CLEMSON — On first-and-10 at the Boston College 25 in the first quarter last Saturday, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd was the triggerman of a new offensive philosophy that is making us rethink how we categorize football plays, a concept that is mixing, blending and elevating offensive football to remarkable levels of performance.
Boyd took a shotgun snap on the play, and his first option was to give Andre Ellington an inside handoff on a zone-read option look. The offensive line fired off the ball in a run-blocking scheme. Boyd kept the ball himself, his second option. As he moved to the left, the ESPN play-by-play voice declared “Boyd on a keeper!” Boyd could have run like on a traditional option play, which is what the announcer anticipated. But there were third and a fourth options, revolutionary ones, for the junior quarterback in the passing game. Multiple Clemson receivers ran routes downfield and Boyd hit Jaron Brown in stride to pick up a first down.
Traditional football thinking has categorized plays into two types: “run” or “pass.” But cutting-edge offenses are mixing and blending such distinctions. These combination plays are a variant of option football — something like three-dimensional chess — blending running plays with screens and downfield passing options all on the same play. These are not pre-snap audibles, the decision to run or pass are made by the quarterback after the snap. These are combinations of categories of plays that have never been combined before.
When asked about the new blended plays, Boyd failed to suppress a smile.
“We have some new wrinkles in,” Boyd said. “We have options where if the defense does this, this is what we are going to do, and vice versa. Instead of ‘this is the play, it is going here, go ahead and do it.’
“It’s almost like the triple option.”
With multiple receivers running routes, it’s more like a quadruple option.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris was asked this week if he had ever considered running a triple-option attack like Georgia Tech’s.
“We run the triple option,” Morris said, “we just don’t run it the way they run it.”
SmartFootball.com’s Chris Brown calls the combination concepts “packaged” plays.
“At least on some level, the idea of ‘packaging’ multiple options for the quarterback based on the movements of defenders is not entirely new,” Brown wrote. “But the trend of combining entirely different categories of plays — runs and passes, screens and passes, runs and screens — is new, and these ideas are at the forefront of thinking about football. The challenge is undoing what we think a football play is without entirely disregarding fundamental, classic football thinking.”
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables saw the score Saturday: West Virginia 70, Baylor 63.
It was against Baylor and former Bears quarterback Robert Griffin III when Venables first came up against packaged plays.
Venables said quadruple- option concepts began at Florida in the Urban Meyer zone-read spread offense and evolved to where many spread offenses are at least experimenting with the concept. But it is in Big 12, where programs like West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Baylor are on forefront of developing these packaged plays. For instance, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen first combined stick passing routes with the draw play while at Oklahoma State and used packaged plays to put 70 points on the scoreboard in the Orange Bowl.
The spread-option offenses were already difficult enough to contain. Now offenses are adding in passing routes and screens, all at up-tempo pace. Basketball’s fast break has come to football and is producing basketball-like scores.
“It’s a nightmare,” Venables said. “It is high-level stress. … They are forcing you to defend every ounce of that field with big-time explosive athletes everywhere. … If you can’t get after the quarterback with four guys, you have problems — big-time problems.”
The other confounding factor is that the package plays often employ a run-blocking scheme, but the play might result in a pass.
“(Defensive) players’ run-pass key says ‘run’ and then they (throw) it out there,” Venables said. “That is whole deal, that is what they are attacking. (Sometimes) it’s illegal. There are guys running five yards down the field (blockers as ineligible downfield) and they don’t say nothing. It happens all the time.”
Maybe Venables will take some comfort in that a Boyd-to-DeAndre Hopkins touchdown was called back at Boston College because a linemen was illegally downfield Saturday.
Still, the message from offensive coaches regarding the concepts must be unsettling for defenders: they are just scratching the surface.
Morris visited Oklahoma State in the offseason, ostensibly to see how the Cowboys deployed star receiver Justin Blackmon last fall, but the Cowboys are also on the cutting edge of packaged-play offense.
“We wanted to put it in, couldn’t get it in (last year),” Morris said of packaged plays. “There are things we’ve tried to do to grow this offense. Things (fans) are going to see they haven’t seen.”
But for the concepts to be successfully implemented, it requires a quarterback who can be trusted to make the correct decisions. Packaged plays put more decision-making in the hands of the quarterback. Decisions to run or pass are made after the snap based upon reading the defense.
This season, Morris has a veteran quarterback.
“We have to be careful not to over-complicate your quarterback,” Morris said. “(Boyd) is now more of veteran quarterback.”
If the quarterback can master the concepts and reads, he becomes nearly unstoppable.
Said Morris: “We have answers built in to most our plays.”
Will defenses find any answers? Are there answers to the cutting-edge of offensive football?