On the heels of the Marist poll reflecting that Northeasterners are unusual in that they do not know or care about college football, here is Gregg Easterbrook attempting to write about the Oregon offense. Let’s count how many mistakes
our favorite this NFL fan makes when he steps out of his comfort zone:
First, let's examine what Oregon is doing. The blur offense combines four existing ideas -- the "pistol" set developed at the University of Nevada (itself a high-scoring team, averaging 43 points); the single-wing run fakes used since football became a sport, then forgotten as old-fashioned, and now revived; the triple-option that is a standby of high school and college football, though very rare in the NFL; and the spread set that was considered radical a decade ago but now is practically conventional.
My goodness, this is going to be a fish in a barrel Fisking. Oregon’s offense is not a heavy user of the Pistol. Watch the highlights of their shelling of Stanford. Not a single play in this highlights package comes from the Pistol. Every touchdown was scored from a normal shotgun, one-back set. Additionally, Easterbrook would be OK if he claimed that Oregon’s offense uses option principles, but he’s wrong when he uses the term “triple option” because one of the three options that a quarterback had in that offense was to bury the ball in the fullback’s gut. As best I can tell, Oregon does not use two running backs (all of its touchdowns against Stanford come from one-back sets), so it’s wrong to say that Darron Thomas has three running options on Oregon’s base plays when really, he has only two. (There is a triple option angle to the Spread ‘n’ Shred when a quarterback runs a zone read play and also has the option to throw a bubble screen if a corner or safety crashes from the outside, but I don’t recall Oregon using this approach. There is also a two-back version [or a back and a slot receiver version] that has a dive man and a pitch man, but I don't recall Oregon using this approach too much. Unlike Easterbrook, I’ll admit to not being an expert on the Ducks’ version of the Spread, so I’m willing to be corrected on this.)
The pistol set means the quarterback is 4 yards behind center, rather than 7 yards as in a shotgun. (A pistol is smaller than a shotgun.) Like the high school version of the spread, the blur involves lots of hitch screens, in which the quarterback quickly throws sideways to a wide receiver who's hitching. Being only 4 yards behind center means the quarterback gets the snap a bit faster and the hitch screen throw has slightly less distance to travel, arriving one second earlier. Saving a second helps accelerate the tempo. In the pistol, the tailback is behind the quarterback rather than next to him as in the shotgun. This means the tailback takes his handoff moving forward with momentum, rather than standing still as in a shotgun's draw action.
I’ve never heard someone claim that an advantage of the Pistol is that a screen pass gets to a receiver quicker. We’re not talking about a second faster; we’re talking about a fraction of a second faster. The major advantage is the second one that Easterbrook briefly describes: the offense combines a traditional downhill running game with the advantages of the shotgun (quarterback gets the ball facing the defense).
The old single-wing involved constant confusion about whether the ball was going forward, end-around or to a pitchman who came in motion from the outside back toward the formation. The Miami Dolphins rediscovered single-wing fakes in 2008 with the Wildcat formation, and the blur offense uses lots of single-wing confusion. Sometimes the quarterback fakes to the tailback into the line and then goes into the opposite side of the line in an old-fashioned move, now being rediscovered, called the "midline option." Sometimes the quarterback sprints outside with the motion-man pitchman behind him, basically a high-tech variation on the triple-option. Often, the quarterback executes a zone-read with the tailback. Everybody's doing the zone-read in college football this season; the blur offense just executes it really quickly.
Yes, the Miami Dolphins “rediscovered” the single wing offense if by “rediscovered,” you mean “hired Arkansas’s quarterbacks coach and implemented an offensive set that the Hogs had been using for two years, leading NFL fans to go wild over a new idea that college fans had seen for a while.” And no, Gregg, you have no idea what the midline option is. It doesn’t involve a fake to the tailback going into the line; it involves the tailback going outside with an unblocked defensive tackle hopefully following him, at which point the quarterback cuts inside into the space vacated by the defensive tackle. But nice try.
Pass patterns are minimal, which keeps the quarterback's mind from melting under the pace. Oregon runs hitch screens, then occasionally fakes a hitch screen and sends a receiver on the fake side deep. That's it -- that's the blur offense passing tree.
Do any Oregon fans want to comment on the claim that the only pass patterns in the offense are hitch screens (as opposed to bubble screens or any one of a number of different types of screens that the Spread ‘n’ Shred deploys) and fly patterns?
The blur offense has maybe 20 plays, though several involve an option about who carries the ball. A very simple playbook allows Oregon to perfect the execution and snap really quickly. Players on the field couldn't possibly understand hand signals for a conventional 50-play college playbook.
I haven’t watched enough Oregon football to comment on the claim that the playbook is only 20 plays long, but I’m pretty damn sure that Easterbrook hasn’t, either. By way of comparison, the Urban Meyer version of the offense has a lot more plays and it is plenty effective (or at least it was when the Gators had a quarterback who could run the ball. That reminds me of the most basic element of the Spread ‘n’ Shred that Easterbrook doesn’t mention: the offense deploys the quarterback as a running threat and therefore outnumbers the defensive front).
Fantastic offense hardly ensures a BCS bowl win for the Ducks. Oklahoma set the NCAA scoring record at 58 points per game in 2008, using a variation on the high school-style Franklin spread. The Sooners went on to lose to Florida in the BCS title game.
Does Easterbrook mean the Tony Franklin spread? If that’s the case, then no, that’s not what Oklahoma ran. Through the miracle of a Google search, we can determine that no one has described Oklahoma offense as the Franklin spread. (Want to try again, Greg? Try starting with Kevin Wilson and the Northwestern version of the Spread.)
One last thought on Easterbrook’s sudden infatuation with Oregon: it’s not surprising that he would fixate on Oregon’s version of the spread (as opposed to Florida’s or Michigan’s, for example) because Easterbrook loves to bitch about "football factory" schools and by focusing on cute little Oregon with its coach from New Hampshire and its Donald Duck mascot, he doesn’t have to worry about sullying himself. If only he understood the terminology that he tosses around.