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Speed Chess

On Amherst, Maine Maritime Academy, and the moving pieces of college football offenses.

The NFL is complicated. In fact, the NFL is so complicated that it almost looks simple.

Every team is trying to trick whoever it’s playing on virtually every down on both sides of the ball (in a recent Sports Illustrated article, Saints coach Sean Payton suggested the single most important word in modern pro football is confusion). The game has become so internally sophisticated that even the semiserious fan has no chance of really understanding what’s happening on the field. Yet this sophistication has a paradoxically static impact on how the sport looks: To the casual eye, most NFL offenses seem more similar than different. The various formations are not identical, but they’re all relatively close (only the Wildcat is totally dissimilar, and that’s mostly a gimmick). In 2010, the club that passed the most (Indianapolis) threw only 13 more times a game than the team that was dead last in attempts (Chicago). A platitude endlessly parroted by broadcasters is that the NFL is “a copycat league,” but it’s one of those platitudes that’s true: Because the level of athleticism is so high, there are only certain things that work. The smartest guys and the dumbest guys know all the same secrets, and it pushes the whole game toward a virtual singularity.

But move down one level, and things start to change.

Watch a major college game, and the action gets weird. You immediately see plays that simply can’t happen1 in a pro game. At the subdivision and Division II tiers, things get stranger still. And by the time you hit Division III, you begin to see football games that are more philosophical than technical. With no athletic scholarships and extremely limited resources, football becomes a game in which the system matters more than the play calling or the personnel. The polarities become acute. This is where you find the most extreme versions of contemporary football: This is where you find teams that still live in the 1950s and teams trying to play basketball on grass. This is the level where football changes — and also where it doesn’t change at all.

Last October, Maine Maritime Academy defeated Westfield State University, 42-21. That score was probably mentioned in a few newspapers, but that doesn’t make it news; this was a Division III game between two members of the New England Football Conference, hosted by a town with a population of 1,300 and a community aesthetic matching Cujo. But there’s one detail about this contest that made it unlike almost every other college football game from 2010: Maritime won by three touchdowns while passing for exactly 0 yards.

They rushed for 435, but they passed for none (they threw the ball just five times, and the only one that didn’t hit the ground was an interception). Even weirder, the Mariners managed to win without controlling the clock — Westfield had a greater time of possession. Yet as unorthodox and lopsided as those numbers seem, they were only slightly crazier than most of Maritime’s 2010 schedule: The Mariners went 6-1 in their conference, scored more than 46 points a contest, and somehow averaged 16 passing yards a game. The week after beating Westfield, Maritime defeated Framingham State 50-26, again throwing for 0 yards. The week after that, they knocked off Massachusetts Maritime by a single point — and here, again, they won without a single passing yard. They went 5-0 in October with 63 total passing yards (not 63 per game, but 63 for October). Half their team stats seem like misprints; last season, the Mariners’ starting quarterback appeared in 11 games and completed a total of 17 passes. But this is how the Mariners want it. This is the design. This is the most reactionary offense in America.

“I don’t care what everyone else is doing. I’ve never been like that.” Mariners coach Chris McKenney tells me this while sitting in his office. McKenney is like a football coach from a 1970s Afterschool Special: He’s got short hair and a walrus mustache. He wears khaki shorts and a blue polo shirt. He’ll turn 50 this fall. He’s built like the small college linebacker he used to be. He still says all the things football coaches used to say when LBJ was president. “I don’t care how many passing yards we get. I love to run the football. And this kind of option attack is as much finesse as it is physical. The mentality we use is to just keep running the ball and running the ball and hammering away, and eventually things will pop open.”

