Sunday, March 14, 2010

Line it up and run it

Three minutes into the second half on a sunny late-September afternoon in 1995 at Notre Dame Stadium, University of Texas sophomore quarterback James Brown approached the ball on his own twenty-two yard line. His Longhorns trailed 13-19 after a first half featuring plenty of offense from both teams. There was plenty more to come. The exciting dual-threat Brown led his team on a seventy-eight yard scoring march to take a 20-19 lead. Texas’ defense answered with a stop to give Brown the ball back and momentum appeared to be shifting toward the ‘Horns. But after moving the ball just inside field goal range a huge sack put Texas in a second-and-seventeen situation stranded in no-man's land. On the next play receiver Justin McClemore dropped a pass that would have gained the yardage back. On third down Brown forced a careless pass toward Mike Adams and was picked off at the Notre Dame twenty-eight yard line. The Irish responded emphatically with a four play, one minute drive to the end zone that started a deluge. Randy Kinder's three-yard scoring run was the first of five Irish touchdowns in the game’s final twenty minutes. Texas managed only one sustained drive in the final period and crashed to a 55-27 defeat.

Explanations for the Texas loss were plentiful. The nation’s seventieth ranked rushing defense entered the game with its leader, defensive end Tony Brakens, suffering a fractured tibia and listed as a definite non-starter. In the event Texas head coach John Mackovic decided that with only a fifth-year senior who had never forced his way into the starting line-up to call on as backup, Brakens would have to play. Brakens ended the day with three quarterback hurries, equalling the total contributed by the rest of the defense. A unit that relied so heavily on contributions from walking-wounded could hardly be expected to contain a running back in Kindler who entered the game averaging 7.2 yards a carry. Kindler went on to finish the season with 809 yards. His fellow running back Autry Denson added 695, and fullback Marc Edwards contributed 717. This imposing three-man rushing rotation followed the lead of highly touted signal caller Ron Powlus, whose eventual season totals of 1,853 yards and twelve scores on a
60% completion rate prevented opposing defenses from simply loading the box. That backfield playing behind a solid line led by Dusty Ziegler, a senior center later drafted by the Buffalo Bills, made the Irish offense a force to be feared. Only in their opening loss, a two-point upset against eventual Big-10 champion Northwestern, did the Irish score less than twenty points all year. Little wonder that Notre Dame compiled 249 team rushing yards on 55 attempts against Texas. Powlus only threw the ball twenty-eight times, but completed sixteen for 273 yards and two scores with only one interception. Notre Dame exposed Texas’ defense. They did no less to several others before January.

The Texas defense ranked only fifth amongst Southwest Conference members through two games despite the ‘Horns having played two teams in Pitt and Hawaii that had gone 3-8 the previous season. But on the other side of the ball Texas had plenty to boast about. They traveled to South Bend ranked no worse than third in the Southwest Conference in passing, scoring, and total offense. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Davie noted Brown’s 6-0 career records as a starter and praised Texas’ offensive chemistry to reporters. In his post-game interview Davie summarized his team’s preparations, saying:

“Our whole thing coming in was that we didn’t want this to turn into a track-meet.”

In the end only Texas errors prevented that outcome. Despite the lop-sided final score Notre Dame only outgained the Longhorns by ninety-yards, 511 to 422. All of those extra yards came in the final twenty minutes, aided by two Texas interceptions and a lost fumble. During the first period Notre Dame had taken a 10-0 lead on a sixty-four yard punt return from Emmet Mosley. The last points of the half came from a blocked PAT which Allen Rossum returned eighty yards. Even with those mistakes the ‘Horns might have led at the break had Brown not lost a fumble on the Irish seventeen early in the second quarter. The half ended on a high snap that ruined a field goal attempt with only three seconds remaining. Through four quarters a combined four picks, two lost fumbles, and twelve points given up or thrown away on special teams nullified the impact of over four hundred yards in offensive output.

Only one Longhorn produced a flawless performance. Freshman running back Ricky Williams carried the ball fourteen times for seventy-three yards [a 5.1 yard average] and a touchdown. In only his third game as a Longhorn Williams had yet to assert himself as the central cog in Texas’ offensive engine. Mackovic preferred to keep his game plan balanced, hoping to outsmart his opponents as much as outmuscle them. Without doubt there are times and places for clever strategy and occasional trickery in football. But more often than not, coaches establish legacies of greatness because they recruit, manage, motivate, and utilize the best talent in the most effective way. As the old adage goes, no one ever won the Kentucky Derby on a mule. Even one month into his freshmen year it was clear that Ricky Williams was a stallion. Clear to all, that is, except Mackovic.

