All offensive coaches should choose a sound, but contrarian, offense. I came out with a book on that called The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense in May, 2008.
Sound means the offensive scheme can work when executed correctly. In theory, you could have a brand new offense that’s sound. There have been a number of them over the years. In this article, I am more referring to existing offenses that have been proven to be sound by years of onfield success in actual games.
Contrarian means unusual or, even better, unique. See my Contrarian book for details.
Most football teams run the currently-fashionable offenses. Nowadays, that typically means a one-back or two back with a tight end and flanker on one side and a split end on the other. There are slight variations like having a second back align outside of the tight end or weak tackle and the shotgun snap. Spread option, which was contrarian and very successful as a result, is rapidly becoming fashionable.
If you polled the defensive coordinators of your opponents, asking them what offense they would prefer that you run, they would choose the offense I just described. Why? It is the one they are used to, the one they are most comfortable with, the one they will see the most, the one they will practice against week in and week out all season.
If you run the offense that your opposing defensive coordinators most want you to run, you should be horsewhipped. If you were crooked and taking money to throw a game, one way to help that happen would be to run the offense the opposing defensive coordinator wanted you to run.
Contrarian coaches I have known say that whenever they run into their opposing coaches at clinics and such they always ask,
When are you gonna stop running that damned ______ offense? Every year the week we play you we have to totally change our practice and defense then we get no further benefit from that work because no one else runs that damned offense.
I call that one of the mating calls of contrarian coaches’ opponents.
To a coach who understands the principle of contrarianism, they are saying the exact opposite of what they should be saying if they really want him to stop running it. That kind of complaint from opposing coaches is music to the ears of a coach who understands the contrarian advantage.
At the end of December, 2006, I was interviwed by Coaching Management magazine about contrarian approach to football coaching. When the interviewer asked me to name the most contrarian college coaches, I said Texas Tech’s Mike Leach and Florida’s Urban Meyer.
On 1/8/07, Meyer demonstrated the power of contrarianism by slaughtering favored, undefeated Ohio State in the BCS national championship game. Throughout the game, the TV announcers repeatedly commented on Meyer’s unusual approachat one point noting that he said he liked to “bother” defenses and that the way to do that was run the option, empty sets, and unbalanced lines.
I would say that’s a start. You can get a lot more contrarian than that. And Meyer did. One of his team’s touchdowns against Ohio State came out of a full-house I or capital-I formation. That is, he had all four offensive backs in a straight line behind the center. That formation was used by the University of Maryland in ancient times. I had never seen it used in a TV game. But readers of my books have seen it, for example, on page 17 of my book Gap-Air-Mirror defense where I show how to align against it.
Meyer also used two quarterbacks with greatly different styles.
Paradoxically, Meyer’s success with his contrarian offense will likely cause other coaches to adopt his offense, thereby making it less contrarian or even the opposite of contrarian. By definition, the contrarian coach does not mimic anyone, even a fellow contrarian coach. He especially does not mimic a successful contrarian coach whose approach has become fashionable.
In fact, offensive coaches do not run the offense their opposing defensive coordinators most want them to run to help the other team. Rather, they run it because everyone else runs it and therefore it protects them from being criticized for choosing the wrong offense.
Some run it because it’s all they know and they are afraid to try something new or would not know how to do it if they did.
If you run the same offense as everyone else, and you lose, you can deflect blame onto the players. How? By using subtle phrases like, “Someone needed to make a play and no one did” or “The best team won.”
If you do somethinganythingthat is different from the other coaches in the area, and you lose, people might blame you for doing the thing that’s differentclaim that was the reason you lost. If, on the other hand, you run the same offense as everyone else, you can say, “It couldn’t have been the offense I chose. That’s the same one the league champion used.”
Many would say that the non-contrarian offense must be the best because the team that won the league championship used it. C’mon! Use your head! If every NFL team ran a two-back pro set, a team running the two-back pro set would win the Super Bowl. Would that mean the two-back pro set was the best offense? Hell, no!
Winning the Super Bowl or the college national championship means very little with regard to what offensive scheme is best because virtually everyone is running the same offense for reasons that do not relate to whether it is the best.
