This is the final Part 4 of our series looking into the Notre Dame running game. In Part 1 we looked at the Irish's situational stats, in Part 2 we compared them to the BCS champions, and in Part 3 we talked about which offense best fits the University and its football team. Today, we say goodbye to the Tommy Rees era and the lack of immobile spread quarterbacks.
Notre Dame would have been best served in 2013 by Kelly changing his offense to suit Tommy Rees' skill-set through a run-heavy scheme that set up the pass through the use of play-action.
How many times have you read that somewhere over the past 5 or 6 months? Let's discuss, shall we?
First, the statement is cloaked in classic Monday Morning Quarterbacking. Anytime a pass play didn't work what is the cry? A run play would have worked! Of course it would have. Even those who admit the offense doesn't run the ball well enough will use this logic after watching a pass fall incomplete during a game. The run game is always supposed to work, in theory.
Perhaps the slogan should be changed to: Nothing is guaranteed in life except death, taxes, and complaints that a run play would have worked.
Who out there still thinks the 2007 Irish squad--the absolute worst rushing team in school history by a wide margin--would have won a few more games if only they'd run the ball more, shortened the game, etc.? Usually doing something more often when you're terrible at it is not a good recipe, but that logic doesn't always extend to running the football.
Second, making such a systematic change (working heavily off play-action) is tantamount to Notre Dame moving to a pro-style offense. Some people might prefer such a move but asking a long-time spread coach to do that is foolish. You might as well just get a new coach.
And if you don't want to switch to a pro-style attack then you want to run the ball more with an immobile Rees in a spread system. If Urban Meyer--one of the greatest coaches our time--can't run a productive offense without a mobile quarterback why should Kelly double down on rushing more against loaded boxes?
Third, making such a switch doesn't necessarily "make up" for Rees' shortcomings, work to his strengths as a quarterback, nor is it guaranteed to help the offense. This is an important point that I will talk about below.
Fourth, this theory assumes that even with Rees' shortcomings that the running backs were better players and therefore a greater focus on the run game would have done better than what transpired in 2013.
For as much as Rees is criticized it is not unfair to say he was more experienced and productive throughout his career than a collection of backs who came into 2013 with a combined 105 carries to their name. To say nothing of the other playmakers on offense like Jones, Daniels, or Niklas to whom Rees had to distribute the ball. Just because Rees was mistake prone and inconsistent at times does not mean the backs could carry the offense.
All of these assumptions are a part a lot of common fanspeak and conventional wisdom that so often floats around as if historical fact.
Is it possible that the Irish running backs just weren't that good? In a mailbag shortly before Christmas CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman had this to say:
I spoke to two rival defensive coaches who thought the ND O-line was one of the best fronts they faced all season, but both of those coaches said the Fighting Irish backs were very average.
Are we really sure the Notre Dame offense would have been better off giving the ball significantly more to 'average' running backs? That's not a bet I'm sure I'd be willing to make.
In part 3 of this series I talked about how the Urban Meyer offense gives Ohio State a lot of flexibility to even the numbers in the box and bring a lead-blocker, now let's talk about the numbers game for the Irish offense and what the coaching staff has faced with Rees at quarterback.
There is always a ball carrier so the defense will always have more players than the offense can bring with blockers. If the QB hands the ball off then it's an 11 versus 9 edge overall for the defense.
This is where having Tommy Rees at quarterback really crimps the Irish running game. That 11 vs. 9 disadvantage is a brutal reality for the coaching staff and that's why Kelly mentioned the numbers in the box so often in 2013 (Pburns had a nice breakdown on the numbers game in Kelly's zone blocking scheme HERE). It's critically important to get the right looks with Rees in order to have a productive run game--which in turn explains a lot of checking at the line by Tommy.
The ironic part of all of this is that Kelly's detractors loathe how he talks about the players lack of execution and they decry how Rees is asked to do things he cannot do, however, constantly calling for a team to run against an 11 to 9 disadvantage is the ultimate ridiculousness in asking players to execute and perform things they cannot do consistently.
This often gets condensed into vapid fanspeak about Notre Dame not being 'tough enough' but it's really about asking a couple of offensive linemen to block two defenders or have your running back consistently make unblocked defenders miss snap after snap after snap.
This screenshot is from this past fall's game against Michigan State. Notre Dame has 3 wide receivers, a tight end attached to the line on the field side, and the running back in the Pistol formation. As pointed out by Burgs in his film review of this game, the Spartans absolutely loaded up against the run.
The Irish have 6 blockers at the line while MSU has 6 in the box with a safety in full run support and the outside linebacker creeping toward the box.
At the point of the hand-off to the running back the safety (charging toward the line next to the ref) is about to bring a numbers imbalance while the outside linebacker is completely playing the run and not respecting the edge since Rees can't run.
The result is Atkinson running into a wall where he's lucky to get only 3 yards.