Texas rushed the ball thirty-seven times against Notre Dame and passed thirty-seven times: perfect balance. The 'Horns gained 178 yards from scrimmage on the ground and 335 passing . Even with five sacks costing most of the team's seventy-seven negative rushing yards the passing game was not unsuccessful in terms of raw offensive output. Mackovic clearly felt confident enough to stick with his game plan. Unfortunately, he continued to do so after the tide began to turn against Texas. Brown carried a shoulder injury into the game, and though he claimed afterward to have felt no discomfort his passing numbers diminished progressively. He hit one receiver, Mike Adams, five times for 141 yards in the first half alone but failed to find him once after the break. The second half disintegration of Texas’ passing game finished symbolically on a twenty-nine yard pick-six with forty seconds left on the clock. Only twice in the second half did Texas sustain field-length drives; Notre Dame seemed to march at will. Texas held the ball almost exactly fifteen minutes during the first half, losing the time of possession battle by less than a minute. The ‘Horns also converted four of nine third downs. After the break time of possession fell to barely eleven minutes, and third down conversations fell from nearly fifty percent to less than a third at two of seven. As an offensive battle in which two ranked teams combined for nearly a thousand total yards wore on, Mackovic's balanced strategy floundered. A declining completion rate from his quarterback put his team in third-and-long situations and resulted in turnovers.

After the game Lou Holtz praised Ricky Williams and stated that if he had the use of such a talented back he would put the ball in his hands just about every down. In fact that is basically what Holtz did with the perfectly capable backs in his own stable. Notre Dame ran the ball fifty-four times against Texas for 249 yards, passing only twenty-eight. The Irish ran wild, riding their option attack to an absolute rout. But there was no good reason Mackovic couldn’t have answered in kind.

Williams left UT after his senior season with a Heisman Trophy and as the NCAA all-time rush leader after surpassing Tony Dorsett’s twenty-two year old record of 6,082 yards by nearly two-hundred. It took Mackovic a surprisingly long time to give Williams the touches his performances demanded. After his first three games as a Longhorn Williams had carried the ball 38 times, a 12.6 carry-per-game average. His season total finished at only 12.7 cpg, despite his impresive yard-per-carry rate of nearly six on 166 rushes for 990 yards. As a sophomore he rushed 205 times for 1,272 — fifteen times a game for a 6.2 average. As a junior those figures increased 1,878 on 279 carries — twenty-five carries a game for a 6.73 average. That season Texas squandered a plethora of talent to somehow finish 4-7. Mackovic was duly fired and replaced with North Carolina head coach Mack Brown. In Brown’s first season Williams saw the ball 361 times [over thirty times per game], 2,124 yards [a 5.9 yard average], and won the Heisman.

Players generally improve with time and entrusting freshmen with too much responsibility is not often wise. But Ricky Williams was no ordinary freshman. His yard-per-carry rate remained steady around a highly impressive six from begining to end of his collegiate career. Williams was almost certainly as ready for thirty touches a game in his freshman campaign as he was when Mack Brown arrived in Austin three years later. Unfortunately for Texas fans, and ultimately for the man himself, Mackovic apparently lacked the vision or the courage to make a choice that seems simple in retrospect. His is a depressingly familiar cautionary tale of a coach out-thinking himself in an effort to employ the most innovative strategy.

Lou Holtz had the right idea. Even if you hand the other team your playbook, they still have to actually stop your guys.

(Sources: USA today CFB encyclopedia; Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Dallas Morning News; CFB data warehouse;

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Coaches and the culture of Notre Dame, part 2: "He's running what?!"

During April of 1930 Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne and would-be senior tackle Frank Leahy spent two bed-ridden weeks side-by-side in the Mayo Clinic. Rockne had missed much of the 1929 season due to several health issues including a leg ailment. Despite Rockne’s partial absence, his finely-tuned and thoroughly prepared team went undefeated and earned his third national championship. Leahy, a three-year letterman, hoped to contribute to a fourth championship as a senior. Unfortunately he badly injured his knee during spring drills, ending his playing career. Leahy was only average in size but always showed an iron will on the field, playing with an aggressive determination that caught the attention of his coaches. His mind for the game certainly impressed Rockne. As the two men convalesced, Leahy questioned his coach on every aspect of the game, picking his brain for knowledge and insight. Recognizing the young prodigy’s passion and latent talent, Rockne named him a student assistant coach the following season — a repeat national championship campaign.

