Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Counter the Counter

I would say I am pretty knowledgeable about football. And by football, I mean the stuff that actually happens on the field.  But my good buddy Thomas Fritts puts me to shame. He is able to watch, enjoy (well as much as possible) and assess actual tactics (play-calling, reasoning, methodology, etc.) with the best of them. Whenever I have my own football team (either the Dallas Cowboys or my future son's middle school team in 20 years) Thomas Fritts will be on my staff. Enjoy the analysis. Take it to heart. Make your own opinions.

Usually before the season, the coaching staff comes together to evaluate their team. I have a pretty good idea of how it went - they went all in on Johnny. Every single one of them. And by "all in", I mean ALL IN on the fact that Johnny (and only Johnny) was going to carry this team to the promised land.

If we're being honest here, I don't exactly have a problem with that thought process. That cat had 1,400+ yards rushing last year and made all those vaunted SEC Defenses look straight stupid. You saw it. I saw it. The whole damn country saw it. But the old adage "too much of a good thing is a bad thing" came to fruition this season and bit our team square in the ass.

I'll give you one example that can be used as a comparison across all parts of the offense. It's a series of counter plays from the Bama game this past September. Follow along here and if you would, open your textbook errr...just fast forward to 1:16 and we can get started.

Ball: Aggie 41 yard line, Left Hash
DD (Down and Distance): 1st and 10
Formation: 5 Wide (2 to the left and 3 to the right) - shotgun
Play: B-ZAC 13 Skat

In simple English, what we have is Johnny sitting in the gun with 5 wideouts split evenly across the field (i.e. 2 to the boundary, or the short side, and 3 to the field, all the wide open space). LaQuvionte (#6) comes in motion "hot" and fakes receiving the pop handoff from Johnny. At the same time, the left side of the O-Line down blocks towards the middle of the field while the backside guard AND tackle pull around to the left, essentially creating a basic counter play. You see this play in the NFL every Sunday, but not quite in this formation and not with the QB keeping the ball. Anyways, Johnny gains 10 yards on the play, we all fist pump and all is right in the world.

Why was this play successful? I think that's easy; it was the first time we have ever run that play. Never did it with Kliff last year and didn't do it versus Rice or Sam Houston during the previous two weeks. Obviously there are other reasons as well, but I'll get to those in a minute.

Fast forward to 2:14.  (Here is the video again for your lack of scrolling pleasure).

Ball: Aggie 2 yard line, Right Hash
DD: 1st and 10
Formation: Trips Left - shotgun
Play: 14 Skat

This is the same play as the one I just wrote about above, but instead of bringing a slot receiver across as the fake, Johnny faked the inside zone to the left while the right side of the line down blocked and the LG and LT pulled around. Gained 8 yards. Thanks and Gig 'Em.

We ran the same play two more times (5:22 on a 2nd and 13 and 6:53 on a 1st and 10) for positive yards. Woo Hoo! Beatin' Bama!

Unfortunately, after that is where the staff, as a whole, shows its true colors.

Let me get on record with this: I really do like the theory of the play itself and the situation in which it is called. I like the run on 1st down because success on early downs leads to more manageable 2nd and 3rd downs. In this offense those can be coverted. Additionally, by using a sweep or zone play to implement your counter, you're essentially looking to capitalize on the over-aggressive tendencies by the defensive front. I like that thought process because you have to think Bama was focusing all week (and all summer) on trying to keep up with Johnny and his crew of receivers. This will, more often than not, precipitate over-aggressive game reactions. The Skat-counter play is a great way to combat such things, and thus is the exact reason it worked so well earlier in the game. Unfortunately, that didn't last.

At the 11:47 point in the video, A&M ran Skat for the 5th time. They were down 42-21 with 14:50 left to play in the 4th Quarter. It was first and 10 with the ball near the left hash. Interesting tidbit, three of the four times A&M ran Skat, it was 1st down, and all four times they ran Skat they ran it to toward the boundary (short side of the field). This time was no different.

