I bet I can guess what you’re all thinking after reading the headline: “I watched the games - it’s pretty obvious what’s wrong with the Cal offense. It’s (insert problems here).”
And you could probably insert 10 different things into the blank and be absolutely correct. We’ve all spent plenty of time this season discussing the very problem. But now that the season is over, I think it’s worth restating the question, looking at the final stats, and examining the counterfactual.
Why? Because fixing the Cal offense is going to be the defining question of the off-season and the 2019 season. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that with a mediocre offense, Cal would have been a 9-10 win team this year. You can say that looking at Cal’s game-by-game results, or by looking at other teams with elite-defense, average-offense profiles like LSU or Iowa.
And with the defense expected to be at least as good next year, the onus will again be on the offense to hold up their end of the bargain.
Let’s start with the counterfactual.
What wasn’t wrong with the offense
In short: the offensive line.
Which, admittedly, flies in the face of everything college football has led me to believe. I firmly agree that successful teams are built from the line out, and that if you have a front five that can block you’re on your way to a successful unit.
Don’t get me wrong - the line wasn’t perfect, and the departures of Addison Ooms, Patrick Mekari, and Kamryn Bennett mean that there’s no guarantee that the line will be solid next year. But the stats tend to back up the eye test that the line was the least of Cal’s offensive problems.
What stats, you might ask?* Admittedly, it’s difficult to put numbers to line play. But there are a few indicators. For starters, Cal’s sack rate (sacks/pass attempts) was 7.8%. That’s not an amazing number, ranking 85 in the nation. But considering the inexperience of Cal’s quarterbacks and the difficulty Cal had finding open receivers, I think it’s understandable. Interestingly, Cal’s sack rate was virtually unchanged on passing downs, perhaps an indication that the line was relatively good at blitz pick-up.
An in terms of the running game, there are three stats that indicate that Cal’s line was doing a solid job blocking for the run:
- Rushing efficiency: 62nd in the nation
- Opportunity rate: 47th in the nation
- Stuff rate: 45th in the nation
Efficiency measures how frequently a play ‘succeeds,’ opportunity rate measures the percentage of time a running play gains 5 or more yards, and stuff rate measures how often a running play gains zero yards or less.
What the above stats say is that Cal was about average at running the ball for small chunks at a time. Conversely, Cal was completely lacking in explosive running plays, which tamped down what little effectiveness the Bears might have derived from their ability to gain chunks at a solid rate. But the offensive line is not, generally speaking, responsible for creating explosive plays. That’s down to the individual talent of the ball carrier, down field blocking from skill position players, or play design that puts downfield tacklers in compromised positions.
Cal’s line could get you 4 or 5 yards a solid percentage of the time. They didn’t have the power to get you 20 yards. And combine that with average pass protection numbers . . . and, well, you have a line that appears to be pretty average. Heck, I’d even be willing to entertain arguments that the line should be given more slack because of the frequency of 8 man boxes they faced. But average is fine! It’s all that we need!
So, what does need to change?
What was wrong with Cal’s offense?
Boy, that’s a wide category, no? But it’s also the reality. Cal’s quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers all struggled as position groups, and Cal’s coaches clearly struggled to figure out how to wring production out of Cal’s offense without turning the ball over at an alarming rate.
But let’s talk about a few specifics, and then try to clarify things. I think we’ve beaten the quarterback dead horse enough this season. We can all agree that quarterback play must improve dramatically, right? OK, great, now let’s focus more on pass catching options.
Here’s the Cal WR advanced stats chart, clipped so that you can see every receiver with more than 10 targets on the year (I didn’t want to embed the whole long chart, so click on the link above and navigate to ‘California’ to see which player corresponds to which row). Just look at all that ugly red shading:
You’ll see some green in catch rate, because Cal has been able to complete passes at an OK rate. But nobody is better than average in terms of yards/catch and yards/target, and explosiveness is entirely below average. The only players with a marginal efficiency that’s better than average is Kanawai Noa and Jordan Duncan. It’s probably not a coincidence that some of Cal’s uglier performances came with one or both of those targets unavailable due to injuries.
Looking at the chart above mostly just crystallizes something that we already knew: Cal was utterly incapable of going deep down the field with the passing game. And while Duncan and Noa’s absences hurt Cal’s efficiency, neither receiver was particularly known for being a consistent deep threat.
Now, that problem isn’t entirely on the pass catchers. Cal’s quarterbacks struggled to put balls in spots that gave receivers opportunities to make plays. But it’s also true that receivers often failed to help out their quarterbacks by hauling in tougher contested passes. This is a team sport, after all.
Trying to quickly summarize the problems facing Cal’s offense feels a bit like a fool’s errand. it’s a complicated mix of issues, from suspect skill development, play-calling, youth/inexperience, talent gaps, and injuries. But to the extent that it can be summed up succinctly, I would go with this:
The primary problem of the 2018 Cal offense was an inability to make downfield plays in the passing game without turning the ball over at an unacceptable rate.
There were other issues - the aforementioned lack of running game explosiveness being the most obvious - but many of Cal’s other problems stemmed from an inability to pass downfield, which had knock on effects on the rest of the offense.
OK, so now that we’ve identified what worked and what didn’t, we can move on to the next question: What will it take to fix these problems, and can the current coaching staff and roster fix them?
(Or maybe I’m missing something obvious, in which case let me have it in the comments.)
*All stats were pulled from Cal’s advanced stat profile from the amazing Bill Connelly.