Five Myths of Paul Johnson’s Offense

If I was a smarter person, I probably wouldn’t write this. After all, I don’t want to convince any boosters or ADs out there that Paul Johnson’s offense would work anywhere else. I’d much rather have them all continue to believe that his offense is boring and would drive fans away. (It would! You’d be an “option” team! Other schools in your conference would laugh at you! Stay away for your own good!) But it’s the end of July now, and teams are about to begin their fall camps. Whatever hiring and firing that was going to happen this offseason has been done already, and this blog post will be long forgotten by the time the carousel fires up again. So with practice starting this week, I thought that now would be a good time to prepare Navy fans for the onslaught of clichés that will be launched at them from fans and media alike about PJ’s offense. It happens every year; someone will try to tell you why Navy’s offense is a quaint little anomaly instead of a legitimate scoring threat. This year, you’ll know whose opinion to ignore after someone rolls out one or more of these myths about option offenses. Here’s five things you’ll probably hear someone say on College Gameday at some point this season:

Myth #1: You can’t recruit players to run an option offense.

This is the Grand High Llama of all option offense myths. The thinking goes like this: every recruit wants to play in the NFL. Therefore, you need to run an NFL-style offense in order to get recruits to come to your school. Seems simple, right? That’s probably why so many people believe it.

The truth is that very few college teams run genuine NFL-style offenses. Those that do are usually led by one of the few coaches with an NFL history like Pete Carroll or Charlie Weis. Last year, West Virginia averaged 303 rushing yards per game. The NFL rushing leader, Atlanta, averaged only 183 yards per game. Clearly, West Virginia doesn’t run an NFL-style offense. You don’t hear anyone saying that you can’t recruit players for the Mountaineers’ offense though, do you? Texas ran for an NFL-atypical 275 yards per game in 2005, but that didn’t stop quarterback Vince Young from being a first round draft pick. I reeeeeaaaaally don’t think that Mack Brown has a tough sell to high school players, either. People tend to be prejudiced against the option because teams have been running some form of it for decades. It’s an “old” style of offense at a time when fans like new and flashy (also known as “passing”). Teams like Hawaii and Texas Tech have high-scoring offenses that churn out 350-400 passing yards every game. Nobody does that in the NFL, either, but neither of those teams are portrayed as having some kind of recruiting burden. For some reason, people tend to define “NFL-style” and “not NFL-style” as “not option” and “option,” respectively. It’s an <Kyle> absurd </Eckel> oversimplification. There’s a huge variety of offenses in the college game, and the NFL picks from all of them. If you have the athletic ability, you’ll get your chance. Just ask Antonio Gates.

Kyle steamrollin' dudes.That said, does anyone think that Kyle Eckel would have gotten a look from an NFL team if he played in any other offense? What running back wouldn’t want a chance to play in an offense that runs the ball 85-90% of the time? Navy’s offense gives bruisers like Eckel and Adam Ballard a chance at 1,000-yard seasons. Slashers like Reggie Campbell or Eric Roberts can have 1,000 all-purpose yards and show their ability in the open field. They can also share bowl game records with the likes of Barry Sanders… as in Campbell’s 5 touchdowns in the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl. There’s no shortage of running backs of all kinds who’d love to play in this offense. There’s no shortage of quarterbacks, either. It might be surprising to hear that, since the stereotypical quarterback is the drop-back, “pro-style,” passing type. But there are still a lot of high schools that use the option, and a lot of great athletes playing quarterback for those teams. In college, those guys end up playing safety. How many of them would love the opportunity to keep playing quarterback? Off the top of my head, I can think of two of them: Kaipo and Jarod Bryant. Both had offers to play defensive back at BCS schools, and both came to Navy for the chance to play quarterback. They aren’t alone.