The option attack Maine Maritime employs is a hyperquick adaptation of what you see from Georgia Tech or at any of the service academies: the “modern” version of the Wishbone, with the two tailbacks lined up at each wing. A skeptic would argue that no Division 1 team could succeed by being this extreme, and that’s probably true; even Paul Johnson’s run-obsessed Yellow Jackets threw for more than 1,000 yards in 2010 and attempted almost 13 passes a game. But Maritime is a special case: It’s a Division III school with 900 (mostly male) students and some inherent recruiting limitations, most notably the fact that almost all the academic majors are focused on nautical careers (it’s not a military school, but the students still take regimen training and wear uniforms). Part of the reason this option scheme exists is because it works so well within those parameters — you can succeed with undersized linemen and “untraditional” athletes at the various skill positions. And Maritime’s success has been remarkable, at least numerically: Last year, it rolled up 5,538 yards of total offense, 94 percent of which came on the ground.2 There really isn’t a corollary for this kind of one-sided assault; McKenney doesn’t seem particularly influenced by anyone. Over lunch in the Maritime cafeteria, I ask him if he recruits kicking specialists or just tries to find someone on the roster who can handle PATs. He tells me that the Mariners’ placekicker is technically a nose guard. A few years ago, Maritime went for two points after almost every touchdown. The Mariners would just stay on the field and run the option again.

“I haven’t attempted a field goal in the 10 years I’ve been here,” he says. “Why kick a field goal?”

When LSU hammered Oregon on the first Saturday of the 2011 season, it did so by making the Ducks play in a manner they despise: They made them play slow. This is pretty much the only way Oregon loses anymore — if a physical team can consistently contain the Ducks on first down, they need time to think about what they want to run on second and third down, and that deliberation makes them no different from any other team in the country. But Oregon absolutely kills people when it plays fast. The Ducks’ Chip Kelly is the architect of the “Blur Offense,” which is not so much a play-calling scheme as a design for life. The concept of using a nonstop, no-huddle offense is not new (Sam Wyche did it in the 1980s with the Cincinnati Bengals), but that tactic was originally employed to stop the defense from making situational substitutions. It was pragmatic. The Blur is more like a psychological weapon. Its premise is that a simple offense snapping the ball every 15 seconds is more effective than a complicated offense running at regular speed, because an accelerated tempo manufactures its own momentum. It’s the reason so many of the Ducks’ opponents seem to tire and collapse (in 2010, they outscored opponents by an average of three touchdowns in the second half).

Even after its 40-27 loss to the Tigers, nobody disputes Oregon’s status as the fastest team in the country. But it’s not the only team that plays like that — it’s just the one people want to copy. Amherst College3 is one of those programs. The Lord Jeffs’4 2010 statistics aren’t as mind-warping as Maine Maritime’s, but they’re almost as dominant: They outscored their opponents by about 16 points a game (they put 70 on the board versus Tufts University). What’s especially intriguing about Amherst is its rapid evolution from the past to the future, skipping the present almost entirely. When Amherst coach E.J. Mills took over the program in 1997, they ran a two-back, pro-style offense that mostly involved handing the ball to the tailback and eating the clock. It was almost an “anti-Blur” posture, and it was fairly successful. But one mediocre autumn was all it took to scrap everything.

“In ’07, we went 4-4. It was not a good season,” says Mills, a man who looks and talks like a noncrazy Les Miles. “I felt we’d become too easy to defend. If we couldn’t knock the snot out of people, we didn’t have much to offer. We had to spread things out. And that evolved into what we do now.”

What the Lord Jeffs now do is orchestrated by Don Faulstick, the team’s offensive coordinator. He designs and calls all of Amherst’s plays (Mills is primarily a defensive specialist). A former college quarterback with a master’s degree in criminal justice, Faulstick is exceptionally good at explaining how the details of football work — unlike most coaches, he does not avoid questions or speak in empty clichés. He’s straightforward. What the Jeffs run on offense seems most akin to Oregon, but the genesis for their system actually comes from Troy University: In 2006, coaching svengali Tony Franklin5 took over an anemic Troy offense and immediately led the Sun Belt conference in passing. Faulstick was curious as to how this happened, so he called the coaching staff and directly asked them how they did it.

“I just went to Troy and said, `You guys are really good. What is the key to this passing game? What’s makes you so good at this?'” Faulstick says. “And they were like — listen, it’s not about the plays. It’s about the tempo. It’s about lining up and pressuring the defense and wearing them out. You don’t need a perfect play in this offense. You just need a good play.”

