Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Christmas Wish

My intent is to keep this short…dunno how that’ll work! First of all, for everyone who celebrates Christmas, I hope you had an awesome one!

Here are my football-coaching related wishes for you and the sport:

For both players and coaches (especially at the men’s level), I hope you treat the game as your personal “big time”. I had the pleasure of sitting down with 3-4 other high school coaches to talk with Bob Cope ( about 18 years ago. He talked a lot about the business of the profession, and the one thing that stuck with me is this, “The Big Time is wherever you’re at right now.” I hear a lot of players (almost always men and some coaches) say things like, “It’s only semi-pro.” That drives me crazy. Why do it if you’re not going to put 100% into it? Heck, I coached my son’s 9-year old winter baseball team one year. I brought a football coaches’ perspective to the practice. I had a plan, I assigned areas of responsibility for my coaches, I made sure the practices were upbeat, organized and fun. One of the parents said something about “a lot of effort for a Little League team” and my reply was, “Do they deserve any less than my best just because they’re 9?” It’s the same thing at whatever level you’re at – semi-pro, women’s, high school or youth. Those athletes who are busting their butt for you (or the coaches if you’re a player) deserve your best. I hope you bring it each and every practice.

For coaches, may you not run boring offenses. If you do, please win. Especially at the women’s level when we are trying to attract fans, there’s nothing worse than running a boring offense and losing. Winning cures everything, so if you can be dominant with boring, OK. Otherwise, remember that we’re in the entertainment business.

Along those lines, please don’t underestimate what your players are capable of doing and learning. Stretch their limits and you’ll be amazed.

Finally, may you never stop learning. I’ve been going to coaching clinics each year since 1991. But what impressed me was seeing Herb Meyer, who holds the San Diego Section record for wins, sitting in the front row and taking notes until the day he retired. Coach John Konecki of the Chicago Force (also two-time Team USA coach and Illinois high school state champion) and I bounce ideas off each other, despite the very real possibility that we’ll be opponents in 2014. Nick Saban recently invited Lane Kiffin down to Tuscaloosa to evaluate the Alabama offense.

There’s always either something new to learn, or a new and better way of getting something done, or teaching it to your players. When it comes to helping your program, it doesn’t matter where those ideas come from.

That’s it – it’s time to settle down for the Bowl Season, which is my favorite time of the year, where teams pull out all of the stops. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in 2014.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how it is “all in the feet” and the critical nature of having fundamentally sound footwork. That post applies to all levels of football – you see poor footwork all over the place. This post is going to reference pretty much only the women’s game, because one glaring weakness I see in it is the use (or lack thereof) of their hands, especially when it comes to pass pro and pass rush.

If you watch much film of different teams in the women’s game, one thing becomes apparent – most of them can’t pass block very well. Part of that (footwork plays a huge role as well) is that there is a decided lack of “punch” by the OL. You see DL all the time getting into the bodies of OL and then getting past or simply bull rushing them backwards into the QB. But what I find interesting is that the DL don’t use their hands very well either, as a rule. You see a ton of swim moves being attempted, you see a boatload of spin moves, but rarely do you see a fully-committed rip move – let alone a good lean and rip. I can’t remember ever seeing a DL go in to swat down the hands of an OL, at least in a game.

So why isn’t hand fighting being stressed in the women’s game? I don’t know – I can’t speak for other coaches. Maybe they think the women’s upper body strength isn’t where it should be to do that well. Possibly they talk about it early on and then just don’t reinforce it. I see an awful lot of female OL wearing forearm pads. Maybe if you’re on a double wing or Wing-T team and you’re teaching the Crowther Progression I can see that. Otherwise, forearm pads on OL went out in the 70’s for good reason – if the DL is getting that close to you, their chances of beating you in pass pro went up a ton! Think about it: pass rush moves only work close in. Try swimming someone from 2 feet away, or ripping, or spinning (although we see that all the time). They don’t work if you as the OL have them locked out.

As with anything else, the punch and pass pro in general have to be practiced. You can’t just tell an OL to “hit someone” in pass pro and expect it to turn out well for your QB. As one of my mentors, former Colorado, USC and Detroit Lions OL coach Mike Barry said, “Pass pro is not a natural act. When you are kids growing up, you don’t say to each other, ‘Hey let’s go out in the backyard and practice our pass pro.’”
The virtue of patience must be instilled in your OL in order to be effective pass protectors. I tell mine, “You have to be patient, but not passive.”  Some players look at the two qualities as being the same, so I try to explain that by being patient they can put the DL in the position they want them, and *then* dominate them. In this case patience is both mental and physical – when you’re drilling the punch, you can’t allow the OL to get their heads forward, otherwise your body ends up being too close to the DL.

