Apr 202015

By now, it is clear to those who follow the draft that the (on the field) evaluation between Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston hinges in large part on whether one believes that Mariota can be accurately evaluated as a professional quarterback, due to his operating Oregon’s “college” offense. Winston, on the other hand, is considered more of a known entity, due to his operating a “professional” offense that allows evaluators to see him make “professional” reads and throws.

I use quotation marks for “college” and “professional” because the line between college and professional offensive systems is increasingly blurry. I find the use of such terms to lack nuance, and believe that “college” is used in an incorrectly negative way. I do not agree with the notion that quarterbacks running “college” offenses will necessarily struggle in the NFL, and I disagree that “college” offenses are lesser than “professional” offenses. I believe that “college” offenses are often smarter and more efficient than “professional” offenses, and that creating a system that is simple to learn and that can defeat any defense takes at least as much intelligence and creativity as does building a complex, gameplan-oriented “professional” offense.

Having said that, evaluating a quarterback who has only operated out of one style of offense is inherently difficult when projecting him to play in another style of offense – and this is the difficulty in evaluating Mariota for teams who do not wish to adopt an offense similar to what Mariota ran at Oregon and what his former coach – Chip Kelly – runs with the Eagles.

Put aside, as well, the debate as to whether professional teams should adopt quarterback friendly offensive schemes to fit the skills of their quarterbacks (see here, here, and here for speculation on the future of quarterback play in the NFL). This post only seeks to clarify why the evaluation is difficult for one who seeks to draft Mariota and use him in a traditional, “professional” offense.

The following videos (produced by draftbreakdown.com, a great resource for studying more than the highlights of college prospects) of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston in the Rose Bowl playing against each other display these differences.

Mariota against Florida State:

Note, from the outset, Oregon’s reliance on quick screens. These passes are not a staple of professional offenses, but make up a significant portion of Oregon’s attack. As you continue to watch, note how many times Mariota takes quick drops from play action fakes. 0:23 is a great example. Mariota executes a play action fake, then snaps his feet and bounces in the pocket. There is no drop, and his pocket is clean. None of these elements are helpful to NFL evaluators. Evaluators want to see a quarterback take a drop from under center (Mariota almost never did so) or – at the least – to make a full read progression, and they want to evaluate him from a collapsing pocket. Oregon’s offensive style and prodigiousness makes finding such plays difficult. Mariota throws on the play to a receiver crossing with room behind the linebacker level. Again, while such a throw does happen in the NFL, it is not considered a timing pass that can accurately display Mariota’s ability to make NFL throws into tighter windows that close faster than in college. Though he misses the throw here, this is the type of concept (crossing routes behind linebackers who are held by run fakes) that Mariota and Oregon thrive on. As you watch the film, keep track of how many times Mariota starts in a similar fashion – play fake, set feet, quick throw (screen or otherwise). Or – three step drop, quick throw. NFL evaluators have fewer plays on which to evaluate Mariota making “professional” throws and reads, and fewer plays equals more uncertainty. Uncertainty is not what many scouts want when drafting a quarterback high in the first round.

Winston against Oregon:

Winston, on the other hand, crosses off many of the boxes (on the field, that is) for a top quarterback prospect. Big, well built, strong arm, good enough athlete, high scholastic intelligence (again, ignoring off the field and maturity issues), and – related to this conversation – makes “professional” throws from a “professional” offense. Though he also operates from the shotgun in spread formations for a high percentage of his plays (much more than the public perception seems to recognize), the evaluator can see him taking drops, setting in the pocket, and reading a full field. A much lower percentage of Winston’s throws are quick, “automatic” reads. A high percentage of Florida State’s passing plays require taking a drop, reading a progression, and delivering with timing. Anyone who watched Tom Brady in the Super Bowl knows that running a large portion of one’s offense from shotgun, spread formations is no longer just a college phenomenon. Starting at 6:51, we see two successive plays that illustrate why evaluators see Winston’s game translating to the NFL. On both throws, Winston takes a drop (albeit from the shotgun), is patient, and completes an anticipation throw to a receiver in a deep middle zone. On both throws, Winston began his throw before the receiver had broken to the inside. These plays illustrate anticipation throws that are so common in the NFL – Winston knows the route, knows where the receiver will be breaking, and knows that the defense will not be in that spot because of their zone drop concepts and their lack of momentum towards that location. Both throws show arm strength, accuracy, coverage recognition, and anticipation, all of which are considered vital to success in a “professional” offense. Evaluators will have more difficulty finding and judging these types of throws in Mariota’s game.

One key point, however, is that even though Winston operates an offense that has him making complex, “professional” reads, the offense is not a “traditional” professional offense, as much of the popular dialogue in the media would lead one to believe. In fact, a high percentage of Winston’s throws come from the shotgun. He does not consistently make 5 and 7 step drops from under center. While Mariota’s Oregon offense was certainly further removed from a “professional” offense, Winston’s Florida State offense still requires projection to a traditional “professional” offense.

Either way, the two videos illustrate the challenges for evaluators in comparing Mariota to Winston. Mariota is asked to execute an offense that requires many predetermined throws and creates a multitude of open targets that often do not require a great deal of anticipation to hit. Mariota executes the offense to near perfection, but it requires an evaluator to project his growth in a “professional” offense. Winston is asked to execute an offense that – while often from formations similar to that of Oregon – requires him to make full field reads and anticipation throws that more closely mirror “professional” concepts. Winston’s touchdown to interception ratio is far worse than Mariota’s, but an evaluator has less to project – for better or worse – when analyzing his game.