What this means is that Amherst is not concerned with how defenses intend to stop them, almost to the point of ignoring what the opponent is doing — if the Jeffs offense is worrying about the defensive scheme, it means they’re playing too slow. This is not how things worked in the past; 10 years ago, Faulstick focused on picking the ideal play for whatever specific situation he happened to be facing. He responded to whatever look the defense presented. Now he mostly worries about the speed of play. Amherst huddles fewer than five times a game (usually only in goal-line situations). It essentially has three running plays that can go in either direction (an inside run, an outside run, and a power with a pulling guard). Like the University of Nevada, the base set is the pistol. The Jeffs’ offensive lineman stay in a two-point stance. When they’re on a hash mark, they go into an automatic formation called “Cheetah” (which sets three receivers to the wide side); if the ball’s in the middle of the field, the automatic formation is called “Queens” (a balanced attack with two receivers on each side). The intent of every detail is to make things happen faster, because that’s when things seem to work — or vice versa.

“I suppose it’s kind of a chicken-or-the-egg situation,” Faulstick admits. “Do you play better when you play fast, or do you need to play well in order to play fast? That’s the question.”

Football Play
Football Play
The wishbone has been around forever,” McKenney constantly reminds me, and — though not technically true — it’s at least as old as the modern age of football. The wishbone was created by Texas high school coach Charles Carson in the mid-’50s and became the dominant collegiate offense by 1970. It’s almost never seen anymore (Air Force6 was the last team to succeed with the classic wishbone as its base formation in 1985), but just about every program built around a triple option attack is still using a modern variation called the “flexbone”: Instead of keeping the two halfbacks in the backfield, they are flanked just outside the offensive tackles. The fullback is still lined up directly behind the quarterback and serves as the dive back (he’s the first option). The QB keeper is the second option, and the wingback swinging around from the weak side is the pitch back (he’s the third option). When you watch a team like Navy or I-AA Georgia Southern, you’ll notice that the pitch back sometimes goes in motion just before the snap to get depth and create separation from the quarterback. Obviously, this motion telegraphs the direction of the play. But that barely matters. When the triple option succeeds, it’s not because the defense is fooled; it’s because the defense is forced to make difficult decisions about a something it fully anticipates.

McKenney uses the flexbone as Maine Maritime’s base set. However, he’s made a couple of adjustments that appear unique to this program. The first is that his fullback is lined up extremely close to the quarterback — instead of being three yards behind the line of scrimmage, he’s right on the QB’s tail. And unlike most of his option peers, McKenney almost never puts the wingback in motion before the snap. Instead, the wingback flies straight down the line (without much depth). As a result, the quarterback is sometimes forced to pitch the ball to a running back who’s uncomfortably close to him. This is all done for the sake of speed — a Maritime option play unspools quickly and with a high degree of risk. But the rewards are massive: In 2010, senior fullback Jim Bower led the nation in rushing with 1,915 yards and scored 20 touchdowns. Quarterback Matt Rende ran for another 1,333, and the two halfbacks combined for 1,600 while averaging 10 yards a carry.

“The personal keys for me are the center, the quarterback, and the fullback,” says McKenney. “It’s those three guys, right down the middle. And if I can’t find the kind of guy I need, I’ll build one.” Bower (who graduated with more than 6,000 career rushing yards) had been an oversized tailback before McKenney turned him into a fullback. Rende was a skinny wide receiver until his last year in high school and had never run the option; he’s now a 190-pound All-American candidate, even though McKenney admits that, “Rende would be a defensive back anywhere else.”

Maritime’s style is defined by the things it doesn’t do. It has a handful of shotgun formations in the playbook, but McKenney has never used the shotgun in a game. The Mariners don’t have a single pass play in which the quarterback takes a seven-step drop. They use the I-formation maybe 10 times a season, and McKenney can remember only two plays involving trap blocks in all of 2010. They don’t punt very often — when faced with third-and-long, they typically run the option and try to create a fourth-and-short situation, and then they just go for it. “I go into a game thinking we have four or five running plays and maybe two or three passing plays,” McKenney says flatly. Those five running plays are as follows:

1. The true triple option. (This is Maritime’s bread and butter — it’s the fullback running off the guard, with the QB-RB pitch option to the outside.)

