PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 23: Jonathan Stewart #28 of the Carolina Panthers runs with the ball during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 23 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Last week we looked at the defense, and made some guesses as to what it would look like under Sean McDermott and Ron Rivera. That wasn't too terribly difficult, as both of these men have histories that included running defenses.
This week is a little different. The Panthers have a defensive head coach with no prior experience, and their offensive coordinator was last seen coaching Tight Ends in San Diego. There's not a lot to go on when we turn our attention to the offensive side of the ball. The best we can hope to do is look at our personnel and their collective experience, combine it with what's been said, and put that together with what was done in Cleveland when Ron Chudzinski was the offensive coordinator there. Once we do that, everything clicks and we have a pretty good idea of what we'll be running next year.
Let's end the suspense before it starts. Presumably, Chud has picked up some things along the way from the offensive coordinators he worked for. In his career, he's worked under Terry Robiski, Cam Cameron, and Clarence Shelmon. All three are advocates of the Coryell offense, and in particular the Norv Turner variant. Coincidentally, Norv Turner is the current head coach of the Chargers, Chud's last team. So if you're wondering, the odds are pretty good that this is what we see in Carolina next year.
And finally, we should bury the past (but we'll talk about it anyway). Another big change will come from the Head Coach. Both Henning and Davidson were somewhat constrained by John Fox, and his desire to run a conservative offense. Fox was the kind of coach who would go up a touchdown early in the second half, then immediately go into "burn the clock" mode on offense and tell his defensive coordinator to win the game for him. Don't count on that happening under Rivera, or if it does, count on a short tenure.
As a coach, Ron Rivera thinks of himself as a teacher. And his hires reflect that--every offensive coach he has brought in has been praised for his teaching skills. Chudzinski was a great teacher of Tight Ends. Hoener is known as one too. Shula is a great teacher, witness his work with Jay Fiedler and David Garrard as evidence there. Then there's Wide Receiver coach Fred Graves, of the infamous "brick-throwing" drills, and Offensive Line coach John Matsko. Both have been noted for their outstanding teaching skills at nearly every stop in their careers.
It's almost as if Rivera thinks he has a lot of young talent that just needs a little development.
One other interesting note about the assistants. Just about every single one of them has a Coryell background. Even new Running Backs coach Jim Settle worked for Paul Chryst at the University of Wisconsin, and before he was the Badgers' OC, Chryst was a Tight Ends coach under... wait for it... Norv Turner. Yeah, it's Coryell. Trust me.
So we're going to implement this new offensive system, one that is more complicated before the play, and less complicated once the play begins. That should actually work well with our personnel (remember how much more of a fit read and react was on the defensive side of the ball?). Surely, we're talking about a record breaking offensive performance, right?
Well... not really. There's a lot more to getting the ball down the field than the basic offensive scheme. There's strategy (game planning), adjustments, execution, and style. We can only hope that the strategy and adjustments are better next year than they were in 2010. And they should be, if only for the simple reason that it would take a collective effort to make it worse. What about execution and style?
With all the emphasis on teaching, execution should improve markedly. Not only will there be renewed emphasis on it in practice, our receivers and quarterback will have had time to adjust to the NFL game, and work on what they learned in their rookie years. Both of those should make a huge impact on our offense, particularly at the skill positions.
If execution improves, then what about style? That's where we're going to see the biggest changes, in my own humble opinion. Before I get into why though, let's refresh our memories and go over what the Coryell offensive system is about.
At it's core, the Coryell system is all about power running and vertical passing. That's it, nothing fancy about it. And just about every team in the NFL that isn't running a West Coast Offense runs the Erhardt-Perkins system we just left, or a variation of Coryell. Coryell can be done with anywhere from two to five receivers, it can include the Tight End as a receiver, as a blocker, or both. It's all about precise routes, play-action, and power running (Why else do you think John Fox allowed in in Carolina for so long?).
In Erhardt-Perkins, there's more room for improvisation, and it's not quite as vertical in general. Variations are run on it, like the ones Charlie Weis installed with the Patriots that brought Coryell aspects to it in the outside receivers. But at it's heart, Erhardt-Perkins uses a couple of wide receivers, one or two Tight Ends, a running back (who is rarely called on to catch the ball), and possibly a fullback if only one Tight End is used.
