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CFB Explainer: Flexbonin'

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What's up with Paul Johnson's offense? Is it too gimmicky to work in the ACC?
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ACC, huh? Bring it.
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It's not clear yet that Johnson is committed to his patented Flexbone at Georgia Tech. Since Oregon State scrapped its wishbone in the mid-nineties, no other I-A offense has run any sort of bone-based triple option game outside of the service academies (Nebraska's option scheme up to 2004 was run out of the I, though it regularly employed wingbacks). The prevailing thought is that there's no need to trick people if you have the talent to outrun and outshove them. Johnson has run it with tremendous success at Georgia Souther and Navy, though, and it's certainly his offense, in the same way Urban Meyer's "Will Never Work in the SEC" spread is his offense. Spring practice reports so far are basically mum, but at least a few Techsters are convinced we will see the Flexbone there this year.

As to whether it will work, I dunno - Navy's led the nation in rushing the the last three years and four of the last five under Johnson and finished in the top 20 in scoring offense in 2005 and 2007, but the academy's talent and strength of schedule makes for a iffy translation. To get an idea of how it works, though, you can check out this detailed breakdown of Navy's success against Notre Dame last year (of course, who didn't have success against Notre Dame last year?), or take the following summary by "Explainer" friend Tyler Sellhorn, a current high school coach who played in the Flexbone in his small college days:

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Most Flexbone offenses have several running plays they like, but there are three that nearly all of them run, and these three form the basis of the offense, meaning that the other plays are built around the defense attempting to stuff these three plays: the Outside Veer, the Inside Veer, and the Midline Option. First up we have the Outside Veer:

The Veer plays descend from an offense perfected at the University of Houston by then-coach Bill Yeoman. The general idea is to have a play that can defeat a balanced offense every time:
"We tried to create an offense that would take advantage of anything you did, but our basic play couldn't be stopped with a balanced defense. We had to find out what you did with your line, linebackers, and secondary to take care of our basic play.  Now if you gave us a balanced defense, we were going to run our basic play until the world looked level. When you overshifted we were going to fnd out where we could attack it."
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The play is a triple option directed at the defensive end ("Q" in the diagram). That's why the play has persisted with the name "Outside" Veer. Nearly all triple option plays have three parts: the dive, the keep, and the pitch. Essentially, the play works because quarterback and the fullback cannot both be tackled by the defensive end alone. This allows the playside end and wingback to block the linebackers flowing over to stop the play. If the defensive end hesitates to take away the fullback on the dive:

...the quarterback gives the defense a face full of runaway beer truck :

If the end steps inside to take the dive:

...the quarterback goes Tommy Frazier on the defense:

The keep is actually the most consistent gainer of the three options on the Outside Veer. If the quarterback ends up with someone in his face, he can pitch the ball, but most quarterbacks are told three things when running the Outside Veer: "It is never wrong to give the ball, it is never wrong to keep, but it is always wrong to put the ball on the ground." Hence, Tommy Frazier.

The next play is the Inside Veer, designed to come off of the Outside Veer by changing the point of attack. The defensive player that the offense is optioning now is the defensive tackle instead of the end. Otherwise, the option works nearly the same except that the pitchman truly is a decoy on the Inside Veer unless the play breaks into the open field.  If the tackle hesitates, Beer Truck. If the tackle takes fullback, Eric Crouch:

[You won't see the Inside Veer run more perfectly than Brian Hampton does here at about the 3:20 mark - ed.]

Paul Johnson, Frank Solich, Ken Niumatalolo, or any option OC will call for the inside veer when the defensive end has been giving the Outside Veer trouble or the linebackers are flowing over the top of the down blocks on the Outside Veer from the tackle and wingback. The idea is that if you take away one play, another will be open. The tackles in a flexbone offense (I was one in college) really love this play because the defensive ends have been used to not being blocked on most plays and they are not expecting a tough drive block coming right at them after they have faced a few Outside Veers.

Finally, we come to the Midline Option, which is really where the Flexbone gets its name. The Wishbone offense was really designed around one play, the Midline Option. The Houston Veer was really designed around one play, the Outside Veer. The Flexbone seeks to take these two excellent plays combine them with the threat of four receivers near the line of scrimmage to create a potent offensive mixture:

In the Midline Option we are not blocking the tackle or the end at the line of scrimmage. First, the quarterback will option the tackle just like on Inside Veer. Then the defensive end will be optioned by the quarterback and the pitchman. If the end hesitates, the QB will tuck it up inside for some easy yards. If he goes for the QB, the QB will pitch the ball to the trailing wingback:

The idea is really to give the ball to your fastest ball carrier alone or nearly alone in the open field on the pitch, because if the defense is playing soundly it will take the dive and quarterback keep away from you and let you take the risk on the pitch.

In the Flexbone it's helpful to think of the job each option has. The dive can be a big play if the defense plays it incorrectly or misses a tackle, but the dive is intended to merely get the offense closer to a new set of downs. The QB keep can break off a long run, but really when the QB keeps the ball, he is intending to get a few more tough yards. Think of the pitch as a long vertical pass along the sideline. It has to be there to prevent the defense from selling out to stop the inside run game, but you really don't count on its production from drive to drive. If the play is "there," of course, you will take advantage, but most defense are designed to stop the big plays from happening. These plays form the core of the Flexbone offense, but any well coached team will force you to use your constraint plays.

Many times a Navy, Air Force, or especially an "old school" Nebraska team would find itself playing for keeps in the second half, in a spot where the opposing defense could get one more stop to finish that unstoppable "option team." Then Osborne calls a trap for Mackovicka or Schlesinger:

...and it's lights out because the defense sold out trying to stop the option.
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To that, I'll only add that Navy led the nation in yards per pass attempt in 2005 and was one of the scant few teams in the country above nine yards per attempt three of the last four years, not because Johnson's quarterbacks were particularly good passers - they weren't, and with Josh Nesbitt and Calvin Booker vying for the job, likely won't be at Tech, either, at least right away - but because defenses were so woefully out of position after a couple dozen consecutive option runs.

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If you have any kind of question for CFB Explainer - strategic, historical, rules-oriented or otherwise - send it along to sundaymorningqb-at-yah00, etc. Don't be afraid to get complicated.