Cal vs. Washington Playcalling Roundtable

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 24: Zach Maynard #15 of the California Golden Bears reacts to an incomplete pass on third down against the Washington Huskies during the fourth quarter at Husky Stadium on September 24, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

And now, a last word on playcalling from the Cal-UW game. Well, more like 2000 words.

We look at the fade route on 4th down, the tight end slip pass on 1st down that never materialized, Tedford going for it deep in his own territory.

TwistNHook: First, let me state that I always have a fairly skeptical eye on playcalling criticisms. There are literally dozens and dozens of calls that can be played that are more than reasonable. Obviously, there are unreasonable play calls (dump off to the fullback on 3rd and 10) and low percentage like that can be frustrating. But the vast majority of potential plays are roughly approximate in success rate. If executed well, Cal gains yards. If executed poorly, Cal doesn't gain yards. It is as simple as that.

And when Cal executes well, people say 'What a great play call!" When Cal doesn't execute well, people say "Terrible play calling!" There are certainly other plays Cal could have called at the goal line. Maybe a roll out with the mobile Maynard. Maybe a fullback run up the gut. Maybe a QB sneak. I personally don't see much difference between those in terms of play calling. All are reasonable. All, if executed well, would have resulted in a TD. In my opinion, 2-3 out of 4 of the plays called, if executed well, would have resulted in a TD. Let's take them in turn.

The first play was a throw to TE Anthony Miller. I haven't rewatched it, but IIRC, it was moderately similar to the 2008 Big Game TD to Morrah. Look to the right and then throw to the wide open TE on the left. Miller got jammed at the line and it looked like he didn't make it to the spot of the pass in time. Sads. But it was more of an execution problem than a play calling problem.

Next two plays were running plays. [We've talked about them before; no need to rehash too much. Go here.]

The last play is the fade route.  I hate fade routes.  Hate hate hate.  They are low percentage plays that require a tall WR and a really accurate QB.  Maynard is a lot of things, but accuracy is not his strongest suit.  He threw this pass out of bounds and Keenan Allen did not have an opportunity to make a catch.  

I am fine with the first 3 play calls (although my mind is open on the 2nd call because I do not remember it well), but that 4th play call was frustrating for me. 

HydroTech: I pretty much agree with everything TwistNHook said. Fans seem to judge whether playcalls are good or bad based on their results. But great playcalls can fail due to bad execution. Bad playcalls can fail due to great execution. In my opinion, it's really more about execution than finding that one super secret play which totally exploits the defense. Don't get me wrong -- it helps! But even the most bland play can still succeed given proper execution.

As for that first and goal play where Cal was throwing to Miller, Cal runs that play all the time. The purpose of the play is to test the discipline of the defense's backside pursuit. If the backside defense bites on the run and forgets to cover the backside TE, then the QB passes to the TE for a touchdown. On that particular play, the Washington linebacker was disciplined and didn't ignore the TE. The defense just executed well and arguably better than the offense since Miller couldn't beat the coverage.

Kodiak: I'm okay with the play-fake and attempt to Miller. That's a call where if it works, you look brilliant. If not, you look stupid. Good call considering how hyped UW had to be expecting a power run up the middle. I wasn't pleased with Miller's effort to get off the line.

I'm not a fan of the fade. It doesn't seem to be a throw that Maynard is really comfortable with. He appears to be better with slants or outs, which I might have gone with. But, this is the same play that won the game for us at Colorado. Allen had position, and would have had a good chance to out-leap the defender. I'm okay with throwing the ball to your best player one on one...and the defense was probably specifically looking for an out (which is where Maynard has been picked once per game) or a slant (could have been safety/LB help). I'm okay with the call. Execution...well, it's time for some more reps.

Tedford's decision to go on 4th and 3, deep in our own territory. Absolutely yes. We had definitively proven that we couldn't stop UW at all. I would put money on Maynard to Jones or KA for 3 yards versus our D stopping Price on 3rd and anything. I don't see this call as controversial at all.

Yellow fever: I'm not a fan of the fade on all-or-nothing downs, and a fourth down with the game on the line is pretty much as all-or-nothing as it gets.  I'm fairly certain the success rate on them is not terribly high, especially if you're talking about an inaccurate QB, so I'd be rather happy to see it scrapped from the playbook altogether.

I have no problem with throwing to the backs earlier in the 4th.  If a guy is open, he's open, and it doesn't much matter to me whether he's a back or receiver.

With regards to general playcalling.

Norcalnick: I thought they did a better job calling running plays that played to Isi's strengths.  I don't think he's great up the middle, but pitches and stretch plays that allow him to move outside and pick his holes seem to work better.  There were less plays when he got caught for two yards or less.

