Thu Aug 06 01:05pm EDT
Xs and Os from the proprietor of the essential Smart Football. As part of the Doc's Big East Week.
The Steve Kragthorpe era at Louisville has been, too put it kindly, unsatisfactory. The numbers are all achingly mediocre, but become trauma-worthy when compared to Bobby Petrino's glittering 41-9 record at Louisville from 2003-06. Two years later, Kragthorpe is 11-13. Though the offense still put up enough yards to rank sixth in the country with Brian Brohm at the helm in '07, the Cards fell to 45th last year while averaging almost 11 fewer points per game. And while the running game remained respectable, boosted by a 1,000-yard effort from freshman Victor Anderson, hyped senior quarterback Hunter Cantwell followed up some solid relief performances behind Brohm by lobbing up as many interceptions as touchdowns (16, an ugly number in both directions).
Kragthorpe, like many of the Louisville fans, finally said "enough" last winter. He sacked offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm (Brian's older brother, who played for Louisville under Howard Schnellenberger and was a journeyman quarterback in the NFL), one year after doing the same to Charlie Stubbs, who Kragthorpe had brought with him from Tulsa. To fill the void, Kragthorpe promoted himself: The boss will coordinate the offense and call the plays this fall, putting his fate at the 'Ville in his own hands.
The Cardinal offense the last two years has been a kind of muddled mixture of Petrino's hybrid power/spread attack (which seemed to be able to line up with either multiple tight-ends and a fullback or go five-wides with equal success), and the one-back offense Kragthorpe ran with Stubbs at Tulsa. Last season, Jeff Brohm was apparently entrusted with getting back to more of the power roots of Petrino's offense, under whom Brohm had served for several seasons. So what does Kragthorpe envision for Louisville? He recently gave some cryptic hints:
We've rearranged the playbook with some concepts I feel really good about. Some concepts I used [in the NFL] at Buffalo with Kevin Gilbride, some concepts I used with Dan Henning when I was the playcaller and quarterbacks coach at Boston College in '96, some things we did when [at] Northern Arizona and some things we've done over the last two years here. So, it's kind of mixing and matching, and we've got guys with fresh ideas and new things. Again, more than anything, we'll try to be more conceptual in the passing game, try to be multiple in terms of doing things with different personnel packages and different formations and motions, and yet teaching a concise system with the quarterback.
Sounds like coach patois, but what does he mean when he keeps intoning "concepts" and "being conceptual in the passing game"? And how significant are his invocations of Henning and Gilbride? I think quite so, and the two ideas are interrelated.
Good thinking. Neither Gilbride nor Henning tend to get fans too excited, but, within most coaching circles, both are considered quite bright guys. (Just don't ask Buddy Ryan about the former.) Gilbride, currently the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants, spent many years as a run and shoot guru: He was Warren Moon's offensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers under Jack Pardee, as they lit up scoreboards in the early nineties. But as the 'shoot made its unceremonious exit from the NFL, Gilbride became more of a traditionalist, and now only uses a few of the Shoot's original "concepts."
Dan Henning, on the other hand, is currently the offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins, and he has always been in the NFL's mainstream, though has frequently set its curve. Henning's career arc is too long to summarize here, but after leaving Boston College he applied his teachings to turn Jake Delhomme into a quarterback three points shy of a Super Bowl victory with the Carolina Panthers, and was open minded enough to use some "college ideas" in implementing the Wildcat package in Miami. Moreover, Charlie Weis's offense at Notre Dame, and previously the Patriots, was largely a derivative of the system Henning developed with others, notably Bruce Coslet.
The common thread between Gilbride's and Henning's offenses has been this "conceptual approach to passing" that Kragthorpe talked about and Louisville had apparently gotten away from, if Hunter Cantwell's uneven play is any indication. The basic idea is this: The passing game is not just an assortment of routes, where the quarterback is told to find the open man. Instead, each play should be thought of as focusing on a single "concept." What is a "concept"? With respect to the passing game, that term has come to refer to the animating idea behind the play: Who is the passing play designed to attack, why should it produce an open receiver against different zone defenses, and why (and how) should the quarterback have answers to what the defense is doing. This is not to say that each "concept" pass is perfect, but if it is well thought through then the necessary adjustments should be self-evident -- i.e. adjust one route, switch to a different concept, etc.
Within this overall "conceptual" framework is the idea of "stretching zones." There are really only two types of stretches, the horizontal and the vertical stretch. A horizontal stretch puts a zone defenders in a bind by number advantages: One guy is required to cover two receivers, or two are required to cover three receivers, on an horizontal plane. The diagram below shows a "horizontal" stretch, which the Cardinals have used for a few years now. "V" in the diagram represents the defender who is being "stretched" horizontally -- i.e. put in a bind so he can't successfully play pass defense against all the receivers.
A vertical stretch is the same concept, but the receiver tries to "high-low" the secondary: If the corner comes up, throw over his head; if he stays deep, throw underneath him.
Like horizontal stretches, the best vertical stretches operate at three levels (typically deep, medium, and shallow), and has never been more famously illustrated than in Auburn's last-second win at No. 1 Florida in 1994:
Some coaches will also refer to "triangle reads," but those are just the combination of a horizontal with a vertical stretch. In any event, all of this was invented and worked out by Paul Brown, Sid Gillman (there's a reason he's called the "Father of the Modern Passing Game") and BIll Walsh. Within this basic "stretching" framework, a good pass play will use routes or route combinations that work good against man-to-man, like corner routes, picks, and the like.
Fitting it together. As fundamental as this all might seem, many coaches and teams lose sight of it. This is not entirely surprising, considering that the demands of the week-to-week require gameplanning and a laser-like focus on specific defenders or coverages you might face. Yet losing the forest for the trees not only makes your passing game incoherent; that incoherence robs your ability to explain it in workable terms to your quarterback. To use an extreme example, Mike Leach at Texas Tech might throw it sixty times a game, but he only has about ten pass plays, each with a couple basic adjustments. Each of those plays is a true "concept," in that each has a theory in why it should produce open receivers, and that theory also implies the counter when defenses begin adjusting. A well thought out passing game does not need a lot of plays, just a set of them that "fit together" -- hence Kragthorpe's emphasis on the need to be "concise." He probably felt that his staff had overwhelemed Hunter Cantwell with too much stuff that didn't seem to fit together, a problem that may have similarly plagued Charlie Weis' young quarterbacks after Brady Quinn graduated.
Whether Kragthorpe will successfully implement and call his "concise" and "conceptual" passing game, remains to be seen. It might be better, but with no obvious quarterback candidate, it might simply be too late to save his job. Still, this is one glimmer that shows that Kragthorpe does "get it," and might have a chance to rebuild his team both in his image, as represented by his many coaching moves, but also in a way that can get the Cardinals back to a bowl game after a baffling two-year absence.
- - -
Chris Brown writes the strategy and philosophy site Smart Football. You can reach him spreadattack at yahoo, etc.