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August 8, 2017

BYU's Search for a New Competitive Advantage

-- The dream? 27 different formations in a row

Most football books suck. One that doesn't is called Collision Low Crossers written by a fellow named Nicholas Dawidoff. In CLC Dawidoff presents his experience as a media writer turned unofficial member of the New York Jets coaching staff, with unlimited access to the team up to and including calling a defensive series in a Jets pre-season game. Setting aside the obvious Jets jokes for a moment, CLC is the best 'insider' book I've read on any sport. But I'm not being paid by Dawidoff and this blog hasn't become a book club even if that might improve ratings around these parts drastically.11. Have you read The Nightingale? I mean, seriously have you??I bring CLC to the forefront to discuss the greatest back and forth the book has to offer.

In CLC there is a section where Jets head coach Rex Ryan argues with his defensive coordinator about how many plays the team should include in the game plan for the coming week. Ryan wants a higher number, while the DC argues for a lower number. The pros and cons of either approach are hashed out. A team that can run a higher number of plays generates the following advantages. 

Pros -- The higher the number of plays, the more your opponent has to prepare for, the more creative you can be, the more readily you can adapt, and the greater your chance of surprising the other team in the game with something unexpected

That list sounds like something every football team wants, doesn't it? But a team with a voluminous game plan also has a few disadvantages.

Cons -- The higher the number of players, the less time you have to practice each play, the more your team has to memorize, and the harder it becomes to execute those plays correctly

On the other hand a gameplan with a small number of plays incurs the exact opposite results. A team with only 12 plays may be boring, predictable, and easy to prepare for but you can be confident that the players will run those 12 plays perfectly. So in a way the debate between Rex Ryan and his DC can be boiled down to this: which advantage do you prefer? A schematic advantage generated by having an array of formations and playcalls at your disposal? Or an execution advantage from having your team know every route, blocking assignment, and option in their limited number of plays? 

We know very clearly where former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and his sidekick Robert Anae stood on this issue. Those guys would have ran the same play every down of every game in the name of EXECUTION!!! if it weren't for the fact that the fans (and players) would have revolted. But as much as I didn't enjoy Robert Anae and the three plays22. Taysom read option keep, Taysom read option give, Taysom read option pass. of the Go Fast Go Hard era, they did have their moments. (Like this one!) And that's the interesting thing about this debate: it's a debate!

Like any fun argument there is no guaranteed right answer. We’ve seen both approaches have wild success. Peyton Manning made hay running the same pass play over and over and over while Tom Brady’s Patriots seemingly switch offensive identities on a weekly basis, displaying a breadth of playcalls that would seem impossible to memorize and execute. Rex Ryan and his DC argued about this dynamic all the time in CLC. There was a constant balancing of the books -- non-accounting version -- adding plays if the plan was too light, bouncing plays if too fat, as often in week 2 as in week 12.

My views on this are colored by my own playcalling experience, which is to say my days playing NCAA Football 2004. My goodness was that BYU team diverse! Led by three time Heisman winner Spencer Hansen33. The #11 is long retired in this BYU timeline, FYI. the Cougars ran triple option, spread, power, pro, goal line, run and shoot, and ... well they ran everything. They ran draws and screens; they threw long and short; they had WRs and RBs throw passes; they did it all except for the WR-as-a-lineman play and that's only because Belichick didn't invent it until 2015. In video game land you can get away with such mania because virtual players execute every play perfectly, leaving no drawbacks to an unlimited playbook. In real life such a regime would be far too complex, but a team can still differentiate itself with a robust playbook even if it isn't as insane as my '04 BYU squad. Which brings us now to our real life BYU football team.

BYU is more likely to gain an advantage from their system than their execution level for the obvious reason: BYU is limited in the caliber of athlete they can obtain, which in turn limits the ceiling of their execution. Be it their detachment from the P5 or their attachment to the Honor Code, BYU is never going to consistently rake in the top athletes. And that's OK because they've succeeded without them in the past. Or as one SI writer put it, "When you're schematically voluminous, player versatility and IQ trumps athleticism."

