CLEMSON -- Part of why Dabo Swinney was intrigued with Chad Morris in his search for a new offensive coordinator last winter was the idea of innovation.
Clemson's head football coach took a risk in hiring Morris, who was two years removed from coaching on Friday nights. But Swinney also knew there was potential for a considerable competitive advantage in bringing an innovative and unknown offense to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Swinney wanted to give ACC defensive coordinators something they had never seen before.
For the first eight weeks of the season, Swinney's hiring of Morris was a smashing success. But how long can Clemson expect to have a competitive advantage in the form of its innovative, no-huddle, up-tempo offense?
"I'm going to have to work my tail off this offseason," Morris said. "I've got to. Look at past histories of teams that have success. The very next year they have a down year."
An examination of six of college football's top offensive innovators from the last two decades -- Steve Spurrier, Gus Malzahn, Rich Rodriguez, Mike Leach, Urban Meyer and Bobby Petrino -- found the majority of innovative offenses
have had peaks of prolific performance followed by decline.
It begs these questions, questions critical for Clemson: Why do some innovators continue to succeed? Why do others fall behind?
Something like a virus
When Spurrier brought his Fun 'n' Gun offense from Duke to Florida in 1990, it was met with skepticism by some analysts, coaches and fans in the Southeastern Conference. A wide-open, pass-first offense in the run-first, defensive-oriented SEC? The style of football was rarely seen or successful in the Bible Belt.
But Spurrier's cutting edge offense flummoxed defensive coordinators and quieted doubters for a decade. The Fun 'n' Gun was something of a football virus -- like all football innovations -- and SEC defenses struggled to create an antidote.
"There had not been a good passing team to win the conference championship in the SEC; everyone was run the ball, play defense prior to that," Spurrier said. "They didn't really know our scheme too much except that they knew we threw the ball a good bit."
From 1993-96, Florida never ranked lower than eighth in the nation in total offense in one of the best defensive conferences. Spurrier led Florida to six SEC titles and the 1996 national title.
But then something happened.
From 1997-2000, Florida just once cracked the top 20 in total offense under Spurrier.
The ball coach then left for the NFL, and when he returned to college coaching in 2005 at South Carolina, he never again led an elite offense. In five out of six years at USC, the Gamecocks have ranked 77th or worse in total offense under Spurrier, whose Fun 'n' Gun is morphed into more middling zone-read, spread option football.
What happened to Spurrier's offense?
Veteran defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said defenses eventually catch up to new offenses.
"Things change all the time," Steele said. "Change is inevitable. Usually as things go on in our sport, there's change on offense, then the defenses adapt."
Spurrier isn't the only innovator to see decline in performance.
Gus Malzahn led Tulsa to the nation's No. 1 offense in 2007 and 2008. He then unleashed his up-tempo, no-huddle on the SEC, helping lead Auburn to a national title in 2010.
This season? Malzahn's offense is 93rd in the country.
Urban Meyer brought another never-seen-before offense to the SEC, the spread option, and won two national titles as Florida ranked in the top 20 of total offense in four out of his first five years at Florida. But in his final year before leaving coaching, Meyer's offense sunk to No. 82 in the country.
Some coaches can innovate once, but when defenders catch up, can they transform?
Education = Innovation
Morris already has offseason travel plans. The destination? Morris smiles and shakes his head side to side in the negative. Sorry, top secret.
Ask Morris and Alabama coach Nick Saban the key to staying inventive, and they'll tell you the secret is to never stop self-educating.
Morris will scour the country this offseason for the next big idea. See, the Clemson offensive coordinator knows the trappings of success. He knows the race is on. He knows opponents will have the offseason to study his offense.
Saban has friends in the NFL he shares trade secrets with, but like Morris, Saban will also travel to lower-level colleges and high schools in search of the next edge.
Saban contends innovation is education.
"Sometimes high school coaches know more about new things ... different things that create problems than anybody else," Saban said. "I think (innovating) is continuing to always try to grow and develop and research things that are happening at other places, and how to implement things that continually give people problems. Visit, learn, professional growth-type things that can help you."
Refining and reinventing his offense was so important to Morris he had it written in his contract as a high school coach that he and his staff be able to travel the country to study offenses.
In 2003, Morris visited Utah, where Meyer was perfecting his spread-option offense.
Morris also took his staff to LSU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Tulane, Tulsa, and to visit an Arkansas prep head coach named Gus Malzahn.
Are players innovators?
Steele is uncomfortable with the notion of innovative genius.
See, to the Clemson defensive coordinator, the innovators are the players.
"Generally speaking, it still comes down to players," Steele said. "If you have really good players, you can do a lot of things. Usually the innovators have really good players. Bill Walsh's West Coast offense had a lot of Hall of Famers on it. Was it the offense? Or was it Roger Craig, Jerry Rice and Joe Montana? A little bit of both, probably."
In the 11 seasons after graduating his most successful quarterback pupil, Danny Wuerffel, Spurrier has only led one top 10 offense (2001 at Florida).
How important was Cam Newton to Auburn and Malzahn? Auburn's offensive rank has dropped 90 places from last season -- from seventh to 97th.
After Tim Tebow graduated in 2009, Meyer's offense at Florida dropped from sixth to 82nd.
The Meyer and Malzahn offenses need superior talents like Tebow and Newton to be prolific.
Without star receiver Sammy Watkins, Clemson was unable to move the ball at N.C. State.
"In our business, coaches are teachers and managers of personalities and motivators," Steele said. "But at the end of the day, the players make things work. And so I think the real credit goes when something is working, it's not that it is ingenious, it's the players."
Perhaps, the ability to teach and develop quarterbacks is why Petrino has had only one season where his offense ranked below 21st, nationally. Mike Leach is the other innovator who did not have a performance decline.
Leach's offenses ranked sixth or better in eight straight seasons at Texas Tech.
Steele's viewpoint is shared by Spurrier, who in part has struggled offensively at South Carolina because he has struggled to produce quarterbacks to execute his complex offense.
"(At Florida) I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time," Spurrier said. "You have to have a whole bunch of good players there when you get there, and that's what I had at Florida."