Zemek's Monday Morning Quarterback 2006

The top five in the national polls over the next month--not to mention the texture of the SEC's two divisional races--will be dramatically affected, in one way or another, by the performance of the Florida Gators. This week's issue, then, will focus on the fascinating--and wrenching--dilemmas faced by Gator head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen.

Florida's offensive braintrust faces a complex situation in which the goals and methods are clear, but the rate of progress isn't. Meyer and Mullen know what they want to accomplish, and how to accomplish it; the hard part is determining how quickly they want to pursue their goals with their own methods, crafted in Bowling Green, honed in Salt Lake City, and then taken to Gainesville. For perspective, let's turn back the clock one year.

Last season, in year one of the Meyer-Mullen pairing for Florida, Chris Leak was a fish out of water. The words "round hole" and "square peg" became a very regular part of Gator fans' vocabularies, as the head coach and offensive coordinator had a hard time tailoring their offense to Leak's strengths. Adding to the mess was the fact that Meyer and Mullen had to slowly bring Leak along while also teaching the new blocking schemes that are part of the spread option. It wasn't just Leak who had to learn a new system; his offensive line needed to absorb a lot of information as well. The predictable result was chaos, especially in the middle-third of the season against the same teams Florida is playing in 2006: Alabama, LSU and Georgia (with Auburn replacing Mississippi State on this year's October slate).

Meyer and Mullen ran smack dab into a paralyzing dilemma: should they take their lumps in year one so that the system would get taught in full, or should they scale back the offense in a clear attempt to win games, no matter how ugly? The decision had to be difficult for Florida's offensive gurus because any professed attempt to bring the program back to Steve Spurrier's gold standard meant that the Gators would have to rediscover a prolific, attack-oriented offense that would strike fear into opponents. Moreover, this goal was entirely consistent with the spread option Meyer and Mullen cultivated in their previous coaching stops. As an extension of Meyer's football personality and as a manifestation of his football mind, the spread option--unleashed to full effect by Alex Smith at Utah--was the very entity that created Meyer's stratospheric reputation in college football circles. Meyer got the Florida job for many reasons, but one of the biggies was a track record for ringing up huge numbers, a fact affirmed by his famous quote, "I just like to do stuff to bother people." Meyer made that very Spurrier-esque statement before the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, when his Utes crowned their spectacular season--and, at the time, Meyer's coaching career--with a thorough beatdown of Pittsburgh to cement his status as the "it" guy in college football. Safe to say, there were a lot of personal, psychological and aesthetic reasons for Meyer and Mullen, his compatriot, to stick with the teaching of the "classic" spread option. A lot of prestige and emotional investment were attached to that system.

But in the end, Meyer and Mullen--realizing how much money they were being paid--chose, and wisely so (in this writer's opinion, anyway), to win games and sacrifice aesthetics at the altar. Against Georgia and over the course of the remainder of the 2005 season, Meyer and Mullen scaled back the offense, simplifying the playbook for the sake of Chris Leak's comfort level. Since information overload--and a system's lack of compatibility in relation to his skill set--burdened Leak for much of the 2005 season, Meyer and Mullen decided to win games with defense and ball control. A desire for the big play went out the window, but so did the losses. Florida went 4-1 (including a bowl win over Iowa) after Meyer and Mullen consciously decided to downscale. Meyer had salvaged year one in Gainesville by conceding the limitations of his system with the personnel he had. Wins weren't aesthetically pleasing, but they emerged, and in the end, that's the bottom line for Meyer and any other college football coach.

That was last year. This year, the calculus is so much more complicated for Meyer and Mullen... even while a lot of parallels can be drawn between 2005 and 2006 for the Florida offense.

On Saturday against Alabama, Florida's offense simultaneously showed how far it has progressed over the course of 12 months, and how far it still has to go to reach the juggernaut status of the Spurrier days (not to mention Meyer's Utah team in 2004). It is this fundamental tension point that will make Meyer and Mullen sleep very little over the course of the next month, with LSU, Auburn and Georgia coming up on the Gators' schedule. In the first quarter and a half, Florida's offense was pancake-flat. The offensive front was getting outplayed, Leak was slow in decision making, and receivers didn't make downfield plays. All of these same problems were so readily apparent at this same point of the 2005 season. Moreover, the Crimson Tide's defense had an extremely good read on what the Gators were doing offensively, a disturbing reminder of the futility Meyer and Mullen experienced last season in Tuscaloosa. If Brodie Croyle--not John Parker Wilson--had been quarterbacking Alabama on Saturday, the outcome might have been very different. That's not pointless speculation; rather, it's a frank acknowledgment of the fact that Alabama lacked the weapons, and especially the trigger man, needed to beat Florida this season. The meaning of this reality should be obvious--and worrisome--to the Gator Nation: once Florida plays the real big boys in the SEC, more performances like the one on Saturday against Bama will get the Gators a woodshed whipping and another season without so much as a division title.

