“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
Like most famous football quotes, this gem is attributed to Vince Lombardi, and like most things attributed to Lombardi, it’s got more than a measure of truth to it. Many spread-option coaches have taken this dictum to heart by driving their offenses as fast as possible on the field, and along the way have blown open scoring records.* Where you’ll often see pro and pro-style teams bleed the play clock down to its final seconds, up-tempo teams will run consecutive series where the ball’s snapped only seconds after being set.
Football is a game of alternating possession, and if fast tempos were driving up scores but not wins, it’d be forgotten as an unsound novelty. What we’re seeing, though, are these up-tempo teams being incredibly effective when it comes to making every possession count. Here, College Football by the Numbers breaks down points-per-possession as of November 5 (third column, data ranked from best to worst):
Of the top 15, only Florida State and Alabama could be said to run pro-style offenses. Almost all the rest are spread-option teams, and many of them are up-tempo.
There are some temporal reasons for why up-tempo teams are having this success. There’s enough offensive variety in the college game to prevent defensive coordinators from zeroing in on these attacks, and strength and conditioning coaches are relearning how to prepare their players for the energetic and neural demands of enduring so many plays during a game. Also important is that defensive coordinators right now are largely restricting the mental aspects of the game to the sidelines, which means there’s rarely enough time for defenses to get in signals versus a very fast offense. As defenses catch up to fast spread teams, much of it will be because linebackers and safeties are calling the defenses, and not their coaches; right now, though, up-tempo teams often see two kinds of fronts: simple and confused. Finally, since up-tempo teams can prevent defensive substitutions with their speed, defenses need to find more high-level athletes who can stay on the field regardless of situation.
There are some unavoidable advantages to an up-tempo system that won’t go away without fundamental changes in the way football is played. First, playing defense is more exhausting than playing offense, which means fatigue affects defenses far more than offenses. A fundamentally sound defense has to pursue ball-carriers. If an offense followed every play with the same tenacity as a flowing defense, it would at best needlessly tire its own players, and at worst turn the game into a festival of illegal blocks in the back.
Second, because up-tempo teams practice with the same rapidity with which they play, they essentially get more practice reps than a pro-style squad. This rehearsal can’t be discounted. Chip Kelly’s squads can hit thirty plays in ten minutes of practice.
Because of these factors (especially the last two), I think the concept of a full-time, up-tempo team is going to be a long-term factor in modern football. It’s also why pro teams like the New England Patriots are stressing speed. This isn’t to say that fast-tempo offenses don’t have their drawbacks. It’s difficult to learn multiple sets of dozens of plays while practicing at a furious pace, so faster teams usually have simpler playbooks. Here’s football afficianado “Hemlock” over at Matthew Brophy’s site commenting on Louisiana Tech:
“While Oregon gets all the headlines, LaTech is probably the most advanced up tempo team going today. As readers of this blog know, we are big fans of what Tony Franklin is doing at Tech. The reason is concision. No team has probably dropped more from their package over the past three years than LaTech. Watch the Virginia game if you want proof. LaTech goes into every game with a very light package. (Just compare LaTech’s package to the one UVA ran the other day and tell us whose offense is simpler) Each game it seems lighter and lighter as they get faster and faster. Practically gone from their package are old Air Raid staples like Mesh and Shallow. Basically all they do is run an increasing amount of [inside zone] tied to key screens and two or three man games on the flanks. When they want to get down the field they run Verticals, Sail, and Y-Cross. What makes them go though is speed and efficiency. Not only does LaTech play fast but they do so with very few mistakes. An offense that does not make mistakes is a difficult one to stop.” (www.brophyfootball.blogspot.com)
In fact, Louisiana Tech’s most “complicated” plays are their run/pass option series, where extremely simple staples like quick screens and zone runs are melded into the same play. Using spread sets lets the quarterback quickly identify where defenses are weak numerically, and using the option game (often on several defenders in succession) lets him attack weak points and essentially make the defense perpetually wrong. Of course, having multiple plays rolled into one also makes calling audibles unnecessary, which helps keep the attack speed up.
So what can defenses do to catch up? We’ll close out this series with a look at what has worked (and might work) to slow these teams down.
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