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 thst 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).
(As a side note, how annoying is it to watch the same “experts” who told you how the option would fail in a BCS conference now try to explain to you how and why it works? Meh, moving on…)
But now, the offense isn’t just ours anymore; our friends at Georgia Tech have joined us in the pleasure of hearing the same cliches every year about how the option won’t work. As fun as it can be having a second chance to see our favorite offense in action each Saturday, do you ever wonder if Paul Johnson being at another school somehow has an adverse effect on Navy? I mean other than the obvious questions people have whenever a new coach takes over a school; hopefully by now you don’t need any convincing as to Ken Niumatalolo’s ability to lead the Mids. But could it be possible that in rooting for Georgia Tech, you are indirectly rooting for Navy’s demise? That Georgia Tech, in using the same offense that helped catapult Navy to success, might somehow be working against the Mids now?
Maybe you don’t wonder about these things… But I do, and there isn’t much to talk about in June, so humor me. On the surface, the idea that one school has an effect on the other probably seems a little far-fetched. And I know that some of you are rolling your eyes right now and thinking that this is going to be some “wah wah wah Paul Johnson” story. Don’t worry, it isn’t. I’m as sick of that stuff as you are. This is more of a reflection on the evolution of college football, and where the service academies fit into the bigger picture.
Perhaps the most obvious potential impact Georgia Tech can have on Navy is in scheduling. The unique nature of the offense is one of the great advantages Navy gets from running the spread option. Except in rare occasions (like when Army scheduled Rhode Island a couple of years ago), the Navy game is the only time opponents will see anything like it. While scout team offenses try their best to replicate what their defenses will be up against, they just can’t do it with the speed and precision that comes with practicing this offense all year the way Navy does. Defenses spend all season learning how to anticipate and be aggressive, then spend a week trying to unlearn that stuff because it’ll get them killed if they try it against a triple option team. It’s a changeup to the rest of college football’s fastball… Except now, Navy isn’t alone. With Georgia Tech employing what is fundamentally the same scheme, ACC opponents are more likely to practice against it regularly. The Mids will take on Duke, Wake Forest, and Maryland in coming years (although the Terps don’t face Tech again until 2011). Both Navy and Georgia Tech are on Syracuse’s 2015 schedule. The Yellow Jackets also have a series scheduled with Tulane, who has been a regular on Navy schedules of the past. Increased exposure to the offense will make it harder for the Mids to catch teams off guard.
Of course, the same thing could be said about Army, who will also be employing the spread option and probably has more in common on their schedule with Navy than Georgia Tech does. But this would be the case regardless of whether either Georgia Tech wins or not. In fact, there might also be an advantage to having an ACC team running the spread option: officiating. Navy uses ACC referees when they go on the road. Every year we see flags thrown for bogus chop block, illegal formation, and illegal motion penalties; the offense apparently confuses officials as much as it confuses opposing coaches. The more that ACC refs become familiar with it, the fewer bad calls will be made. In theory, anyway. I thought I heard Chet say that he’d stop scheduling ACC teams, but I must have been mistaken because we have a new series with Duke on the horizon. If having common opponents is a disadvantage for the Mids, it isn’t so much so that we’d drop a regular opponent like Duke.
If scheduling wasn’t the first thing you thought of when pondering the long-term impact Georgia Tech might have on Navy, then recruiting probably was. It isn’t like Navy was beating Georgia Tech for recruits to begin with, but they didn’t really cross paths on the recruiting trail as often, either. Now that the Yellow Jackets are running a similar kind of offense, it stands to reason that they’ll be looking for a similar style of player. While that is probably true, Paul Johnson didn’t leave for Georgia Tech to play with the same players he could get in Annapolis. Anyone that Georgia Tech is recruiting would probably be considered a “reach” player to the Navy coaching staff. In the end, it probably won’t make much of a difference to Navy’s chances of success. There are exceptions to that, though. While it’s unlikely that there were too many Navy players who would’ve started at Georgia Tech last year, one that probably would have is Kaipo. If a Kaipo clone was coming out of high school right now, Coach Johnson would most definitely be going after him. We won’t see the most profound recruiting impact in the world, but that’s not to say that there won’t be some effect. But again, this is something we’ll see regardless of whether or not Georgia Tech is winning.
I doubt that any of this is news to you. This is all standard stuff. To really understand the impact of the rising popularity of this offense, you need to step back from the micro comparisons of us vs. them and instead look at the macro world of college football.
The offenses at Navy and Georgia Tech are best described as the spread option, but for some reason people tend to focus more on the “option” part than the “spread” part. They really aren’t much different than other spread offenses, though. Fundamentally, all spread offenses operate based on the same basic principle of creating space for speedy players. It’s a concept that is increasingly popular among college coaches. While the offenses employed by Paul Johnson and Ivin Jasper might be unique in execution, they’re really just a different manifestation of a trend that’s fast becoming the norm. When the offense is viewed in that context, you realize that the long-term effect on Navy would have been the same even if Johnson had stayed in Annapolis.
The rise of spread offenses has meant that players once considered out of place in I-A ball are now becoming some of the most sought-after recruits. Running backs don’t need to be big in a spread offense; they just need to be fast. Run-first quarterbacks that used to be converted to wide receivers or safeties are now getting the chance to play their natural position. These are the kinds of players that the service academies have targeted for years, but it’s going to become more difficult to recruit them as the spread becomes more prevalent. Eventually, Navy will be forced into trying something else. Look at the history of service academy football when compared to the field. When the wishbone and the option were in their heyday in the 70s, George Welsh was winning games at Navy using what would now be considered a more conventional offense. The wishbone fell out of favor in the 80s, precisely when Air Force started using it with great success under Ken Hatfield. The lesson here is that it isn’t the option that’s the key to service academy success; simply being different is the most important thing. For baseball fans, it’s sort of the same concept as Moneyball. While big-market clubs would target the guys who hit for average and had high RBI totals, Oakland would seek value for their dollars by targeting players who excelled in other statistical categories (OBP and SLG, for example). The result was that they’d get good players, but just not necessarily the ones in high demand. The same could be said for Navy football recruits now. My guess is that 15-20 years from now, spread offenses will be the norm in college football, and the most successful service academies will be running something completely different. As football evolves, so must Navy.
One day there will be Army fans complaining about the option and saying that you just can’t win at a service academy without the west coast offense. Like any evolutionary process, though, that will take some time. It certainly isn’t anything we have to worry about now, or even 5 years from now. The world is going to end in 2012 anyway.
So cheer away for Georgia Tech if you are so inclined. You don’t need to worry if Paul Johnson is good or bad for Navy. There are larger forces at work.