Dec 172014

As promised in my 16 team playoff proposal, this is my 8 team playoff proposal. The 8 team playoff is much easier. Nothing changes in the structure and alignment of the conferences. The rule is simple: each of the 5 power conferences get an automatic bid, and there are 3 at large bids.

Though I prefer 16 teams, this scenario is an improvement over 4 teams. Most importantly, the automatic bids encourage better scheduling from power conference schools, because they will never be eliminated from playoff contention due to of a non-conference loss. Also, the 9th team in an 8 team system will not have as good of an argument for inclusion as the 5th team in a 4 team system. This year, for example, there were 6 teams with rock solid playoff resumes. There was large debate over the final 2 spots, with Baylor and TCU ultimately losing out. The final spots in the 8 team tournament would also be a mess, but none of the two and three loss teams vying for those spots had near the claim that one loss Baylor and TCU have this year.

One major problem would still exist: conference scheduling inequality. Simply put, it is not fair that some conferences play 8 conference games, while others play 9 games. Some have conference championship games, while others do not. There is no excuse for this inequality to not be rectified in the future. Along those lines, one of the primary reasons why I prefer a 16 team tournament is that it would allow 10 team conferences where every team plays 9 conference games, with no conference championship games. This would eliminate the issues most often discussed in reference to the 14 team Southeastern Conference. The SEC plays an 8 game conference schedule among those 14 teams, and its members rarely travel outside of the SEC blueprint. This leads to more good records (one less conference game equals 14 fewer conference losses), and can result in a situation like the 2014 Missouri Tigers. Missouri won the SEC East, in large part because they missed playing the top 5 teams in the SEC West (Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Auburn, and LSU). This left them with an impressive record that put them in the running for a spot in an 8 team playoff, with a regular season schedule that featured only one team who would be ranked at the end of the season. Their non-conference schedule featured wins over a lower division opponent and two mid-majors, and a home loss to Indiana, a team that finished with a 4-8 record.

Such inequalities need to be addressed, no matter the playoff format.

I would also recommend playing no conference championship games (which would go hand in hand with smaller conferences). On top of conference scheduling inequality, the situation will arise where teams who deserve to get in the playoffs will have another chance to look worse, while a team who did not win their division could sneak in ahead of such a team, without playing in a conference championship game. Teams that made the playoffs without playing a conference championship game would also have an advantage against teams who did have the extra game to get beaten up and fatigued.

The other primary reason why I prefer a 16 team tournament is equality. In the 8 team tournament, mid-majors still do not have a realistic chance to compete for a championship. A mid-major would need an undefeated record, most likely a good reputation, and good non-conference victories. A good preseason reputation and good non-conference victories is a hard match, however, because major programs are often wary of scheduling strong mid-major programs.

All that being said, my 8 team tournament would be:

  1. Florida State 13-0 (ACC automatic)
  2. Alabama 12-1 (SEC automatic)
  3. Oregon 12-1 (Pac 12 automatic)
  4. Ohio State 12-1 (Big 10 automatic)
  5. Baylor 11-1 (Big 12 automatic [though we don’t actually know who the Big 12 would have chosen for the automatic bid, as they chose co-champions])
  6. TCU 11-1 (Big 12 at large)
  7. Arizona 10-3 (Pac 12 at large)
  8. Michigan State 10-2 (Big 10 at large)

There would be huge debate over the final two spots of the field. I chose Arizona and Michigan State, but the committee (going by their rankings) would have chosen Mississippi State and Michigan State. Georgia Tech was also in the mix for me.

My rationale in choosing Arizona and Michigan State: Arizona and Georgia Tech should not be penalized for losing their conference championship game, while Michigan State and Mississippi State did not play in theirs. Arizona separates themselves from the competition by playing a 9 game conference schedule, and by beating #3 Oregon earlier in the season, the best win among the four competing teams. They also beat post-season ranked Utah and Arizona State.

The other teams each played 8 game conference schedules. Mississippi State beat post-season ranked LSU (22) and Auburn (19). Both of their losses were good, against #2 Alabama and ranked, 9-3 Ole Miss. But, like Missouri, they also missed the top five teams from the opposite division (Missouri, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina), instead drawing Kentucky and Vanderbilt. They also lost two of their last three games. Part of their exclusion is punitive: their out of conference schedule was atrocious. Michigan State’s only two losses were to playoff teams – Oregon and Ohio State, though they only had one win against a post-season ranked opponent – Nebraska. This decision is a nod towards their scheduling Oregon at Oregon, because if they didn’t, they would have been 11-1 and in the mix for a 5 or 6 seed along with Baylor and TCU. Their courage in scheduling should be rewarded.

Georgia Tech also has a strong claim due to their close loss to Florida State in a conference championship game, but are undone by their two losses to unranked opponents (albeit a solid 9-3 Duke team and a not-terrible 6-6 North Carolina).

Either way, the final two seeds are a mess, which illustrates why I believe a 16 team tournament is a better solution.

The bracket would look like this:

(1) Florida State hosts (8) Michigan State
(4) Ohio State hosts (5) Baylor

(3) Oregon hosts (6) TCU
(2) Alabama hosts (7) Arizona

Not surprisingly, every opening matchup is marquee, (which wouldn’t be the case in a 16 team tournament with automatic bids for mid-majors). Florida State, which hasn’t looked overly impressive while staying undefeated, plays one of the most physical teams in the country in Michigan State. Ohio State hosts Baylor in a matchup of wide open, explosive offenses. The same can be said when Oregon hosts TCU. Alabama gets what appears on paper to be the easiest matchup, but Arizona’s prolific offense can give any team fits, and they have already proven that they can beat a top opponent with their victory over Oregon.

What do you think? Do you prefer this over a 16 team tournament?

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…