Leahy was enamored of Rockne’s ability as a coach. He well knew the value of his coach’s experienced views on motivation, alumni relations, player management, tactics, and any number of other topics. But Leahy also possessed a self-assured confidence in his own abilities. As he grew into his own coaching career he did not become a slave to the Rockne mystique. Eventually that helped Leahy to be the first of only a handful of Notre Dame coaches to live with any measure of success in Rockne’s shadow.

After graduation Leahy spent a decade as a line coach, first at Georgetown and Michigan State, and at Fordham from 1933 to 1938. Fellow Notre Dame alumnus Jim Crowley [one of the famed four Horsemen] led some great Fordham teams in the later thirties that were noted for their fierce line play. While in New York, Leahy also passed the Rockne coaching torch on to future NFL legend Vince Lombardi, one of his most outstanding linemen. By 1939 Leahy’s resume was strong enough to earn a head coaching position at Boston College. Leahy wasted no time in leading the Eagles to their first ever bowl appearance, a narrow loss in Dallas' Cotton Bowl to Clemson. The following year Leahy's team went a perfect 11-0, claiming a national championship by beating General Robert Neyland’s Tennessee Vols in the Sugar Bowl. Boston College would not win another championship of any form until 2004.

While Leahy was busy leading the Eagles to preeminence in the East, his alma mater was enjoying far less notoriety under eighth-year coach Elmer Layden. Seven successful seasons with an overall win percentage of .724 at sister Catholic school Duquesne seemed to qualify Layden as successor for the disappointing ‘Hunk’ Anderson. His credentials as a noted former Rockne player didn’t hurt, either — Layden was another former horseman. Unlike the unpopular Anderson, Layden was likeable. He maintained good alumni relations and promoted the school’s image tirelessly. He even managed to heal a rift with the University of Michigan over scheduling that had lasted more than twenty years. Perhaps more importantly, Layden gave Notre Dame backers what they expected by continuing Rockne’s offense and offering virtually no innovations of his own.

"Outlined against a blue-grey October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again." Layden is first on the left.

Layden’s approach was hardly a disaster. After his initial 6-3 campaign his teams never lost more than two games in a single year. He stepped down after the 1940 season with a solid .726 win percentage. Layden's teams rarely lost to Notre Dame’s principle rivals [Army, Navy, and USC]. But making few mistakes is, unfortunately, not the right formula for succeeding Rockne. Layden’s tactics were cautious and outdated. While the talent available at Notre Dame and solid execution of fundamentals could carry any Irish team past most of the opponents on their annual slate, good coaching from more innovative opponents caused serious difficulty. In his final season Layden’s team reached 7-0 and earned undeserved acclaim before finally coming unstuck at home against Iowa in mid-November. Even without 1939 Heisman winner Niles Kinnick [who had entered the navy as a pilot] Eddie Anderson out-coached Layden, leading his Hawkeyes to a one-touchdown upset victory. The following week Notre Dame lost 20-0 at Northwestern and Layden began to feel enormous pressure. Finishing the season with a road win at Southern Cal did not prevent university vice-president Father John Cavanaugh from listening to rumbles of discontent emanating from influential ND backers. Immediately following the season Cavanaugh sent Layden’s assistant Chet Grant on a scouting mission to New Orleans.

Grant observed the Boston College Eagles in practice and attended the Sugar Bowl. Despite his position as assistant coach Grant only wanted the best for his alma mater and recommended that Cavanaugh hire Frank Leahy. Knowing it would cost him his own job, Grant reported:

“Boston College out-smarted, out-charged, out-stayed probably the best team in the country in as well-played a game as I ever saw. Boston College showed me things I didn’t think could be done… I became convinced that Leahy is a coach of destiny.”

Grant was right on two counts. He did lose his job when the new staff came in to South Bend, and Leahy was indeed a coach of destiny. His eleven seasons at ND brought in four national championships. Leahy retired after the 1953, utterly exhausted by his frenetic perfectionist approach, with a head-coaching record of 107-13-9. His win percentage of .864 remains second only in the history of college football to the .881 mark of Knute Rockne himself.

