Monday, October 06, 2008

How it came to this

"This" meaning, of course, an offense that over its final nine possessions could drive no further than 17 yards against arguably the worst defense in the SEC. The simple thing would be to blame this gentleman:

and be done with it. But as much blame as he must share and as convenient as it would be to scapegoat him, you don't arrive at "nine drives and none further than 17 yards against arguably the worst defense in the SEC" on the strength of one misguided offensive coordinator hire alone. To help figure out exactly how Auburn's offense descended to these kinds of depths--and maybe gain some kind of insight into how it might bubble up to respectability again--I figure it'll be worthwhile to look back at the steps that took them there. Some of this will be speculation and this post will also owe a pretty sizable debt to the excellent breakdown of Auburn's, uh, breakdown at Smart Football (which you've probably read and should if you haven't), but I'll try to point out where that's the case.

1. Recruiting swings and misses at wideout. The first and foremost reason offered by Tubby for hiring Tony Franklin and switching away from Al Borges' "Gulf Coast" scheme, as every Auburn fan can recite by heart by now, is that it would help recruiting. Specifically, Tubby wanted more playmakers at wideout, and it's hard not to argue that he's got a point when Auburn's senior wideouts are a former walk-on, a no-star guy who didn't get his head on straight until his junior season, and James "False Alarm" Swinton.

But since then, on paper things haven't been quite as bad as they've been reported to be. Montez Billings was a four-star recruit and Rivals' No. 21 wideout. Tim Hawthorne graded out even better, Terrell Zachery wasn't too far behind him in that same class, and Chris Slaughter arrived at Auburn from prep school riding the same sort of hype. On the recruiting gurus' paper, when you factor in Smith's and Dunn's emergence and Fannin's shift outside, there should be plenty enough talent here to cobble together a solid receiving corps.

Whether you believe Auburn doesn't have that corps because of bad recruiting evaluations or bad development by the coaching staff once they got to the Plains, either way this group of wideouts does not appear to be capable of standing up to the SEC's better secondaries--as Mississippi St., Tennessee, and Vandy will all now attest.

2. Al Borges became a target for replacement. I have no doubt that many, many more fans are joining the "We never should have fired Gorgeous Al" chorus as led by a certain other Auburn blog, but regardless of whether you felt Tubby had the right idea in canning him or not, the facts are these: 76th in total offense in 2006, 97th in total offense in 2007, a quarterback who visibly regressed from his sophomore to his junior and then senior years, an inability to find/coach up playmakers at wideout, and a general toothlessness in the offense that didn't seem likely to change this year with a quarterback in Burns who in the postseason openly questioned Borges' ability to use him.

Whether Borges deserved the chance to turn things around or not, it's hard to say Tubby wasn't justified in feeling he didn't.

3. Tubby hires Tony Franklin expecting to see the same balance Franklin enjoyed at Troy. As much as he talks about the recruiting benefits of the spread shift, you will never, ever convince me that Tubby would hire Mike Leach as his offensive coordinator. Even if we assume Tubby was ever willing to let Franklin "throw first" as Franklin said he planned on doing over the summer, the plan under Tubby will always most assuredly be "run second, and probably third, too, while we're at it." Franklin might have originated in the Leach-Mumme school of thought, but I would wager a substantial sum of money that if Troy doesn't run for 182 yards a game last year (and if Franklin, I'm guessing, doesn't promise Tubby he'll make every effort to get the running game going) Tubby doesn't look twice at him no matter how well he might play with recruits.

That's my assumption, anyway, and forgive me for thinking it's pretty safe. Of course, as we've seen, Tubby's and Franklin's assumptions they could get Auburn's running game going from the spread were way, way off, for a couple of reasons. The first of which is that ...

4. The offensive coaching staff fails to get the players to adapt to the spread. We know this is the case; all the evidence you needed was there against Vandy as the offensive line came out and shoved the 'Dores all over the field in the traditional two tight-end set (save for on the goal-line, of course) and then looked completely and utterly bewildered lining up in the spread's two-point stance. Kodi Burns looks baffled. The receivers disappear. Backs miss their blitz pickups. Put simply: this team is not in any way confident or comfortable with the spread. (How in the bloody hell they got comfortable enough with it to beat Clemson before getting uncomfortable with it over the course of the offseason is quite the mystery.)

Exactly who you want to blame for this is up to you. Smart Football says:
Every coach I speak to says the same thing: I don't know what they are doing at Auburn, but it ain't (Franklin's offense). So what's going on? I'm not an insider, but my best sense is that the other coaches on the staff (including Tuberville) never bought into the system - maybe because Franklin did a poor job selling it internally, or maybe he thought he didn't have to - and now their offense is simply a muddle, a grab-bag of pseudo-spread garbage. This seems to be general sentiment among the smart money in football.
Will Collier weighs in:
This season is another unfortunate demonstration of one of Tommy Tuberville's two worst traits, namely excessive loyalty to assistants who are also his buddies ... During the two times since when Tuberville has had to go and hire an actual offensive coordinator, rule number one for any prospective coach has been that all the current position staff must remain on the payroll. This was a terrible, selfish, destructive position, and one that's directly related to Auburn's woes today.

Five years later, Nall, after demonstrating spectacular offensive incompetence during his one pathetic season at OC, still thinks he got a raw deal, and has managed to sabotage both of his successors via bad coaching and meddling behind the scenes. I don't want to hear any more accolades about how Nall is an "elite line coach" when his guys just got pushed around by Vanderbilt ... The point is that the oil-and-water mix of a "spread" coach with this group of position coaches (the notable exception being the inestimable Eddie Gran) is a complete failure, on a par with Tuberville's split-the-baby decision to put "Nallsminger" in charge of the offense after Bobby Petrino's departure.