There’s actually a bit of a recruiting advantage that comes from running an option offense. Employing a unique offense means that you don’t necessarily have to compete for the same players as every other school to make it work. When other schools go after towering 320-pound offensive linemen, Navy looks for smaller, quicker players who can run and get to the second level of the defense faster. When other offenses look for pocket passers, Navy looks for runners. The toughest sell is to wide receivers, but you don’t need the world’s greatest receiving corps if you only throw 10 passes in a game. For Navy, the slotbacks are as much receivers as they are running backs anyway. Those slotbacks, like Reggie Campbell, don’t have to be the size of most college running backs in order to succeed. With PJ, smaller players get a chance to get the ball in space and use their speed. Essentially, the nature of Paul Johnson’s offense increases the talent pool that he can recruit from. At a school like Navy with a naturally limited recruiting pool to begin with, that’s critical.

Myth #2: Offenses need “balance” to succeed.

This one I’ve never understood, but it’s probably the myth that I hear the most. There are those who believe that an offense can’t succeed if it’s too reliant on running the ball. These people say that a good offense needs a mix of running and passing.

Does this even make sense? Is it somehow better to average 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing per game instead of 320 yards rushing and 80 yards passing? Isn’t it 400 yards either way? Speaking of Texas Tech, they averaged 370 yards passing and less than 80 yards rushing per game last year. Why don’t people say that they need more “balance?” It’s because people don’t really want more balance. They want more passing. “Balance” is just a code word for “throw more.”

The whole idea behind having a balance between running and passing is that in theory, it keeps defenses off guard. Sometimes it might, but there’s more than one way to confuse a defense. It comes down to playcalling, not statistics. You could have a “balanced” offense, but if your playcalling is formulaic and uninspired it won’t fool anyone. On the other hand, on an option play where the quarterback doesn’t even know who’s going to end up with the ball, how can the defense? And that’s before you even start to get into all of the different types of option plays and plays that show an option look. Effective offenses come from creative playcalling, not statistical balance. There are plenty of ways to be creative in an option offense.

Myth #3: Option teams can’t pass.

There’s actually a grain of truth in this one. But only a grain, and not for the reasons that people think. A glance at a stat sheet reveals that– brace yourself– Navy and other option-oriented teams don’t do much passing. I know, I know, I just spent the last section talking about how passing isn’t necessary. Just because it isn’t necessary, though, doesn’t mean that you won’t want to take advantage of what the defense gives you from time to time. It can be easier said than done. When 85% of your plays are running plays, 85% of your time in practice is spent working on those plays. The lack of practice is particularly tough on the offensive line, which doesn’t have the time to refine pass blocking technique. In fact, Navy was ranked last in sacks per pass attempt last year. And that’s the grain of truth; Navy gives up a lot of sacks.

Jason TomlinsonGiving up sacks is a far cry from not being able to pass, though. While Navy has problems passing when the defense is expecting it, they are a very effective passing team when they can do it on their own terms. And that means play action. The repetition of playing the same assignment down after down can make a defender lazy. Next thing he knows, that slotback he was expecting to throw a block is blowing by him and running wide open downfield. That’s why Reggie Campbell averaged over 17 yards per catch last year. It isn’t always pretty, but it doesn’t have to be pretty to be effective. Navy doesn’t pass often, but they make the most of it when they do.

Those who have followed Paul Johnson’s career know that his offense borrows heavily from run and shoot principles. It might not be so apparent at Navy where he can go entire games without throwing a pass, but like he says, he has four receivers lined up on every play. In fact, schematically, the option is probably the best thing an offense can do for its passing game. The way to defend the option is to play assignment football. Playing assignment football simplifies pass coverage and makes it a lot easier for the opposing quarterback to read. Urban Meyer makes a living exploiting this.

Myth #4: The option is outdated. It can’t compete with the speed of today’s defenses.

Speaking of Urban Meyer, his success has meant that this particular myth hasn’t been as common lately. His offense is very option-heavy, even if he dislikes the “option coach” label. (PJ is a friend of Meyer’s and tells a funny story about that.) For some reason, though, people still cling to the idea that the option’s time has come and gone. Maybe it’s because Meyer runs his option plays out of the shotgun, as if that really changes anything. If Meyer’s success hasn’t convinced you, then I doubt that there’s anything I could say that would. That doesn’t make for interesting reading, though, so I’ll make the attempt.