Hand fighting in the run game is also underutilized, I think. It seems like female players are afraid to hold, to grab cloth in an otherwise legal manner. The only team I’ve ever seen that had a legitimate fear of holding was the Sacramento Sirens, and after playing them at their place, I can understand why – their referees were refugees from the 1970’s, when no type of hand use or extended arms was allowed. Those guys were ridiculous. Anyway, I think that grabbing cloth should be encouraged, HOWEVER if you teach it, you also have to drill the heck out of the feet. Most holding penalties are due to lazy feet, not lazy hands. Please note that I never tolerate what I call “lazy” holding – when a player just basically bear hugs a defender, or otherwise gets her hands outside the defender’s framework.

When you’re drilling the punch, whether it be in the run game or in pass pro, let me pass along a tip I picked up from Bill Williams of the FCPGA 23 years ago: When a scout player is holding a shield, have them hold it so that the handles face away from her, and towards the blocker. This accomplishes two things: 1) How often have you seen a drill devolve into two people standing chest to chest with the shield up over their heads? Keeping the shield handles away from the scout forces them to cradle it on the bottom, with the top nestled up under their chin. It keeps the shield close to the defender’s body, where it should be. It lessens the opportunity of a scout player to become a “backyard all-star” by easily shedding the blocker with an unrealistic target. 2) The handles of the shield now become the target for the blocker. They are tighter than the edges of the shield (which many people use as landmarks when they teach grabbing cloth), and give the blocker something to hold onto. Using them as a target will get your players out of being used to punching too wide and may eliminate some holding calls.

We throw the ball quite a bit on the Surge. With the exception of last year when we had drastically different personnel, we normally throw between 275-300 times a year. Our average number of sacks allowed each year is 6. In 2010, when we were still the SoCal Scorpions, we gave up 4. We don’t have a large offensive line. They are mobile and have good footwork, but I think what sets them apart on pass pro is the use of their hands in the punch. The hands are crucial folks. Right now, from what I see across the country it is one of the biggest improvements I can see that is neglected in the women’s game.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My Favorite Offense

Every once in awhile I’m asked what my favorite offense is. My license plates read “WC OFNSE”, so that could be a clue but in reality, the answer is simple: the one that works for that team, that season.
I’ve worked for 11 different offensive coordinators, and have been one myself five different seasons. In that time, as a coordinator I’ve employed the following offenses: Wishbone, Power I, West Coast, Shotgun Spread and Fly.

I’ve got to say that right now, if the personnel is right, I really like the possibilities with the shotgun spread. You can do almost any variant you want out of it – you can have a varied passing game, you can run option, you can run any type of perimeter run game and you can have a power-based run game.

The key is recognizing and adjusting to what your players can do. Let me invoke one of Homer Smith’s quotes, which has stuck with me for years: “It’s not what you know, it’s what your players know.”

My first venture into the world of coordinating was with a men’s semi-pro team. I’d just finished a five-year stint at Fountain Valley High, under the watchful eyes of Hank Cochrane, who continues to be one of my heroes, although he would slap me silly for saying that. I figured that these players were grown-ass men and could handle a “high school” offense. Boy was I wrong…. At FVHS, we used four different pass protection concepts, with two variants in two of them, for a total of six protections. I simplified that down to one for these guys, and they still couldn’t comprehend it (a half slide protection). In Week One, we gave up eight sacks. I’d gone entire seasons at FV without giving up eight sacks! In Week Two, we beat up on a horribly overmatched team. Then we had a bye week, and our QB disappeared – just left. No one knew where he was. Anyway, the combination of an offensive line that apparently had very little experience in pass pro and having to break in a new QB pretty much eliminated a standard drop-back passing game.

So – what to do in a bye week? I had a speedy receiver that had played QB in Jenks, Oklahoma. He’d had experience in running the Wishbone. So I talked with him, found out what he was comfortable with, then set about figuring out ways to get the OL on the same page. Long story short, out of an eight team league, we ended up being the #2 scoring offense.

