A Riggo Drill and Air Coryell multiple receiver sets are among the more than 1,200 formations, but the roots of the Maryland Terrapins’ offense lie in a system created for Ohio State in 1934 by a former Army bayonet instructor.
Before the West Coast offense spread through the NFL, before Don Coryell disciples Joe Gibbs and Ernie Zampese taught Norv Turner and Mike Martz, Francis Schmidt created more wing formations than Col. Sanders. The ideas have been adopted by so many NFL and college coaches that the family tree of Schmidt’s offense stretches nationwide and for generations.
“When I saw the St. Louis Rams when Martz became coach, they ran so many plays like ours that I thought, ‘Where was this guy in the chain?’” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said.
Here’s the first link: Martz was a high school player in San Diego who watched Coryell’s practices at San Diego State. Martz later spent two years as the Washington Redskins’ quarterbacks coach under Turner. Turner learned the system from Zampese, who got it from Coryell, who took it from San Diego Chargers coach Sid Gillman, who coached and played under Schmidt.
It’s the NFL’s version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Not only is Maryland quarterback Scott McBrien running plays that worked for the Chargers before he was born, the Terps are using formations Friedgen’s father ran in high school. No wonder Maryland’s playbook has more than 600 double-sided pages. There are so many twists of the same basic plays that football fields have been turned into obstacle courses.
“I’d like to do more,” Friedgen said.
More? Maryland enters Georgia Tech tomorrow with more than 125 possible formations on offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe’s playcard, a colored, laminated board even the CIA couldn’t decipher. There are boots and scats and heats, more numbers than an Enron spreadsheet and enough options to test a Wall Street trader’s sanity. Taaffe calls it a chess game.
And that’s only the start. The playbook resembles a telephone directory. From Manhattan. Not only are there are three-, five- and seven-step dropbacks, but a half-dozen versions of each. Then there are play-action plays, boots, screens, gadgets, protections and runs. Don’t even get into the situations involving down and distance or the red zone. McBrien will need a memory reboot before learning another system.
“I’ve talked to people who played under Coach Friedgen at Georgia Tech, and they still know what we’re doing years later,” he said. “I’m sure it will take time to get out of my head.”
He has no idea.
The family tree
Schmidt spent World War I teaching Army recruits how to kill with a bayonet. So much for the direct approach. Two decades later, the “Scarlet Scourge” was created when Schmidt brought the I-formation to Ohio State in 1934. The Buckeyes averaged 31.5 points over the first two years when Schmidt unveiled the single wing, double wing and triple reverses.
Ohio State went 39-16-1 with 25 shutouts in Schmidt’s seven years as coach, earning him the nickname “Close the Gates of Mercy.” Schmidt was such a diagram freak he once stayed in his car to scribble new plays while it was on a lift during an oil change. Of course, Schmidt absent-mindly got out and fell eight feet into the grease pit.
Sid Gillman played end under Schmidt and then spent three years as his assistant coach. Gillman, whose Los Angeles and San Diego Chargers teams dominated the AFL, was considered the founder of the West Coast Offense. He can thank the cinema for part of his success; while working as a movie usher, he took newsreel clips of football plays to study on his home projector.
Film played a role for Friedgen, too. Years later, he came across the breakdowns of the 1978-82 Chargers offense under Coryell. Friedgen, the Chargers’ offensive coordinator from 1994 to 1996, grabbed the tapes when a team employee was going to discard them. The film formed the foundation of the offense that scored a school-record 451 points for Maryland last year. And here’s where you smell the Bacon: Gillman evaluated Friedgen’s Chargers gameplans.
“In ‘78, the Chargers would put Charlie Joyner in slot versus a linebacker — it was like stealing,” Friedgen said. “In ‘79, defenses put in a nickel back to counter three wide receivers. If the offense comes up with this, then the defense has to come up with that.”
Coryell’s influence proved widespread. Gibbs added another tight end to a one-back system when he came to Washington in 1981, allowing running back John Riggins to lead the Redskins to a Super Bowl championship. The two tight-end formation remains widely used, and the Terps sometimes flash it.
Zampese taught the downfield passing game to Turner, who expanded it further as Dallas offensive coordinator for the Cowboys’ Super Bowl champs in 1992 and ‘93. The titles led to Turner becoming coach in Washington. Martz, Turner’s protege, left the Redskins and added the running back as a fourth pass option in St. Louis’ three wide receiver set en route to a Super Bowl title.
“You need three receivers because if you only have one defenses can take him away,” Friedgen said. “And if you have two they can double cover you. But if you have three, then you have them in a bind because you’ll find a guy who’s one-on-one. That’s what the Chargers had.”
X’s and O’s
Versatility is the essence of an offense, which has to counter any defense with new formations. When the 3-5-3 defense, which has become the latest trend in college, uses linebackers to fill gaps against the run or pass, the offense sends its receivers downfield past the eight-man fronts. If defense drops back, the offense gets more running room.
“The offense gives you the flexibility to do what your kids can do,” Friedgen said. “Instead of saying, ‘Here’s our offense, we’re not changing,’ we change to what our kids can do.”
The Terps were the ACC’s leading rushing team before they faced two straight 3-5-3 defenses. McBrien countered with his two best passing games of the season, throwing over the top of eight-man fronts that were daring the Terps to run. It didn’t matter that Maryland only gained 265 yards rushing combined; it took both games easily to extend its winning streak to five.
“We’d like to be a two-back team, but more recently we’re trying to run one back and spread people out,” Taaffe said. “They put eight guys [close to the line], and you have to scheme ways to not let them outnumber you.”
What did he say?
Systems are like foreign languages. One team says scat; another calls it heat. It means the same, but one wrong word in the huddle can mean the defense suddenly is steaming past an offensive line going in a different direction. One Army coach even flip-flopped the numbering system depending on the play, which Taaffe said “blew some gaskets.”
“There’s no uniform language like computers,” Taaffe said. “It’s what system you grew up in. It can be totally different from another teams. Then again, [the Miami Dolphins use] some of the same terminology we do.”
Uh, more Bacon? Turner is now the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator.
In the end, it’s not the fancy play downfield that wins the championship. Coryell never hugged the Lombardi Trophy. You pass for show but run for dough.
“At some point, you have to be able to line up and run the football,” Taaffe said.
Even Friedgen admits a great defense can beat a good offense.
“Good defenses can shut you out,” he said. “You may not gain 30 yards running the ball.”
That’s why Friedgen and his offensive brethren spend late nights doodling on napkins.