Earlier this year I read a bunch of tea leaves, and suggested that we could explain our fortunes using George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels as metaphor. I planned to do a post-mortem, but got lazy/depressed by our bowl game performance and then Seth beat me to it. So this post isn't really about the past so much as what our SHINY NEW OC promises for our future (preview: zone blocking). But first, the perfunctory conclusion:
Our season is either A Dance with Dragons, if you prefer the preseason scheme--a meandering and listless journey through something and then something else, which has its moments but ultimately leaves you frustrated at the huge investment of time in an mediocre book that failed to live up to your expectations. Or, if you prefer the version written in the throes of alcohol-fueled post-Sparty misery, The Hedge Knight, described at the time as "a third-rate garbage time-waster," whatever that means.
Like many of you, I have mixed feelings about Al Borges’ tenure in Ann Arbor. When he came on board in 2011, he was basically tasked with not cratering Rich Rodriguez’ offense while introducing some West Coast/pro-style concepts into the mix (man blocking, pulling, route progressions, etc.). And I think he did an admirable job—not only holding serve in most respects, but also getting better production out of the running back position than we’d had in 2010. While overall performance declined in 2012, that can be attributed to three factors: a much more difficult schedule, which had us play the eventual AP #s 1, 2, 3 and 4; the graduation of David Molk; and Denard’s injury against Nebraska. The only thing I can really blame Al for would be the decision to go with Russell Bellomy rather than Devin Gardner as Denard’s backup—despite Gardner’s clear talent advantage and Denard’s propensity for coming out of games injured. Well, that and the INT problem, which actually began in 2011.
2013, though, was a different story. There are two basic theories of why our offense declined so precipitously: a) we didn’t scheme as much as throw a bunch of plays together; and b) we couldn’t execute plays that would have worked if we’d had different (i.e. more experienced) personnel. Both are true, and interrelated. While we certainly didn’t have experience in key areas, and especially the interior OL, we also insisted on running plays inexperienced offensive lines are unlikely to execute well. Compounding matters, there was no cohesiveness and not enough repetition to the things we ran, which meant guys on the OL weren’t put in position to improve over the course of the year. The result: TFLs, sacks, interceptions and lots of unmanageable 3rd downs.
In 2014, we looked to have the same problems in different places. While the whole interior OL was set to return (and likely to improve), we were also going to lose our two tackles to the NFL, as well as our most reliable receiver/Gardner’s safety blanket. Thus if we were to try to run a lot of different plays predicated on complex blocking schemes, as Borges clearly favored, we were going to run into similar problems to the ones that bedeviled us in 2013.
While I’ve always been convinced (and remain so) that Borges probably would have been successful by 2015 (when all his favored pieces would have beeen in place and we would have also been gifted with a favorable schedule), the fact is that our 2013 performance was so underwhelming that the fan base lost its patience. Were we to have another suboptimal year in 2014 (which our schedule and said roster changes suggest as a distinct possibility), it would have been likely to create problems for recruiting and probably put Hoke himself on the hot seat. So something had to change, and Al was the guy in the most precarious position.
Was it fair? Yes and no. We also played poorly on defense at times. The K State game in particular appeared to validate concerns about the awfulness of our “bend but don’t break” strategy this year. I mean, shout at Al Borges all you want, but it’s not his fault we gave up too many points to Akron, UCONN, Penn State, Indiana and Ohio. Without much pass rush from the DL, a mediocre secondary and a couple LBs who were just terrible in pass coverage, “the right to rush four” more often translated as “the right to sit back and wait for the other team to successfully execute yet another slow-developing crossing pattern.” This was not the defense we fielded in 2011 or 2012.
But on the other hand, the defense was young and didn’t feature 3 guys about to end up in the NFL, while Mattison is still the guy who turned our historically bad 2010 defense into the elite defense we fielded in 2011. And we looked poised to take a big leap forward on the defensive side in 2014, whereas we did not on offense.
The news that we’d canned Borges elicited a mix of relief and concern—that we’d endure another “Process,” that we’d eventually settle a GERG to follow Borges-Schafer, that we’d potentially lose out on prized recruits and, most troublingly of all, that we might embark on yet another chaos-inducing strategic/philosophic transformation. Never in a million years did I believe Saban's weird thing for Lane Kiffin would push his extremely competent OC into our arms (and not, say, into a head coaching position at a major school).
Make no mistake: Nussmeier is the best pro-style OC not currently a head coach somewhere, and is about as close to a sure thing as you get in this business. In his last two stints, he’s overseen a successful reclamation project at Washington and provided a significant performance boost to an already efficient Alabama offense. He’s known as an elite QB mentor, while Alabama’s performance from the OL and RB positions speak for themselves. Plus he represents a good fit for our personnel and the kind of kids we’re recruiting, so we won’t have to endure yet another multiyear vision quest to get to the proverbial promised land of elite offensive performance.
The Zone! The Zone! The Zone!
Keeping that in mind, Nussmeier does promise some significant changes to how we approach offensive football, particularly in how we block and run—the two biggest deficiencies of our 2013 offense.
