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Copyright by John T. Reed
John T. Reed is the author of The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense
Your offense should be sound, but contrarian. That is, it should be rare, or better yet, unique—different from all the other offenses that your opponents will see this season.
When your offense is different from all the others your opponents see, you get better at it every day all season, but opposing defenses only get one week to learn how to defend it.
Better still, incorporate high-reps skills—like the option or excellent fakes. Then your opponent’s scout team has the impossible task of replicating in only 20 minutes on Monday an offense that takes weeks of summer practice to learn.
Another enhancement to being different is to choose offensive schemes, tactics, and techniques that turn your opponents’ strengths and good habits into weaknesses and bad habits. The Japanese call that “ju jitsu:” using your opponent’s strength against him.
Assumption is the mother of all screw-ups. To design their defenses, your opponents make assumptions about the formations and plays you run. The basic principle of defense is strength against strength. Accordingly, defensive coordinators design their defenses to put their strengths against the usual strong points of offenses in your area.
If, however, you run an offense with different strong points, you will have your strengths against their weaknesses. Strength against weakness is the basic principle of offense.
The opposite of contrarian is fashionable. The vast majority of football offenses today are fashionable. That is, they are similar to the other offenses in your area. That helps the defenses. They only have to prepare for one or two types of offense.
You should not be helping opposing defenses. By being unfashionable, you foul up opposing defenses.
Contrarian can be something old or something new, something that’s never been tried before, or a combination of the two. Old has the advantage of being proven and the details worked out. For example, many high school coaches today run the ancient single-wing offense successfully. Others say it’s obsolete, but that only occurs when rules changes render something illegal. The single wing is still legal. And it is quite contrarian.
Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, who ran the single wing as a player and as a high school coach, later said of the NFL, “What would happen if someone came out in a single-wing offense? It would embarrass the hell out of us.” Apparently, he was right. In 2008, the Dolphins introduced their “wildcat” offese which was more or less a single wing and it electrified the NFL. Byy the end of the season, many teams had used it successfully.
You don’t have to take an entire offensive scheme from the past. You can just take one or more aspects of an old offense, like the flicker handoff technique. (ball carrier holds the ball behind him with one hand as he approaches the line of scrimmage and a teammate takes it out of his hand)
The one disadvantage of using old techniques that are now contrarian is that there are some people and old books that explain how to defend them. If on the other hand, you use something new that you came up with and has never been seen anywhere, the way to defend it has not yet been invented. The downside of new stuff is that it has not been proven and the kinks have not yet been worked out. Contrarianism of the new variety requires patience by all concerned.
The record books are full of the footprints of contrarian coaches. The Division I-A NCAA consecutive wins record (47) is held by Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams of 1953 to 1957. They ran the then contrarian split-T triple option. Another Oklahoma team, Barry Switzer’s 1971 eleven, still holds the record for average yards rushing per game for a season: 472.4. They ran the then-contrarian wishbone triple option.
The biggest blowout in NFL history was the 1940 championship game in which the Bears defeated the Redskins 73-0. The Bears ran the then-contrarian T-formation with a man in motion. The Skins ran the then-fashionable single wing.
Don Markham took over Bloomfield, CA High School in 1994. The previous year, they went 1-9. He installed his contrarian, indirect-snap double-wing and, in his first season there, went 14-0 scoring 880 points and setting a new national record for average points per game.
There are about 15 rules changes per year at the high school level and similar numbers at the college and pro levels. Some give rise to contrarian schemes, tactics, or techniques. Quickly mastering new rules related to forward passes allowed several contrarian coaches—namely Eddie Cochems of St. Louis University, Amos Alonzo Stagg of the University of Chicago, and Jesse Harper of Alma College and Notre Dame—to blow away opponents in the early twentieth century.
The 1940 movie Knute Rockne All-American celebrated the 1913 culmination of the forward pass’s contrarian impact in that year’s upset Notre Dame 35-13 victory over Army. (Although the movie gets many of the facts wrong. Jesse Harper, not Rockne, was the coach. Rockne was a receiver. George Gipp was an ineligible freshman. Army was well aware of the pass that year, they just had not perfected it the way Notre Dame did.)
Florida’s Urban Meyer won the 2006 national championship. Wikipedia said, “Meyer’s success can be attributed to his unique offensive [spread option offense] system.” There’s that word “unique” again. Although I hasten to add that the spread option, which was successful in large part because of its contrarianness, is rapidly becoming more fashionable, and therefore less contrarian.
Everything that now is or once was fashionable was contrarian at first.
