A Conversation with David Shaw: Part IV

We proudly present the fourth installment of our unique 7/17/08 session with Stanford Offensive Coordinator & WRs Coach David Shaw. Read on to hear who calls the plays, learn about the challenge of having an unsettled situation at QB, hear Shaw discuss Richard Sherman's potential to become a "complete" receiver, and find out which member of the Cardinal defense is most coveted by the offense.

The following is the fourth and hopefully penultimate segment (sorry, but seriously, how often does one get to use that word?) of what now has become, due to its extreme length, a record-breaking, skull-taxing five-part conversation with Stanford Offensive Coordinator and Wide Receivers Coach David Shaw conducted by an admittedly longwinded "Emeritus" at the Arrillaga Family Sports Center on Thursday, July 17, 2008: 

TheBootleg.com:  OK, so let's talk for a few minutes about the offensive coaching staff responsibilities - who actually calls the plays? Is it you, Harbaugh, or a combination?

DS: It's a combination. All the plays go through Coach Harbaugh. I do have a lot of input.

TB: You consult each other in a lot of situations?

DS: Moment by moment. When we have the ball, [Offensive Line] Coach Dalman naturally has his influence as well. In the running game, he may say we need to get to X-Y-Z, that we need to get to this or that particular play. I have my thoughts in the passing game for the most part - and all those plays go 'through" Coach Harbaugh.

TB: In the Bill Walsh tradition, do you have a pre-scripted set of plays that you stick to? Is there a group of plays you want to make sure get called during a game?   

DS: We have a first 15 to 25 that we put in. Plays that we feel really good about getting into the game. Situationally, you have to come off that script for a third down, a jump in the red zone or short-yardage or goal-line situation. But yes, we have a core of pre-scripted plays.

TB: Has the dynamic changed working with Coach Harbaugh here versus in San Diego or does the relationship one of a similar style - as far as the two of you working together?

DS: It's a similar style. I think in every staff there are subtle changes that go on. As a head coach, Coach Harbaugh, his time is...oh my goodness, he has a lot of things pullin' at him. It's justifiable because he's got one of the best jobs around, but he has got a lot of responsibilities. He can jump into the game plan, but then he's got to jump out for something else. He's in and out, but he's got a lot of impact on what we do.

TB: Several of you on the staff have seen a variety of cutting-edge offensive schemes, especially during your time in the NFL. Do you and Coach Harbaugh and Coach Dalman...do you see yourselves more "incorporating" or "innovating"? Is there room to do something different? Or has everything been done? Is this a situation where we need to be "pioneers" or do you simply need to be "directors" of an offense that you know can be successful. 

DS: There is a need for both. As a coach, you have a certain group of plays, a certain offensive scheme that you've had some success with. There is a pretty big group of plays with which I have had a lot of success over the last 15 years.. that I know work. When they are executed well, I know they work. Now, each coach we have on staff has those as well, so yes, there is some incorporation. At the same time, you can't ever get stagnant and just say, "This is all we do!" There are some coaches that say that - and when you watch them play , you see a twist, something that they added. That's where we're headed. There is always innovation, there has to be innovation. Sometimes you are handcuffed by injury, but you can never lose that creative side of the coaching profession..

TB: When you were first joining the staff - I recall chatting with you about it - when you first came in, you knew you were going to be involved in coordinating the offense, but we weren't sure whether you were going to be the quarterbacks guy or the wide receivers coach... Can you briefly remind us of what took place to determine things. You worked with quarterbacks in the NFL, you were a Stanford receiver, you have all the wide receiver positions down pat, was it because Coach Harbaugh just naturally gravitated toward working with the quarterbacks, or was it because you weren't sure of additional staff at that point? 

DS: The latter. That was the big thing. What maybe some people don't know is that the college staff is ten guys. How you position those full-time guys, it changes school by school, At that point in time, we weren't exactly sure how the staff was going to come together. I've done both.

TB: It was more of an advantage that you could have filled either role and with Coach Harbaugh's obvious ability to work with quarterbacks, it gave you even more flexibility...

DS: Of course. Not only does he have 15-years of NFL experience, but he's really great at it. He knows and understands the quarterback's mind. He understands the mechanics, he knows how to help a guy's mechanics. He is great at that and he comes in and out of that. I have some input there as well [with quarterbacks]. I'm the receivers coach. I'm the coordinator. It happens that I have experience coaching both. 

TB: So as you have said, Coach, you have "been around the block a little"...so just how good of a receiver is junior Richard Sherman - and how good can he be?

DS: The big thing with Richard Sherman, when I truly got the great picture of Richard Sherman, was mid-way through last year. We had some talks , and we had another big talk, couple of talks this past off-season and it is all "consistency". He's got the speed, he's got talent, he's made big plays. It's now just making things come together.

