What's Simple About It?

We are going to talk a lot about simplicity and what it means on offense. Well, who are we not to beat that horse a little farther into the ground. What is simple? Does it means less plays or less words in a play? What does it really mean?

What does "simple" mean?

It could mean a lot of things when it comes to the offense. I think "simpler" is a more accurate way of looking at this, and it's been kind of the mantra for this team since Bill Callahan's first year as the Head Coach of the Huskers.

You remember that, yeah? I know it's painful.

But when he came in with his now infamous eight-pound playbook, it took longer to say a play than it did to run it.

As the seasons progressed, it got shortened a bit, then a bit more...and a bit more.

When Shawn Watson took over as the O.C., it got simplified even more. But as we have beat this like a drum, it was still the West Coast, the idea was about being able to do everything and it seemed that it was still not so easy to learn.

I talked to former running back Marlon Lucky, and he talked about it. You know those wrist bands the quarterbacks wore. Lucky said each of those bands had two to three pages, meaning there was a top one, flip it over to get to the next, etc. Then there was one on the other wrist. Then there was one wore on the belt.

All with more than one page.

The complexity of Bill Callahan's offense seemingly made as many headlines as Callahan himself.

It's amazing they ever got a play off, to be honest.

Now let's get super simplified about this. Let's take it to the point where it would never go.

The quarterback goes to the huddle and says as he strokes an index finger across the field turf "OK, you go to the trash can on the right side, take a left. And you, go to the marker on the left and take a right. And you, go deep.

"Oh, on two."

That has been replaced by "Scatter-Two-Bunch Right-Zip-Fire Right-273-Pivot-F Flat."

Well, not now.

You can figure what Nebraska is running this year is somewhere in-between.

Did you know that under Lavell Edwards, the iconic BYU Head Coach, the Cougars had a system which often involved plays of no more than two words?

What made the West Coast offense so complicated? Why was it this behemoth of a system that was pretty impossible for a college kid to get down in two years much less four?


Because the West Coast offense apparently thinks everyone has short term memory loss.

When you see that long ole play up top, what is it saying? What's all that stuff mean? Well, what it means, basically, is what the receivers are doing, the line is doing, what side, what hole, etc.

Now, this doesn't apply to all offenses labeled this way. But it certainly did with Callahan's. The original version took into account pretty much everything everyone was doing on the offensive side of the ball.

There is a word if there is initial motion before the formation. There is a word for the formation. Then there is another word for a shift, if there is motion after the initial formation is set. There is a word for the protection scheme. There is a word as well as a number for the wide receivers and where they are supposed to go. Then there is another for the running back and where they are supposed to go or what they are supposed to do.

That's a lot of words. That's a lot of time it's going to take to get those words out and time to get those words and numbers to sink in.

Not a Spring's worth of time though. We are talking months, maybe seasons.

We saw how it worked.

To his credit, Callahan's system did start to work, but only after he continually widdled away at the plays, the words, the numbers and found some sort of happy medium where he felt he was running what he wanted to run, but his players felt they were able to run it, too.

Of course, the defense went into the tank just when it was getting really good, and he were sit today.

Bill Waslh was considered the man who created his style of offense. But born in the NFL, this system was anything but simple.

The epiphany most coaches have when trying to figure out where complexity and reality meet is understanding that one thing doesn't have to have one word. It could be two things for one word, maybe even three.

Let me give you one example of something that is simple, perhaps as simple as what Nebraska might run in the future:

Split-Right-Slot 628 backs flat

The 6,2 and 8 are separate numbers, describing the three receivers on the field.

The Split, Right and Slot indicate where each of those receivers are lined up

The "backs flat" indicate that the running backs will run pass patterns out into the flats on one or either side, depending on the number of backs on the field.

This is obviously a pass play, and it would be hard to get much simpler than this.

But you are sitting there saying that you could figure this out in about two seconds. This kind of simplicity isn't going to last beyond a game or two, and maybe not even that if it's against good competition.

You have to remember, these aren't the Colts. The Huskers don't have Peyton Manning calling plays at the line. Nebraska calls its plays in the huddle. How novel, eh? The subterfuge only has to exist on an audible at the line, where you don't want to make it too easy for a defense to figure out what adjustments you may be making at the line.

But if everything else is easy, tweaking an audible here and there shouldn't be that hard, should it?

And besides, if Nebraska has three receivers on the field, one is the "X", another is the "Y" and the third is the "Z."

"Sally" could mean a receiver or it could be the strong side of the field.

Learning a new language can be quite difficult. But the advantage a coach has is that he's the one who gets to create it. And you can bet that if he's looking for a simple way to say "X receiver", he isn't going to tell them to utter "Xylophone" in the huddle.

Xylophone becomes Sally. Now Sally becomes....what?


No matter what the offensive system, there are certain things you simply can't dumb down. Reads at the line, identifying the linebacker, recognizing man coverage versus zone. Will there be a blitz? You can't simplify that. It is what it is, as they say.

So, what is getting simplified is more than likely just the language used to describe each play as well as how many plays and formations they feel they need.