The idea with Erhardt-Perkins is to have just a few core plays that can be run from a variety of looks, with a variety of personnel packages. The entire system is designed around the philosophy that you should be able to do everything on offense, from any formation, at any time. And boy, the Panthers looked awful trying to run it. Because one thing it's NOT is conservative-friendly. If you're not mixing it up, you're not moving the ball.
Think back on how many sets the Panthers ran last year. It looked like we had two basic ones, one with two receivers and one with three. We did a lot of things out of each, but pre-snap it looked about as vanilla as it gets. At times last year you also got the sense that Jimmy Clausen was caught up in indecision once the play started and constantly choosing the safest option. The Erhardt Perkins is all about options, and where Clausen was concerned that meant a lot of short dump-offs to the running backs and tight ends for modest gains that didn't translate into first downs or points.
That's going to change. Coryell is about decisive action, timing, and being physical. And if you try getting too physical back by stacking the box, it will put a dagger in your heart.
Basically, the Coryell offense is supposed to make the defense choose it's poison. Either you drop back into a deep zone, in which case the running game will wear you down, or you sell out at the line of scrimmage, opening you up for big plays. If you try to keep your coverage by using three-deep setups with an eight-man front, the quarterback will pick you apart with 10-20 yard passes.
The Coryell offense tends to go vertical more than Erhardt_Perkins (hence the nickname, the "Vertical Offense"), which means your Quarterback needs to be able to go downfield with authority. You have to have the deep threat if you want defenses to respect your offense. If Clausen doesn't get some good results out of the weight room this off season, then this could be a problem.
On the flip side, the Coryell offense is actually designed to pass more to the Tight Ends and Running Backs than Erhardt Perkins. Since that's where Clausen likes to go anyway, you can expect a little better results in terms of yards after catch. It's also easier to run than Erhardt-Perkins, and since it's more dependent on timing, your on-field decision making isn't as critical.
Let's take a deeper dive into how it works. Bear in mind that this system has been around a long time. So like you might expect from any football system as mature as this, there are several variations. That's why a team like the Chargers can look so different on offense from a team like the Raiders, even though both use Coryell as their foundation. And as with any offensive system, if it's run properly it works well. Which is why it's been used with success for so long, by so many teams.
When Dan Henning ran the offense in Carolina, he had a "feed the stud" philosophy that kept the ball in Steve Smith's hands as much as possible. The Panthers never really had receivers that could scare the defense deep, outside of Smitty, but the running game worked and the short passing game often yielded a nice yards after the catch number.
Conversely, in San Diego last year the same offense was used to spread the ball around. Eleven different players caught passes for touchdowns in the Charger offense, and ten players had 20 or more receptions. For a little perspective, in Carolina's most prolific offense under Henning (2005), only five players had more than 20 receptions. That goes to the style comment earlier.
Henning also largely ignored the Tight End, favoring the more multi-purpose F-Back player that at any given time could morph into a Tight End, Wide Receiver, Fullback, or Running Back. Does anyone remember Nick Goings? Meanwhile, San Diego took an undrafted basketball player and turned him into Antonio Gates. Very different approaches, but the same offense.
The Coryell offense starts with the inside running game. It needs to be strong enough to command respect from the linebackers and safeties, and keep them from cheating too much into pass coverage. It also needs a couple of receivers who can get downfield in a hurry, to provide a constant deep threat. Finally, it needs solid mid-range targets, be they the Tight End, a receiver, or a running back.
To make the traditional Coryell system work, you need a lot of talent at wide receiver, and a quarterback good enough to take advantage of that. Which is barely even up for debate in Carolina.
Fortunately, Norv Turner came along. He led a revival of the Coryell offense in the early 1990s with his work in Dallas, and he produced a variant of the offense that is far more quarterback friendly than normal.
A general problem with the basic Coryell offense is that plays can take a long time to develop, leaving your quarterback exposed against good pass rushers. Turner addressed this in a few ways. First, he emphasized pass protection on the offensive line. His mentor, Ernie Zampese, used to say, "There's a premium on keeping the quarterback healthy, it's the most important thing you can do." Turner fully bought in to that.
