May 272015
 

Earl Browning’s coaching manuals have long been one of the greatest sources for coaching ideas and innovations. The manuals always feature articles by some of the best and biggest names in the coaching world. I currently live and coach abroad, and the cost of ordering and shipping these manuals has been prohibitive. Now, finally, several of the manuals are available as eBooks.

Whether you are a coach looking for new ideas or any form of football junky looking to understand the nuts and bolts of the game, these books are for you.

I am linking to the 2011 edition, because it is the one that I have bought and am currently reading. The coaches and articles are stellar, from current “it” coaches on both sides of the ball (Chip Kelly, Pat Narduzzi) to innovators (Chris Ault, Gary Patterson) to program builders (Jerry Kill, Todd Graham) and many more successful and well respected names, the 2011 edition is as good and informative as advertised.

Dec 032014
 

Chip Kelly is considered the NFL’s current innovative “genius.” But it is no secret that the bulk of Kelly’s offense is based upon basic, fundamentally sound, and proven schematics. When combined with spread principles and the up tempo pace of Kelly’s offense (and his practices), those proven schematics are the basis for Kelly’s attack.

Along those lines, one of Kelly’s favorite pass concepts is a football classic: the waggle pass. This play – and the space it creates for quarterback and receivers alike – is one reason why Kelly has been able to plug in multiple quarterbacks to his system with great success (Mark Sanchez taking over for Nick Foles being just the latest example), which is one reason why he tops my list of coaches who could make a cheap, interchangeable quarterback system work (see here). Though it is unclear if Kelly derived the concept directly from the waggle (or one of the many related plays and variations of play action and bootleg concepts), the plays are identical in many ways, most importantly in their ability to put multiple defenders in conflict.

The roots of the waggle pass are in the Delaware Wing T, developed by Dave Nelson in the 1950s. Since that time, the Wing T has been among the most influential offenses in American football, and is still one of the most common and successful offenses in the sport. At the heart of that offense is the waggle pass.

The classic Wing T waggle features buck sweep action to the right. The potency of the buck sweep demands respect. After the quarterback and the running back sell the fake, the quarterback boots to his left. There, the playside receiver usually runs a vertical route, while multiple backside receivers run crossing routes. The quarterback has a run pass option. The linebackers and safeties in particular are stressed by the play: they must respect the buck sweep action (which demands quick pursuit), while receivers cross their face to the opposite side of the field. The crossing patterns are difficult against either man or zone: against man, the receivers cross face and run away from defenders whose momentum may have started in the wrong direction; against zone, the leveled crossing routes take advantage of whether the linebackers and safeties react strong to the run, or drop too deep.

A “traditional” Wing T waggle pass (for further reading on the traditional waggle pass, see the great bucksweep.com for “The Waggle the Best Play in Football,” here):

The Philadelphia Eagles Waggle Pass 1

Now, look at this Eagles touchdown from their Thanksgiving day victory over the Dallas Cowboys:

The Eagles' waggle schematics.  Notice the similarities to the traditional waggle pass.  The Eagles fake their top running play (outside zone) to the right.  The offensive line washes the defensive line to the right.  Sanchez keeps to the left, while he has a playside comeback route and two deep crossing routes to choose from.

The Eagles’ waggle schematics. Notice the similarities to the traditional waggle pass. The Eagles fake their top running play (outside zone) to the right. The offensive line washes the defensive line to the right. Sanchez keeps to the left, while he has a playside comeback route and two deep crossing routes to choose from.

All 8 defenders in the Cowboys' front react towards the run fake.  Jordan Matthews, who will catch the touchdown pass, is moving in the other direction.

All 8 defenders in the Cowboys’ front react towards the run fake. Jordan Matthews, who will catch the touchdown pass, is moving in the other direction.

The tight view gives a closer look at linebackers in conflict.  Both box linebackers react towards the run, while Matthews is primed to sneak behind them.

The tight view gives a closer look at linebackers in conflict. Both box linebackers react towards the run, while Matthews is primed to sneak behind them.