Nussmeier’s system is built the simplest, most efficient base run play: Inside Zone. Why is this such a big deal? Consider what happened when Denard graduated. In 2010 our base run play was a QB Iso, which follows zone blocking. In 2011 and 2012 it was the Inverted Veer (to QB), which follows “Power O” blocking—a system that has elements in common with zone blocking, but which prefers the guard to pull and block a guy who's either covered by the blocker in his zone or optioned off. This worked in large part because we had Denard running behind a fairly experienced OL. Exit Denard and 3 starting OL and in 2013 we decided to go with a collection of plays usually associated with zone blocking and single-back formations, but featuring pulling guards and Power O blocking, fullbacks and general confusion. “Zone” Stretch Left and the various doomed attempts to power up the middle actually started pretty well, but cratered against Akron and got worse as the year went on.*
Here’s why Inside Zone is the solution to most, if not all, of our run blocking problems: because it’s the simplest play to block for, because you can run it from under center, shotgun or pistol, because you can run it with one or two backs and—crucially—wherever your team fits on this increasingly complicated Venn diagram, the blocking scheme does not need to change dramatically. The OL just blocks the guy in front of him, and if there’s no guy in front of him, he goes and blocks the next guy in his zone. It’s a relatively simple read that is basically designed to mitigate things like inexperience and being too small/weak, while still providing rewards for experience, size, speed and strength.
As a consequence, Inside Zone works equally well for both the little speedy Oregons and the big, muscular Wisconsins and Alabamas. Inside Zone has, furthermore, been the dominant base run play in the NFL since Mike Shannahan started using it with Denver in the late 1990s. Of more direct concern for us is how well it’s worked for Alabama, as this primer explains in detail.
Inside Zone has another advantage--flexibility:
The majority of the time in a zone blocking scheme the tailback will follow the design of the play, but occasionally the tailback will perform a cutback and change direction during the run. A cutback is when the tailback changes direction and runs away from where the linebackers are flowing (the tailback can only do this once and must not hesitate). This cutback made by the tailback is what makes zone blocking so dangerous because of how easily a cutback can lead to a big play. The cutback exaggerates the advantages of the zone-blocking scheme.
Watch this video highlighting Texas’ use of Inside Zone to see this point illustrated nicely, not only for cutbacks, but for alternate read options.
More importantly, for those of us scarred by the semirandom-collection-of-formations-and-plays approach pioneered in 2013, there’s also these tidbits from an ex-player on Saban's thinking on Inside Zone, which Nussmeier brings to Ann Arbor from Tuscaloosa:
Q. Is the inside zone a play, or a series of plays?
A. It’s a scheme. It’s a concept. You can have play-action off the inside zone. You can line up in the same exact formation and run the outside zone. The difference between inside zone and outside zone is just your aiming point and footwork. You’re still trying to accomplish the same thing. The backs end up going a little wider. As an offensive lineman, you’re aiming for the defender a little wider for leverage. What you’re trying to accomplish is the same thing. We run the zone out of several formations, but you can’t always tell if it’s inside zone or outside zone. You’ve got to read linemen and read running backs. It’s definitely not a play. There are many variations, formations. There’s a lot of stuff you can do out of it.
Q. How do you explain Alabama running this scheme so well?
A. On the first day of spring practice, the first day of training camp, the first play we install is the inside zone play. That’s kind of what everything else in the playbook evolves from. They get a lot of reps every single day. When it comes to those crucial moments when it’s something to lean on, those guys are very well prepared to execute it, no matter how good the front seven is or how big the nose guard is. They repeat it and take a lot of pride in it. There’s certainly an asterisk on it in Tuscaloosa.
Do those sound like philosophical concepts we missed in 2013, and to an extent throughout the Hoke/Borges era? They do to me.
For the schematically minded, here are some diagrams of Alabama's Inside Zone against a base 3-4 and base 4-3 (unfortunately a pdf, so not embedded). Here are more diagrams:
Passing behind Zone Blocking
The main disadvantage, of course, is the inferiority of zone blocking as a conduit to playaction, as this article from Smart Football describes. And Borges did dial up some wicket playaction in 2013. But I often found myself wondering: without a credible run game, wouldn’t simple designed pass plays without the fake work just as well, if not better?
Traditional thinking about zone blocking is that you prefer smaller, speedier guys for your run game whose performance doesn’t quite translate to pass protection, so you need fast developing pass plays that mitigate this disadvantage. Hitches, screens, slants, naked bootlegs and an expanded role for pass-catching RBs/TEs mark zone blocking schemes from early-2000s USC to, well, most of the others.
But Nussmeier’s system at Alabama wasn’t quite like that. His OL were, as a rule, massive and more capable of sustaining their blocks than is often the case in offenses that utilize zone blocking. Part of this is due to the insane multiyear recruiting bonanza Alabama has enjoyed under Saban (and which is undoubtedly buttressed by that whole oversigning thing). But Nussmeier has done an excellent job developing young and talented OL—exactly what we need someone to do. Yet like Borges, he isn’t so much about dink-and-dunk as setting up the opportunity to go vertical. This is, then, a playaction-friendly version of the zone blocking scheme.
In sum, we look like we’ve landed the one guy who appears like both an extension of the upsides to the Borges era and a well-timed departure from its failings. I’ll miss Al as a personality and thank him for all the great games he called over the past few years (Notre Dame 2013, Nebraska 2011, etc.)—and certainly wish him and his family the best in all future endeavors. Like Rich Rod, there were better things on the horizon, but that horizon was still too far off, and there was too much uncertainty and disillusionment involved to continue down that path. As such, this hire really looks like move in the right direction.
*Note: we did run some Inside Zone this year--just not consistently or as a base run play except in a couple games towards the end.