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January 15, 2013

Tarp's Tuesday Thoughts

The Cotton Bowl turned out to be a audition of sorts for former running backs coach Clarence McKinney who passed it with flying colors. Prior to the game, we wrote about changes coming down the pike for A&M's offense and a greater emphasis on the run game but it didn't turn out exactly how we planned.

During the regular season, A&M's two primary running backs, Ben Malena and Christian Michael, registered 226 carries while quarterback Johnny Manziel had 201 carries. Basically, the carries in A&M's offense were split between the running backs and quarterback almost equally. That ratio carried forward to the Cotton Bowl where Manziel had 17 rushes and Malena and Trey Williams combined for 14 rushes.

It's hard to want to cut down on Manziel's rushes not just because of his productivity but also because he often winds up running out of bounds before getting touched, even if he starts out near the middle of the field. In addition, many of Manziel's rushing attempts come when he's dropped back, made a pass rusher miss, and then lets the coverage move and provides open areas for him to run. They're not designed runs and because of that they are actually more effective because defenses simply find it hard to account for all 11 defenders.

Even so, when Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy at Florida in 2007, he had 210 carries and 350 passing attempts and was essentially used as an I formation tailback by Urban Meyer due to the lack of quality runners around him. The following season, Tebow ran slightly less (176 attempts) and had fewer passing attempts (298 passes) but Florida won the national championship because they spread the ball around more to a variety of runners (Chris Rainey, Percy Harvin, and Jeff Demps). None of them were 20 to 25 carry a game workhorses but they were productive and enabled Meyer to take some pressure off of Tebow both physically and mentally.

The Aggies didn't really move toward that formula in the Cotton Bowl but what they did do was provide a more varied running game than they had during the regular season. In A&M's 12 game schedule, the Aggies typically lined up with the running back beside the quarterback which meant that they would normally run the back to the opposite side which made it easier for defenses to game plan for A&M's running game.
In the post season, they made greater use of the pistol formation to simultaneously threaten both sides of the line of scrimmage. When Malena or Williams lined up alongside Manziel in the Cotton Bowl, they would run speed option that way which kept the defense from overloading one side of the line. They also ran quarterback dart to the opposite side with a pulling lineman and the running back blocking which provided added numbers in case the defense did try to overload the side opposite the back.

However, the one thing that did NOT emerge from the Cotton Bowl was Manziel carrying the ball LESS. Unlike the offenses that Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez popularized in the previous decade, the Aggies do not run that much zone read or option. In those offenses, the quarterbacks run at or just outside the placement of the defensive end along the line of scrimmage in most situations. That means that they run in far more traffic and the likelihood of collisions is greater in those types of offenses. In contrast, because Manziel's runs are unscripted and often out of drop back passes, the defense is often spread out. They are chasing him or chasing receivers or rotating into a zone and as a result it's far more likely that he's going to have a lot more space to work with and have far less chance of contact (and injury) than the quarterbacks operating in those attacks.

Again, it all boils down to one thing: assigning a defender for all 11 offensive players, especially when the defender assigned to the quarterback is in space which is where Manziel is at his best. As he proved time and time again during the regular season and again in the bowl game, the defense simply cannot cope with the concepts of numbers or space because of his unique vision, elusiveness, and acceleration.

In fact, we saw a lot more of this most basic concept…making the defense account for the quarterback…this past weekend in the NFL. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson brought his team back from a 20-0 deficit by extending plays from the pocket both running and passing. Time and time again, Wilson would drop back and watch the Atlanta Falcons defense not rush upfield and simply try to hem in in. This actually helped him become even more effective because he got less pressure and got more time to make decisions. It also opened up more space for him to operate much like Manziel does.

The Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers also made greater use of the pistol formation popularized by Chris Ault at Nevada. Both Wilson and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick would fake inside zone to a running back and continue on to the outside of the formation. NFL defenses not used to accounting for quarterbacks and used to being able to dial up pressure with blitzes found themselves having to tell their edge defenders to stay home and watch the quarterback. When they didn't…as in the case of Packer outside linebacker Erik Walden…Kaepernick simply ran around Walden, got upfield, and ran 56 yards untouched for a touchdown. Seattle head coach Pete Carroll and San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh both came from the college ranks and have adjusted their offenses to accommodate the talents of young quarterbacks who are used to running with the ball and making plays with their feet (Kaepernick actually played at Nevada). It's no coincidence that both Wilson and Kaepernick had over 400 yards of total offense this past weekend even though they are first year starters.

In all, while the Aggies would perhaps like to reduce Johnny Manziel's burden during the 2013 season, it may not be as much of a burden as one would suspect. It's going to be difficult to take away such responsibility when it actually gives him more freedom to be productive. In addition, accounting for the quarterback opens up defenses to strategies involving other skill position players and makes them that much more productive.

Manziel and his kind are setting the tone in college football and now are doing so in the pros. It's just simply time to get used to it because much to the chagrin of defensive coaches everywhere, it's not going away…and unfortunately for A&M's 2013 opponents, neither is he.


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