Not a play call per se, but I loved the 4th down conversion attempts.  I don't think Tedford would have gone for it on at least one of those 4th downs last year, and I think that speaks to the confidence he has in Maynard and our current crop of WRs.  And it makes me much more optimistic about the future of the offense as long as Maynard is behind center.

Ohio Bear: 1st possession, 3rd and 20 on our own 10 -- "Conservative" Tedford would have called a screen or a draw to get us some yards and more breathing room for a punt. But we played for the 1st down, and we got even more: the 90-yd TD to KA21. When I saw Zach throw the ball on a deep route, I was mildly (yet pleasantly) surprised.

1st play after the fumble recovery in 2d Q. We went deep, to the end zone. (Had a shot to catch it, too.). This was the Tedford play calling of old and I loved it: go for the jugular after a turnover on the plus side of the field.

People have been critical of this one, but I didn't mind it at all: the pass to Isi on 4th and 3 at the UW 36 in the 4th Q. I thought it was a reasonable, if not intelligent, call. Isi is a good receiver, and he was 1 on 1 with a guy. Isi was open, ball was there and catchable. I don't buy the "Isi hadn't caught a pass all year" criticism. He's not a pass catching virgin and he was put in a spot to be successful. I was surprised he dropped it, to be honest.

Kodiak: I don't think that Tedford was calling outside runs solely because Sofele is better at bouncing it outside - with two new starters at OLB, UW has been very vulnerable to containing the edges.  Over 60% of Nebraska's 309 rushing yards last week came from zone-reads or simple pitch plays taken outside.  I'm sure that it showed up in the film room and that was part of the game plan.

When it first happened, I wasn't thrilled with the go route to Deboskie-Johnson as an attempt to convert 3rd and 4 on the drive right after their 70 yd catch and run.  Upon re-watch, this was the exact same play that Maynard and Debo had converted on earlier in the game to set up 1st and goal.  The big difference is the match-ups.  On the successful play, we drew one of their inexperienced OLBs who wasn't able to keep up with CDJ.  On this one, we drew their best LB in coverage who was able to force an incompletion.  I'm not sure if this is a UW adjustment or bad luck, but it would have been nice for someone to have noticed that this was no longer a mismatch and switched to a different target.

UW switched up their coverage in the 2nd half putting one corner in man press coverage with a safety or LB over him, and backing the other off into zone.  It looked like a deliberate attempt to force Maynard to go away from his first read.  Sometimes, he did so, like on the 3rd down conversion where he hit Calvin on the post.  But in other cases, I think it forced him to make throws where he wasn't comfortable.  Considering that 2/3 of their DBs were pretty shaky in coverage, I wonder why we went away from picking on them.  It may be that we were trying to do so, but Maynard was making the wrong reads.

 


As far as why we didn't roll Maynard out or try some zone-read calls, it could be that we had tried the zone-read two times in the red zone earlier in the game without much luck.  The roll out is nice to escape pressure, but it also condenses the field - earlier play-action roll-outs had resulted in Maynard throwing inaccurately.  So, maybe the coaches felt that he would do better with a quick 3-step drop and throw instead of trying to make a read and throw on the move. 

Thoughts on Washington knowing the final play was coming?

Avinash: "Before the final play, Washington defensive coaches knew exactly what play Cal would run. Quinton Richardson told a reporter (Jerry Brewer for the Seattle Times) that his coaches said: "A fade to Keenan Allen is coming. Man up on him and stay outside."

Does that change your assessment of the playcall? Even if Maynard had gotten off a clean pass, Richardson might've been in good position to defend it.

Additional comment from a Bear Insider commenter.

"By the way, on the post-game Husky radio show, an ex-QB had a great point about our formation for that play. He said that Allen was the only receiver split out to the left, but the problem was that he wasn't split out nearly WIDE enough. From where he lined up, the DB didn't have to worry about a slant because there would be way too much traffic in the middle, so he only had to worry about covering to the outside. "

Interesting how much faith Tedford placed in Maynard to land that fade to Allen.

Ohio Bear: Kind of meh on UW "knowing" what was coming. KA was still open. A better throw and KA has a great chance to make the catch. KA has good position on Richardson.

As for the point about not being wide enough - I'm not sure Q Rich needed to "worry" about the slant anyway. UW rushed 4 and had 7 in coverage. Particularly, look at the #1 for UW lined up on the defensive right side. He's defending the slant.

Still, is KA not wide enough? I dunno. He's lined up just about at the left hash with the ball on the right hash. Flip the hashes and you know what? It's the same position KA lined up on the game-winning fade at Colorado.

Kodiak: I agree with Ohio Bear that "knowing the play ahead of time" draws an indifferent shrug.  I don't think Richardson could have stopped KA if the throw was there.  My preference is the old West Coast offense play that Jerry Rice used to run to perfection - motion in, then run the quick out, the ball is thrown before the break.  Everyone knew it was coming...still couldn't be stopped.

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