This year’s Apple Cup between Washington and WSU is not only great for the battle of the Pac-12 north, but also from the philosophical differences in offensive play-calling. We can use design and social theories to understand these two offenses while gaining insight on the future of football.
Many of you know that collegiate football was a big part of my past. In college I was recruited to play offensive tackle by Tom Cable– who is currently the assistant head coach and line coach of the Seattle Seahawks (he hand a hand in Marshawn Lynch’s success). My position coach in college was Tim Drevno, the former 49ers line coach from 2011-2013 (who sent 3 lineman to the Pro Bowl during that span) and currently is the University of Michigan Offensive Coordinator. Suffice it to say, I know pro-style, a.k.a. West Coast, offense schemes.
My high school coach, Nick Menegas, pioneered spread-based passing attacks in Idaho. Having led an under-populated Lewiston High team to multiple state title games. After a question I asked in a practice one day he remarked, “The Lineman understand the offense better than some of the coaches!” A lot of which is coming back watching the Air-Raid system Coach Leach pioneered.
So let’s compare and contrast.
Basics of the Pro-Style and Air-Raid Systems
Washington implements a “Pro-style” offense, similar to Stanford, commonly referred to as the “West-coast” system originated by Bill Walsh with the San Francisco 49ers during the 1980’s:
The foundation of this system is the zone-blocking scheme beginning with each offensive lineman running at a pre-defined angle relative to the line of scrimmage and either blocking people directly in their zone along that line or shedding the defender into a neighboring zone (a.k.a. lane or silo). Defensive stunts don’t matter as there is a lineman for every zone. This in-turn requires teams to stack the box to stop the run, opening up the play-action pass with the quarterback rolling out of a typical zone-run block to stretch the defense away from where the run would have gone. The lineman in this scheme are huge and slow — it doesn’t matter — come rain, snow, or a princess running the ball, all that matters is at least 3.3 yards every down. If you do, you ground-and-pound your way to a first down while chewing up the clock and controlling the game. It’s methodical and reliable.
WSU implements the “Air-Raid” offense originated by Iowa-Weslayen and WSU’S coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech in the 1990’s:
The foundation of this system is a shotgun spread-formation passing attack intended to create at least one open player every down. Here’s an article that discusses the origins at Iowa-Weslayen. Somewhere there will be a mismatched defender on a receiver. The quarterback will find the mismatch, exploit it, else the defense is spread far enough down the field for a 10 yard QB keeper. Luke Falk once mentioned in an interview that Coach Leach tell’s him to throw it unless he thinks he can run for 10 yards.
No coincidence, this prolific passing attack opens up significant room underneath for the running game, and the team is averaging now close to 8 yards per run! That’s more than double what the Pro-style system is geared to produce!
A big key of the Air-Raid is speed. Turn-around on plays is typically much faster in the Air-Raid system than the West-coast. Former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly turned the speed-dial up so fast as to even use numbered flash cards from the side-line to communicate to the entire offense while on the line of scrimmage. It’s quick-strike and hit-or-miss high scoring.
No surprise, the Air-Raid system is spreading (hah!) in popularity around collegiate football. Baylor, Houston, California, and many others just to name a few. It’s simply a more productive, higher scoring approach. But am I biased? What does physical law and social theories say about these offensive schemes?
Using Design Theory to Compare ‘Pro-style’ and the Air-Raid
Now let’s relate these two schemes to the information flow diagrams of spiral memes. Remember that these are generic information flows that are very difficult to represent in 2-D but I’m guessing these are close enough for most to associate to football.
I associate West-coast offense with diagrams C & D or the authoritarian and legal memes. The legal meme epitomizes the steady progress, predictable process, and reliability of the west-coast system. Once it’s working, turn the crank, little thought required.
I associate the Air-raid with diagram E or the performance meme. The performance meme is based on exploiting person to person match-ups with the opportunity to spread the ball around the field based on real-time reads. It’s higher entropy, higher scoring on average, and harder to defend. The steady increase in College football scores correspond to the shifts to these higher-speed systems.
So what does this mean about future offenses?
Physical limitations necessitate an upper limit on physical strength, speed, and endurance of the game. We’ve flirted with these physical limits for over a decade now. The rising tides of performance enhancing drug use and severe concussions leading to traumatic brain injuries are increasing calls to end the game. A big problem with the performance meme (diagram E above) is that your players are out on islands and can get crushed by a defender when out of position. It’s also difficult for the players to communicate in diagram E and adapt to each other in real time. In short, the real opportunities in football currently are real-time adaptation through autonomy enabled by increased communication, and sustainability by promoting increased load-leveling while decreasing injury.
Enter diagram F and the communitarian meme. This meme is typically associated with green-peace, co-ops and anything but football. However the clustering of players, tight communication networks, and sustainable values are key indicators of where we’re headed. But what will this look like on the football field? A great example is the A-11 offense that emerged in high-school football in 2009:
Notice the clustering that intentionally increases entropy and aids communication. What this also allows is increased protection in the form of blockers to protect the ball carrier. This future allows more screen plays, more athletic and involved linemen, and real-time adaptation within the clusters.
The next meme-level, level G, is represented poorly within the diagram. At this level we become aware of the unique roles and necessity of all of the sub-memes within the system. The New England Patriots are one of the few teams I’ve seen that can shift quickly between west-coast and spread offensive schemes. The reason they likely don’t go to the communitarian meme (diagram H) often is unnecessary rules governing the minimum number of down lineman next to the center in formations.
If we don’t legalistically create rules to preserve the status quo of the game of football, we allow for innovations that can actually improve the safety and sustainability of the game. This can allow us to adapt for the ever changing future and have a very neat and dynamic future ahead of us! The alternative, which the gradual decline of baseball over the last 2 decades shows that we can either choose to adapt and change for the future or slowly become obsolete.
So what does this mean about the 2016 Apple Cup?
Although WSU’s Air-Raid system has the brighter future, it’s no guarantee of victory. A good coach knows how to adapt the system, whatever it is, to the tools and players of the team — and that changes on a daily basis. The Information Flow diagrams above are governed by statistical thermodynamics — so while you can’t predict the outcome of a single event, you do know when the collective system is starting to have a phase change. Regardless, it’ll be fun!