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BSD Film Room: Pick Your Passing Scheme

Two passing schemes. Pick your favorite.

Recent injuries to running backs suggest that Penn State will once again turn to its passing offense for yards and points.  That notion immediately summons myriad opinions - what's good, what's bad, who gets credit/blame, throwing long or short, etc.  All kinds of stuff.

Film Room, as arm-chair QB, has it's own useless opinions.  But rather than spew those, Film Room will share a brief background on passing schemes, which you, friend of Film Room, can use to inform your own opinions - or, you know, just completely ignore.  Which, really, might be best for everyone involved.

Kill The Lights

The foosball coaches adopt one of two basic approaches to passing offense: 1) read the coverage, and make your throw based on the coverage you've read; an approach we'll label...wait for it..."coverage read"; or 2) read each of your receivers as they run their routes, progressing from one to the next, until you see one who is open - "progression read".  Fortunately for us fans of Penn State, we've had the chance to watch both versions in the last four seasons on the field.  Bill O'Brien taught "coverage" reads in the passing game.  John Donovan's (and Jay Paterno's) offense is, mostly, based on a "progression" read.

What's The Same About Them

Both feature 11 guys with an odd shaped ball running around a green field.  Both approaches use the same formations, though they'll usually have different names.  The routes that receivers run are also the same (though, again, the names will be different).  In other words, for you and me, removed a comfortable distance from the field, things will look very similar as we stare from the stands or thru the TV.  The ball gets snapped, little/fast people run around, large/fat people push each other, someone gets tackled, we all cheer.  They line up and do it again.

What's Different

Everything else is different.  It's so different that it's like comparing Latin vs. Chinese alphabets - they're two completely different approaches, birthed from two clearly different minds, separated by a vast philosophical ocean.  And in this instance, it's a hilarious contrast in 1970's coaching personalities.  The principle coaches involved were Bill Walsh (progression read), and Ron Erhardt + Ray Perkins (coverage read).  Let's profile them now, because history.

Bill Walsh

You know this name.  He's a Hall of Famer with a bunch of Super Bowl rings.  He learned under football giant Paul Brown before staking his own claim, first at Stanford, then, most famously, with the 49ers.  He's considered the father of the "west coast" passing offense. Yada, yada, Walsh's a genius.  And John Donovan's using his playbook today.

Bill Walsh gets the genius label in part because, starting in 1976, the foosball rule book was altered significantly to foster passing offenses.  In 1975, Mel Blount could beat on a receiver the entire length of the route without incurring a penalty.  (And he did.)  That changed, limiting Blount's punishment to the first 5 yards from scrimmage in 1976(ish).

Also, passing the ball used to be a real crap shoot.  Johnny Unitas led the NFL in completion percentage in 1967, while winning his 3rd MVP award.  Unitas completed 58.9% of his passes that season.  Today, that gets you benched, not an MVP award.

So, (with apologies to Sid Gilman), into that environment comes Bill Walsh, the professor.  He diagrams complex plays which involve 5 offensive threats into the pass routes (rather than just 2 or 3).  Knowing full well that he's smarter than everyone else, he makes the play call verbiage very long - "Scatter Two Bunch Right Zip Fire 2 Jet Texas Right F Flat X Q" - with the idea that everyone in the huddle gets told what precisely to do, because they're too stupid to memorize anything (although you kinda gotta memorize that jargon anyhow).

Furthermore, those routes must be run precisely - a slant is exactly three steps and a 45-degree angle cut in, and if you're on the left side of the formation, then your first step must be with your left foot, plus 20 other coaching points.  The routes must be precise, because the QB is under the same precision.  He must take a 3-step drop from center, and when his back foot hits "three", the ball must come out to his first read.  The ball must come out, because the O-line is protecting a certain way under the expectation that the QB will release the ball on a 3-step drop.  All of this junk works together, hand-in-glove, with synchronized timing.  If one component is "off" - the WR screws up the slant, the QB doesn't release the ball, or the OT takes a deep set instead of a short set - then the play can get screwed up quickly and badly.

Last, and this is an important point, the quarterback must follow a "progression" which is dictated by the play call.  On the snap of the ball, he'll first look at receiver X, then receiver Y, then receiver Z, etc., on stepped timing, until he finds someone open.  It's important that the QB follow this precise progression, because of the timing (which syncs to 'when' the receiver should be coming open), and because Bill Walsh's fancy routes are also designed to 'influence' defenders - that is, by first looking at route 'A', the QB makes the defenders react towards that, which opens space for route 'B'.   Every bit of this was innovative, and put Walsh into the Hall of Fame (well, this plus a loaded roster).

