This time last year, Doug Marrone, then Syracuse's head coach, had a serious problem — his offense. Marrone, now head coach of the Buffalo Bills, seemingly had all the pieces needed to be successful. Marrone followed his tenure as a highly respected NFL offensive line coach with three seasons as offensive coordinator for one of the league's most prolific offenses, the Drew Brees–led New Orleans Saints. At Syracuse, he had a quarterback considered a possible first-round pick, Ryan Nassib, and had been recruiting his own players for several seasons. Yet in 2011, Syracuse finished 90th in total offense, as they transformed a somewhat-promising start into a disappointing 5-7 record, including five straight losses to end the year.
Marrone and his offensive coordinator at Syracuse, Nathaniel Hackett, son of longtime NFL coach Paul Hackett (and now the offensive coordinator with the Bills), spent the offseason trying to figure out how they could fix a pro-style offense that was supposed to take college football by storm. The answer was to go the other direction — to learn from the top college offenses. Marrone and his staff spent extensive time that summer studying teams like Oregon, Toledo, and West Virginia to figure out how to blend their up-tempo, spread-it-out philosophies with the NFL concepts Marrone and Hackett believed in. They didn't pull the trigger right away, but after the first couple weeks of training camp showed little improvement on the prior year's results, Marrone called for the switch that would change the course of his career.
Manti Te'o finished the 2010 season, his second in South Bend, as already one of the most decorated linebackers in Notre Dame history. A former five-star recruit, Te'o finished his sophomore year with 133 tackles (good for 21st nationally), was a finalist for both the Butkus and Bednarik awards, was named a second-team All-American by CNN/SI, and, against Stanford, had managed 21 tackles. There was just one problem: He could've played a lot better.
"He had a lot of production he left on the table," Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who is also Te'o's position coach, recently recalled. Fortunately for both the Irish and their star linebacker, Te'o, as Diaco puts it, "longs to be coached." That offseason, Diaco put together a DVD from the season — a lowlight reel of sorts — and gave it to Te'o with an accompanying message: "If you really want to take the next step in your game, here are the 83 plays you will be able to make next year.” The response was, in hindsight, predictable. "He studied that thing," Diaco said. "He broke the film studying that thing."
With Tom Brady and Peyton Manning still dissecting defenses, this weekend’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins might not produce this year’s Super Bowl winner, but it may still be the key to the NFL’s future. Since their 3-6 start, the Redskins are on a seven-game winning streak, during which their already potent offense stabilized into one of the best in the league. Seattle, on its own five-game winning streak, has coalesced into arguably the best team in football. After outscheming the Chicago Bears en route to a dramatic overtime victory, Seattle pulled off one of the greatest three-game stretches in league history by bludgeoning the Cardinals, Bills, and 49ers, a stretch during which they outscored their opponents 150 to 30.
Among similar dominant stretches in NFL history, one that comes close was by the 1940 Chicago Bears, whose streak culminated in a 73-0 victory over the Redskins in the NFL Championship. That record offensive output followed totals of 47 and 31 points in the previous two weeks. The success was the direct result of a switch in offensive scheme by legendary Bears coach and owner George Halas, a switch that helped turn a 7-3 Bears loss to the Redskins earlier that season into the most lopsided championship game in any major professional sport. Halas, frustrated by his offense, turned to good friend and Stanford coach Clark Shaughnessy for help.
At the time, every NFL team ran the single wing offense, a shotgun-based attack with an unbalanced line where the ball was typically snapped directly to the tailback. Shaughnessy — first at the University of Chicago, where he and Halas became friends, and later at Stanford — had revived the old T-formation, which placed a quarterback directly behind the center. Shaughnessy updated the T to include a variety of motions and misdirection to buttress the running game and bolted on an all-new passing attack. The combination made the offense nearly unstoppable — at least in college. Even as late as 1940, most pro coaches viewed the T formation and its reliance on the quarterback making fakes and dropping back to pass as a bizarre gimmick. That is until Chicago ripped through the latter part of its schedule, and, with Sid Luckman as the prototype for a new era of "T-formation quarterbacks," built a dynasty.
This late in the playoffs, nothing comes easy, and that was certainly true of the New York Giants 20-17 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Ostensibly the game was won — or lost — because of San Francisco punt returner Kyle Williams's fumble in overtime, which set up Eli Manning and the Giants for a short, game winning field goal in sudden death. But outside of a few mistakes, the game was incredibly well played. particularly by the defenses. And it was also the type of game where stats can be a bit misleading: 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, as a result of a couple of well placed throws to tight-end Vernon Davis, had the edge over Eli Manning in some key passing statistics, including passer rating and yards per pass attempt, which is my favorite non-advanced passing metric. But those belied the reality: Manning put in an incredible performance against an absolutely ferocious defense, repeatedly delivering key throws under pressure (which he was under constantly). It took him an incredible 58 pass attempts (plus six sacks, making 64 called pass plays) to generate just over 300 yards, but the Giants run-game was nearly non-existent until late. Indeed, if not for the symbiotic relationship Manning had with receiver Victor Cruz — who had 10 key catches for 142 yards — there would have been no 17 hard-fought points, no overtime, no Super Bowl berth.
By almost any measure, the 2011 college football season continued the trend of increasingly dominant offenses and high-scoring and high-yardage games.
Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Houston all averaged more than 550 yards of offense per game en route to historic seasons. And the BCS bowls will feature dynamic offenses and quarterbacks, including Russell Wilson and Wisconsin; Chip Kelly's ludicrous-speed Oregon attack; Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon, and the high-flying Oklahoma State Cowboys; and quarterback Andrew Luck's swan song as captain and resuscitator of a once-moribund Stanford program. Whether pro-style, Air raid, or spread-to-run, we're living in offense-dominated times.
That is, except in the game that (rightly or wrongly) crowns the champion: LSU-Alabama. Indeed, that game features the country's most dynamic and exciting defensive player in Tyrann Mathieu (who might end up no better than the third- or fourth-best NFL prospect in LSU's secondary) and one of the most statistically dominating defenses of the past decade in Alabama.