Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Aggieland Air?

We all loved Dennis Franchione's intricate 7th grade offense right? I mean, who can't possibly love strong-side option, weak-side option, smoke draw, punt? Of course, much to the chagrin of many Aggies, it was soon learned that Big 12 head coaches get paid millions of dollars because they have a penchant for at least knowing how to shut down elementary offenses. When Franchione was fired, one of the main qualities looked for in a new coach was the need for an offense that could score with the Texas Techs and Oklahomas of the world. In steps Mike Sherman with his "West Coast Offense". But is it truly a West Coast offense?

Over the last few years, attending a Texas A&M football game has afforded you a special treat. Usually before the game, and sometimes even at halftime, Aggie fans have gotten to experience the exhiliration of a formation of military aircraft flying by at an ear splitting pace. Perhaps this is the birth of another tradition that makes a fall Saturday afternoon at Kyle Field that much more special. My personal belief was that the boom of jet engines flying by at near Mach 1 speed was necessary in order to resuscitate the 12th Man after two quarters of "Franball". This coming fall, you can expect things to be a little different. The fighter jets will still fly by, but they won't be the only thing flying through the air. Word is the Aggies plan to run a "West Coast" offense, and with the current staff, this should surprise nobody. Sherman and offensive coordinator Nolan Cromwell, both longtime Mike Holmgrem apostles, have cut their teeth on an offense that Holmgrem has used to take two teams to Super Bowls, as well as made stars out of Matt Hasselbeck and Brett Favre. But what exactly is a West Coast Offense, and will Sherman's Aggies rekindle memories of Brett Favre, Antonio Freeman, and the Lambeau leap?

The premise of the traditional West Coast offense goes against orthodox football thinking. The late Bill Walsh revoltionized offensive football by literally turning all prior principles upside down. That is, instead of using a bruising running game to set up the vertical passing game, the roles are reversed. The short intermediate passing game is instead used to spread the field to open up gaps for the running game, as well as open up the 3rd level of the defense for the deep pass. In this offense, receivers are valued more for their adherence to technique, as opposed to physical tools. Additionally, the tight end, fullback, and running back become essential tools in the passing game, as one or two are often in the flat as a check down option for the quarterback. Which brings us back to Texas A&M and Sherman. One thing that is guaranteed with Sherman and Cromwell's offense is that you will see the short intermediate passing game as a good part of the Aggie offensive strategy. But that is where the similarities end.

To call the offense Texas A&M will run a "West Coast Offense" in the traditional sense would be short-sighted, especially in this first year. A traditional west coast offense is predicated on a drop back quarterback with a quick, very accurate release as well as disciplined wide receivers who run crisp routes. These two commodities are quite unproven at Texas A&M, especially at wide receiver. In addition, the Aggies trot out a young offensive line that has very little NCAA experience. One of the staples of any sucessful passing offense is pass blocking. In the Big 12, where the 3 step drop can me nullified by the fact that many Big 12 defenses are geared towards speed to defend the spread , a quarterback must have time to read the defense and then make the pass. This seems to go against the very basic principles of the traditional west coast offense, which relies more on blind reads where the QB throws to a "spot" as much as to a wide receiver. Remember, with a true west coast offense, the short intermediate passing game is the key to which unlocks every other facet of the offensive game. Read up a bit on Bill Callahan and Nebraska to see where your more traditional West Coast offense will get you in the Big 12.

Now, let us dissect A&M's strengths on offense. As with everything, we'll start with quarterback. Coach Sherman has not announced whether Stephen McGee will return as starter, or if Jerrod Johnson will take over the reins. For now, we'll assume McGee will get the nod. Next, we have a the gem of the A&M program over the last few years, the stable of runners lining up in the backfield. Mike Goodson, with his electric speed and elusiveness, leads a list that also consists of Bradley Stephens, Cornell Tarrant, and incoming freshman Cyrus Gray. To add to that, moving to fullback we have Jorvorskie Lane, the "J-train." J-train has shown he can be the go-to guy in short yard scenarios, but has also shown the ability to catch the ball in the flats. Expect Sherman to utilize this in an effort to spread out the defense a bit more.

Given these tools, expect Sherman to go against the "West Coast offense" grain and use the running game to open up the passing game. Stephen McGee will not lead this team in rushing, and an RB with gamebreaking potential like Mike Goodson will not go under utilized. Goodson's biggest challenge will be establishing himself an an all-around running back, not just a bottle rocket. If A&M can establish a running game between the tackles, look for them to utilize many two back sets, where Goodson can run behind Lane, cut it outside, or even motion to a split out. This will also enable J-train to not only lead block, but also bruise the interior and exploit the flats. An effective running game will be the staple of this offense this year and will give A&M a chance. However, we all saw last year just how much damage a lack of balance can do to an offense. Franchione never seemed interested in an effective passing game. Sherman will have to be if he wants his system to succeed.

Harkening back to Sherm's cheesehead days, he had an offense that used power moreso than finesse to set Green Bay franchise records in multiple offensive categories. Given the speed of the college game today, expect the Aggies to fall somewhere in the middle. A&M will rely on their running game more than those Green Bay teams, but if McGee or Johnson are able to show they are not only mobile QB's, but can also hit the quick pass with accuracy, A&M can implement the intermediate passing game this system needs. Shoot, maybe we'll see those long balls flying again as well. If they cannot, we could see a disjointed offense that can not move with consistency, much like Sherman's first year in Houston. It will be interesting to see which of the freshman or priorly underused players will step up, as this will help mold the overall approach A&M takes this year. Expect to see alot of pro sets, I formations, and some single back and shotgun sets here and there. If Sherman is able to implement the majority of his system this year, then not only will we have jets flying over, but the Ags should be hearing a few more cannon blasts as well.

Just so everyone knows, Aggie training camp started yesterday. These first few days will be pretty quiet, as many players are still finishing out the last few days of summer school. Things should heat up next week. Also, a neat little tidbit, the team did not report to the Bright Complex or Kyle Field. Instead, the team was gathered at Duncan Dining Hall, in an effort by Sherman to bring the team closer to their fellow students. They will be eating breakfast there for the duration of camp, as well as apparently on Saturdays before home games. As of now, there is no confirmation on whether Duncan staff will be wearing riot gear in anticipation of hostilities between Jorvorskie Lane and the Band in relation to Duncan's donut reserve.

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