It’s true that defenses are faster than they used to be. But offenses are too, so that theory sort of flies out the window. Besides, I don’t think there’s a better way to neutralize a defense’s speed than by running the triple option. Before a defender can run to the ball, he has to figure out who has the ball. That means that this super-fast player is standing and waiting, not running. If he is too aggressive and attacks too soon, the quarterback can read that and give the ball to his next option. That’s where the big gains come from; out-of-position defenders. Defending the option is difficult because in order to succeed, you have to be patient and controlled, which is the opposite of the aggresive style that most defenses favor. To anticipate on a play is to invite disaster.

Something else to consider is that on triple option plays, you don’t have to block everybody. There are always two players that are left unblocked as dive or pitch keys. If there’s a particularly good player on the defense, he can essentially be taken out of the game by making him a read for the quarterback. Say a defense has a really good linebacker. By leaving him unblocked and making him the QB’s pitch key, he won’t make very many tackles. He can either cover the QB or the pitch man, but going after one means that the other is getting the ball. If everyone can hold their blocks, that means a big gain.

Myth #5: The option is a “gimmick” offense.

You know, there was a time when the forward pass was considered a “gimmick.” Then in 1913, some upstart Indiana Catholic school used it to crush the powerhouse Army team 35-13. All of a sudden it wasn’t so “gimmicky” anymore. Now, it’s hard to imagine football without it.

I hate the term “gimmick offense.” It implies that there is really only one “correct” way that football is supposed to be played, and anything that deviates from that is some kind of a freak outlier that isn’t to be taken seriously. Doesn’t that attitude detract from what makes football so great? Isn’t innovation part of what keeps us watching? The chess match between coaches is a drama that makes the game we love so entertaining. There are a lot of ways to move a football down the field, and I like seeing them all. Besides, isn’t it a bit ridiculous to describe a play as “gimmicky” when it’s been a staple of college offenses for decades? I don’t think there’s anything less gimmicky than the option.

If this offense was just a “gimmick,” then you’d think that it would have been figured out by now. Yet PJ’s been winning with it for 20 years.

So there you have it. Now go forth and laugh at the ignorant.

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16 Responses

  1. Very well said all around, especially in regards to recruiting. Outside of offenses like this, there isn’t a huge market for 5’10 QB’s with minimal to decent arm strength but who run in the 4.5s or 4.6s (allegedly, at least.) Big time college recruiting is still something of a crap shoot and in many people’s minds still very deterministic, so it’s no surprise that good football players who don’t fit the “Rivals.com test” slip through the cracks. This offense takes guys like that and uses them in every facet of the game. Whether it be at slot back, quarterback, defensive back, or wide receiver, it seems like this offense draws on the same kind of unheralded guys out of high school. And that’s not a shot at them or their athleticism (which is better than I think most people credit) but a testament to how the coaching staff utilizes versatility and, pardon the pun, runs with it.

  2. Well said Felix, I am a up and coming HS coach and a huge fan of Paul Johnson, Art Briles (Houston), and Jim Grobe (Wake Forest). Everyone says that these three guys run a “gimmick” offense. Honestly, the ones that are saying that are the fans and Defensive Coordinators of teams still trying to figure it out. I can promise that all the opponents’ fans are circling and tabbing a win against Navy. But, the those DC’s sure as heck are looking forward to defending PJ’s Spread Offense. Off the subject I think the Wake Forest VS Navy game next year is going to be a classic. It will be one 4 major Navy games (Notre Dame, Air Force, and Army) that I am not going to miss.

  3. I think Navy-Wake Forest is going to be a shootout. Both offenses should score points in bunches this year.

  4. Come on that’s not nice birddog! Do you burn books too? You aren’t enlightening NU fans on anything they don’t already know about the glories of the option. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see PJ get a call from our area code…

  5. Hey Birddog,

    As you know Nebraska (at one time) was the undisputed master of the triple option offense (not to be confused with the wishbone which is a version of the triple option). You are probably aware of our current issues, so some of us old-timers are just trying to enlighten the youngsters to the nuances and benefits of the triple option as we bandy about different types of offenses that we would like to see in Nebraska.. Since our new AD – Dr. Tom Osborne (ever hear of him?) is already aware of Paul Johnson, I don’t think it served any purpose to remove a very good informational piece on the triple option. Thanks!