If you want to use the league championship to reveal which is the best offense, you need to find a league where there is parity with regard to player and coach talent and you need to make sure every team in that league is running a different offense. Then, the league champ is probably revealing which scheme is bestat least among the schemes used in that league.
If you select a sound, but contrarian, offense, your players get better at it every day of the season as they gain experience with it. If your offense is unique among your opponents, that is, they only see it when they play you, each of them only gets one week to prepare against it. So the contrarian advantage grows with each passing day and peaks in the playoffs, especially the final game of the playoffs. Isn’t that precisely what you want?
The ideal contrarian offense would not only be unique among your opponents this season, it would be something neither your opponent players or coaches have ever seen in their careers. I ran the single wing for several seasons. Away-game public address announcers called it the shotgun, which it most definitely is not. Until I straightened him out, our own announcer kept calling all of our running plays “the keeper.” (In the single wing, the ball is snapped directly to the running back, not to a quarterback.)
Our opponents generally did not know what to call it or how to defend it. They tried to defend it using their standard 5-3 defense. Since we were unbalanced, they had 5 1/2 guys on each side of the center. We had eight guys on one side.
We also generally ran power running plays. However, our opponents insisted on putting a cornerback out wide on each side and a safety deep in the middle in addition to stationing one linebacker relatively wide in the box on our weak side. So although the safety and one corner were on the same side as our eight guys, they were far from the point of attack. That meant we had eight of us against four of them on the play side of the line when we ran inside.
We never ran to the weak side except by way of a counter that we would only run when the weak side linebacker started flying out to the strong side too quickly. So all their weakside players were essentially out of the game.
Most importantly, the rhythm of the single wing is quite different from the rhythm of the common quarterback-under-center offense. Linebackers in the usual 5-3 or other defenses are trained to, and in the habit of, reading the play on the first or second step of the opposing quarterback and his running backs. Then they blast off in that direction.
But in our single wing, the first three seconds or so were consumed by the long snap floating through the air to the running back and the running back heading to the strong side. On his third step, he might continue on a sweep, cut up to an off-tackle play and keep the ball, or cut up in the off-tackle direction only to hand the ball off to the wing going back to the other side.
So the opposing linebackers really cannot read the play until the running back passes the wing. But that’s too late. While all that was going on, our blockers are heading for their blocking targets like speeding freight trains. The linebackers may not have known where the play was going, but our guys did.
This is one of the benefits you can get from contrarianism. The opposing team’s habits can be used against them by running plays that require an opposite response to defend effectively. The Japanese call this ju jitsu. This is well illustrated by the contrarian option offense where the defense is forced to play assignment football which is the opposite of the read-and-react football they otherwise play. Normally, the offensive players have assignments and the defensive players react to the behavior of the offensive players. In the option offense, that’s reversedthe offensive quarterback reacts to the behavior of the defense and if the defense tries to react to the offense and does not stick to their assignments, they will get killed.
When I coached at Miramonte High School in Orinda, CA in 1994 and 1995, we were perennial contenders. But in 1995, we were upset by lightly regarded College Park. Why? They ran the option. Our star defensive end got killed that night. When the coaches asked him what happened, he said he kept not being able to figure out who was going to end up with the ball: the quarterback or the pitchback. Since they had spent all week telling him that he must not try to figure out who would get the ball, that he must tackle the quarterback every single time, this was exasperating to say the least. College Park had beaten us by the edge they got from the contrarian advantage.
I am not pushing the single wing. I only use it to illustrate the problems a contrarian offense causes a defense.
In 2000, I was the first speaker at the annual Single Wing Symposium. I began my remarks along the following lines.
I am not a single-wing booster. I would not run the single wing because I love it. Rather, I ran it and currently advocate it as one good offense only because it is currently contrarian. 80 years ago, I would not have been caught dead at a Single Wing Symposium. Back then, the single wing was not contrarian. If the single wing comes back and becomes common, I will stop recommending it.
What is currently contrarian varies around the U.S. In some areas, the wing-T is popular. In others, it would be contrarian.
Selecting a contrarian offense starts with identifying what offenses your opponents will face during their season. Ideally, you would then select a sound offense that your opponents would only see when they played you.
It could be an old offense, like the double wing or short punt (which was not a special team), or a new one like the spread option. It could be an offense that is currently fashionable in the next state, but not in your area. All you’re trying to do is be different from what your opponents will be used to defending against when they play you. At the very least, try to be the only one in your league using your offense.