We see the traditional waggle quarterback run/pass option as Sanchez breaks the pocket.  Though Sanchez is not a notorious run threat, he had already scored one rushing touchdown on the day.  Defensive back C.J. Spillman reacts up towards this action, leaving a clear path for Matthews to slide behind.  Furthermore, Sanchez has 100% clear vision down the field - better than a quarterback could ever get from inside the pocket (another reason why Kelly's quarterbacks thrive).

We see the traditional waggle quarterback run/pass option as Sanchez breaks the pocket. Though Sanchez is not a notorious run threat, he had already scored one rushing touchdown on the day. Defensive back C.J. Spillman (#37) reacts up towards this action, leaving a clear path for Matthews to glide behind. Furthermore, Sanchez has clear sight lines down the field – better than a quarterback could ever get from inside the pocket (another reason why Kelly’s quarterbacks thrive).

From a different angle, we see the space Matthews has as Sanchez breaks the pocket.

From a different angle, we see the space Matthews has as Sanchez breaks the pocket.

Just after catching the ball, we see that Matthews still has space, and a clear path to the end zone.  An easy pattern with an easy quarterback read leads to the type of decision and throw that has allowed Kelly to find success with a myriad of quarterbacks.

Just after catching the ball, we see that Matthews still has space, and a clear path to the end zone. An easy pattern with an easy quarterback read leads to the type of decision and throw that has allowed Kelly to find success with a myriad of quarterbacks.

From a different angle, we see the clear path that makes it easy to celebrate before the ball crosses the goal line.

From a different angle, we see the clear path that makes it easy to celebrate before the ball crosses the goal line.

Chip Kelly has enjoyed great success with quarterbacks on the national stage at the University of Oregon and with the Philadelphia Eagles, often with overlooked or – in the case of Mark Sanchez – discarded players. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn’t because he employs a rocket science system that confounds defenses. It is the packaging of simple, proven concepts – such as the waggle pass – in spread formations, executed to perfection and with great pace, that creates easy reads and open space for his quarterbacks to thrive.

 

Oct 082014
 

Not long ago, balanced, professional style offensive systems ruled college football. Just 10 years ago, the final 2004 AP Poll read like a randomly assembled list of traditional college football powers: USC, Oklahoma, Georgia, LSU, Florida State, Miami, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, and West Virginia. True, Texas ran a version of the spread offense, but to take advantage of one of the great talents in college football history (Vince Young), not because the coaching staff had a history rooted in a non-traditional offense. The only team running a true “system” offense was – not surprisingly – the only non-traditional power of the bunch: Rich Rodriguez’s spread option West Virginia Mountaineers.

Fast forward to October 4th, 2014. For the first time in the history of the AP Poll, five of the top eight teams lose in the same weekend. Oregon, which became a power on the strength of Chip Kelly’s hurry up spread option system, is cut down by the Arizona Wildcats, with – you guessed it – Rich Rodriquez at the helm. Juggernaut Alabama and their pro style offense are chopped down by traditional also-ran Mississippi and their version of the packaged hurry up spread. Mississippi State – another SEC second thought – dominates Texas A&M. UCLA is edged by former mid-major Utah. TCU – who from 1996-2011 bounced between the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA, and the Mountain West Conference – takes out Oklahoma.

Come Sunday, half of the top 10 was made up of non-traditional powers: Mississippi State, Mississippi, Baylor, TCU, and Arizona.

“System” offenses have a set ideology and method for attacking a defense. It does not mean that they are unbalanced in terms of run/pass ratio (as many people assume), but it does mean that they have a strong identity of plays and formations and a consistent methodology for attacking a defense. The wing t did it with multiple series and an order of playcalling designed to put defenders in conflict. The split t, split back veer, wishbone, and flexbone did it by building around the triple option and taking advantage of defenses designed to stop that play. The run and shoot did it with after the snap option routes designed to defeat any defensive look. The list goes on…

The key to the hurry up spread – the current system du jour – is that any, and almost every, previous system can be adapted to the spread. Many teams couple the spread with the Air Raid, itself a simplified adaptation of the old LaVell Edwards BYU passing offense. Rodriquez, Kelly, and many others base their offense on zone running and option concepts. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn has coupled it with the wing t. Cal’s offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has roots in the Air Raid, but now seeks run/pass balance with a variety of creative runs passes, and packaged concepts.