He increased the number of quick mid-range post passes off of play action. He also fully utilized the Tight End as an outlet (having Jay Novacek didn't hurt), and his variant still requires good pass-catching skills at that position. It's run almost exclusively run out of the pro set, and it has a more limited playbook than most Coryell systems. Finally, it insists on precise execution. It's Coryell, but it's almost the Anti-Martz version of it.
And there's something a little scary there. Before you get too excited about seeing what Chud comes up with in Carolina, just remember one thing. Turner's offenses were often criticized for being overly predictable. For those of us who sat in the stand last year chanting "Run, run, pass" and griping about Davidson's lack of imagination, that just sounds all about bad.
But if you execute well, it's actually just a big "so what?", right? Everyone knew that Joe Gibbs was going to run that counter-trey when the Redskins needed two yards (He was a big Coryell guy), but since no one could stop them the fans never complained about being predictable. Didn't we all enjoy knowing that Stewart was getting the ball on the 2 yard line back in 2008? Predictable doesn't have to be a bad thing.
And while Turner's Coryell variant may be predictable, it doesn't have to look that way. That's because of another element he brought to the system, confusion. Where Erhardt-Perkins tries to disguise what it's doing by showing the same formation three times and doing three very different things, Turner's Coryell will put in a wide array of formations and run motions and shifts until the defense is all turned around. More than any other offensive system, this one tries to generate and take advantage of mental lapses on the defense.
Even if defenses line up correctly, the offense will still use misdirection to try and open up huge holes. The counter trey play mentioned earlier is a great example of this, you never knew which way Riggins was going and that would make for nice holes if the linebackers were a step slow. In fact, it's a great example of the type of running play you'll see in the Coryell system, mixed in with your typical smash-mouth stuff.
Take a look at a typical power inside run. The first thing the line does is move to their left, so they can shift the gaps. This puts the linebacker over center, and attempts to keep the Nose Tackle from taking up two blockers to stuff the run. Now, I'm not the best artist in the world, but it goes something like the following diagram says. Everyone jumps left, puts their hat on the guy in front of them, and then the fullback runs through the A gap on the left side. He generally aims for a linebacker (hopefully the weakside one, because if you do it right the MLB is on your center), and the running back hits the hole with a head of steam and barrels forward for a few yards. A broken tackle means a nice gain into the secondary. Simple, right?
In the counter trey, everyone fakes as if they're blocking to one side, then they instead run to the other. The beauty of it is that after the snap, it looks almost exactly like that power run to the left. If the MLB is keyed on the left tackle and left guard they may not be fooled, but the back and the entire right side of the line is moving just like they want to ram it down the heart of the defense. What's a MLB to do?
Imagine the Panthers are lined up in a standard two back set. The play is a counter trey to the right side. Williams is lined up seven yards behind the line. At the snap, Otah, Schwartz, and Kalil hit their men hard to the left. This seals the left defensive linemen and gives the linebackers the immediate impression that the play is going in that direction. Williams sells the misdirection by taking a step to the left, as if he's going to get the hand-off and then he sprints out behind Gross.
Gross, in the meantime, is following Wharton to the right, running hard towards the area where Otah and Schwartz lined up (remember, they're pushing their men to the left). By the time they reach the end of the line, Williams has received the hand-off and is running behind them while Fiametta tries to slow down the pursuit from the back-side defensive end. Gross and Wharton each aims for the first defender they can find and knocks them out of the hole. These defenders are probably already out of position, and not likely be be ready for a 300 pound offensive linemen who has a head of steam up.
When done right, the resulting hole is huge, and neither Gross nor Wharton will be stopped by the first defender they hit. The play will continue up the field for as far as they can block. But it only works when the offense sells the fake. And, of course, if you aren't faking you're just going to do another inside run, which pretty much looks exactly the same at the snap. But that has to work, and you have to sell the fake or no one will bite. Just imagine the same play above, with the Linebackers in position and ready for it, stretching Gross and Wharton out to the sideline and causing a loss or no gain. Bleah...
So here I am, teasing you a little bit talking about plays that we may never see. While they're fun to talk about, that's getting into the guessing game a little too much. For now, think about the fact that we're going vertical again. But we're going with a twist, the Turner variant. And that's enough to absorb in one article.
Part two will focus on how our personnel will fit into the new system, and what the offense may look like with Chud actually calling the plays.