It’s not just the X’s and O’s. You can and should consider making other aspects of your offense contrarian as well, namely:
• tempo (whole-game hurry-up or maximum slow-down)
• line splits
• offensive line in two-point stance
• unusual snap (shotgun or long snap)
• no huddle
• unusual cadence e.g., silent, first sound
• option-type plays including option pitch or run-pass option
• sight-adjustment pass routes
• unusual blocking schemes, e.g., zone blocking, long traps, peel backs, crack backs
• unbalanced line (fewer than two interior linemen on one side of the center)
• trick or unusual plays like sprint draw, fake scrimmage kick, reverse pass
• snap to more than one back (most often seen nowadays in fake scrimmage-kick plays)
• varying back and forth between various of the above tactics
• throwing a pass to the quarterback
• backward pass or handoff to an interior lineman
• passing or running two-thirds or more of the time (Bellevue, WA broke De La Salle High School’s 151-game win streak by never passing once in their 2004 game)
• completely balanced formation (double wing, double-tight wishbone or T, ace, double slot)
• 11-man offense, that is, one in which there in no QB going off duty, e.g., option, any direct-snap offense, indirect-snap double wing, QB draw play, QB keeper
• offense designed to take advantage of a change in the rules that just went into effect
• key-breaker-type plays versus defenses that are disciplined to read and react quickly to keys
One head varsity coach I worked for said he would not use a contrarian offense because he would not know how the various defenses would align against it. That, in turn, would make it hard for him to plan and practice run-blocking schemes.
I do not think that is a good enough reason not to go contrarian.
For one thing, I was forced to run non-contrarian offenses when I was a freshman and junior varsity high school coach. I wish all of our opponents had aligned the way we expected. But every year at least one would align in some defense we had not seen them run before and which our scout team had not depicted during our week of practice leading up to the game. So you don’t need to run a contrarian scheme to run into that problem. You might run into it more often, but you should be able to deal with it the same way you have to deal with it when you run a common offense.
I highly recommend that all teams run at least a speed option play. Probably, you should run both a speed option and a play-action pass that starts out looking like your speed option. I will discuss why in another article. For now, I will just say that once a competent opponent sees that you have an option play, they should refrain from blitzing or using man pass coverage. And they really need to align in a seven-in-the-box, cover four defense. That is, either a 4-3-4 or a 5-2-4.
Bud Wilkinson invented the Oklahoma defense to stop teams that were imitating his contrarian and record-breaking split-T option offense. The Oklahoma defense is a sort of a 5-2-4. In recent years, Monte Kiffin, Pete Carroll and Lyle Setenich have been running a variation of it.
Option teams frequently use number rules for offensive blocking. That is, you block #1, you block #2, and so forth. The defenders are numbered from the center out or the sideline in. The defenders can align in various ways, but there will always be a #1 and a #2 and so forth. The reason option teams can get away with these blocking rules is that the defense is restricted as described above in order to be defensively sound against the option. Since the defense cannot vary their alignment much, the number blocking system is adequate.
So even if you are not predominantly an option team, just having the option may be enough to restrict the defensive alignment thereby allowing you to use a number blocking system. Between the alignment restrictions necessary to defend the option and the number blocking system, your players should be able to know their blocking assignments in spite of your contrarian offense.
Legendary Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes used to say that the threat of the pass was more important than the pass itself. Indeed, and that is more true of the option. You do not need to run it much. You only need to have it. Of course, if the defense insists on aligning in a manner that is not option sound, then you would option them to death.
You can also use blocking rules that cover all situations. We did that in 2004 on a freshman team I coached. Took us a while to figure it out, but we finally were able to give each player a rule along the lines of 1. block the first defensive lineman to your left up to the nose of your teammate on your left and if no DL is there 2. block the first linebacker to your left. Every offensive player wore a wrist coach with a card listing the assignment rules unique to his position.
And, at the cost of slowing you down a bit, you can make line calls at the line of scrimmage before the snap.
Whatever solution you choose, you already have to have a way of dealing with unexpected defensive alignments, games, and stunts in your common offense. You just use that more often when you run a contrarian offense. Plus, as the months and years go by, you will see how the various opponents align against you, so it’s not a permanent problem.