As you can tell by the image attached, the defense was reading the play the whole freaking way. The left DE, Adrian Hubbard (#42), just stood there, reading the play and not getting up-field (this important later in the play). Clinton-Dix (#6) was the boundary safety on the play and came screaming up-field to make the tackle. CJ Mosely (#32) made Jake Matthews look stupid by slipping the block and not getting walled off to the inside. Once Johnny got to the outside, he saw #32 and #6 ready to make the play and tried to make something out of nothing by changing course and scrambling back to the right.

Sometimes Johnny can get away with that stuff... bailing on a play and making something out of nothing is a rare gift he possesses, but against such a fundamentally sound team like Bama, the opportunities are few and far between.

Johnny came back around to the right, and since #42 maintained his gap integrity, he was waiting on him. That strung the play out and directly contributed to #20 screaming up-field to make the play 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Don't mind the flag for the horse collar, I'm looking at why we ran that play on 1st down for the fourth time AND to the boundary for the 5th time.

If I can figure out that we're running this play towards the boundary on 1st down time and time again, don't you think Saban and Smart will catch on pretty quickly?  The answer is yes.

This is where Kliff was masterful. He knew when teams would start to anticipate his plays and he would essentially "Counter the Counter". Kliff would give the defense something they hadn't seen yet, causing them to overreact and flow too far, while then quickly countering that with a different play altogether (yet still "within" the original play. The perfect example I can come up with is the option pass against Bama last year. See the video :51 in. We hadn't run the short side speed option but maybe once all year before that game, so the defense reacted strong towards the play and over-pursued. That lead to a gap in the defensive coverage and a simple read for Johnny to make the throw down the field. Easy yardage.

McKinney and Spavital never countered the damn counter this year. After the first two or three times of successfully running a certain play, you should expect the defense to adjust accordingly and your production from that play will eventually drop off. It is the responsibility of the play caller and coaching staff to not only expect this, but to prepare for it as well. How would we do that? There are countless ways, for example, imagine Johnny faking the pop pass to Quiv and rolling left like the original play, but then taking a shot down field on a deep crossing route over the top (which would likely be open due to the boundary safety screaming up-field, as seen the fifth time they ran it).

Now THAT is the stuff that made KK the man and THAT is the stuff that we were missing all year. He was one step ahead the entire year and knew EXACTLY when to put the defense on their heels with his superb play calling and ability to "counter the counter". The worst part is the situation got worse as the season progressed due to the lack of creativity and innovation by the coaching staff. It was the same crap game after game after game after game.  The LSU game was just the great culmination of what was happening all year. No creativity, no adjustments, nothing at all. It's the Walking Dead with a Heisman winning QB and it makes me sick to watch it.

Now, who is really responsible for all this? I think it's primarily Spavital, but it really does go higher than that to Sumlin. As for Spavital, if you watch parts of West Virginia's season last year I truly think you'll get the same vibe as the second half of this year. Check out their running game versus Oklahoma when Tavon Austin ran for 300+ yards and then compare that to Tra Carson and Trey Williams in the 2nd half of Arkansas this year. Eerily similar in both teams were begging for them to run the ball, and for whatever dumbass reason, it took Spavital twice the amount of time it should have to figure it out. Then when the light bulb turned on, it stayed on. They even ran the same formations in those two games (pistol with a lead blocker and 3 wide outs). Spavital was behind both of these games and it's crazy to see how similar they truly were.

At the end of the day, Sumlin is just as guilty for all this. If he had any balls he'd say something, but unfortunately he has just became an enabler for this entire ordeal.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Getting a Grip on Reality

This season was a failure.  No way around it.  We came in as a top 5 team with national title aspirations.  We leave as the number 25 team in the nation hoping for an invite to the Chick-fil-a Bowl.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love Chick-fil-a with a fiery, fat passion (can there be a Chipotle Bowl soon?), but their bowl game doesn’t exactly excite me given our team’s expectations.   Even after heartbreaking hiccups against Alabama and Auburn we pretty much controlled our destiny to a BCS bowl game (win out against LSU and Mizzou, be the hottest SEC team outside of the championship, stroll into the Sugar Bowl, easy breezy).  But no, we screwed that up too.  LSU manhandled us.  And then we choked away the Mizzou game.  Johnny was obviously not full strength, Mike Evans disappeared, and our offensive coordinators shit the bed.  Honestly, I don’t know how the season could have ended anymore painfully.