The beauty of the variety of spread offenses is that most of these offenses do not require a roster loaded with 5 and 4 star recruits in order to succeed. Instead, a good personnel “fits” for the offense are of the utmost importance. An offense can be designed in order to take advantage of lower tier recruits who are hand picked to fill the roles that will make that offense successful. And – because the offenses are adaptable – they can highlight the strengths and hide the weaknesses of a roster that is built with lower tier recruits.

When pro style offenses ruled the day, the traditional powers dominated the recruitment of prototypical players to fit those offenses. With superior talent, the pro style quarterback could hand off to the prototypical running back or throw a play action pass to the future NFL tight end or wide receivers behind an offensive line made up of prototypical maulers.

Rich Rodriguez, with future NFL return man Rasheed Marshall at quarterback, helped changed the status quo. Now, if you couldn’t recruit the towering pocket passer with the rocket arm, you look to recruit the spindly speedster. If you didn’t have any luck finding the 6’3” wide receivers or the pro style tight ends, you put an under recruited, undersized athlete in the slot (Wes Welker at Texas Tech being perhaps the most famous example), and play without a tight end. Can’t find the future NFL road graders in the line? That’s okay – recruit speed and technique, and make it work in your system.

In short, the rise of the “system” offenses in college football has led to more coaches being able to better utilize the talent of more athletes, which has evened the playing field with the traditional elite programs. This evened playing field will continue to lead to more parity, more upsets, and a more exciting product. And it isn’t just the spread offenses that are making waves. Georgia Tech, with their flexbone triple option, which traces roots back to the Don Faurot split t of the early 1940s, lurks undefeated at the bottom of the top 25…

May 172014
 

“Read option” is one of the most overused terms in football. From commentators to sideline reporters to sportswriters, a myriad of plays are lumped together and mislabeled “read option.”

In reality, every option is a “read” option. The quarterback always reads an unblocked defender or defenders to determine whether to give the ball, keep it, or pitch it.

Still, the “read option” has become synonymous with shotgun, spread option football. The play that epitomized the spread option running game is what most coaches call the “zone read.” The key feature of this play is that the offensive line zone blocks for a run to the right or left, while the quarterback reads a defender to the backside. If that defender over pursues the zone handoff to the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball to the space that he vacated.

5 Eagles offensive linemen for 5 Giants defenders; the 6th defender (in the yellow box) becomes the option key.

5 Eagles offensive linemen for 5 Giants defenders; the 6th defender (in the yellow box) becomes the option key.

In short, in the zone read, the quarterback and running back are going in opposite directions from one another.

The quarterback and running back aim in opposite directions

The quarterback and running back aim in opposite directions

The zone read – for whatever reason – became known as the “read option.” This was a fine development, until it began to be applied to every option play from the shotgun or pistol formation.

The option key tackles the running back, so the quarterback keeps to the vacated space

The option key tackles the running back, so the quarterback keeps to the vacated space

The option key tackles the running back; the quarterback has correctly kept the ball.

The option key tackles the running back; the quarterback has correctly kept the ball.

Easy yards for the quarterback

Easy yards for the quarterback on the zone read (“read option”)

The most glaring example of this phenomenon was during the “read option” explosion in the NFL in 2012, when both the 49ers and Redskins had great success with the “read option” from the Pistol formation. The only problem is that the vast majority of their success was not from the “read option,” but from the veer scheme.

In the veer scheme, the option/dive key is the first man on or outside the offensive tackle

In the veer scheme, the option/dive key is the first man on or outside the offensive tackle

The key difference between the veer and the zone read is that in the veer scheme, the dive back and the quarterback are both attacking the same side of the field. In the traditional veer scheme, the offensive line does not block the first man on or outside the play side tackle. This becomes the option key. The dive back aims – at full speed – between the guard and the tackle. If the option key can’t make the tackle, the quarterback hands off, and the running back runs underneath the option key, following extra blocks on the second level and third level (because the tackle and tight end – if there is one – do not block anyone on the line of scrimmage, which frees them to block downfield). If the option key can tackle the dive back, he can’t tackle the quarterback. The quarterback keeps the ball, and follows the same extra downfield blocking (note that in a true veer triple option – which the 49ers and Redskins rarely ran – the quarterback would have a second option key and the option to pitch to a pitch back depending on that option key’s movements).