The variety of offenses declines as you move up in level. That is, the NFL teams all seem to run the same offense. At the college level, you see some variety. For example, the service academies have been fond of the option in recent decades. Urban Meyer ran the spread option at Utah and Florida. Division III Willamette runs the fly. Delaware used to be famous for the wing-T. Texas Tech runs a maniacal spread.
At the high school level you see even more variety, albeit usually of recently-fashionable offenses like the multiple I, veer, wing-T, double wing, wishbone. Although you would not know it unless you attended the annual Single Wing Symposium, there are a bunch of high school teams around the country that run the single wing.
The most variety is at the youth level. One reason is my books which recommend the veer, single wing, direct-snap double wing, indirect-snap double wing, and the short punt for the youth level. I get the impression that I now have at least one reader in almost every youth league, so there is typically one team that drives everyone else crazy with a “nutty” offense. Also, many youth coaches use their old high school or college offense. Since they played 30 years ago, that results in many golden oldie offenses like the wishbone. Finally, many youth coaches try to imitate college and pro offenses they see on TV.
Lack of variety in offenses means lack of contrarianism. There is virtually no contrarianism in the NFL. Marv Levy’s Bills ran the whole-game no-huddle which was a contrarian tempo. They went to four straight super bowls. Before them, the Bengals went from the outhouse to the penthouse in a season or two by adopting the contrarian whole-game no-huddle.
Bill Walsh had the West Coast Offense, although I would not characterize that as very contrarian. It just appeared to be greater use of the short pass and backs as receivers. In any event, he had a great run of success. At least one of his players said it was just great attention-to-detail coaching and great player drafting and acquisition, not the scheme.
The biggest victory margin in NFL history came when the Chicago Bears defeated the Washington Redskins 73-0 for the NFL championship in 1940 (or NPFL as it was then called). How did they do that? In part by employing the new and contrarian T formation against opponents who were all using the single wing.
So contrarianism is not totally absent in NFL history. And it has a great record of success. But rare is the coach today who is willing to try it.
At the college level, the record is similar. The consecutive-wins record is still held by Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma team that ran the then new and contrarian split-T offense (precursor of the wishbone). Don Faurot had run it previously at Missouri but Wilkinson ran it better. The average-rushing-yards-per-game record is still held by Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma teams that ran the then new and contrarian wishbone.
Vince Lombardi said, “What would happen if someone came out with a single-wing offense? It would embarrass the hell out of us.” Maybe so, but don’t hold your breath. (There was a single-wing play once on Monday Night Football a few years back.)
A run-oriented offense like the single wing would certainly be contrarian in the NFL. And there is no written rule against it. But there is probably an unwritten rule. The NFL owners discovered courtesy of the old AFL that fans like passing. So NFL teams must throw the ball a lot or they will add a written rule saying so to the rule book. There’s no business like show business. Although I think the NFL would be a lot more interesting if each team had its own offense.
That NFL problem infects the colleges. When a coach is trying to recruit a quarterback or receiver or even other positions, the kid wants to be assured that the college is running a “pro-style” offense so his chances of being drafted are maximized. Never mind that they only draft 200 guys a year out of tens of thousands of college players and that only about half of them make it.
So many college coaches are having their offenses determined by unrealistic 18-year-old high school seniors who, in turn, are choosing the one previously selected by NFL coaches who, as a practical matter, have no choice at all.
Once, when I was running the single wing in youth football, a “stage father” took his eighth-grade son to another team so he could quarterback a pro-style offense. The kid later played quarterback in high school, but was not recruited. He got a partial baseball scholarship. So the mimic-the-NFL disease infects all levels to an extent.
Generally, because they all run pretty much the same offense, the colleges are competing for the same high school football players. A blue chip is a blue chip. Wouldn’t it be nice to be going after players the other colleges don’t want? Well, you can. Just choose a contrarian offense the nature of which causes you to require good athletes, but not the same type of good athletes sought by the other coaches.
Tommie Frazier comes to mind. The quarterback of Nebraska who led them to their first national championship. That 1995 team is considered by many to be the best team in the history of college football. Frazier came in second for the Heisman. But he never got drafted by an NFL team. Why? Nebraska ran the option.