TL;DR - Bill Walsh

West Coast was a giant leap forward schematically in the 1970's / 1980's.  The massively complex and tightly integrated timing scheme produced passing stats the world had rarely, if ever, seen (completions, yards, TDs, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, etc. - you get the idea).

Ron Erhardt / Ray Perkins

These guys are anonymous.  Erhardt and Perkins were the polar opposites of Walsh.  Erhardt came from North Dakota State to Chuck Fairbanks' 1973 New England Patriots, as running backs coach.  Ray Perkins was a Bear Bryant disciple, who joined Fairbanks' staff as WR coach.  These guys liked to run the dang ball.  Perkins later became the head coach of the Giants, and Erhardt was his OC.  Erhardt stayed on as OC under Bill Parcells after Perkins dumped the NFL for Alabama.

Fairbanks, Perkins, Parcells, Erhardt - all of them, in Film Room's opinion, would much rather punch you in the face than use science to throw the ball.  Consequently - again, in Film Room's opinion - their passing offense was pretty simple.  They taught "concepts" rather than tightly integrated calculus.  For example, rather than a 12-word play call, they diagrammed a combination of routes, and gave that combination a single, one-word name (e.g., "triangle").  In "triangle", one inside receiver would run to the flat, a second receiver would run a 12-yard curl, and a third, outside receiver would run a post-corner route.  You, as a receiver, had to memorize "triangle", since the QB wasn't telling you exactly what to do in the huddle.

That concept, then, could be made to look different to the defense simply by changing the formation and/or alignment of the receivers involved in said concept.  In our example, "triangle" could be run using three WRs, or two WRs and one TE, or 2TEs and 1RB, etc..  And those three receivers could be bunched together, spread out, etc.   This would also allow a coach to create match-ups of his choosing, for a particular opponent, in a particular week, without making wholesale changes to his offense, or installing new plays.  If, after reviewing film, the coach expects the opponent to run Cover 4 against a 3-man bunch, with a slow-footed free safety taking an inside receiver, then maybe you put Allen Robinson inside that week, in your "triangle" concept - because you expect ARob will beat the safety.

Similarly - and this is a critical difference - that flexibility extends to the QB position.  Rather than a rigid set of reads across his receivers set to stepped timing, the QB must instead read the defense, and throw to the receiver who should be open, based on that defense - assuming, of course, he's read the coverage correctly, and his receivers have run the route concept correctly.

TL;DR - Erhardt/Perkins

What Erhardt/Perkins sacrificed in precision, they got back in flexibility and simplicity for their passing offenses (which, in Film Room's opinion, typically took a back seat to their rush offenses in the 1970s/80s).

Let's Bring This To Present Day

Flexibility wasn't a big deal in 1983, because every defensive coordinator ran "cover 3", and the wild ones ran cover 2.  And that fact, friends, helped keep Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins out of the Hall of Fame, while Bill Walsh got his own wing in Canton.

But the foosball world is ever-changing, and today the pendulum has swung the opposite direction.  Starting with the proliferation of zone-blitz schemes out of Pittsburgh in the 1990s, "quarters" match-up zone coverage in the 2000s, disguised blitzes, rotated coverages, and all kinds of other fun defensive stuff; plus, the hurry-up/no-huddle and, most critically, a 40-second college play clock in 2008 - all of that Erhardt-Perkins flexibility, and one-word terminology started to become really attractive to offensive coaches.

It became downright dazzling mid-2000's, when Bill Belichick, who'd been the defensive coordinator to Ron Erhardt's OC on those 1980's Giants squads, used the Erhardt-Perkins offense to win a bunch of Super Bowls, in varying styles, usually while scoring a ton o' points.  When you win, coaches take notice.  And what smart coaches noticed was that the flexibility paid dividends in three distinct ways:

1) Moss, Welker, Gronkowski - who ever it is catching the ball, he has certain strengths which Belichick can 'match-up', without changing the core 'concepts'.  This interchangeability is particularly valuable in the free agency era, which Bill Walsh didn't have to experience (and, you know, college ball, where no player stays longer than 4 years);

2) Belichick (or Weis, or McDaniel, or O'Brien) can design 'concepts' that attack more than one coverage at the same time.  Whether the defense runs Cover 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4, the 'concept' has a receiver coming open.  More to the point, you don't have to make the perfect call from the play sheet; and, if you guess wrong, you're not forced to check into a truncated handful of audibles, because your play should work against two or three different looks;

