October 26, 2012

Adaptations Required

As Virginia continues on its bye week there are a ton of questions surrounding the team. What changes are going to be made on special teams? Who will return kicks and punts? How will the defensive rotations change in light of the emergence of some young player on the line? Can someone catch the ball please? But the biggest of all of those questions is how will Virginia look to improve its offense for the stretch run?

I've made a few of these to make me feel better, and I think this is a pretty good representation of what the offense has looked like over the past few weeks.

The biggest change that needs to be made is the play calling. When Mike London was hired, Bill Lazor was brought in to install his pro-style offense. The pro-style offense is very strongly based on timing and precise route running, a process that can take years to fully take grip on a program. This is why when quarterbacks get to the pros, you usually see a learning curve because of the complexity of the offense. While excuses of youth can be made as to why the offense isn't clicking on all cylinders, you cannot overlook the fact that the coaching staff may not be putting the players in the best position to succeed. When Phillip Sims was given the starting job we knew we were getting two things. First was blue chip potential with a big arm, and second was an inexperienced QB not only in the system, but in D1 football. The play calling has heavily demonstrated the latter, without being able to exploit the former. If UVA wants to see this offense show signs of life, they need to take a look 120 miles north, to my beloved Washington Redskins, and what I legitimately think might be a renaissance of the quarterback position.

This was one of the best moments of my sports viewing life
Watching RG3 this season is probably  the only thing keeping me sane, given the incredible frustration the Hoos are putting out on a weekly basis. Griffin has an extremely unique skill set, and one that is not like any other QB the Skins or either Mike or Kyle Shanahan has ever had. He has a hell of an arm, and some electric and magical feet. But the thing that separates RG3 from the rest of the league and has led to his immense success is that he has an offense and an offensive coordinator that can perfectly exploit his skill set. 

I'm not going to surprise anyone when I tell you that Mike and Kyle Shanahan are extremely proud people. You have to be working for the worst and most arrogant owner in sports. They have the ultimate faith that their system can succeed with their guy. Need proof? The prosecution submits John Beck as evidence. So when the Skins took RG3 all the talk in town was how he would fit in Mike and Kyle Shanahan's scheme, and while mobility is a big part of it, we were all a little skeptical of forcing this kind of talent into a scheme. Sound familiar Hoo fans? But then something incredible happened, something that with a little thought could happen here.

The Skins offense transformed. It added new wrinkles to exploit RG3's speed. You saw Kyle Shanahan, who calls the plays, almost toying with opposing defenses. The Skins run the triple option with RG3, 6th round miracle Alfred Morris (who Kendall amazingly predicted would be awesome), and Brandon Banks, a player who is how big I was as a sophomore in high school. They have designed runs which are almost impossible to defend in the red zone, and make me incredibly nervous. And they use all these to set up Grffin's best ability, which is making big plays down the field. And it works. In fact it works so well people on ESPN are saying you can't run a cover two, the base of most NFL defenses, against RG3, because he will destroy you. This offense is so perfectly tailored for RG3's skills that it might land Kyle Shanahan a head coaching job pretty soon, and every week new wrinkles are added as RG3 learns more and more of the offense.

So enough about how much hope I have in the NFL, let's transfer some of that to UVA, where we may have our own special talent under center. Bill Lazor is simplifying the offense for Phillip Sims right now, but he's doing it in a way that doesn't put him in a position to succeed, given his talents. Sims excels at throwing intermediate to deep routes. These kinds of plays take a long time to develop, which means you will need to keep the defense on it's heels. The easiest way to accomplish this is by setting up play action, which is a staple of the Lazor offense, as seen last season. Going into this season everyone expected the running game to be the engine that drove this offense, opening up play action routes down field and exploiting the defense biting up to stop the run. So far the running game has been stagnant, with a seemingly stubborn approach to running outside stretch runs, which have been ineffective for weeks on end now. The first major adjustment Lazor needs to make is to start running the ball between the tackles with Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson leading the charge. Establishing a successful run game will help take pressure off the passing game and allow Sims to get a clean look at two or three big shots down field from safeties biting up to stop the run.

