The fine folks at Football Outsiders started with applying advanced statistical analysis to Pro Football. In the last few years they began applying the same methods to college football. One of the outcomes of this has been their S&P Ratings. Like many Football Outsider stats it’s a composite of several complicated stats. A full explanation can be found here.
In simple terms, S&P measures an offense's success rate on a play-by-play basis, adjusting for down, distance, field position and opponent.
In the article linked above the far right column separates out passing downs, defined as second and 8 or more and third and five or more, and gives each team an S&P rating. The interesting thing about it is that Tech ranks 3rd in the country on passing downs.
This is a counter intuitive result, and at first we thought it was an error generated by Tech’s unique offense. The Jackets tend to confound most statistical comparisons. Maybe that accounts for some of the Jackets high rating, but I also think it demonstrates exactly how well thought out and balanced Coach Johnson’s offense is and how good a coach he really is.
Johnson really understands how the running game and passing game are related, and he does a couple of things to make passing easier for his team, even on obvious passing downs.
First of all most teams have two options on any given play, pass or rush. Tech has three options, run, pass, and option play. As we’ve said before, the option play is a hybrid play combining characteristics of passing and running plays. A -Backs averaged seven yards a carry last year. This means on second and eight, Tech has a reasonable chance of picking up most or even all of the yardage with an option play, and doesn’t have to pass, while conventional teams may find it harder to pick up those yards without passing.
By the way, this is one reason why Tech doesn’t pass much. Its not that CPJ has a philosophical problem with passing, he just doesn’t see the need to throw a seven yard out and risk an interception or an incompletion, when an option play is just as likely to get the yardage without the risk.
Second, CPJ uses formations to force the defense into sets that he can exploit. Moving two wide receivers to the right may take a blocker away from the left, but it also takes a tackler away from the left because other teams have to respect the position of the players. Defensive coordinators know that CPJ is just too smart to pass up an open receiver, so they have to respect formation changes even if they know there is a remote chance CPJ actually intends to do something out of character. Conversely, he can use formations on passing downs to force teams to respect the run, limiting the number of players they can use for pass protection, making it easier for him to set up mismatches.
Third, CPJ is going to go for it on fourth down. This makes 2nd &8 and 3rd and 5 different for Tech. If most coaches only get four yards on 3rd and five, they punt. This reality forces them to throw on 3rd down, but CPJ is happy with a four yard run on 3rd & 5 because he's not afraid to go for it on fourth down. CPJ isn’t a hell bound riverboat gambler going for it on fourth down a la Les Miles. By being prepared to go for it on fourth down he can use more of his playbook on second and third down.
All of this makes a third and five or second and eight play for Tech not a passing down, but a balanced down. The defense has to be prepared to cover run, pass and option plays, and not just pass plays. The former is harder than the latter.
Last year this meant BayBay was on an island with a five foot nine corner back on "passing downs". BayBay is going to (and in fact did) win that battle more often than not. It’s not even fair to the CB. He has to respect BayBay's speed, so he has to play off. If Tech throws a quick screen to BayBay, the corner has to close and make a tackle. The problem is he's smaller than BayBay, and help is far away. If the corner plays up, BayBay can just run past him. With the safety in the box, there is no help over the top, which means Joshua can make an easy looping throw which BayBay just has to up and get. On top of that Tech can throw in the stop rout whenever they want. BayBay launches of the line, the CB turns to run with him, and then BayBay just stops.
Teams that don't go for it on 4th down as much, and whose running game isn't as impressive, and who don’t have an option pitch play to go to, can't do this. They have to throw on 3rd and five. They may even bring an extra receiver in to the game. This allows the safeties to play back. Less blockers on the line means the linebackers and defensive line can cover the draw or screen, leaving the safeties to provide help over the top. Help over the top allows corners to play tight on the wide receivers because someone else will cover the deep route, and a safety over the top is going to close the window a quarterback can throw into on the go route.
All of this demonstrates an important point. CPJ’s offense is not only unique, it is a well-designed offense. It allows CPJ to manipulate the game and create the situations and match-ups that favor his team. Yes it's run and option heavy, but the passing game is not an after thought. It is an integral part of the offense. This is an offense that needs wide receivers, but unlike other offenses it doesn’t need six to ten wide receivers, it needs three to four, and it can work with only one.