Friday, March 11, 2011

Current Trends in Football- Hints on the Horizon

Now that the Superbowl is done, all the football fans and coaches like me will now have to suffer the long off-season. I'm especially pitiful during these times because football is what captures my interest and other than the Masters and US Open, very little other national sports news stirs much enthusiasm.

It was good to talk with Coach Fisher on the phone recently- he sounded extremely upbeat and free "I'm on vacation" and that made me happy for him. I mention him because I see his stepping down as further momentum to the fluidity and speed of change that football is experiencing now. Coaches are being replaced faster than tires at a Nascar race (shout out to former Briarwood LB Mark Miller) and the lack of consistency and stability is having impact on the game itself. With free agency, mobile head and assistant coaches, the game itself is taking on more of a universal language and style.

I wanted to blog a little about some trends in football- these can be found at all levels- and speculate a little about where the game is headed.

FACTORS OF FLUIDITY: The game is always changing- it is the nature of competition. Significant factors in this change right now is pace of play, pressure defenses, and diversity of spread offenses.

1) PACE OF PLAY: This game is racing. Current offensive trends is to be on the run and wear out an opponent. Defenses have responded by getting some of the biggest, fastest players the game has ever seen and have them moving and pressuring as well. The schemes being utilized at the high school level is astounding. When I first started coaching in 1991, most teams still used 3 to 5 basic formations, 2 or 3 motions, and handful of running and passing plays. Defenses had a base alignment, a few tweaks (slant, stunt,blitz) and 1 to 3 coverages.
Because of the rapid expanse of spread philosophies- it is not uncommon to see 10-15 basic offensive formations (with shifts and motions)- 25-50 base plays (run and pass)- and multiple defensive fronts, stunts, blitzes, and coverages- on the high school level!

On top of this- teams are going more no huddle- and moving fast.
Defenses are getting better a disguising their pre-snap looks to keep offenses guessing.

2) PRESSURE DEFENSES: Defenses have just gotten plain nasty in terms of the types of pressure game they are playing. The race is now between the weakest coverage match-up and the fastest pass rusher. Offensive lines and backs are having to sort out the protections on the fly and a mess up can get your QB knocked out. For a while, the greatest pressures were coming out of 4 down defenses- but lately what teams are bringing out of 3 down fronts will keep you up at night. The 3 down defenses (base 3-4 or 'old 50') have the ability to rush 3 and drop 8 or bring 8 and drop 3 or any combo in between.

3) DIVERSITY OF SPREAD OFFENSES- The term spread is generic and in some ways out of style. Most all teams (including the NFL) are using spread principles. The more specific breakdown is spread pass or spread run?- zone or power or option scheme running- is the Qb more of a run threat or pass threat? All gun or some under center? Play with the same personnel or do they utilize personnel groupings?

Based of the fast paced- scheme driven- and multiple options- where is this headed? And what questions are interesting to consider?

1) Will an NFL team go spread? This is such an interesting question to me. At what point will an NFL team take what the colleges are sending them in terms of Qb's? More and more college teams (and high schools) are going 100% shotgun and using more of an athletic QB than the traditional drop back guy. The trouble with the NFL going to spread is keeping a Qb healthy. Traditionally that is a BIG money position that is left somewhat unprotected in the spread stuff.

Another factor in this is the loss of the traditional Tight End. Football is producing less true tight ends (they all play AAU basketball as kids).

2) The ODD BALL team. As teams go crazy with scheme- there is still going to be that old school team that runs triple option or 2 tight end or 3 back power attack that will be hard to play in a 1 week turnaround. The tough thing in these systems is the pressure that comes with being different. An option team beats teams that they are not supposed to and win a lot- but they also turn the ball over at times and lose to a less talented team or players and fans lose interest because the style is slow. It is like being a stall team in basketball- you may get a W but lose style points in the process and no one sees you as the model that everyone wants to emulate- and the coaches get more specialized and less useful to the mainstream.

3) Less stability in the coaching ranks. The current trend of AD's is to replace a coach as soon as he cools off a little and get the hot commodity diminishes the development and innovation of the game. This instability makes assistant coaches more on the move and promotes a game that is more universal and less unique. Very few programs are going to have the patience for a coach to implement a unique system of language and technique. Very few programs are going to tolerate the lack of productivity as a system is being developed. In this current trend will there me more Boise States or less? How many coaches will end up like a Rich Rodriguez ? He was once the golden innovator of college offenses and now is generally regarded as a middle of the road coach. Eventually (though scheme matters) it will be a players game and not a coaches game- though this has always been more true than the general fan understands.

High School Trends- All of this flows down to high schools at some point- I do see high school football becoming marginalized in some areas of the country where the passion for the game has ebbed. Current trends for example in the State of Tennessee with fights over public/private and growth of club basketball/baseball/soccer and a smaller pool of eligible D1 football prospects and makes me concerned over the energy and growth of the game there. It is an ever growing divide of the haves and have nots- the Alcoa's/ large D2 schools/ and traditional programs will do well- but the average program without strong administrative and community support will not be sustainable. I was shocked to see how quickly it can happen (in my experience DCA, Ezell Harding, and Davidson Academy had fast falls and may not recover).

I do want to mention that as teaching credentials continue to get more cumbersome and PE type positions get fewer- the professional high school coach is getting more rare. There is not a lot of incentive for a young sharp coach to choose the high school career path and if he wants to change over at some point- the academic trends are not favorable. Less money and fewer positions will make it harder to hire quality coaches in the future- the game is getting more sophisticated and requires more time than ever to be competitive- but school administrators are less athletically minded and under more pressure to produce academically. It will be interesting to see what high school athletics looks like in 10 to 15 years- are we approaching the Euro-club team model?

My Personal development- I am excited to spend some time re-tooling in the coaching profession. I have the privilege to be connected with some great innovators in the game and will have the opportunity to study and assimilate a lot of different systems over the next few systems. My desire is to formulate a fast, diverse offense, that incorporates universal language and gleans the best parts of the current trends and styles. I also want to tweak a system that has maximum flexibility of run/pass and personnel groupings.

The current offense I have been using will be off the field for the first time in 15 years- it had a great run- we truly were spread before spread was cool. The offense was developed over a 5-10 year period beginning in 1994. It used parts of Homer Rice, Nebraska, Tennessee, Green Bay Packers, and Louisiana Tech. I loved it and will miss it- but I'm thankful to step away, let the dust settle, and spend some time in Tony Franklin and Gus Mahlzon's lingo for a little bit. I'm going to get updated on Coach Cutcliffe's offense next week and as always will be attending on-line clinics and watching a lot of film.

I don't think I will ever lose my fascination with the schemes and development of football.

The team I am joining has most of its starters returning on a team that played in the 5A championship game in Alabama- I'm ready to get to work and have a lot of fun in the process!

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