While reestablishing the run game is a key piece in the success of the offense, it is not the only one that needs to improve. A common theme on message boards is that Coach Lazor is calling a Sims game when Rocco has been in, and a Rocco game for Sims. This is true, but it also shows where Lazor feels Sims is in his understanding of the offense. Mike Rocco excelled in his first full season in the offense because the simpler aspects of the offense play into his strengths, the greatest of which is anticipating routes and finding the open receiver in the scheme. As Rocco became more comfortable in the offense, Lazor added deeper and more complex routes, which in turn also demonstrated Rocco's deficiencies in raw talent (arm strength). However, seeing this has jaded the fanbase and put a deep division between Rocco supporters and Sims supporters. This progression should not divide us, it should make us excited to see Sims as he gets to that level of confidence, since he has the arm strength to throw the playbook wide open.

But let's get back to the present. As I mentioned in the RG3 portion of this comparison the offense needs to be designed to succeed as Sims learns more of the playbook, and right now it isn't. The approach that Lazor took in developing Rocco is not going to work with Sims. It's like trying to force RG3 to run the same offense as Rex Grossman. Assuming the running game is on track, Lazor needs to call more intermediate level throws, where Sims' natural arm strength can be exploited. We know he is not completely comfortable throwing timing routes, so call more traditional routes where Sims can read the defenses and see the receivers. His throws get on receivers in a hurry, so it's not like jumping routes is going to be a tremendous issue. Letting Sims drop back and read that Tim Smith has a step on a linebacker on a crossing route is what is going to put him in a position to be successful. Couple those routes with some play action and bootlegs, and you have the kind of offense that can exploit both Sims' talent and help him prepare for the future.

It's unfair to put this all on one person. The line has been terrible, the drops are spreading through the receiving corps like the plague through Europe, and special teams is pretty much ensuring the Hoos are always starting in a terrible spot. But play calling is also an issue, and one that can be fixed. I surprisingly have confidence that we are going to see a drastic change in style coming out of the bye week, and one that I am excited to see. I still think Bill Lazor is a smart guy and that he can make these adaptations, but I think these last four games are going to be key in his case to stick around.

Please don't make me regret this, you two.


  1. Just flippin' great stuff, Mike. You hit the nail on the head with this bit: "Couple those routes with some play action and bootlegs, and you have the kind of offense that can exploit both Sims' talent and help him prepare for the future."

    I think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers provide an offensive blueprint for the Hoos right now. Run up the gut and play action off of that with a vertical passing attack.

    1. Thanks Nathan! I think it's ironic the Bucs become our model considering we were worried about losing Lazor to them. I would love to see this offense become crush dudes with KP and CR and then break their spirits with huge PA pass plays. That'd be fun to watch and a giant pain to defend. We could finally make the opposing defense the confused and undisciplined one.

  2. Great post, Mike. Well done!

    We'll see if Lazor deserves to keep his job based on the adjustments he makes during this bye week.

    1. I'll be interested to see what happens next weekend. I know there have been grumblings of the hurry up. That should be interesting. Keeping opposing defenses on the field and getting tired will certainly help with the run game, which has to get on track before anything else can happen.

  3. I'd just like to add that I've been starting Alfred Morris in fantasy since week 1. Buncha smarties writing on here.

  4. What do y'all think about running the UVA offense as a hurry up? Sims seems have done his best when things are in a hurry and our running game seems less transparent. We're already using an abbreviated playbook, do you think its worth a shot?

  5. Hey Matt! Thanks again for reading!

    YES to the hurry-up. I think we'll see a lot of it moving forward. Sims is a rhythm passer, and I think [hope] Lazor understands that now.

    Also - while he's nowhere near quick, and obviously afraid to take a hit - I think Sims looks really good making bootleg reads and throws. I hope those plays are used more often. Moving the pocket in general will be a good thing, and a creative playcaller can use that to his advantage with cross-field screens.