The following year, same team, completely different personnel.  That was the Power I team. I had a tailback that played at Alabama, and a huge offensive line. My QB had a little mobility and a strong arm for play action passes. At the end of the year, we were again the #2 scoring team, and beat the #1 team 35-14.

Each year of my coaching career, my outlook and preferences have changed. I’d evolved into a shotgun spread guy ever since about 2010. Last year, I went into the season thinking that was what we were going to run. However, when a combination of inexperienced receivers and quarterbacks raised its head, we were forced to adjust once again. This time, looking at our OL (extremely mobile, but a bit undersized) and our running backs (nice blend of speed and power) and what the receivers could do (they could block their asses off!) we settled on running the Fly offense, out of shotgun. I visited with Mark McElroy from Saddleback College (and who coincidentally followed me at my first coaching gig, at San Clemente High) and got his concepts down for the run game. We kept as much of our current terminology as possible, including the entire passing game, to keep the transition down. So then, all it became was a different play call mix, not a whole new offense.

The results were mixed – we averaged right around 40 points a game on offense, but we went 9-2, which was our worst finish in a couple of years. My feeling is that we were too dependent on the outside run game, and when we weren’t physically able to block defenders at the point of attack, we suffered. So if it was scheme or ability, either way we didn’t get the results we wanted.

This season, we have an experienced QB coming back. My vision would be to keep what we ran last year, but instead of running the Fly motion 80% of the time, run it about 25% of the time, and then re-incorporate the rest of the shotgun spread run and pass game we had before. But again, as a coaching staff we have to look at what we can and can’t do, and be willing to adjust from there.

In closing, as a coordinator you can’t be so tied to your preferred plays or system that you lose sight of the fact that it is still about the team’s success. Remember, it’s not what you know, but what your players know.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Specials Revisited

Obviously, this last week in college football the game of the week (or year) was the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn. The improbably ending will be talked about for awhile. By fans, the “wow” factor will be the topic, but on coaching staffs around the country I think (or would hope) that a slightly different conversation takes place.

Previous to that game, the only other time I can remember a failed field goal being returned for a touchdown was when Antonio Cromartie did it for the Chargers against the Vikings in 2009 or so. Because it didn’t end the game the way the Iron Bowl return did (I think the Chargers won by 21), that play went mostly into the “oh cool” category and was forgotten relatively quickly. But the Iron Bowl play – that one will not be soon forgotten. Why? Because it potentially cost Alabama a couple of million dollars and potentially earned Auburn the same amount. Once you start talking about consequences and rewards of that nature, if a similar situation came up, the head coach/athletic director/general manager/team owner (in other words, every boss the ST coach has) is going to want to know how you prepared for it, or how you allowed that to happen.

So….what’s the solution? Well first, I think you have to look at the cause.  After the Iron Bowl, Auburn’s head coach, Gus Malzahn, said “We knew we’d only have to block about four guys.” What did he mean? Look at the makeup of a typical field goal team: You have four definite offensive linemen. Good blockers, poor in-space tacklers. You have a holder and a kicker – neither of which are renowned for their tackling skills. That’s six players you’re really not worried about. The long snapper could possibly be a linebacker or tight end type – depending on which determines his tackling ability, but he’s probably better than the other six. Then you have two tight ends and two wing backs, who are probably receiver types – good athletes, but probably still not true defensive players.

I think the solution is obvious, but there are some qualifications. The solution would be to populate the field goal team with defensive players who would have a better chance of covering a kick. The question is, for how many field goals? If you’re going to do that, do you do it all the time in order to save practice time? If so, how much are you giving up in protection? If you only do it for a few kicks (maybe in the NFL, any kick over 57-58 yards?), how much time do you devote to practicing it, versus the payoff? I think you’d get different answers on that – but I bet you Nick Saban will certainly consider it, and probably a bunch of NFL special teams coaches will as well.

In the women’s game, is it worth it? So often the OL and DL play on both sides of the ball anyway. Plus, with women, anything over about 35 yards (ball being kicked from the 25) would be considered “ultra long”. Given that condensed space, does it make it easier to cover a kick with your standard field goal team?
In general, I think any team that is a two-platoon team should consider it. Men’s teams at all levels should consider it probably more than women’s teams do. Of course if you have an exceptional female kicker, then your probability rises.

The main point is, if you’re a ST coach and you get into an ultra-long FG situation and you don’t have a plan, and you get “Auburned” you’ll probably be out of a job.