Could an NFL team run the option? They all say no because the QBs make too much and could not be allowed to get tackled that many times over a 16- to 20-game season. Well, I am not an expert on the NFL team structure and contract rules, but it seems like you could plan on more quarterbacks than the usual three, pay them less, and have others in the wings on the taxi squad or some such. If you were the only option team in the NFL, you would not have to compete for the services of the quarterbacks in question. You’d be the only game in town for them.
The existence of such a team might inspire a few college coaches to adopt the option and use the existence of the option NFL team as a recruiting point.
At both the NFL and college level, they have the opportunity to acquire great athletes relatives cheaply and easily, but they do not because the athletes in question are “tweeners.” That is, they are a little off the exact specifications the team needs. But those specifications stem from the offensive scheme the coaches have chosen.
Why not work backwards? Identify the best athletes that can be drafted or recruited and then design the offense to fit their talents. Coaches often have to do a little of that when they inherit a team or simply do not get what they wanted in the draft or recruiting season. But that is a hodge-podge, incremental version of what I am talking about. I am talking about designing an offense from the ground up to utilize readily-available great athletes that do not fit the offenses of your opponents.
This is sort of the Moneyball approach. For example, A’s GM Billy Beane noticed that funny-looking players who got on base a lot were available cheap so he drafted them or signed them as free agents. It worked extremely well.
What I am advocating is to start with a contrarian drafting or recruiting strategy that seeks the best athletes who are not sought after by teams using common offenses. Then build a contrarian offensive scheme on top of your contrarian draft or recruiting personnel.
The NFL is unionized. Generally, unions favor equal treatment for all members except that years of service are rewarded with higher pay and benefits. Indeed, the word “collective” was popular with the Soviet governmentan organization that regarded contrarianism as a capital crime. So the use of contrarianism in the NFL is probably prevented to an extent by the terms of current and future players’ union’s CBAs. Unions also generally oppose change and a switch from a me-too NFL offense to a unique offense would require radical, rapid change.
In addition to the rules imposed by the union, there are additional rules imposed by the owners in the form of roster size limits, payroll cap, and so forth. Again, the rules are designed to create equality or as the owners would call it, parity.
They say it is in the interests of the League to have parity among the teams. That is, they all have a chance to win the Super Bowl over a five or ten year time span. Not like baseball where you have teams like the Yankees dominating and teams like the Cubs perennially out of the World Series. But Major League Baseball at least allows individual excellence like that depicted in the book Moneyball. It is hard to imagine the football equivalent of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane’s Moneyball approach because of all the NFL and NFLPA rules designed to produce parity.
I’m all for giving each team an equal chance to win with regard to spending limits and the draft. I recognize the superior entertainment value of a League with no Yankees equivalent. However, when parity takes the form of uniformity of offensive tactics and strategy, it is not entertaining at all. It is boring.
When I first started to coach on my sons’ youth teams, we were the slow affluent suburban team competing against faster inner-city teams. The other adults involved were demoralized and defeatist about the speed differentials. I complained they were giving up too easily with comments like,
Hey! We are not competing in track and field. This is football. It’s multidimensional. We have all sorts of ways to compete. We need to prevent the game from turning into a track meet. We have to try to do what we are good at and stay away from situations the opponents are good at.
For example, I concluded that we could compete with the faster teams as long as they were in first or second gear, but not third gear. So I devised a special defense in which we swarmed into the opposing offensive backfield as soon as the ball was snapped so we could tackle the ball carrier when he was still in first or second gear. It worked.
The ’ol ball coach Steve Spurrier now coaches South Carolina. He was previously very successful at Florida prior to an unsuccessful stint at the Redskins. When he was winning the national championship at Florida, he was asked why he ran a different offense than other teams (contrarian). His answer was something along the lines of,
I don’t think I can win by coaching the off-tackle play better than the other coaches.
But that’s exactly what the current structure and group norm of the NFL does. It forces everyone to compete in only two dimensions: draft/free agent maneuvers and outcoaching a standard set of plays. There appears to be no other way to compete, no chance of a T formation, split-T, or wishbone type innovation taking the league by storm.
Evolution? Permitted. Revolution? No way!