Is contrarianism just “trick plays?” No. They are not synonyms. Trick plays are contrarian, but there’s more to contrarianism than trick plays. Trick plays rely heavily on the element of surprise and are intended to be used only once or twice a game. Surprise is good, but not necessarily part of contrarianism. After the first game, Bud Wilkinson surprised no one with the split-T. Trick plays are also unusual. That’s what’s contrarian about them.
The phrase “trick play” is often used as a put down. That’s not valid. Surprise is one of the nine principles of war and applies to football. The Titans got into the Super Bowl by using a backward-pass kick return. Boise State won the Fiesta Bowl with a Statue of Liberty two-point conversion. Neither of those plays were unheard of. Both were unexpected at that moment.
So contrarianism is not just a trick-play offense, but there would be nothing wrong with an all-trick-play offense if you could execute it. When asked about what new offenses might work but have not been tried, the late Bill Walsh said an, “all-trick-play offense.”
The game of football is defined by the rule book, not by coach-to-coach put-downs. In my book The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense, I have a large circle which I describe as “What is allowed by the rules.” Inside it is a much smaller circle that is labeled “What is used by the coaches.”
The fact that what is used is far less varied than what is allowed is a scandal. There is too much conformity and fear of criticism among football coaches. All football coaches demand 100% from their players. By pulling their punches on what legal schemes, tactics, and techniques they are willing to use, coaches make it harder for their players to win games.
Some coaches say fundamentals are where the focus should be, not gimmicky offenses. Not so. Your team has to be able to execute whatever schemes, tactics, and techniques you use. That requires mastering the fundamentals pertinent to your offense.
But unless your school has some substantial recruiting advantage, you have to be smarter than just having the prettiest three-point stances and such. In figure skating competition, they have a compulsory phase where they grade the skaters on fundamentals like the perfection of their figure 8s. Football has no compulsories. It’s a disciplined street fight from opening kickoff to final horn.
Others say great players make great coaches. I agree. The way I put it is an ounce of recruiting is worth a pound of coaching. But great players with unimaginative coaching have less success than they would if the coach did everything he could to insure victory, including using contrarian offenses.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You succeed the most when you combine great players with great practice organization and coaching and the smartest play book and game plans. You succeed most when make every aspect of your team as good as you can. There is no shortcut like emphasizing only conditioning or fundamentals or people.
Former Florida and Redskins coach and current South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was asked why he ran the spread offense. His answer was along the lines of, “I don’t think I can coach the off-tackle play better than everybody else.” Too many coaches, who cannot even coach the off-tackle play as well as Spurrier, are nevertheless placing all their eggs in the coach-the-off-tackle-play-better basket.
All professions, including football coaching, are defined by their “best practices.” “Best practices” are actions that are proven as the most effective. For example, if you break your arm, the best practice in the medical profession is to X-ray it, set it, and cast it for a number of weeks.
Contrarianism is not a philosophy or a style or a suggestion or just one way to do things. It is a best practice.
Contrarianism is merely a more detailed way of stating the principle of “Take what the defense gives you” or the basic principle of offense: strength against weakness.
Football offensive coordinators can choose from a vast catalog of formations, plays, techniques, play-calling approaches, and so forth. That’s the large circle I described above. It includes both old offensive approaches that have fallen out of fashion, but which are still legal, and new approaches that have not yet been tried.
But to watch current high school games, you would think coaches can only choose from a few offensive approaches. In my area recently, we saw little more than the multiple I and double wing with a smattering of one-back. One local team, legendary De La Salle High School, runs the Houston veer, and had more success than any football team in history (set the 151-game-consecutive-wins record).
Since contrarianism is a best practice, no two offenses in an area should be alike. Last season, our local Piedmont High School ran a new offense they called the A-11 which is a spread option that uses a scrimmage-kick formation for every play so they can do a late shift that only reveals which linemen are eligible at the last second. They went 7-4 which was probably better than their talent would have gotten with a fashionable offense. The following year, they went 8-3, then the NFHS outlawed the A-11.
Other teams should be following their example so that during a season, you would face a schedule something like this: single wing, indirect-snap double wing, Houston veer, spread option, short punt, full-house double-tight T formation, A-11, lonesome polecat, fly, and some totally new offense. Indeed, if everyone did that, contrarianism would become slightly less effective because defenses would become more flexible in general.
But that’s not going to happen any time soon, so you get an even bigger advantage from being the only one in your area using a contrarian offense. The more rare your approach, the more your opponents handicap themselves for beating you by designing, practicing, and playing against offenses unlike yours.
The 5/11/09 New Yorker had a great article about applying contrarianism to basketball and warfare. It also applies to football. I highly recomend you read it.
John T. Reed