 

The quarterback and running back attack the same side of the field in the veer scheme.  Here, the option key is too far up the field, so the ball is given to the dive back

The quarterback and running back attack the same side of the field in the veer scheme. Here, the option key is too far up the field, so the ball is given to the dive back

Thus, in the “read option” the quarterback and the running back go in opposite directions, while in the veer scheme they attack the same side of the field and follow the same blocking.

 

The offensive line walls off the middle of the field, and the dive back follows behind, while the option key cannot recover

The offensive line walls off the middle of the field, and the dive back follows behind, while the option key cannot recover

The dive back glides along the veer wall to the end zone

The dive back glides along the veer wall to the end zone

Less common in the NFL, but still mislabeled, is the midline option. The play is similar to the veer scheme, except that the option key is the first man on or outside the play side guard, and the dive back’s path is over center or just to the play side (depending on the coach). Again, this varies from the “read option” in that the dive back and the quarterback both run to the same side of the field.

Apr 292014
 

In part one, we discussed the advantages of playing with a cheap quarterback, and asked whether an NFL team would ever consider implementing a system designed to minimize reliance on a traditional “pro style” quarterback.  This would allow such a team to refuse to pay a quarterback over a certain cap figure, therefore gaining an advantage in their ability to strengthen the remainder of their roster under the salary cap.

Please note that this isn’t to say that paying a franchise NFL quarterback is a bad idea.  If the quarterback is a star, it is of course smart to pay that quarterback, and players like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers have proven their ability to put their team on their shoulders as consistent championship contenders.  This article is a hypothetical for those teams who never seem to stumble upon the star quarterback, and who therefore remain stagnant in mediocrity year after year.

The rarest commodity in football is the great drop back pocket quarterback.  It has proven nearly impossible to predict which quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL, because so many of the skills are intangible and hard to measure against college competition.  That is why the list of number one overall picks includes the likes of JaMarcus Russell, David Carr, and Tim Couch.  The list of top NFL quarterbacks currently in the league is a mix of number one overall picks like Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck with overlooked prospects like Tom Brady (a “fringe” NFL prospect selected in the 6th round), Aaron Rodgers (too slight and with too much attitude to be taken with the first pick) and Drew Brees (too short to be a first round prospect).

The specific quarterback skills that have proven almost impossible to predict are: the ability to make complex progression reads against complex, fast NFL defenses; the ability to deliver the ball from the pocket against pressure from an NFL pass rush; and the ability to deliver the ball with accuracy and proper timing despite the above mentioned factors.  While arm strength and accuracy (now referred to as “arm talent”), leadership, intelligence, and positive demeanor all play a role in predicting the success of a pro style quarterback, none of them have been able to predict whether the player would possess or have the ability to develop the intangible skills that make a successful pro style quarterback.  Plenty of smart, hard working, positive leaders with great arms have failed in the NFL because those skills are so rare and hard to develop.

An “interchangeable quarterback offense” would seek to minimize the reliance on such skills, and would emphasize easier to predict qualities, such as arm talent, running ability, leadership and intelligence.

The following offensive systems and coaches are candidates to run such a system.  Please note that inclusion on the list does not mean that a quarterback who plays in such an offense is not or cannot become a good pro style quarterback in a traditional offense.  It is only to say that the offense does not require a traditional pro style quarterback to be successful.

(1) Chip Kelly.  Kelly has already proved this possible in the NFL, shifting between Michael Vick and Nick Foles with great success.  His offense spreads the field to create easy pre snap reads for the quarterback and offensive line.  The offense is built on the run game, as the spread formation forces the defense to defend the width of the field, making it easier for the offensive line to count and block the box (see here).  It can accommodate fast quarterbacks like Vick who can take advantage of over pursuit against the zone run game by keeping the ball (the “read option”), or it can accommodate more stationary quarterbacks like Foles by creating easy reads, quick throws, and taking advantage of packaged plays in order to hold backside defenders.  Kelly’s tempo allows the quarterback to get into a rhythm without over thinking the offense, while also limiting the defense’s ability to call complex schemes.  Because the offense is built on the run game, a top offensive line and above average running backs are a necessity, while favorable coverages mean that the offense can succeed without premier pass catchers (Kelly’s confidence in the latter is evident in the Eagles’ release of DeSean Jackson).  Money can be spent on the offensive line and defense.