If you were a tactical or strategic football genius, you would not want to coach in the NFL. You would be better off in college, high school, or youth or European semi-pro leagues where greater deviations from a group norm are permitted, albeit only in a relative sense. Innovation takes rare quantities moral courage throughout all levels of football. Indeed, many of the greatest football innovations were invented by high school coaches like Emory Ballard’s option and Glen Ellison’s run-and-shoot, which lives on in the form of sight adjustment passing routes.
There is a summer, semi-pro American football league in Europe. I get the impression that many U.S. coaches have coached in that league in part to try out new ideas that they are afraid to try out here. I heard that one such coach referred to his European players as his “guinea pigs.” Those players should consider themselves lucky. The sport would be better off if there were more such opportunities, ideally by reforming the mainstream college and pro leagues.
Is NFL Europe a league where coaches can try new things? Not that I have noticed. It looks like a carbon copy that only serves the purpose of trying new players, not new tactics or strategies.
What about the Canadian Football League or Arena Football? Again, I have not noticed either being a bastion of innovation. Plus they have different rules so some things that would be tried and work there might not work under standard rules.
James Surowiecki wrote an excellent book called the Wisdom of Crowds that was published in 2004 and 2005. The basic idea of the book is that, in certain situations, the average answer by a lot of people will be as good as or better than the answer made by the best member of the group. Those who discovered this phenomenon have not figured out why it is true, but they are certain it is true.
Chapter 3 of that book is called “Monkey See, Monkey Do: Imitation, Information cascades, and Independence.” Part II of that chapter contains a discussion of Dr. David Romer’s study of NFL fourth-down decisions.
One of the rules for getting an excellent decision out of a large group is tha the members of the group must be independent. That is, they must not be talking to each other or influenced by each other. When a group is influenced by each other, they tend to make very bad decisions. The federal government’s Bay of Pigs invasion is a case in point.
Football coaching staffs are another. Here are some quotes from Surowiecki’s discussion of NFL coaching staff decisions:
[Why do NFL coaches deliberately make the wrong decision most of the time on fourth downs?] “...imitation and social proof and the limits of group thinking. Social proof...is the tendency to assume that if lots of people are doing something...there must be a good reason why...when things are uncertain, the best thing to do is to just follow along.
“...football [coaching]...is a remarkably clubby, insular institution...in its approach to statistical analysis the game has been strangely hidebound. The pool of decision makers is not, in other words, particularly diverse. That means it is unlikely to come up with radical innovations, and even more unlikely to embrace them when they’re proposed.
“...even though punting on fourth down makes little sense, it at least limits disaster.
“...when all one’s peers are following the exact same strategy, it’s difficult to follow a different one, especially when the new strategy is more risky and failure will be public and inescapable...Under those conditions, sticking with the crowd and failing small, rather than trying to innovate and run the risk of failing big, makes not just emotional but also professional sense.
“...football coaches...often find the safety of numbers alluringas the old slogan ‘No one ever got fired for [kicking on fourth down], suggests...all other things being equal, someone who bucks the crowdby say, following a contrarian strategyis likely to be considered crazy. It’s much safer for a [coach] to follow the strategy that seems rational rather than the strategy that is rational. [Emphasis added] As a result, [coaches] anxious to protect their jobs come to mimic each other. In doing so, they destroy whatever information advantage they might have had...”
I would add they also discard whatever tactical and/or strategic-thinking advantage they might have had.
“[People who follow the] herd...may think they want to be right and perhaps they do. But for the most part, they’re following the herd because that’s where it’s safest.”
John Maynard Keynes said, “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”
Stated simply, the contrarian advantage appears to be outlawed by unwritten, not written, rules in the NFL. That’s above and beyond the lack of contrarianism the results just from fear of being criticized or fired. Because high school and college players want to play in the NFL, the NFL’s anti-contrarianism virus has infected the lower levels, where they also have the fear of being criticized and being fired.
All of which is why I created this Web site. All offensive coaches, including those in the NFL and major colleges, should be contrarian. They have had plenty of time to figure that out and implement it. They have not, so we on the outside need to push for the change.
To contribute an idea or comment to this Football Think Tank web site, either email to email@example.com or fax to 925-820-1259 or snail mail at 342 Bryan Drive, Alamo, CA 94507.