WEST POINT, N.Y. — The future of offensive football doesn’t have to be no-huddle, and it doesn’t have to be breakneck. It just has to be varied, and it has to put thoughtful pressure on the defense. It has to be the next move in the chess game. “A philosophy of probing,’’ Stanford coach David Shaw says here, after the Stanford-Army game on Saturday. “Probing, and wondering, ‘How is the defense going to react to this?’ ‘’
We’re living in a great time for offensive football. Here on the banks of the Hudson on a glorious Saturday for college football, one team, undermanned Army, ran the triple option, where the quarterback can hand to a big back, run himself or pitch to a trailer. The other team, Stanford, ran everything. Such as:
• A pro style shotgun, with one back, one tight end and three wideouts.
• A pro style I, with two backs, two wideouts and a tight end.
• An empty-backfield shotgun, with four wides and a tight end.
• A pistol (the shorter version of the shotgun) with sidecar backs on either side of quarterback Kevin Hogan and three wides.
• A pistol, with one back, two wides, and a tight end and slot tight end next to each other.
• A heavy formation, with three tight ends and two backs.
• The Weird Wildcat (my words, not Shaw’s): a back taking the snap, three tight ends, and a guard, 316-pound Joshua Garnett, as another (slot) tight end to demolish anything in his path.
• A classic old-time power I, with three backs and two tight ends. (Get the point? David Shaw loves the tight end.)
• And something I don’t know what to call: Before the snap, the tackle, tight end and slot tight end shifted to the right (sort of what Chip Kelly did at Washington in Week 1) to create a huge gap outside the guard.
“I’m going to quote my old boss, Jon Gruden,’’ Shaw said, standing in a tunnel outside the Stanford locker room after the 34-20 win over Army. Shaw was a Raiders quality control coach under Gruden for three years, and Rich Gannon’s quarterback coach in his fourth year with Gruden, 2001. “He would say it every single day: ‘What you want to do on offense is present the illusion of sophistication but all in all remain very simple and basic.’ So very often we’ll throw a whole bunch of different stuff at them, but we’re going to run a basic day-one installation play. Something we’ve run thousands of times. Something very, very simple. But for the defense, it looks very complicated. So we want to present these illusions, then run a regular play that we just want to execute right.’’
Shaw was happy to run some heavy-protection packages but still score out of them. Out of the power I with Hogan under center, Stanford sent only two receivers out on one play. Both backs simply acted as extra protection for Hogan, and, with eight kept in to block, the fleet Ty Montgomery beat double-coverage and caught a 46-yard touchdown pass in stride. Same thing later, with a little more illusion. Keeping seven in to block with Hogan in the pistol, Stanford had wideout Kelsey Young motion in from the right and follow running back Tyler Gaffney out of the backfield in a double-wheel-route concept up the left sideline. Army, confused, covered only one of them, and Gaffney caught an easy 23-yard touchdown.
On this day, the Cardinal ran 56 plays, and you never looked out on the field and said, “I’ve never seen that before.” (Well, the double-wheel thing maybe; that was unusual.) The formations and movement were offputting at times. But the plays, no. Watch the Eagles, under new coach Chip Kelly. Lots of misdirection and quarterback movement and some of the strangest formations you’ve seen, but watch the plays themselves. “This is not a difficult offense,’’ Mike Vick said in training camp.
“That’s why I love Chip Kelly,’’ Shaw said. “He knows that I love him. He used to say it all the time and no one would believe him. He would just laugh, one of those smirk laughs that he has, and he would always tell people, ‘What we’re doing is not hard. We’re doing it faster, and we’re doing it with big kids who are smart kids.’ We’re like that—changing formations, making our players communicate, communicate, and the ball is getting snapped and they’re running something very simple. Now, with Chip, he gets the ball to DeSean Jackson in space, he gets LeSean McCoy in space, he’s created the same thing. So it’s not just schemes, it’s the combination of schemes and personnel. If you’ve got the guys to do it, to get guys in space, you can make big plays.’’
Diversity is so important in offensive football—always has been. Illusion is too. In Week 1 against Green Bay, San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman moved his physical wideout, Anquan Boldin, everywhere—in the two slots and two wide sides at least 10 times apiece. He ran him out of bunch formations. He set sort-of legal picks for him. And Boldin caught the ball 13 times for 208 yards. On Sunday night, with the Seahawks determined to beat Boldin up and nullify him at Seattle, the noise and defense conspired to take Boldin out of the game, and Colin Kaepernick could never find another weapon to replace him.
In Philadelphia, it’s going to be interesting to see if Kelly can keep Michaek Vick healthy. He’s on pace to run 120 times and to be sacked another 32 times, and it’s unlikely he’ll make it through the season taking that kind of punishment at 218 pounds. Running an uptempo offense, with a quarterback getting hit a lot, could require a second and maybe third quarterback to play this year, and though Nick Foles is, I’m told, very much a Kelly favorite, who knows how that offense changes with a quarterback who will stay home more.
Stanford has a stay-at-home big quarterback like Foles. Hogan is smart, like Foles. I don’t know how Foles would change what the Eagles do, but I do know a smart and accurate passer, without wheels, can still run it well. But with Vick or Foles, the Kelly offense will still be malleable. “There’s some really smart NFL guys that are going to sit on their hands and say let’s see what happens,’’ said Shaw. “Are they going to wear themselves out? This is a tempo and pace these guys are not used to. That’s the only question that I have. I love what they do; we’ve copied some of the things they do. But I believe every NFL player has a certain number of plays. And every time they run a play, you peel back. It’s like peeling back a day in the calendar. We’ll see.’’
Maybe the difference between Shaw and Kelly is that Shaw puts more of a premium on shielding his quarterback. It certainly appeared that way against Army—though, certainly, Hogan is not going to get the kind of pressure from a weak team like Army that he’ll get from Arizona State and Oregon. But the moral of the story from Shaw is the same as it is with the other smart young offensive minds infiltrating the NFL game: If you don’t like change in offensive football, you’re going to love irrelevance.