Tom Osborne had about 15 to 16 formations in the entire playbook. That was it. The reason for that number was that when they ran their scripted stuff at the beginning of the game, they could go through all their formations, see what worked and then adjust the rest of the game plan for this contest accordingly.

But out of that small number of formations was a huge amount of plays. Often you would see the exact same play run out of different formations. But if a wide receiver is on one side of the line in one formation and on the other in a different, there are obviously going to be differences in how that language is spelled out, so as to take into account the differences, so you can still run the exact same play.

Tim Beck's version of the offense this year probably won't look a lot different than last year. The big difference is how fast plays are called, the team is up to the line and how much time there is left on the clock before they snap the ball.

Go left instead of right. Pull to the strong side instead of the weak side.

In Osborne's system it was the offensive linemen who had the hardest job, because no matter where everyone lined up, they had a host of things to figure out, and that was in the course of just a single play. What's the defensive line doing? If the center sees one look from the defense, he might take a completely different guy than he would have otherwise. If there is a blitzer, the line has to make that call, figure out who is taking them and then adjust the rest of the line responsibilities.

I mean, think about that for a second.

Let's take a good old fashioned five-man front. A tackle, guard, center, guard and tackle. Now let's say they are facing a good old fashioned four-man front.

You go up to the line, the defense lines up and everyone knows who they have to take. This doesn't take into account any motion behind them, any shifts.  

It's just straight ahead blocking.

OK, throw a linebacker in a blitzing stance off the right side of the center and the left side of the right guard.

This changes a lot in regard to who everyone has to take. Now, does the center crash down on the potential blitzer, giving the nose guard a chance to get up the field behind him? If he does, the left guard has to collapse that way to prevent that, meaning the line has to shift responsibilities to the right side.

Of course, the general rule here is that if it's not a running play, it's the job of the running back or the fullback to recognize the blitz, and pick up the blitzer.

There aren't any words or numbers for that in the huddle.

You get that during the course of the week of practice, and the quarterback and offensive line make that call when they get to the line of scrimmage.

And this is where I think the "simple" becomes the reality.

One thing Bill Callahan took issue with was the assumption that this huge playbook of his was what he went into every game with. It wasn't. What that eight-pound juggernaut was, was his playbook. It was all his stuff. Out of film review of the upcoming opponent, they found the stuff that they felt would work the best. So, maybe eight pounds becomes four pounds. Heck, maybe it's a pound and a half. But it wasn't the entire thing.

However, the players still had to know the whole thing.

I would guess the "whole thing" is what will get chopped, hacked and diced to the point that even if you feel you have to have the entire playbook out there for the week of practice as you prepare for the next opponent, it's not going to be something the players will find overwhelming. It's not so simple that everyone will be able to figure it out with just a couple of game films to review. But it's not so complex that you have to go away from what you normally do in order for college kids to get it one week to the next.

Tim Beck has the luxury of never having been in the situation where plays have to be complex and you have the ability to make calls to the quarterback through a microphone. He understands high school kids. He understands college kids. He understands simplicity.

Tim Beck talked about deprogramming the players, meaning he was trying to get them out of one way of remember it and putting in his way. That's easier said than done. I think there's an old Military adage that says it takes 21 days to make or break a habit.

Bo Pelini seemingly has simplicity and effectiveness combined in a masterful way for the defense. Now, can someone who he has known since the good ol' days in Youngstown, bring that kind of efficiency to the other side of the ball?

They don't have that many days over the Spring.

It will actually be on the players themselves to help this process along during the time between Spring and Fall when the coaches can't guide them the entire way.

During the rest of the Spring, I think the idea will be that they are going to try and instill this change in language, perhaps a drastic shortening of the way plays are called and then getting the players in the mode that by the time the game arrives, they will have already played it, maybe two to three times over. In the film room, on the field during limited scrimmages and maybe through the walkthrough before the game arrives.

You probably would say every coach does that, and I would agree. But I have this feeling that during the Callahan days and perhaps during a little of Watson's time, each day of practice was like a single Act in a Shakespearian play. You'd need a few days just to get it all in. Well now maybe they will be able to get everything in perhaps that  first day and the rest of the week is spent repping it until it's ingrained.

In the end, this is all theory, and perhaps a rather bad one at that. It's impossible to know exactly what "simpler" means. But I will say this, and I think I can say it with a decent amount of confidence. Bo Pelini is about football. His mantra on defense seems to be more about getting there with as much effort first, and if you can do that, we will worry about what "there" means. I don't figure Tim Beck's philosophy is going to be much different. I don't believe he's going to think about how clever his system can be or how it will be perceived.

Point A to Point B and we dare someone to stop us.

Back to Callahan, he has a now infamous saying he uttered here at Nebraska, "We take what we want."

It wasn't a great way to put something, but it is what every coach believes. They are going to run their stuff.

But now, instead of wondering just how some college kid maybe just a year or two out of the prep ranks will be able to do just that, we'll be talking about how it's going to work against the next opponents.

Let's face it, we have spent the last few years talking more about the system than the team. There's something wrong with that. I think now it could actually be the other way around.

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