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Cal football film room: A Golden Spotlight on Jared Goff, Maurice Harris, and generating a free play

Cal maximizes the potential of the "free" play

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Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Varying snap counts is a great way to keep the defense from getting a great jump at the snap, to manufacture five yards in a key situation, and to gain a "free" play in which the defense has jumped offsides and the offense can take a shot down the field without fear of an interception or incompletion.

To take advantage of a "free" play, many teams now plan for the free play.  Though teams may execute it differently, it works like this: the team has a called play, and a "free" play.  If the defense jumps and the center snaps the ball, the receivers run streaks down the field, and the quarterback throws to one of them (the "free" play).  If the defense does not jump, the other play is executed.  This way, the offense ensures that it can take advantage of the "free" play by attempting to gain the most yards possible (with the vertical routes), as opposed to being "stuck" with a free play where the receivers run short patterns or the offense runs the ball.  The idea is, obviously, that the offense already knows it will get at least 5 yards on the play, so it might as well go for 35+ on the free play.

The play is also a fitting one to watch from the final game of Jared Goff and an excellent group of senior receivers.  Goff throws a nice deep ball on the play, with Maurice Harris making the type of one handed catch that has typified the acrobatics that this group of receivers has displayed over the years.

free play 1

The Air Force defender jumps, triggering Dominic Granado to snap the ball.

free play 2

One can see that this is what is happening because the ball is already on its way back to Goff, but the Cal offensive line is still in their stances, slower to react than on a "normal" play because they do not know when the ball will be snapped, and it is not snapped with the normal tempo (the same reason why the Air Force defender jumped).

free play 3

Goff now has the ball and is starting his drop, and the defense has not yet crossed the line of scrimmage. This is another benefit of the concept - the defense will often stop playing. The pass rush will often be worse, and the receivers will often have an easier time running by their men. 49ers fans may (unfortunately) remember this as a key play in the Seahawks victory over the 49ers in the 2014 NFC Championship game. Russell Wilson drew the 49ers across the line of scrimmage on fourth and seven, the Seahawks snapped the ball, and the 49ers pass rush was weak. Wilson threw a pass that he would not normally throw into heavy traffic (because he knew he had a free play), which resulted in a touchdown.

free play 4

Air Force has seven men near the line of scrimmage, at least five of whom were rushing/blitzing on the play. Despite this, they have generated no rush. This means that they only have four men to defend Cal's four receivers - man coverage across the board - but lack the fierce pass rush needed to offset such a weak pass defense. Goff can calmly choose the best matchup and let it rip - with no fear of an interception or incompletion.

free play 5

Goff capitalizes on thousands of repetitions on this fade route, putting the ball deep and to the outside shoulder of his receiver. Maurice Harris has gained the outside release (a result of his own countless repetitions over the years), and makes the sensational one handed catch.

Clever concepts and execution like this one are a big reason why Cal has gone from one of the worst teams in the country to a bowl winner in three seasons.

Personally, thank you for all of the kind words and comments this season, which made writing the Golden Spotlight an enjoyable experience.

Keegan Dresow was the coach of the Avedøre Monarchs of the Danish American Football Federation for seasons, and is the author of Offensive Football Systems.