2. The midline option. (This involves the fullback diving straight over the center — and because of his lack of depth, the fullback hits the hole almost immediately. The rest of the play is the same as the triple option.)

3. The veer option, which Maritime refers to as the “wide dive.” (In this scenario, the fullback is running over the offensive tackle — it’s a little tougher than usual because of the fullback’s tight alignment.)

4. The counter option. (The fullback goes to the left while the QB and the pitch back go to the right, or vice versa.)

5. The wingback counter. (As the triple option flows in one direction, the playside wing breaks against the flow and takes a handoff the other way.)

Part of what makes this offense so atypical is the gap between how hard it is to execute and how easy it is to learn.7 Running the triple option requires an insane amount of repetition: Maritime practices those five core plays over and over and over, constantly perfecting the “mesh”8 between the quarterback and the fullback and striving to make all aspects of the option look identical on every play. It requires intense discipline and endless, mechanical rehearsal. However, learning this offense is amazingly easy. A typical Mariner play is “Shoot 48.” The word “shoot” is the name of the formation (it’s the standard Maritime flexbone, with a wing on each side and two split ends). The number “4” is the play itself (the triple option). The number “8” represents the play’s direction (in this case, it means the play is going left). That — in four syllables — tells everyone in the huddle everything they need to know, because the blocking schemes are dictated by how the defense aligns itself. A play like “Shoot 42 Counter” is a little more complicated, but not by much: “Shoot” is same formation as before. The “4” describes the action of the play (here, again, it’s a triple option — and to the defense, it should look exactly like Shoot 48). But the number “2” dictates that the play is coming back to the right,9 and the inclusion of the word “counter” means the wingback is taking the handoff and running against the grain.

I’m informed of all this verbiage while watching film with McKenney in the Maritime football office with two assistant coaches. Since I’m writing down the names and numbers of everything he’s showing me, McKenney half-jokingly asks if I’m going to publish the literal names of his plays. “Does it matter if I do?” I ask in response, and he just laughs and says nothing. Because here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. Most of the time, it wouldn’t matter if Rende texted whatever they were running directly to the opponent’s middle linebacker. Maine Maritime runs the same five plays 80 percent of the time; if you’re aware that this football program exists, it might be the only thing you know about it. And that’s to its advantage.

“It’s OK if teams know what we’re doing,” McKenney says, and that’s an understatement. The fact that everyone knows exactly what Maritime does is better than OK, because every team that plays them spends the entire week trying to teach its defenders what they’ll see, what their individual responsibility is, and which assignments they need to accept. And that’s completely antithetical to how modern defenses want to operate. Instead of reacting and hitting, defenders end up reading and thinking. It stops opposing players from being themselves, and that’s half the battle.

The first obstruction to running The Blur is basic: How do you call a play without “calling a play?” Oregon gets a lot of attention for using a bizarre collection of symbols on a piece of tag board — if you watch the Ducks sideline during dead balls, you’ll sometimes see an assistant coach a backup quarterback holding a mammoth four-quadrant tag board featuring the mug shot of an ESPN broadcaster, a random number, a caricature of a lynx, and a photograph of an F-14 fighter jet. Nobody knows exactly10 what these symbols represent (and Oregon is obviously not going to tell). Much of it might be window dressing. Instead of signage, Amherst prefers to do everything through hand signals. But because the Lord Jeffs want to play fast, this communication system creates its own unique hurdle: Traditionally, the only guy on the field who needed to memorize all the hand signals was the quarterback (who would then translate those gestures for everyone else in the huddle). But Amherst has no huddle. It had to figure out its own way to make this work.

“Two years ago, the plan was that the whole team would watch the hand signals and everyone would get the play that way,” Faulstick says. “That was how we were going to play fast. But in reality, we did not play fast, or at least not fast enough. The lineman were always looking back at the sideline, trying to pick up the hand signals instead of getting to the line of scrimmage. That killed the tempo. The quarterback was always repeating the whole play at the line for all the guys who missed it. So last year we changed.”