  6. If it was nothing that Nebraska fans didn’t already know, then it wouldn’t have been linked in the message board. I’m not going to be a propagandist to persuade people into thinking that this is the guy they want. Paul Johnson’s offense is nothing like what the almighty Dr. Tom Osborne ever ran anyway.

  7. No need to repost it… a bunch of us copied off a cache so we won’t need to re-link to your site. Don’t worry… we’ll be sure to credit you each time we reference the info! Thanks and best of luck for the rest of the season!

  8. VERY late to this post, but the birddog is right — PJ’s offense is different than Osborne’s was.

    And it’s sad to see a fellow Husker fan reinforcing the “triple option” myth. TO did run some triple option in the 1980s, but he didn’t run it in the glory years of the 1990s. The fullback handoff, when it happened, was predetermined within the constructs of the play when Tommie Frazier and Scott Frost ran the NU offense. They weren’t doing reads like Turner Gill had. Therefore, it’s not a triple option.

  9. [...] Hit and Run for Gameboy, so why should it work against the ACC?  there’s also the argument for the option offense and it seems to have worked “(Against Jacksonville State.)” and no [...]

  10. [...] GEORGIA TECH: FRIEND OR FOE? Posted on June 15, 2009 by Mike Paul Johnson may have left the Naval Academy, but I think it’s safe to say that most of us still root for him. It’s hard not to. His offense gave Navy a singularity in the cosmos of major college football; something above and beyond the usual “they play hard for 60 minutes!” type of chatter that seems to come naturally to casual observers of the service academies. College football reporters and talking heads who covered this ingenious combination of run & shoot and spread option couldn’t seem to decide if the offense was innovative or archaic. Navy fans didn’t care either way. To us, the offense was just something uniquely ours. Of course, with the wins, bowl games, and service academy domination, Johnson could have run pretty much anything and Navy fans would still be happy. Beyond the offense and results he produced, he was also a great interview– sarcastic, straightforward, and funny to listen to. Most of us just plain liked the guy. So as upset as we were when he moved on to what he felt were greener pastures at Georgia Tech, most of us hope he finds the kind of success in Atlanta that he didn’t think was possible in Annapolis. (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). Even those of you who might not be pulling for Coach Johnson still get the enjoyment of seeing skeptics of this offense have to eat their words. (Of course, we knew that would happen all along). [...]

  11. I’m an up and coming Jr. High/JV coach and I think that the option will forever be an essential component of football on some level. I teaches young players to read, be disciplined and then to run. I’d like to get some more of you guys ideas because the way I grew up running and blocking for the option is quite different grom what is done now,

    tw

  12. If Paul Johnson’s option is so great, how come his bowl record is terrible?

  13. Never mind the fact he won the ACC within two years of being hired. OMG he lost the Orange Bowl!

  14. [...] Johnson’s throwback option offense might be the most devastating offensive “system” of all. The Birddog breaks this system down better than anybody so I’ll leave that to him. Expect the Jackets to continue to wreak havoc on the rest of the ACC in 2009 and don’t be [...]

  15. Not a football expert, though I do enjoy reading the breakdowns (Other people’s rivalries comes to mind) But one thing I will disagree with. I grew up in SWC/Big12 country so I still keep up with some of those schools, but when Navy played ttu in Houston in 2003, I noticed that the red raiders actually played a bit of a ball control offense. The “unbalanced” spread actually was a ball control offense. While many of the plays were passes, many of those passes amounted to long handoffs. While they were statistically passes, it isn’t different than handing off the ball in a spread formation where the tackle and ends are 15 yards away instead of 2. Thoughts?

  16. [...] that have been tossed around for years. Most of the regular readers of this blog are aware of the Five Myths, but that’s hardly an all-inclusive list. There’s plenty that can be tacked on to it. [...]

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