Balance In The Fed-Spread

Unlike more pure spread-to-run attacks like Oregon or the Air Raid approaches of Mike Leach or Dana Holgorsen, Carolina head coach Larry Fedora's spread offense is notable for its emphasis on balance.

In his last two years at Southern Miss, Fedora's offense averaged over 200 rushing yards and 250 passing yards per game, while his 2007 Oklahoma State offense managed the unusual feat of averaging 243 yards per game both rushing and passing. That balance was also apparent in last year's effort at Carolina, as the offense averaged 189.4 rushing and 291.8 passing yards per game, even more impressively averaging 5.01 yards per carry against FBS opponents (19th nationally) and 7.9 yards per attempt in the passing game (25th).

Nevertheless, there is bound to be some confusion over what exactly balance looks like in today's game. As with assessing offensive or defensive efficiency, the per-game measures typically used by media and fans are not good measures for assessing balance in today's game—especially in an offense like the Fed-Spread.

Balance Does Not Mean Equal Attempts or Yardage

The first thing to understand is that a balanced team does not necessarily run and throw it an equal amount. Fedora explains, "Balance to us is not necessarily 50/50 run to pass. When we talk about balance, it is your ability to both run and pass the football. The defense can stop the run or the pass, but they cannot do both of them."

This concept of being able to take advantage of what the defense gives is central to Fedora's philosophy: "There are coaches who make up their minds to run the football no matter what the defense does. … That does not make sense to me. One week, we may rush for 300 yards, throw for 100 yards, and win the game. … If the next week we run for 100 yards and throw for 300 yards, that is what we want to do as long as we win."

This approach requires a nontraditional way of assessing balance, yet again basing our understanding on yards per play rather than how many of each type of play was run or how many total yards were gained. What really matters is the ratio of yards per rush to passing yards per attempt. (Not, it should be noted, yards per completion, which is far less important as incompletions are important, too.)

The key for the offense is to ensure that the total yards per play is as high as possible while also minimizing risk. This of course requires that passing plays gain more per attempt than rushing plays, since passing plays inherently involve more risk than running plays because of the risk of interceptions, sacks, or incompletions. The average per pass attempt must therefore be a bit higher than the average per rush to account for this increased risk. Otherwise, why take the additional risk of putting the ball in the air?

This also means that teams with a great running back—such as Carolina with Gio Bernard last year or the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL—may ultimately need to run the ball less in order to optimize their success, since opposing defenses will naturally focus so much on stopping the run. Likewise, teams with great passers should be able to run the ball more efficiently simply because the defense's attention will be elsewhere.

Coaches' Stats vs. NCAA Stats

Another complicating factor in assessing balance is that nearly every coaching staff in the country keeps different in-house stats for their own evaluation than the ones the NCAA uses. For example, the NCAA, mainly due to tradition, records sack yardage as negative rushing yardage, despite the fact that the loss occurred on a pass play. Coaches, however, do not record sack yardage against the running total but against the passing game. Likewise, nearly every coach counts scramble yardage as passing yardage as well—again because it occurred on a pass play, even if the yards technically came on the ground. Sacks and scrambles count as pass attempts for coaches' stats.

Offenses like North Carolina's present an additional problem: because of Fedora's extensive use of play calls that package the inside zone read with the bubble screen on the outside, a good bit of yardage on bubble screens counts toward the passing game in the NCAA's stats, while most coaching staffs (both offensive and defensive) would consider (and record) these as rushing yards, since bubbles are essentially long pitch plays . (In that sense, Fedora's offense is really a variation of a triple-option attack, something we'll discuss in another column.)

The UNC staff will also break down each element of this bread-and-butter package individually to assess which options were most successful and how efficient the quarterback's decisions were. In other words, did the bubble have more success than the inside zone or QB keep? Did the quarterback not hand it off quite enough, should he have kept it more often, should he have have taken the bubble more frequently? Comparisons of the results per play for each option are broken down and compared to assess balance. (Again, the bubble and QB keep should have slightly higher per-play averages due to increased risk.) This means that the yardage totals that we as fans and media see are quite different from those the coaching staff themselves use. The rushing totals they see are going to be higher (thanks to the addition of bubble screen yardage and not subtracting sacks) and passing totals lower than in the NCAA statistics.

Conclusion: Assessing Balance

Obviously the best way to assess balance is to look at the coaches' per-play statistics. Another good approach is to use something like Football Outsiders' S&P+ rushing and passing ratings. But in the absence of coaches' stats and in the interest of simple measurements, the yards per play measures can still be helpful even if they don't show the whole picture perfectly. Using the NCAA stats, here are a few examples of yards per play numbers from some of the top offenses against FBS competition in 2012 (along with Baylor and Stanford from 2011 and several other Fedora offenses):

Run-heavy attacks such as Georgia, Alabama, and Georgia Tech tend to average more yards per passing attempt and have a wider gap between run and pass, while pass-first attacks like Texas A&M's Air Raid offense typically have a smaller ratio. Based on these (admittedly somewhat skewed numbers), it appears a Pass:Run yards per play ratio around 1.5 or 1.6:1 marks a relative balance point. Oregon's run-heavy attack is an exception here for not producing an especially high YPA in the passing game, presumably because of how often they throw horizontally rather than vertically. (They notably averaged 8.1 YPA on the way to the national title game in 2010.) Fedora's offenses have been remarkably consistent right around that 1.5:1 pass/run yards per play ratio, meaning approximately three passing yards for every rushing yard per attempt.

At the very least, understanding this approach to balance should help prevent common fan misconceptions about playcalling, where fans often assume more calls of one than another means a lack of balance when in many cases it can mean just the opposite. The point of balance, as Fedora explains, is to force defenses into no-win situations where they can't choose to stop one specific thing at the expense of another. Depending on a team's strengths and the matchups within a game, 60/40 playcalling may be more balanced than trying to force 50/50.

Jason Staples was a walk-on wide receiver at Florida State in the early part of the last decade and has provided in-depth football analysis on the Scout network since 2007. A member of the Foootball Writers' Association of America, he is presently finishing a Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill and will be providing scheme and stats analysis for InsideCarolina in 2013.

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