(2) Gus Malzahn.  Malzahn is perhaps the most intriguing coach on the list.  His offense is also a hurry up spread offense, but is schematically dissimilar to Kelly’s attack.  Malzahn’s offense is based on the Delaware wing t, one of the most potent running offenses in the history of football.  Unlike Kelly’s zone scheme, the wing t takes advantage of angle blocks and a variety of pulls and traps.  The offense is built on an order of play calling to systematically attack any defense.  The up tempo pace simplifies this process (especially with a master such as Malzahn at the helm), as the defense’s ability to substitute and vary schemes is limited. This order of attack of the traditional wing t is combined with elements of modern spread option and spread passing games to create a potent attack that takes advantage of a great athlete at quarterback.  Like Kelly’s offense, the potency of the run game and the spread formations create easy reads and progressions in the pass game, making the offense ideal to plug and play non traditional quarterbacks.  This is why Malzahn has thrived with a variety of athletes at quarterback, from prototypically built #1 overall pick Cam Newton, to the smaller, quicker Nick Marshall, who began his career as a cornerback at Georgia, to less physically imposing Paul Smith at Tulsa, who threw for over 5,000 yards in his season with Malzahn, proving the versatility of the system.  In fact, Malzahn had a streak of needing to find a new starting quarterback for 8 straight seasons (see here), his system flexible enough to adjust year in and year out.  Should he choose to move to the NFL, Malzahn would have his pick of under the radar quarterbacks to run his potent system.

(3) The pistol offense.  The pistol offense makes a quarterback’s job easier in several ways.  The run game is powerful and downhill.  The veer scheme requires a quarterback with top flight speed (such as Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick) because the mesh point happens deeper in the backfield, but with that speed, the defense is forced to decide between playing aggressive against the option elements (potentially leading to over aggressiveness that the veer scheme can exploit, and easy reads for the quarterback in the pass game) or playing a more passive defense that is susceptible to the power elements of the scheme.  The pistol also takes the quarterback out from under center, giving him increased vision in the pass game.  The offense has already thrived with the Redskins and 49ers, though neither has used it exclusively.  While Chris Ault is retired and unlikely to get an NFL look, the offense is popular enough for other coaches to implement the scheme.  The most likely scenario is for it to continue to be used within “typical” NFL offenses, as a weapon to take advantage of a quarterback with the speed of Griffin III or Kaepernick.

(4) Jim Harbaugh power offense.  Jim Harbaugh makes the list because he is confident enough in his system and his ability as a quarterbacks coach to believe he can make a wide range of quarterbacks successful.  He has already proven adept, resurrecting Alex Smith’s career, and turning raw Colin Kaepernick into one of the league’s premier playmakers.  His system is built on a powerful and complex run game, unbalanced lines, pre snap shifts, and versatile personnel.  Defensive coordinators know that Harbaugh is looking to assert his will with his complex run game.  The potent run and play action games in turn create easier reads for the quarterbacks.  Unlike the spread and many NFL offenses, Harbaugh often keeps extra blockers in the backfield, giving his quarterback simpler 4 or 3 or even 2 receiver reads.

Harbaugh’s offense is complex, however, requiring quarterbacks to choose between multiple plays at the line of scrimmage on most snaps depending on the defense.  But those decisions are a matter of intelligence, not instinct, and intelligence is more easily measured than intangible NFL quarterback skills.  This is why Harbaugh has been successful with Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, both of whom have size, speed, arm strength and intelligence, but whose NFL drop back quarterback skills were questioned before Harbaugh became their coach.

Harbaugh and the 49ers will soon show their intentions.  Should they pay Colin Kaepernick like a top NFL quarterback, they take the course of the typical NFL franchise.  Should they attempt to low ball Kaepernick in negotiations, it will be a sign of their confidence in Harbaugh’s quarterback development abilities.  Don’t be surprised if the 49ers pick another raw, athletic, developmental quarterback with great arm strength in the upcoming draft, such as Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas.