Leahy’s first season was an unbeaten campaign blemished only by a scoreless tie with Earl Blaik’s Army Cadets. The gifted, indefatigable and soon-to-be legendry coach gave every indication of his ability to live-up to Rockne’s legacy. Fans, alumni, and boosters voiced their confidence and joy. But that goodwill and the credit earned in an undefeated freshman season garnered seemed to evaporate when word leaked that Leahy intended to sacriligiously discard the ‘Notre Dame Box’ offense the following season. During spring practices Leahy began work on installing the new T-formation, used to great effect by the Chicago Bears in their stunning 73-0 destruction of Sam Baugh’s heavily-favored Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL championship game.

The Box was Rockne’s variation on the “shift” scheme engineered by the original football innovator Amos Alonzo Stagg. The story of the shift reads like a star-studded overview of the early history of football. The system revolved around a series of pre-snap backfield movements decided at the line of scrimmage according to what the offensive signal-caller saw from the defense. Stagg was nothing if not creative. As a leading member of the collegiate game’s rule committee he was quick to embrace the new forward pass in 1906, drawing up a host of new plays to the delight of his University of Chicago coaching staff. Jesse Harper, a young graduate assistant, learned Stagg’s new scheme and took it with him to Notre Dame when he became head coach there in 1913. The game’s East Coast establishment and press were always more conservative than Stagg and remained skeptical toward the forward pass. Harper shattered that conservatism one historic day in Yankee Stadium. He spent his first pre-season in South Bend practicing forward pass plays with his backfield starters. On November 1st 1913 Notre Dame travelled to New York and stunned a highly-rated Army team, winning 35-13 on the strength of several deep passes from Gus Dorais to Knute Rockne. Later as Harper’s assistant Rockne adjusted Stagg’s shift patterns, dropping the halfback a few feet from the line's unbalanced strong-side to a more flexible backfield position. In Rockne’s system the four backs lined up in a square [or 'box'] pattern and could shift quickly to pass or run to either the strong or weak side. This system was complex, requiring excellent coaching and rigorous practice. Notable Irish alums who learned the Box playing for Rockne included Culry Lambeau, the founder and inaugural coach of the Greenbay Packers, and Frank Thomas, the Wallace Wade's heir at the University of Alabama. Thomas coached several greats at Alabama, including the young Paul “Bear” Bryant and his teammate Don Hutson, who set numerous NFL receiving records out of the Box system playing for Lambeau’s Packers.

Rockne’s tactical scheme saw widespread success and was clearly endorsed by some eminent football greats. Little wonder therefore that no one at Notre Dame thought about changing philosophy for more than a decade after his death. Even while complaining of Layden’s increasingly ineffective, predictable and stodgy teams, no one in South Bend seemed to view the system as the problem rather than the man. The truth was that, like all systems, the box offense had a limited lifespan and inevitably good defenses caught up. It took a man possessed of Leahy’s vision and iron will to see that fact and act accordingly.

In the new-fangled T-formation Leahy’s Fighting Irish opened the year with a 7-7 tie at Wisconsin before losing their home-opener to a Georgia Tech team that eventually finished an unimpressive 3-6. Critics willing to double-guess Leahy came out in droves to howl at his foolish audacity in adopting an unproven offense. Backers clamored for a return to “Notre Dame football” and the following week, despite a convincing win over Stanford, Leahy checked into the Mayo Clinic suffering from “extreme nervous tension”.

Naturally Leahy’s critics disappeared after Notre Dame won a national championship the following season. By the time he retired Leahy had cemented an unquestionable legacy of coaching greatness. Furthermore, the T formation had surpassed Glenn “Pop” Warner’s ‘Single Wing’ variation on Stagg’s shift as the most widely used offense system in football. No doubt few if any of Leahy’s conveniently forgetful critics ever publically ate any humble pie.

Following another disappointing 6-6 season in 2009, Notre Dame parted ways with Charlie Weis. They replaced him with Brian Kelly, erstwhile head coach of the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. Kelly is an unapologetic devotee of pass-first variations of the spread offense. Recent Notre Dame teams have struggled with numerous problems, but among the more prominent and painful to watch has been an embarrassing inability to run the football. No small amount of nay-saying skeptics on Irish internet chat-boards — which are rarely noted as gathering places of rational, far-sighted individuals — are asking whether Kelly’s scheme is the best way forward for an offense that already can’t run five yards against Powder Puff defenses.

Pass-first spread offenses aren’t my personal cup of tea, and there are plenty of reasons not to like Kelly's system; but the man's resume isn’t one of them. After two decades as a head coach and two upward moves to higher level jobs Kelly owns a .747 win percentage with an overall record of 171-57-2.

My money is on an Irish revival.