First, when building an offense, it's important to consider your personnel. With the Longhorns' offensive personnel, I come up with three limitations. First, there's the lack of a franchise running back, or even multiple running backs that you can plug and play while counting on four to five yards per pop. Along with that challenge, the Texas offensive line is built around more athletic, pass-blocking types than players who excel at drive blocking. And third, there's a lack of consistency that comes from both inexperience at key positions, and a lack of proven leadership and play-makers.
All of these are challenges that offensive coordinator Greg Davis faces this year. It's important to note that the man can construct a proper offense given the right personnel -- his Texas groups have averaged 39 points per game over the last 13 years, a number that ranks second in the country to Boise State over that time period.
But this year's group hasn't hit those numbers. The Longhorns have struggled to run the ball, and have yet to find consistency in the passing game. They've averaged nearly two touchdowns less per game (26 points per game) through the first four games. They also haven't hit the 400-yard mark as of yet, averaging around 357 yards per game. For a sense of perspective, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett is actually out-gaining the Longhorns in total yards per game.
Perhaps more disappointing is the general appearance of a "grab bag" offense, one without any real plan going forward. Davis essentially admitted as such Monday, stating that the offense lacked a real identity to this point.
There are some good reasons for that lack of identity. The coaching staff felt that they could build a running game around power back Cody Johnson and returning leading rusher Tré Newton. But Johnson injured his ankle on his second carry and has yet to truly recover, and Newton suffered a hip-pointer that slowed his progress. A foot injury to Tray Allen dented the starting offensive line, while losing tackle Luke Poehlmann, a valuable rotation player, eliminated key depth.
At the same time, there's little doubt that the offense could be better than it has been. Monday, Davis said that the UCLA offensive strategy revolved around throwing the ball horizontally to force the Bruin defense to run and tire out. That doesn't sound like an ideal plan to me, but we'll get into that a little bit more later.
Here's what we do know: Texas has explosive athletes at running back (D.J. Monroe) and wide receiver (Marquise Goodwin and Mike Davis), capable of providing big plays. That's an especially important quality to have with an inconsistent offense. The Longhorns don't necessarily have the consistency excel at double-digit play drives to move the ball down the field. That makes the big play even more vital. Ripping off large chunks at a time not only energizes the offense and creates a sense of offensive momentum (important for a struggling unit), explosives also cut down on the number of plays needed to push the ball across the end line, thus cutting down on the number of plays an offense has to execute perfectly to move the ball.
Football offenses, for the most part, are like golf swings. When you eliminate the wasted motion (or in this case, excess plays or too-broad game plans) the results speak for themselves. Take the Indianapolis Colts. They run arguably the simplest offense in the NFL, but are arguably the most consistently good offense in the league. Other simple offenses create the illusion of complexity to fool defenses. Look at Auburn. The Tigers run astoundingly simple, and easy-to-execute, offensive concepts, but use a blistering tempo and motion to create a complex offense for defenses to react to.
In its simplest form, offenses should consist of two kinds of plays. The first type are your bread-and-butter plays. Those are the ones that your team can execute at a high level against any base defense. The second type are called constraint plays. So named because they are like putting constraints on a defense, constraint plays are those plays that you run to counter a defense that is cheating to take away your bread-and-butter plays. Is the other team leaving your slot receiver uncovered to cheat a linebacker up to the line? Run a bubble screen to take advantage of his position.
The theory behind constraint plays is that they shouldn't act as your primary offense, instead merely playing out as an insurance policy to keep defenders honest. Opposite of your bread-and-butter plays, constraint plays are typically blown up by a base, assignment-sound defense. If your bread-and-butter play is a simple dive up the middle, a constraint play would probably be a play-action pass off that dive once the defense sucks up and puts more players in the box. Now, if the defense were playing its base set, a play action pass probably wouldn't be effective. But because the defense is out-of-position, it becomes an effective play.
(For more on constraint plays, visit the essential Smart Football.com here: http://smartfootball.blogspot.com/2008/01/constraint-theory-of-offense.html)
That's why Davis's plan of throwing short, horizontal passes was a poor one. A horizontal pass shouldn't be a bread-and-butter play. It should only come into play when a defense cheats inward as a way to keep defenses honest. And even then, there are concepts to use that don't produce zero, one and two-yard gains. Plays like all curls (just like it sounds, all the receiving options run curls) are ideal for stretching the field horizontally, while Texas has typically used a similar concept with hitches to a high level of success.
With Colt McCoy, Texas thrived with a quick game that included an extensive two-man game to make one defender "pick his poison" so to speak. The Longhorns used concepts like stick plays (one receiver sprints to the flat, the other runs about eight yards and options either in or out, depending on the defense) to that end. They used double slants (witness McCoy's Ohio State game winner for an example) to attack man coverage. And they used plays like smash routes (outside receiver runs a curl and the inside receiver runs a corner route over the top) and four verticals (just like it sounds) to stretch the field deep.
All of those plays are concepts that I feel can still be Texas's bread-and-butter plays. And those bubble screens and throws out to the flat that every Texas fan knows and loves (sense the sarcasm?) can still be an effective part of the offense. They just can't be THE offense.
Again, I'll say that Davis, while he has certainly made mistakes (which he, himself, admits), was put in a tough spot on a lot of this. He wanted to establish a power running game, only to have injuries at both running back and along the offensive line. When he's tried to shift to more of a passing attack, a talented but inconsistent receiver group has at times struggled to execute even some simpler route concepts. Look at the two failed fourth-down conversions for examples.
But as Texas coach Mack Brown would say, this is Texas. And the show must go on. It's time to get the ball to the play-makers, strap more on Gilbert's shoulders and ride the quarterback's talents to another 10-plus win season.