3) just like Ricky Bobby - you can go fast.  "Triangle" is one word.  One word is really fast.  Or, you can just have a backup QB hold a poster board on the sidelines - pictures, instead of words.  Pictures are zero syllables - that's even faster.  Conversely, "scatter two bunch right 2 jet-" - forget it.  It's a bunch of words, and that's not fast.  [Sidenote: worse, if you want to juggle the alignment of your personnel to create a match-up, you're effectively installing a new play in the 'west coast', because you've re-written the jargon.  "Scatter two bunch right" becomes "Brown right wing right banana", or whatever - and there's little or no continuity between the jargon/concept to the players listening to the play call.  Conversely, Belichick's "bunch triangle" becomes "trips triangle".]  And since 2008, when speed-up-the-game rule changes took effect, playing fast gives offenses an advantage.  You'd be foolish not to take a free gift, right?

Coverage Read In Action

Here's a fun gif that BSDers TTFP and Salt linked and described earlier in the week.  Hackenberg's playing at Wisconsin, circa 2013, in BOB's Erhardt-Perkins offense.  This is "triangle" (or "snag", or whatever BOB chose to call it).  We can't see them at the snap, but Adam Breneman, Allen Robinson, and Geno Lewis are bunched left.  Geno breaks in off the snap and goes vertical, keeping the single-high safety in centerfield.  Robinson and Breneman cross, rubbing each other's defender, and giving instant separation.  Breneman runs to the flat, Lewis runs a post-corner, and Robinson curls up at 12 yards.

Hack reads the coverage, instead of reading his receivers in a progression.  Seeing a single-high safety, Hack knows where he should go with the football BEFORE he receives the shotgun snap.  It's confirmed immediately after receiving the snap.  And that - if you have a QB who can read coverages - is a 'UUGE advantage to playing quarterback.  It's so big, in fact, that it's worth 9 percentage points to Matt McGloin's completion percentage, and a 50,000% improvement to his TD:INT ratio (the approximate differences between 2011 and 2012 McGloin).  It's a really, really big deal knowing where you should throw the ball, while running a play that provides a solution to the coverage you saw.

Here's the best part about this play - it would have worked if Wisconsin had run a different coverage.  If the Badgers had run Cover 2, instead of Cover 1, then Hack still has the high-low of Lewis-Breneman on the left side.  And if the Badgers had run Cover 3 instead of 1 or 2, Hack has Robinson curled up in what would have been a hole in their zone for a first down.  And failing all of that, if Wisconsin had brought more rushers than Hack had blockers, and Hack had been forced to throw quickly, he had Breneman wide open at the start of the play, thanks to the "rub".  Thus, this single play is designed to beat multiple looks.

And, lest we forget, since the play call is one word - or one picture, or one signal - the PSU offense can skip the huddle, run up to the line, and snap off another play.  And another, and another.  You get the idea.  Fast = good these days, thanks to the rule book.

Progression Read In Action

Here's a progression read - though this gif (below) isn't as pretty.  San Diego State rushes 4 and drops 7 into a 2-deep, 5-under zone.  Not that any of that really matters, because Hack's not reading the coverage.  He's looking first at Mike Gesicki in the near slot.  Gesicki runs a stutter-go, which Hack pump-fakes, as prescribed by the play design, right into both safeties and an underneath defender.  No bueno.  Hack next looks left, at Godwin, his second read.  Godwin hooks up directly in front of two defenders, as prescribed by the play call.  And when he doesn't get the ball, he continues moving to the next "hole" in the zone.  Hack hits him for the TD.  We cheer.

What if SDSU had played Cover 1, man-under?  We can't know for certain, but we probably lose, because Gesicki - the first read - still won't be open against that coverage, and our other three receivers would have a defender draped on top of them.  Our best shot might be Hack throwing a jump ball to Saeed Blacknall in the bottom right corner.  But Blacknall, if Hack's reads stayed the same, would be - at best - Hack's 3rd read in his progression.  That requires an extra second in the pocket, which our o-line might not be able to provide.   So maybe this ends as a FG attempt instead of six points.

(Can you combine these two?  Read the coverage pre-snap, and change your progressions based on the coverage you saw?  Yes you can.  But that's not what we're seeing happen on tape.  Otherwise, Hack's first read should have been to Blacknall, who is standing alone in the back corner of the end zone, by himself, in the gif above against this cover 2 look.)

Hit The Lights

This concludes Film Room's brief - and probably only 35% accurate - description of the two basic passing schemes and their origins.  You're now free to draw your own conclusions, and argue amongst yourselves as to the proper apportioning of blame and credit for PSU's passing successes and failures.