlegs against the Mississippi State Bulldogs were not pretty to watch.  He doesn't have to be a comfortable passing quarterback, though.  Let the Gators run the Tebow dive on 3rd and whatever and let everybody try to stop it.  They don't screw it up, which is all the style and interest they need.

The same applies to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.  Behind all the neato-torpedo style of football endorsed by Paul Johnson is an offense that is scarily successful because they employ a very fundamentally sound running game.  They don't miss blocks.  They make correct reads.  They adjust their playcalling to take what the defense gives them.  They do exactly what pro-style offenses are known to do - just with a different playbook.

In the '90s, the Nebraska Cornhuskers' offense was considered 'boring' compared to the more pass-happy pro-style sets of teams like Florida and the Florida State Seminoles.  But Nebraska was so fundamentally sound in what they did that nobody could stop it.  They wore teams out - much like Alabama under Saban, the USC Trojans under Pete Carroll, and the Florida Gators under Urban Meyer.  The term 'boring' has one of two applications: it may refer to something that is 'conventional', or it may refer to something that is flat-out ineffective.  There's nothing wrong with conventional; things become convention because they work.  Ineffective gets weeded out by the Darwinian nature of the game.  The day that the pro-style system becomes ineffective is the day it will fade.

Perfect Football is Always Boring

No matter the systems run on offense and defense, if both teams play excellent games, the result will be dull.  If both the offense and defense make correct reads of each other, they will game-theory themselves into a pseudo-stalemate where the offenses make only average gains throughout the day and the defenses make only average stops.  With eleven on each side, there is always a counterpunch available to the other team's punch.

The Tennessee / Alabama game was one of very few mistakes.  Each team had only one turnover, and those turnovers ended up leading to critical scores.  But otherwise, the penalties were held in check and the defenses played very controlled football.  Had the defenses made more mistakes, the scores would have been higher and the game would appear more 'interesting'.  Had the offenses made more mistakes, either the game would have turned into a punt fest, or the defenses would have created more turnovers - the latter of which would have made the game more 'interesting'.  But with two teams at their best, there just isn't much room for the offenses to move and there isn't much opportunity for the defense to flip the game.  Unlike basketball, the game of football is very well balanced between offense and defense such that mistakes are usually the difference.

The NFL / Collegiate Distinction is Overplayed

The NFL is actually more guilty of this than the NCAA teams, but there really isn't as great of a difference in the brands of football between the two leagues.  Spread-y systems can work at the NFL.  Option systems can work as well.  The Atlanta Falcons competed on par with the league when they ran a zone read system with Michael Vick, and the Miami Dolphins are quite successful with that high-school transplant Wildcat offense.  The two main reasons that NFL teams haven't tried the spread to the degree that Florida has are (a) that the transition in personnel is hard to do with a 47-man roster limit, and (b) that there aren't any likely coaching candidates who run such systems and are willing to subject themselves to the NFL coaching meat grinder.  Without getting into his chances as a pro-style guy, Tim Tebow could have fine success in the NFL as a spread quarterback if a team is willing to run that system.  They'd have to take Tebow as well as a backup of similar style, which would be a do-or-die commitment of resources, but they could do it if they really wanted to.  And right now, only Miami seems capable of making the transition.  But it's logistically more difficult to make the transition than college advocates are usually willing to admit, and it's more likely to have success than NFL candidates will concede.

In Short

But ultimately, 'boring' is a matter of opinion.  What one persons sees as totally uninteresting can be completely captivating to another.  Bring on the pro-style offenses.  And the spreads and options, for that matter.  But look beyond the system itself and see how well teams do what they do.  Therein lies the difference.

My opinion:  I like all the systems.  The diversity makes it fun in college football.  But I also love well-played games and am quite content to watch a 10-10 game in the final minutes with two teams leaving everything on the field.  And it is a little childish for me to cheer for a team simply because somebody else hopes they lose, but I'd rather watch a team win on sound, fundamental play than one win because of flash and glitz.  We've known for decades that spread and option offenses are as legitimate as pro-style, so I'd rather see solid, principled play come as the indisputable reason for victory.

That's my opinion and there's no reason anybody has to agree or disagree with it.