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.
"Two weeks before the season, we changed the whole offense," Hackett explained before Syracuse's bowl game last winter. And the theme for all the changes could be summed up in one word: "compression." It wasn't that Marrone added a bunch of new plays, or that the changes were obvious enough that a casual fan would notice, but the entire framework of the offense did change. For the passing game, Marrone said his first priority was to reduce the number of passing concepts. Out too went the complicated NFL-style play calls, replaced with simple, one- or two-word commands that facilitated the team's new up-tempo, no-huddle pace.
What was most interesting, though, was how Marrone and Hackett began compressing plays together, combining multiple concepts into a single play and then letting Nassib figure out on the fly whether to, say, throw a quick pass, throw a screen, hand off, or keep the ball himself — all on the same play.
The result was that in 2012 Syracuse set its all-time record for total offense, went 8-5, won its bowl game, and finished 6-1 down the stretch as the players settled into the new offense. Nassib was drafted by the New York Giants, and Marrone and Hackett now find themselves back coaching in the NFL, both with promotions. Not bad for keeping it simple.
"Combination" or "packaged" plays have been sweeping across college and high school football over recent years, enough that NFL coaches are clearly taking notice. The Bears, Panthers, Bills, Eagles, and Chiefs each ran a number of them in their exhibition games, combining running and passing concepts — meaning the offensive line typically blocked a run play while receivers ran pass routes or screens, leaving the quarterback to decide whether to hand off or throw it out wide — often at a no-huddle pace.
Good offense has always been about deceptive simplicity — the clearest path to success is to make things as simple as possible for your players while also keeping defenses off-balance. It's a difficult recipe, as an offense that is too simple can get dissected, analyzed, and shut down by a savvy defense, but a team that tries to do too many things will master none of them. Packaged plays solve the quandary by combining simple plays all the players can execute in such a way that — if the quarterback makes the right decision — the offense always has the advantage, because no defender can be in two places at once.
Consider a series from Ole Miss's bowl game last season, under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. Until recently, Freeze was probably most famous as the high school coach from the book and movie The Blind Side, but with his team's surprising success last year, he's beginning to earn a reputation as an innovator. The official play-by-play description for the touchdown drive looks a lot like the description for any number of similarly successful drives:
- Play 1: Eight-yard rush.
- Play 2: Completion to a receiver for four yards, first down.
- Play 3: Quarterback run for 13 yards.
- Play 4: Completion to a different receiver for five yards.
- Play 5: Completion for 18 yards, touchdown.
That description seemingly represented what everyone watching the game saw — Ole Miss kept Pittsburgh's defense off-balance with a mix of plays that resulted in a quick, efficient scoring drive.
Except that wasn't the case at all. Ole Miss did not choose five different plays to keep the defense confused. Instead, they ran the same play five times in a row. That play simply had four different options — ones that resulted in two different ball carries and two different receivers touching the ball.
Ole Miss combined a five-yard hitch route to the single receiver to the left, an inside zone, a quarterback read-option keep, and a receiver screen to the offense's right. And as a final wrinkle, their tight end ran an "arc" release to block an outside linebacker.
The quarterback's job was to first determine if the defense had enough defenders near the line to stop the run. If not, he read the read-option play, handing it off or keeping it himself. If the defense did have enough defenders inside, he either threw the screen pass or the quick hitch to his left. Ole Miss combined a very simple play concept with an extremely fast version of the no-huddle, and, while it is the defense that dictated whether the statisticians counted it as a run or pass, the offense got what it wanted — a touchdown.
This idea isn't entirely new to the NFL — I've seen the Packers use packaged plays with Aaron Rodgers — and pro teams have long used "smoke" or "look" concepts, in which the quarterback has the option on run plays to quickly flip the ball to a receiver against a loose-playing defensive back. But the use and variety of these plays have exploded in college football recently, and almost all of the top offenses at that level, from Texas A&M to Oregon to Clemson, make extensive use of them.