TB: In some ways, isn't Richard the "Anti-David Shaw" in a way? [generates a little chuckle] A lot of your own strengths as a college player - you were always consistent, always came prepared, always knew what you were doing. Maybe you didn't have quite the upside in terms of raw athletic ability, though we know you ran track as well... But Richard would just seem to have extraordinary upside from a talent standpoint...

DS: Richard has outstanding athletic ability. He can be a big-time, impact football player. And it's understanding that yes, the big plays need to be there, but you still have to block on third down. It's about being consistent. It's about having the complete game. You don't ever want to be - I won't say the player's name, but there was a guy I coached who was just a "deep ball guy". He had a terrific yards per catch average, which was great, which was fine, but we needed a "complete" receiver at the time and he couldn't do it. Richard has the ability to be that "complete" receiver and that's what we are working toward. It's every day, it is all the little things  He has got the ability and right now he's got the mindset. And now we want to see that show up every Saturday. 

TB: What are some of the key metrics that you and your colleagues would like to see improve. Is it yards per rushing attempt, is it yards per passing attempt, red zone efficiency? Obviously, your answer would be "all of the above", but if you were going to pick one area in which to see noticeable improvement?

DS: It is hard for me to pick one because they are all tied together. "Third-down conversions" lead to more first downs so you would have more first downs per game. More first downs per game typically lead to more red zone possessions. More red zone possessions lead to more scores. You want to start at the beginning or the end? Third-down conversions or scoring points? The biggest thing is scoring more points per game. That's the biggest thing. Now, how we do that is converting more third downs, it's having more first downs per game, it's scoring a higher percentage in the red zone. We need to score more touchdowns in the red zone! We had our fingers on a bunch, that does nothing for you. That and a nickel nowadays will get you....  

TB: The results can be one thing, but as a coach you have to focus on the genesis. So if we see dramatic increases in third-down conversion and red zone efficiency this next year, would we win more games? 

DS: Yes, because we would score more points. That's the thing. You score more points, you win more games. That's the thing Bill Walsh said so well - You can't just concentrate on the result, you have to concentrate on what it takes to get to that result. The result we want...is winning more games. So how do we get there? Those are the statistics that will help us get there.

TB:  I meant to do a follow-up on an earlier topic -  we have the three quarterbacks and obviously Tavita Pritchard is already a permanent Stanford legend after the USC game. He could have retired that night and it would be one of the greatest stories in the history of the college game...

DS: Could have just retired his number after that game!

TB:  Is it a "problem" not to have that position settled? We know part of the standard coaching answer will be that it is always good to have competition and you are going to determine the guy who gives you the best chance to win, etc., etc., but don't you really want to have that position settled as soon as possible? In the first week or so of Fall Ball? 

DS: It's a problem when it's not settled early on in the season. More specifically, it's a problem if it's not settled because no one is playing well. It's not a problem when you see the bright spots of the guys that are playing, when multiple guys show that they have some athletic ability, show us they can be efficient throwing the ball, show that they can make big plays. And now it's a "good problem" as we like to say. 

TB: You would prefer to have a variety of good options that ultimately make it a tough call? 

DS: Right, but we want to get to a point - the Spring Game being whatever it was, with the split squad. But when you watch our offense you say, Wow, Tavita does some really good things. Alex Loukas does some great things. Hey, Jason Forcier does some good things for us. 

TB:  Forcier is still a little bit of an enigma - because we haven't had much of a chance to see him. He's very intriguing on paper, but certainly it would be fair to say that in the Spring Game we didn't get to see much from him. What does Jason bring to the table?

DS: He's got a great "quarterback personality". He's excitable. He studies the game hard. When he steps into the huddle, the guys look at him eye-to-eye and they feel his energy. He's athletic. He's strong. He's quick. He's tough. He has all those things, but....

TB:  He just hasn't played.

DS: He hasn't played. He was also mentally behind the other two guys. He was still playing catch-up all the way through the spring. So there would be a play where he would miss and he would say "Oh man, I should have known that", but going into the fall, we're feeling really good about all three guys and what they can really bring to this offense. 

TB:  Speaking of having multiple options...The running back position - We've had some situations had where we have rotated guys, back in the Bookman/Mitchell/Comella/Salina days for example, where we were blessed with lots of different options. I am not going to take sides on the Kimble vs. Gerhart because they are different options - both have great potential and clearly you want to take advantage of both, but would you like to have one "main" back. Would that be advantageous? I know the answer is always "whatever makes us successful",  sometimes great backs just take over, physically and especially mentally. You get these guys that keep coming through Oregon State that keep putting up 1,500 yard seasons and you can't stop them - they end up becoming NFL stars. You know, the guy that takes it on and wants 250 carries - is that possible and desirable?