Here is a play from the Miami 2012 game. The Irish are in similar formation as above except the tight end is set back from the line and the running back is next to the quarterback.
Obviously, Miami isn't in the same exact positioning as MSU. The corners are playing off the receivers, the defender on the slot receiver isn't creeping toward the box, and the safeties are 4 yards deeper from the line of scrimmage. Right off the bat this is a better run look for Notre Dame: 6 defenders in the box versus 6 blockers for the Irish.
At the mesh point 5 out of the 6 defenders are moving to the field side (or being blocked in that direction) in expectation of a hand-off to the running back. The middle linebacker actually does a nice job staying home and spying the quarterback but guess who is winning that 1-on-1 battle in space?
In the first video Notre Dame actually does an admirable job blocking and grinding out 3 yards against a stacked box. Here, an assignment is missed against the middle linebacker but Golson is athletic enough to gain 12 yards.
Kelly's detractors think it's because he 'doesn't want to run the ball' but he's certainly tried to make changes to help the run game: More of a reliance on two tight ends to gain an extra big body in the box, taking snaps from under center to get more down-hill power, and the Pistol formation. All of these things have been added to help the run game. That's certainly a lot of work for someone who doesn't care about running, wouldn't you say?
In the spread, offenses try to make up for this numbers imbalance by having a running QB, adding extra receivers to create space in the box, or using the option. Lou Holtz' late 80's/early 90's offense used mobile quarterbacks and option to create confusion and hesitation within the defense to go along with effective play-action. In a pro-style offense a premium is put on excelling at bootlegs/roll-outs to keep edge defenders from crashing down on the running back while also having a potent down-field passing game to keep the free safety honest and away from the line of scrimmage.
The question is which system fits Tommy Rees best?
On the surface it would seem logical that if Rees isn't mobile that you'd prefer a pro-style offense but this line of thinking overestimates the type of mobility used in some spread offenses and underestimates the type of mobility needed in nearly all pro-style offenses.
Additionally, a pro-style offense puts the most stress on Rees' arm to make a variety of throws--especially down field--into tighter windows. He doesn't have a big arm and wouldn't be able to consistently execute the types of throws needed off play-action.
Rees can't make these throws on a consistent basis. Relying on a run game and making Rees into a pro-style quarterback puts so much pressure on his arm but also with his legs in the following parts of his game: footwork on drop backs, 3, 5, and 7 step drops, movement in the pocket, shuffling his feet, throwing on the run, and throwing down field especially while moving his feet. If you know Rees isn't running the ball no matter the type of offense then why would you pick the scheme that exacerbates his biggest weaknesses?
Joe Montana's footwork was poetry in motion. Rees was capable of executing pro-style throws with proper footwork but he was also able to execute making throws on the run occasionally too. That doesn't mean you should build an entire offense around Rees having to consistently do both of these things.
Tommy Rees may not be able to run but he was born to be a spread quarterback as a player who stayed in shotgun, delivered the ball quickly, and made good decisions while distributing to various playmakers. He's not unlike former Oklahoma and Heisman winning quarterback Jason White. And give Tommy Rees credit he was able to execute at a reasonably high level for hundreds of snaps and offer a solid amount of consistency as a passer that eluded fellow teammates Dayne Crist and Andrew Hendrix.
At this point the discussion may be moved from "Well Rees doesn't have to be a pro-style QB but why didn't Kelly just run the ball more out of his spread system to protect Rees?"
And now we're right back to my fourth point above: Running the ball significantly more with Rees at quarterback, out of the spread, without the ability to run option or have difference makers at running backs is not a recipe for success.
The funny thing is, we saw Brian Kelly adopt some pro-style elements to the offense stretching back all the way to 2011. I'd argue this brought some inconsistency to his system and stunted the development of some players in a small way but I think he was right in trying something to get the offense and run game going with a limited athlete like Rees at quarterback all while not losing balance in either direction.
It's not like Notre Dame was pass-happy with Rees in 2013. Balance was maintained nearly to the mathematical definition. In fact, the Irish ran the ball with backs/receivers 48% of all plays in 2013 versus 49.7% in 2012. Was the difference between Kelly "getting it" in 2012 giving it to the backs just 1.7% more of the time?
Or was it the fact that the offense was opened up because Golson could run the ball himself, the numbers in the box became more favorable, and the result was a more productive run game?
The core issue at hand with this 4-part series is not that Notre Dame needs to necessarily run the ball more but that the Irish need to run the ball better. This offense under Brian Kelly is going to run the ball better with a mobile quarterback. When it does the whole offense should improve, leads will get larger, and the ball will be run more late in games. This isn't rocket science.
I've focused on specific areas where the Irish need to improve and even offered a system that I believe would work best for the Irish but what matters most is simply getting better at rushing when the chips are on the table. We're going to be entering a new--and hopefully very fruitful--period for the offense where the quarterback and offensive line play is stable and highly talented.
I suspect we'll see an improved offense but will it be great? We'll find out.