(5) The Air Raid crew.  The coaching tree that Hal Mumme started (including Mike Leach, Kevin Sumlin, Art Broyles, Dana Holgorsen, and Tony Franklin)  continues to tear up the college ranks.  Rooted in LaVell Edwards’s BYU passing offense, hallmarks of the Air Raid are simplicity, tempo, and a willingness to throw the ball all of the time (in the original Air Raid offense).  These factors – like Kelly’s and Malzahn’s offenses – simplify quarterback reads.  Unlike Kelly’s and Malzahns, the Air Raid offense centers on the passing game.  The core Air Raid coaches (Mumme, Leach) seek to throw the ball to the extreme, therefore perfecting their limited plays and creating some of the most potent offenses in NFL history. The simple reads, small playbook, and insistence on throwing help a quarterback get into a rhythm, which is one reason why Leach was able to plug in one record setting, below the radar recruit after another at Texas Tech and now Washington State.

The two most likely NFL coaches – Sumlin and Broyles – seek more balance in the offense.  Both have produced major NFL prospects in the last several years (Johnny Manziel for Sumlin and Griffin III for Broyles).  More importantly, both have been just as successful with quarterbacks who were seen as having little NFL potential.  They are masters of the spread passing game, and with so many quarterbacks throwing from the spread in youth football, high school, and college, it only makes sense that an experienced spread coach would ease the transition to the NFL for such quarterbacks.

(6) Run and shoot.  The run and shoot makes the list because it has already thrived in the NFL.  The offense is designed as “organized playground ball,” allowing receivers to find open space after the snap depending on the defense.  While the offense is difficult to master, it has thrived in the NFL and USFL with a variety of quarterbacks.  The reads required are different from the complex NFL progressions that make the position so difficult, and as the name implies, the ball is often thrown from outside the pocket.  Unfortunately, June Jones is one of the last remaining true run and shoot coaches, and the offense has probably been absorbed into the greater NFL schematics (see here), making it unlikely to return to the NFL in its true form.  If it does, expect success with proper modernization to adjust for modern blitz schemes.  As long time NFL coach Marty Shottenheimer once said: “I don’t think anybody stops it. They always make their yardage. What you hope to do is keep the scoring down the best you can to give yourself a chance to be successful.”

(7) Split back veer adapted to the pro game.  Admittedly, this is getting into science fiction territory.  I do not think that this will happen.  However, there are reasons to believe it could be successful in the NFL.  First of all, the veer scheme has worked in recent years (see: pistol).  The NFL is warming to the idea that the option game can succeed.  The split back veer is also a “pro” formation – the split backs are in the same alignment as the original Bill Walsh west coast offense and the original Edwards BYU/Air Raid configuration.  The offense is designed for a fast, tough, smart, competitive quarterback, which are easier to find than true drop back quarterbacks.  The reads in the pass game are simplified by the potency of the run game.  Like the wing t, the split back veer has a system for play calling, with answers for every defense imaginable.  With multiple options after the snap on every play, in theory the defense is never “right.”  This is part of the reason that the offense has driven some of the most successful programs in the country, from De La Salle high school in Concord, CA, to NCAA division II power Carson Newman.

With the professionalism and skill of NFL players, the most often cited drawback of the offense (poor passing game) could be overcome with a reliance on simple, proven concepts, such as those found in the Air Raid or run and shoot systems.  Like many offenses on this list, the potency of the run game would create a strong play action passing game with easier quarterback reads.

Of course, the split back veer would require a full commitment that is unlikely to happen.  The offensive line would be in unbalanced, forward leaning stances, as would the running backs.  The quarterbacks would need to learn how to protect themselves in the run game, or face a severe beating.

It won’t happen, but it would be interesting.

Apr 132014
 

Prior to 2013, critics doubted whether Chip Kelly could succeed in the NFL.  Many tagged him with the dreaded “college coach” label.  Kelly – along with Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll – are quickly turning that label into a positive.  Harbaugh has done so with his power schemes and manic enthusiasm, Carroll with his passion and smothering defense.  Chip Kelly has done so with an emphasis on simplicity and execution, two qualities that are often overlooked in what has largely become a complex, matchup based league.