Many moons ago BYU stumbled upon a competitive schematic advantage by passing the ball a ton. It worked to remarkable success despite relying on receivers and running backs who never sniffed success in the NFL simply because the scheme was superior. My belief is BYU can tap a new competitive advantage on offense by becoming the team with the most expansive, creative, adaptable playbook in college football. The reason I believe they can do this is driven by two key facts.

Fact #1 - No team in football has as many players as practiced in memorizing information as BYU. BYU boasts the largest population of returned missionaries of any team in the country and what do missionaries do all day? Memorize stuff! They memorize verses. They memorize hymns. They memorize maps. They memorize the names of ward members. They memorize entire languages. If there is any team out there capable of memorizing 171 plays in a given week, as Carson Palmer does, it has to be BYU.

Fact #2 - BYU boasts the largest population of non-alcohol, non-drug using football players of any team in the sport. Do you know what drinking beer helps with? Let's see what the smartest person in the world thinks about it.

I sure don't see anything in there about beer making a person memorize stuff better. In fact science has suggested for some time that drug consumption and alcohol intake can diminish cognitive function and if that is true in any degree, BYU should have a computing edge on everyone they compete against. 

Look, I'm not saying BYU athletes are geniuses on the level of the Moonwalkers with Einstein. I'm not saying they're inherently smarter than other college teams. But as far as absorbing loads of information goes, BYU has to be among the most capable teams in the nation. If half the battle in practicing a large volume of plays is getting guys in spots and recalling specific details, having an army of memorizers will minimize some of those ill effects. I know, I know, rolling out a 171-play gameplan will still result in poor execution and botched plays at times. But if it could make BYU the hardest team in the country to defend I'd say it's worth the risk.

If ever there were a time for BYU to find a game-breaking advantage, this would be it. BYU barely missed out on the last couple of expansion opportunities and the gap between the Cougars and the expanders is ever widening. Yet BYU remains in a positive position overall. They are on TV as much as anyone and they are routinely set up to make national noise courtesy their marquee scheduling matchups.44. Praise Holmoe! The next step is winning more games and creating a competitive advantage can make that happen. After all, schematic dominance is -- sigh -- what put BYU's rivals on the map. For Utah it was Urban Meyer's spread; for TCU Gary Patterson's divorced front and coverage defense; for Boise a level of unmatched trickeration. But guess what? BYU did it first! BYU's passing attack of the 1980s was more successful than any of those schemes. It led to a 20 year period of domination and a higher ceiling than anything BYU's rivals have met. It's in BYU's fabric to find such an edge again.  

All of which brings us to fact number three.55. I know I didn't mention a third fact earlier, feel free to complain in the always electric comment section. Ty Detmer is the coordinator who could pull this off. He played under a legendary coordinator and a legendary coach in college. He was raised by a coach. He spent 14 years in the pros and saw how six different teams ran offenses. On one end he coached Brett Favre and on the other he coached high school kids. His intake of football experience is as wide as anyone's and more importantly he seems capable of relating to and teaching anyone. Detmer could put together the Bible-sized playbook I long for. But does Detmer want to be the next Bruce Arians? Would Kalani, a graduate of the Kyle Whittingham school for the offensively disinclined, allow it?

If twitter videos are any indication I like what's happening so far this fall camp. We're seeing mixed looks under center and in shotgun. We're seeing traditional pro sets and surprisingly some zone read as well. We're hearing of diverse packages heavy with TEs at times and laden with WRs at others. Running backs are being targeted for receptions. Things look and sound diverse, or at least more so than last year. Can that diversity continue to expand? Can we have some screens to supplement our trap and draw handoffs? Can we play at a varied pace? Can we shuffle our personnel around the field? Can we introduce more gimmicks?

Do we want to see Tanner running the triple option anytime soon?66. Well ... maybe at least once, just for the fun of it and because Mr. Riley Burt of Burt and Bernie fame (RIP) deserves a free sprint down the sideline at least once in his career. Of course not, but I dream that one day we could be the Atlanta Falcons of college football, a team that is capable of running 27 plays IN A ROW without repeating formation. How awesome would that be? Not even my 2004 National Champion Cougars pulled that off. It's time to make up for the competitive advantage that Go Fast Go Hard never was. It's time for BYU to join the ranks of the elite offensive schemers once more. 

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