DS: At all the skill positions, you'd love to have that guy! You'd love to have the quarterback that comes in and you look at him and say "That guy has got to play and take every single snap!" You'd love to have a running back and say "I can't take that guy off the field!" Until that happens, what you do is take the positives of each guy. With Toby Gerhart, all we have to go on with our own eyes is what he did against San Jose State, which was phenomenal, which I hadn't seen around here since Tommy Vardell!

TB:  No slight to Tommy, one of my personal all-time favorite players, but I am not sure we have ever saw from him what we saw in that half-game from Toby. 

DS: It blew us away, in terms of his potential. And what Anthony Kimble did in spots last year was very very encouraging, that he can be a big-play running back. Until someone takes over, until somebody plays so well that we have to leave him on the field, we're going to see all of them until that point in time.

TB:  You'd like to have that develop from either of those guys?

DS: Hey, I would like to turn around and see that there's a :Darrin Nelson" back there and say "I'm going to put this guy in there until he faints, until he passes out. We're not taking him off the field!" That's what I'd love to have. I would love to have that at the receiver position as well, to know that this one guy can run all the routes, I am going to let him go to town!

TB:  OK, so moving on, why didn't we take more "risks" last year? Obviously, risk-taking is not always good. Was there an inherent conservatism due to your concerns about personnel, or did we become less willing to take risks because of injuries, or did we take less risk because our defense was playing well and we need to stay in games? Why were there so few , and I don't want to call them gadget or trick plays, but it didn't seem as though we took a lot of gambles. That is hard to quantify I know and certainly we took more gambles that we did under the previous administration, but was there a sense that we were going to "play it safe" to stay in the games? I always felt that a higher "beta" would have given us at least a chance to have a plate appearance in a few of those games. Know what I mean?

DS: Yeah, I still think that there was a process. You can't ever take 2007 and look at it on its own. You've got to look at 2006 and look what was leading up to last year. There were a lot of things that had happened before, not placing blame, just talking facts! What we saw on the film and how we were going to get this team to play more respectable football, to play harder football, play smarter football! At the time we were not going to do some things that would hurt that and have our kids say "These coaches, they are just gadget coaches." 

TB:  So it was part of an overall program plan?

DS: Yes, and we ran some trick plays - we ran a double-reverse pass against Cal. Doug Baldwin ran a couple of reverses. We used Corey Gatewood on a couple of different plays. We needed to be efficient on offense, we needed to play smart football - which we did at times, which we didn't do at times. There are never any excuses. The results are the results. Day to day there are things we have to adjust whether due to injuries, in order to we give ourselves a chance to win and not just be tricky. Don't get me wrong, I'm one of those guys [who likes to throw in some wrinkles]. We have, between Coach Harbaugh and me in particular, we've got a nice bag of tricks! But once again, the efficiency comes first. Being a good yards per rush team, a good yards per completion team, being a good high percentage-completion team, being a good big play team. The other stuff comes along with that.

TB:  As a player did you like a little gimmick once in a while? 

DS: Oh, always. Yeah, I used to tell guys, "Hey, I was slow, but my first reverse I ran went for 10 yards!

TB: Move the chains! 

DS: Absolutely!

TB: OK, so imagine if you will - you are in a poker game with (defensive co-coordinators) Andy Buh and Ron Lynn and you win the pile and you get to snake a couple of players off of the defense? Who would you have your eye on if they weren't already on the defense, who would you draft? Any guys you would grab immediately?

DS: [Without hesitation and laughing out loud] Pannel Egboh would make a great tight end! 

TB: You would just scare people by lining him up!

DS: Pannel would make an outstanding tight end. He'd be a "game-changer". But we plan on Pannel being a "game-changer" at defensive end too. But that's part of college football, honestly, which is that there are going to be some guys who are going to flip over. Some young guys, some more experienced guys - we've had [former linebacker and now tight end] Tommy McAndrew come over from defense to offense. Cory Gatewood has gone back to defense [ from wide receiver/running back to cornerback]. That is part of this college game in general. There are going to be subtle changes. Not only through camp, but during the year.

TB: You've got a [former defensive lineman] Gustav (Rydstedt), who's probably going to start for us at offensive guard..

DS: Gustav is impressive. He's been huge. He has been outstanding. He's a stud! ["dubb" in Swedish?] You know, he is a natural in there. He is still learning the position, but physically, mentally...

TB: Well, he's 24 years old, that helps, right?

DS: Yeah, he has been great and there are probably going to be a few more of those guys we'll have to move.

TB: If it was pick-up, who is it Coach Shaw would like to see running around for the offense?

DS: I've got a little list. [Smiling wide] I am not going to give you those names!. I am sure Coach Buh and Coach Lynn have their lists too! 

Note: The fifth and final portion of our chat with Coach David Shaw should be published late tonight or early tomorrow morning

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