Kelly’s devotion to the hurry up no huddle is well known, with the extra repetitions gained in practice and games combining with a comparably simple playbook to improve execution.  His offense is no gimmick – it is based on sound football principles.  At his core, Kelly wants to run the ball.  The basis of this running game are his zone concepts.

Kelly teaches a counting system to his offensive line on zone running plays.  This simplifies their reads, as the line merely needs to count the defense in the box and block it accordingly.  The center identifies 0, the first in-box defender to the playside.  The playside guard blocks number 1 (the next defender to the playside), and the tackle blocks number 2.  The backside guard blocks number 1 backside, and the backside tackle blocks number 2 backside.  A tight end or extra blocker would block number 3.  Kelly’s famous “read option” (as it has become known) assigns the quarterback to “block” any extra backside defender with his eyes, if there is one.  If that player is aggressive on the handoff, the quarterback keeps the ball to the space he vacated.  If that player is not aggressive on the handoff, the quarterback has successfully “blocked” him from tackling the ball carrier.  If no such “extra” defender is in the box, the quarterback hands the ball off every time.  Thus, what has become known as a “read option” is nothing more than a zone run that gives the quarterback the ability to keep the ball if the defense brings more defenders than the offensive line can block.

The simplicity and execution of this counting system can be seen in LeSean McCoy’s 2013 week 1 touchdown against the Washington Redskins.

Before the snap, we see the Eagles in an unbalanced formation, with three offensive linemen to their left.  The play will be run to their right.  As one can see below, their counting system allows them to adjust to the defensive front with ease  – a necessity in the NFL, where defenses are ever changing and complex.  Note that the stacked defensive lineman and linebacker to the playside are both considered player 1 and player 2, necessitating a combo block from the right guard and right tackle (who in this case is a tight end).  This complex blocking takes time and communication to master, another reason why the simplicity of Kelly’s offense is a benefit to their team.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 1

As the play unfolds, we can see the linemen taking great angles to “cover up” their men.  This is a hallmark of zone blocking – it is more important to get a body on a defensive player and wash him towards the direction he wants to go than it is to attempt to blow them up off the ball.  We can also see Michael Vick “blocking” the extra defender in the box (#4). Additionally, McCoy’s momentum begins parallel to the line of scrimmage, towards the sideline, influencing Redskins defenders to fight towards the outside.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 2

McCoy has the ball now, and has made his hard cut down the field.  We can see that some of the Redskins are still moving towards the sideline, as their momentum – and the Eagles blockers – are taking them there.  The hole is large for McCoy, and not because any of his linemen have made a devastating knockout block.  None of the linemen have driven a Redskins player off the ball.  But they have put bodies on bodies, allowing a back with great vision and talent such as McCoy to find and exploit the opening seam of the defense.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 3

This allows McCoy to get into the open field with a head of steam.  He is among the hardest runners in the NFL to tackle when given such space.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 4

Kelly’s offense has always thrived on letting his athletes perform in space.  Here we get an example: McCoy hurdling a defender as he winds back towards the opposite sideline.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 5

And we see the final element of what makes Kelly’s offense tick: downfield blocking by receivers.  As in all “big play” running offenses, Kelly depends on his receivers to help turn long runs into touchdown runs.  Here we get a great example of McCoy reading Riley Cooper’s butt to cut inside, aided by the terrific cut block by Jason Avant to form a clear running lane.

Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 6

McCoy gives Eagles fans an example of what Oregon fans grew to know well – a runner in the clear with enough space to celebrate before reaching the end zone.

Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 7

Chip Kelly has done a tremendous job of creating a system that can take advantage of the talent he has on his teams.  The beauty of the system is that it is based on sound football principles.  Though it has been labeled a “space age” offense, perhaps the biggest innovation of the system is the return of simplicity to the NFL.   This simplicity also means that his system is duplicable at all levels of play.  Even if one doesn’t want to run the hurry up or the spread, teaching such a counting system to the offensive line is an easy way to improve their communication.  No matter how complex the defensive front is, it can always be boiled down to a simple count.  Much like Kelly’s offense, the beauty lies in the simplicity.