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)
If you've been around here long enough, you'll hear these words dictated by the best of us at some point: "Scheme is dictated by personnel." HydroTech utters this phrase a lot because he knows what's up on the field. So what exactly does that term really mean?
Basically, if you're any kind of a good coach, the players you have will end up determining the type of offense you run.
Since Tedford's arrival, Cal runs its offense based off the personnel it has on the field, not the other way around. Every year, the offense is designed to put its best players on the field and get them the football as often as possible. If you try to install a scheme on players ill-equipped to handle it, disaster usually ensues (see Rich-Rod's first year in Ann Arbor).
There's a common sentiment among the layman fan that when a team is struggling, they should pick up the schemes of the team that tends to be at the top of the conference and adopt their principles. Shocking, I know. One would think people have learned from the teams that have failed to adopt the triangle offense in basketball or couldn't just be the next Barcelona in soccer. You can't install a scheme on players who are ill-equipped to handle it, just like you can't expect Stanford to run Oregon's offense or vice-versa. You're just asking for pain.
If you point to Oregon as the counterexample to this treatment (SCHEMEY KELLY RULES US ALL!), you're in for a rude awakening. It is true that Oregon recruits a bunch of super-speedy athletes to play fast on both sides of the football. However, Chip Kelly didn't unleash hell until his third year in the program, when he'd recruited his type of players to aid him in moving past the more standardized pace of the Bellotti offense. Before Chip became this unstoppable wrecking ball, you saw vestiges of spread option mixed in with standard shotgun, although not quite run at the breakneck pace the Ducks are known for now.
Like every good coach, Kelly adapted to the personnel he was given, moving at a more conventional pace to fit the more conventional rush attack of Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount. One has to wonder if Kelly would've gotten going as quickly as he had if Blount hadn't thrown that punch and Kelly hadn't been forced to insert the young but scheme-perfect tandem LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner into the lineup.
Take last year for example. Cal's two best players on offense? Without a doubt you'd say Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones. So Tedford's main strategy for much of the season? Get them the football as much as possible in whatever way possible. That generally meant passing the football more than running it, which is an unusual deviation from the usual "run-first" moniker of Cal's offense. However, the running backs were young and inexperienced and the offensive line was ... choppy.
The run game was not the guarantee it had once always banked itself on being, so this also probably weighed on the offensive coaching staff. Jones and Allen were the sure things. Get them the football and good things will happen.
There were a couple of problems though. One was a run game that struggled to get going due to uneven offensive line and running back play. With those issues, focusing on the pass became the imperative of every other defense and really constricted the flow of offensive options. That certainly exacerbated the other big issue, which was throwing a green quarterback into the fire. While Maynard showed he could be ready after a few gamely performances against Huskies and Buffs, it was clear that the more defenses forced Maynard out and about, things broke down for him just a little, and he tried to make throws that just weren't there.
After the UCLA game, Cal moved back to a run-based (or at the very least balanced) attack first and generally stayed that way for the rest of the season. The offense did look a lot better for the rest of year, at least until the Texas defense decided that we were going to run for fractions of yards until our punishment was over.
So did Tedford make the wrong decision in riding Maynard the whole season to try and get the football in the hands of his playmaking wide receivers? While at first glance the answer appears to be a definite yes, I'd deliberate on that one.
Let's keep in mind while Maynard had his rough patches, the offensive line and the running backs weren't faring much better. Sofele and Anderson didn't really come into their own until the final few games; the Bears were struggling to hit four yards per carry before November. Those two were developing right along with Maynard through the season and didn't start showing glimpses of their upside until November. Considering how little help the offensive line was at the beginning of the season, this made sense.
Meanwhile, Jones and Allen remained steady in snagging receptions throughout the year and gave Cal fighting shots in nearly every one of their games (for at least a decent period of time). As the Big Game proved, Cal was probably only going to be competitive against the elites if Maynard was able to move the football through the air and get it to his top two guys. If he didn't get it to them enough, so be it. It was clear that Maynard learned from his early errors and became a better quarterback as the season went on.
For Cal to succeed, they need as many playmakers in as many positions as possible, or otherwise a team can easily choke off your best weapons and constrict your offense into rigor mortis. You're picking your poison if you decide to go in one direction on offense. Some sort of balance is needed to counteract the best that defenses throw against you.
We haven't even talked about the offensive line. It goes without saying that this unit HAS to be functional for the offense to not look like this kid.
The image above describes the 2011 Holiday Bowl offense.
Still, I can see why you'd be apprehensive about Cal using the pass to set up the run as it did the first part of last year, as it put the ball in Maynard's hands a lot. He seemed to perform a lot better when the onus was on him to game-manage rather than create all the offensive looks. In either case, Jones or Allen did play a crucial part in the offense, as they either did a good job catching the ball or blocking on running plays. The best personnel were involved in the play even when it felt like they weren't.
It's up for debate what the best strategy was for last season. It's possible we could've won some of those games if we relied more on the run game, but it's just as possible we would've been totally wiped because the run game ground to a halt due to running back decision-making and offensive line execution issues. There are some occasions where I wish Cal had pressed the run (UCLA and Oregon come to mind), but it wasn't exactly clear-cut.
Defenses probably didn't fear our run game as much as previous years to break out for big plays, making them more comfortable to take risks and further disrupt our passing game. Personnel just doesn't influence our scheme, it influences the scheme of our opponents. Against the more-talented teams, we had to prove we could punish them regardless of whether we were running or passing the football. But usually a good defense was able to shut down one element, and the rest of the offense was left dragging.
The offense just wasn't quite ready to be an elite unit regardless of the path they too. With a year of experience, Maynard, Sofele and Anderson will be better-equipped to complement Allen, and we'll see a more complete offensive experience that can compete with the best of them week-in, week-out.
If it doesn't work though, just don't point to the scheme as the reason it failed. That just makes you look silly.