So what now?

Well, first things first, we wait for the bowl games to be determined.  

Wait, check that.  Johnny just turned 21!  HAPPY BIRTHDAY JOHNNY!  I have very little doubt that Johnny blew it up for his big day (and rightfully so).  Johnny should drink for free on Northgate for the rest of his life (if he ever wanted to deal with the paparazzi).  

Ok, moving on.  The biggest priority between now and whatever underwhelming bowl game we play in, is Johnny’s health.  Get that shoulder squared away; let that bad thumb heal up.  Let’s make sure we bring the “A” team wherever we go.

So our defense didn’t look half bad against Mizzou.  Are they making positive strides?  Are the young guns getting more comfortable?  Did Mark Snyder wake up?  Whatever the case, our defense did their job against Mizzou.  If we hold Mizzou to 28 points, we should win that game, plain and simple.  If they put up a similar performance in our bowl game, we should roll without question.   

Except there is a question… a big one… and it’s not really a question… it’s a big stinking elephant in the room.  McKinney and Spavital sucked this year.  Johnny and our offense succeeded (early on) despite their best efforts to inhibit any and all creativity.  They abandon the running game (as if we didn’t have FOUR stud running backs), they refused to adjust when the game called for it, they squandered the talents of our Heisman winner (I know we want to keep Johnny healthy, but could we not incorporate a dynamic zone read package) and ultimately they put together the most vanilla game plan possible on a week to week basis.  Was Kliff really the lynchpin last year?  You can’t convince me that the loss of Joeckel and Swope had that much to do with our struggles this year.  We replaced them with the next stud on the factory line.  Where was Sumlin during all these embarrassing efforts?  Did he not step in?  Did he step in?  I love Sumlin more than anything and I am 100% behind his extension, but I am still baffled by our offense’s way to frequent ineptitude this year.  Sumlin is an offense mind, right?  Well, where was that offensive mind?  Again, I reiterate… was Kliff the missing piece (or the lost piece actually) this year?  Ugh, I lose sleep over these questions.

Back to Sumlin’s extension, I love it.  Coordinator shenanigans aside, I firmly believe he is the man to lead our program in the future.  He is going to recruit with the best of them and motivate with the best of them and at the end of the day I believe that’s the most important stuff from your head coach.  Good job Texas A&M, you stepped up, squashed the rumor mill and locked up OUR guy.

Is there a chance Johnny comes back after such a disappointing end to the season?  Does the Mariota decision sway him in either direction (I really have no idea)?  I assumed he would be gone last summer, but now I can’t help but to daydream on the 10% chance he might come back.  I have never loved watching a football player play football more than Johnny Manziel.  To see him back in maroon for one more year would be the ultimate Christmas gift.  Does Evans come back if Johnny does?  My head would explode. 

You can’t win it all every season.  I get that.  Obviously I would like to win something significant (a BCS game) to hang my hat on, but it looks like I will have to wait another year.  Expectations are a dangerous thing.  I never expected anything from the Cowboys this year (Jason Garrett is a lifeless dud) and thus have not been emotionally destroyed by their dramatic ebbs and flows each week.  But I had dreams this year for A&M.  I recovered quickly from Alabama.  But Auburn, LSU and Mizzou hurt with the best of ‘em.  They briefly took me back to the Fran and Sherm era.  Oh the dark times.

What can you do?  Not much really, just move on and focus on the positives (Swagcopters, recruits, Kyle Field, SEC network, etc.).  Thankfully, we have rid ourselves of the complacency of old.  We are in the SEC now.  We are in the Sumdog era now.  And I sure hope Sumdog has the “chops” to win something significant.