Is this gloom-and-doom naysaying run amok? It's emotionally easy to go in that direction if you're a Florida fan right now: "Why rain on our 5-0 parade? How dare you choose to find the negatives when a team is undefeated!" But what seems like excessive negativity is little more than cerebral analysis. Against Alabama, Florida's offense scored a net total of 11 points. How does one come up with that number in a game that ended 28-13 in favor of Florida? Here's how: Florida's defense directly scored one touchdown, meaning that the Gators' offense scored 21 points. Of those 21 points, three were directly set up by a turnover that gave Florida a drive start within field goal range. Whenever a team scores a touchdown on a drive it starts in field goal range, honest analysis suggests that the offense should be credited with scoring four points, the defense with the first three. This reduces the net total from 21 points to 18. Then factor in the touchdown Florida's offense directly gave up... on a botched snap that also brought back memories of the horror show from the 2005 season. That final reduction of seven points provides the net total of 11 points. Safe to say, 11 points isn't a lot to celebrate. Yes, there's a lot to celebrate with respect to Florida's defense, but that's not the focal point of this discussion. If Florida's offense is to get the job done against the likes of JaMarcus Russell and--a week later--Kenny Irons, 11 net points has to be a first-half total, not a game total, for Florida's offense. Some would call that excessive negativity; others would call it a serious concern that is staring Meyer and Mullen squarely in the face.

What further complicates the issue for Meyer and Mullen is the fact that there were times on Saturday against Bama when the Gator offense showed signs of becoming the very juggernaut everyone in Gainesville hopes it will become. Chris Leak--a passing quarterback--ripped off a 45-yard run. Tim Tebow--a running quarterback--popped off a 23-yard pass. Meyer's and Mullen's goals became very clear on Saturday against the Tide: they want to mix and match Leak and Tebow so they can get defenses on a pendulum and ultimately render them helpless in the face of overwhelming unpredictability rooted in seemingly endless permutations of plays. Alabama's awareness of Leak's and Tebow's individual strengths enabled Meyer and Mullen to surprise Alabama with counter-tendency plays: a Leak run disguised by fullback Billy Latsko's selling of a pass play, and a Tebow pass camouflaged by a typical spread run formation. It's obvious where Meyer and Mullen are trying to go with this offense: take the same personnel and formations in so many different directions that defenses' circuits will get fried. That should be apparent to anyone who has either followed Florida up to this point, or who will study game film this week to prepare for coverage of the LSU and Auburn games ahead. The potential is there for Florida's offense to put opposing defenses at its mercy... as was the case in the Spurrier era.

The perplexing part about the Alabama game for Meyer and Mullen is that after Leak showed some running ability and Tebow showed some passing skills, the offense didn't take off. Instead of getting Bama's defense way off balance and rolling up the gaudy numbers, the Gators had to inch their way up the field, taking what they were given. It was enough to win against a not-that-loaded Bama team (who lost to Arkansas the week before), but against the fast and ferocious defenses posed by LSU and Auburn, this offense shows signs of getting swallowed up this October, just like the last one.

Surely, by now, you can see the complicated nature of Urban Meyer's life... at least as it relates to shepherding his offense through the season and figuring out a good plan in conjunction with Dan Mullen. Meyer can now mix and match quarterbacks in ways he couldn't do last season, offering him the flexibility that can potentially uncork some big plays from this offense. His offense's understanding of his and Mullen's system has developed to the point where multiple personnel groupings could substantially confuse opposing defenses. His blockers sell plays better, and as a result, they can use certain plays to set up tweaked variations later on in drives or games. The larger Meyer-Mullen blueprint is coming into focus. The only problem is that it's coming into focus so slowly, and with noticeable inconsistency, because there are still profound limitations with respect to the players who are running Meyer's offense. Leak and Tebow together make a nice hybrid quarterback, but unfortunately, no one player individually offers a complete package of skills for Florida. Add in the offensive front's inconsistency, and it becomes less clear if Florida has the raw quality to support a fully attacking scheme and the most audaciously creative game plan imaginable.

For this upcoming LSU game and for the rest of the season, Meyer will repeatedly face the same fundamental decision over and over again: does he have enough evidence to think his offense can begin to unleash the big play with regularity, or must he play close to the vest, a la 2005, and lean on the strength of his team, which is his run-stuffing defense? Last year, the decision was emotionally difficult, but strategically easy: Meyer had to play it safe to win games. This year, it's a lot more complicated, because the Alabama game showed that Meyer's offense is beginning to truly absorb some macro-level, big-picture concepts that could soon pay big dividends... but only if the Gator players have the chops to make the bold schemes work for them, and not against them.

Want to know how complicated it is to be a football coach, to weigh visions of blackboard grandeur against the barebones realities facing your team and its prospects? Just step inside the world of Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen. How they handle the next few weeks will impact the shape of the top five, the SEC's divisional races, and--for that matter--the culture of the SEC, which has returned to the old-school headcracking that dominated the landscape before another Florida coach turned things upside-down in 1990.

There's one small note from the past weekend of play calling and strategy that can't be left unmentioned. Virginia Tech trailed Georgia Tech by eleven points (38-27) in the final minutes of Saturday's game in Blacksburg. The Hokies drove inside the Yellow Jacket 20 with 55 seconds left. This is when Hokie coach Frank Beamer's mind (much like Seattle Seahawk coach Mike Holmgren in the dying moments of Super Bowl XL) turned to mush. Instead of kicking a field goal in a two-score game, Beamer had his offense stubbornly continue onward, so much so that the game ended with the Hokies--again, down by 11--trying to score a touchdown.

Can one pause to consider for a moment the stupidity and futility of that decision by Beamer, and of all other coaches who fail to kick the field goal when down by nine to eleven points in the final minutes of a game? If it's a two-score game... well... you need two scores. You're not in an advantageous position, so you have to take your medicine and make the awkward step of kicking a field goal on first down with 55 seconds to go. Of course it's not normal, but you have no choice. Getting a touchdown means nothing if you have no time left for an onside kick, a second possession, and a second score. Why can't grown men figure this out?

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