What Amherst does now is somewhere in-between everyone learning the hand signals and the quarterback calling an audible at the line of scrimmage. The skill position players look to the sideline and read the hand signals themselves; the lineman are vocally informed of the play through a series of “tags.” What this means is that specific plays are represented by a key word that can be disguised through imperfect synonyms. In their old system, an inside run for the Lord Jeffs was called “24” (this is the classic way to name a running play — it’s the “2” back running through the “4” hole). But if you’re vocalizing plays at the line of scrimmage, you can’t keep saying “24” over and over again; eventually, defenses will figure it out. Instead, Amherst calls this play “Texas.”11 But that can be disguised by using a variety of words associated with Texas — “Dallas,” “Waco,” “Longhorn,” or “Cowboy.” All those different words mean the same thing. The Jeffs use a similar code when informing the lineman about pass protection: If they’re blocking the pass rush with six players, they use code words associated with hockey (because hockey is played with six guys on the ice). If they’re blocking the rush with only five players, they use code words connected to basketball.

For Division III schools like Amherst, implementing the Blur as a system isn’t as complicated as actually operating it, simply because they don’t have athletic scholarships (and therefore can’t fill positions with precisely what they need). Their roster includes players who run the entire spectrum of athletic ability, and that throws things out of balance. They can’t be as symmetrical as a Division 1 team. For example, one of their current wide receivers (senior Ben Kettering) is 6-foot-6, mobile, coordinated, and abundantly confident. For a Division III receiver, he’s a beast. There might be certain pass plays that work only with his specific skill set. “Our problem is that in major college football, the guys who get recruited as wideouts all tend to be pretty similar,” says Faulstick. “They’re all big and fast and dynamic. They’re interchangeable. But at our level, it’s likely the one receiver is going to better than the other. So we have to deal with the fact that certain plays might only work in one direction, because not everything works the same both ways.”

Yet limitations sometimes spur innovation. One thing Amherst does that’s particularly forward-thinking is the way it calls the cadence — instead of by the QB, it’s called by the center. Once the quarterback has informed the lineman of the play, his only presnap responsibility is making sure everyone is lined up correctly and “mentally visualizing” what he needs to do next; he doesn’t have to worry about getting the ball snapped. Now, does this actually allow the Jeffs to play faster than other teams? That’s unclear. But it does create other advantages that will probably be copied by other coaches over time.

“When the center calls the cadence, your offside penalties go way down,” Faulstick says. “Plus, your center gets a jump on who he’s blocking. It was a great idea. We immediately went from being a team that would jump offside and kills drives to a team that almost never does. That just ended. But I don’t think a lot of teams are doing this anywhere else.”

Basically, there is no magic about a game plan,” offensive supergenius Sid Gillman said 20 years before his 2003 death. “There is no way you can sit behind a projector for 185 hours and, presto, come up with an idea that’s going to make people disappear.” This is, of course, true: There’s nothing any football team can devise that will win them games without talent. It does not matter how much Maine Maritime practices the option or how fast Amherst run its offense — you can’t design something that reinvents the wheel (or the wheel route). It’s possible to overthink things. But thinking is what makes life interesting. It’s why pure talent isn’t necessarily as entertaining as doing more with less. Maritime and Amherst exist within limitations, but they’re stretching those limitations in ways you won’t see in other places. Big-time football is great because the players are great (and everybody knows it). Small-time football is great because the players are not (and nobody knows anyone).

We live in a celebrity culture, and that collective ideology drives sport as much as anything else. When we turn on the TV, we want to see famous people. Yet every athletic superstar is just another stand-in (both for the player who came before him and the player who’ll come after). Life is a game, and we are the pawns. The only thing that matters is how the pieces move.

Chuck Klosterman is the author of six books. His novel The Visible Man will be released in October.

Previously from Chuck Klosterman:
Noel Gallagher After Oasis
Louie‘s Brilliant Second Season
Important College Football Questions … ANSWERED
(Un)Reality and the Football Hall of Fame
Why AMC’s Breaking Bad Beats Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire.

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Chuck Klosterman is a contributing editor at Grantland and the author of eight books. The latest is I Wear the Black Hat.

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