There have been two major reasons behind this expansion. First, they work in perfect harmony with the up-tempo no-huddle offenses that have swept through college football and will seemingly be ever-present in the NFL this fall. But rather than ask a bunch of young quarterbacks to get all Peyton Manning with audibles and gestures at the line, these plays build the options right in and let the quarterback make a decision on the fly. In short, these plays use the mental part of the read-option — allowing a quarterback to read a defensive player to ensure that the defense is always wrong — without putting him at risk. As long as the quarterback can make smart, quick decisions, these plays should work as well with Joe Flacco as they do with RG3.
Of course, every scheme is only as good as the talent running it. Because the offensive line is often blocking for a run without knowing whether the play will in fact be a run or pass, the throws in packaged plays are often short quick-hitters, good for no farther than a couple yards down the field. This is the second reason behind the newfound prominence of these plays — it's another way to get the ball to your best athletes in space. The NFL has seen an infusion of fleet-footed slot receivers and scatbacks — space players — and the entire point of the packaged play is to get these guys the ball whenever they have some extra room to roam.
No space player has generated more buzz this offseason than the St. Louis Rams’ top pick from this draft, Tavon Austin from West Virginia. Austin's new coach, Jeff Fisher, has said he plans to "get the ball to him as often as we can, however we do that," and packaged plays are an easy way to do it in favorable situations. In college, many of Austin's biggest plays came on combo plays. Anytime an outside linebacker or safety was out of position, the instruction from coaches was simply to flip the ball to Tavon in the slot, and let him do the rest. Against Maryland, for example, West Virginia used a simple inside zone play with a second running back blocking the backside end and gave quarterback Geno Smith the option to hit Austin on a "read slant" behind the linebackers if they crashed for the run.
"It's a zone run/pass concept. We will count the numbers in the box," Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, who has ties to the same coaching tree as the coaches at West Virginia and Baylor, recently explained on the Big Ten Network about a similar play. "If they give us the numbers in the box, we will run the zone; if they load the box up, we will throw a slant to the open space." (Linemen are actually allowed some leeway in getting downfield on pass plays. In the NFL, they can be a full yard downfield when the ball is thrown. As Littrell says, they tell the linemen "to block the run scheme that's called and we'll get the ball off quick enough to where linemen aren't downfield.")
Not only do these plays not necessarily need a read-option component, they don't even need to be from the spread or shotgun. Under new coach Marc Trestman, the Chicago Bears previewed a handful of packaged play concepts against the Panthers, including an inside "isolation" run packaged with a backside slant pass to Alshon Jeffery.
The concept here is exactly the same as Austin's touchdown against Maryland, albeit from a more traditional look. Jay Cutler is looking at the weakside linebacker, the one closest to Jeffery. If the linebacker takes away the inside slant, Cutler knows he's got enough blockers for the run to the other side. But if the linebacker squeezes in, which is exactly what he does, Cutler takes a drop back and throws the quick slant for an easy first down.
Make sure to watch the offensive line: Everyone but Cutler and Jeffery are executing a run play. There's no pre-snap signal or other communication necessary, either, as Jeffery simply always runs the slant expecting the ball, and everyone else executes the running play. Cutler chooses based on the best look.
I'm not sure how good Marrone and Hackett's offense in Buffalo will be, but they may have won the award for one of the niftiest plays I've seen. Against the Colts in their preseason opener, the Bills ran a four-in-one play that included a read-option concept for the quarterback to hand off to the runner or keep it himself, throw a bubble screen, and have the option of throwing a quick "pop" pass to the tight end if the linebackers to his side crashed for the run — yet another counter to the plans defenses have been creating all season to handle the read-option.
If the concern with these plays is whether the quarterbacks can consistently make the right decision on a play with four options, both of the Bills rookie quarterbacks, first-rounder EJ Manuel as well as undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel, executed this play multiple times and read it correctly each time. And this is what makes these plays so effective. Although this play has four different options, all of them are, well, easy, especially if the offense is rolling along in the no-huddle and the defense is forced into base looks.
The insight Marrone and Hackett — two of the smartest football guys you'll ever meet — stumbled onto this time last year is that there's a new kind of option football, one that doesn't pose extra risk to the quarterback and also combines disparate concepts NFL teams have been successful with for years. Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, one of the most innovative coaches in the NCAA, was asked last fall how his team's offense compared with old-school option attacks like the wishbone. "We run the triple option," Morris replied. "We just don't run it the way they run it."