So take your pick. Blame Franklin for doing a half-assed job of "selling it internally" and "coaching the coaches," or blame Tubby and his long-time crew of assistants for never really wanting to buy in in the first place. Either way: Auburn's players were never prepared to succeed in this system.

5. Chris Todd wins the quarterback battle and the run game goes nowhere. It's perfectly understandable why Tony Franklin would hand-select Chris Todd from juco and then want to give him the keys to Auburn's offense: whatever Tubby and we the Auburn rabble might want/expect, the very concept of this offense is built around throwing the ball first. Smart Football's excellent summation of the Tony Franklin offense begins like so:
First, it is a small collection of a handful of pass plays ...
This is what Tony Franklin's offense is built around. If Franklin doesn't trust Kodi Burns to make the basic, essential throws that make the offense worthwhile, why would he start him?

Oh, right, because without him, there's no running game. Look at Troy's 2007 rushing statistics: quarterback Omar Haugabrook accounted for more rushing attempts than any other player on the team, only a yard less in gross (i.e. pre-sack) yardage than leading rusher Kenny Cattouse, and half of the Trojans' rushing touchdowns. Take Haugabrook's contributions away, and this "balanced" offense is the Sun Belt version of Hal Mumme's Kentucky. I don;t think it's a stretch at all to make the following simple declaration: This offense cannot run the ball without a mobile quarterback.

Of course, from Franklin's perspective, it's not going to work at all if those first throws can't be made. And so he willingly sacrifices the running game to roll with Todd, except that he can't really sacrifice it because Tubby (understandably) demands balance and between Todd's gimpy arm and the receiving struggles, he can't rely on the pass anyway. The result: a hundred punts against Louisiana-Monroe, three points against State, a thousand useless rushes against LSU, and enough of an excuse for Tubby to get involved. Franklin received four games' worth of rope to reproduce his success at Troy; by taking Todd over Burns (understandable, maybe even sensible a decision at it was), it wound up just enough time for Franklin to hang himself.

6. To get some semblance of a run game going, new sets are introduced. After the less-than-two-a-carry performance against LSU, here come the War Eagle Formation, more snaps from under center, more standard-issue stretch plays for Tennesee. Franklin answers any doubts about whether they're his idea or at Tubby's behest by saying "this is not the Tony Franklin Offense." Yes, on the one hand, these sets are necessary for survival, to give the team some kind of confidence in some of the plays they're running.

On the other, extra sets take away precious practice time to get the spread that the offense spent all offseason on working the way it should be working. They blur the team's focus on what exactly the offense is supposed to look like. It tells the players the head coach has lost confidence in the guy who's still (mostly) running the offense. Smart Football once again:
Once you start going in multiple directions on offense, you lose focus, and all the paranoia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In college there is simply not enough time to try to do everything. It's the converse of Bobby Bowden's old quote about defense: If you try to stop everything, you stop nothing. Here we could say if you try to be everybody's spread, you're nobody's spread.
Toss in the ongoing chaos at quarterback and the season-long lack of spread-prep fundamentals and you get ...

7. Apocalypse.

Yes, the two-tight end stuff worked great to start the game. And yes, it should have made more of an appearance in the second half. But you can't install a brand-new offense over the course of two weeks of midseason practice (or at least, I doubt you can). Auburn had to win or lose that game with Tony Franklin's spread--and for all of the reasons detailed above, it's no surprise they lost. It's a system asked to run that (sort of) does not have the quarterback to run, a system that needs a healthy quarterback and loads of practice time to pass effectively that has neither of those things and is getting less of the latter by the week. It is an embarrassment, an epic mess, a disaster that if the Bible was about football would be well worth the designation "of Biblical proportions."

So, blame? Spread it around. Tubby for half-assing the conversion to the spread by not letting Franklin make hires and then quarter-assing it by adding however many new formations. The assistants for not having the line and the receivers ready to play in this offense despite an entire offseason devoted to just that project. And, yes, the players, for false starts and poor throws and stupid fumbles and missed kicks and a lot of other things that have zero to do with offensive game-planning and everything to do with good old-fashioned focus.

But the buck finally has to stop with Tony Franklin. I can sympathize with the position he's been put in and for how miserable he must be these days, but he had all offseason to reproduce what he managed in just nine practices last December. The result was six straight punts to start the season and no sign yet save for a handful of plays against LSU it's ever going to get any better. Sorry, Tony, but it's just not working.

Solutions? For this year? Hell if I know. I'm sorely, sorely tempted to throw up my hands, call it a lost cause, and wait to see who Tubby hires next.

But because suggestions make for better reading than no suggestions, I'd suggest seeing what happens against Arkansas. If Franklin can coax life out the spread against the Hogs, give him the bye week to sharpen it up--and scrap every formation save one run-based alternative, whether it's the two-TE set or the War Eagle Formation. Go from there and pray.

If even against Arkansas's sieve Auburn can't move the ball ... pull the plug. Have Nall and Ensminger (I can't believe I'm typing this) take the bye week to re-install as much of Borges' or whoever's old stuff as they can. At least the offensive line will be happy, which will be better than the current status of "nobody happy." And maybe Franklin can leave without having to suffer the indignity of calling plays for an offense he has next-to-no input over.

For next year? Cross that bridge when we come to it, but I will finish off with one last quote from Will, one which echoes the Bob Stoops-and-Mike Leach anti-example from the Smart Football post. Will writes:
I believe Tuberville when he says he needed to change Auburn's offensive philosophy, but apparently Tubs didn't believe himself enough to do what he really needed to, which is hire a proven OC and let him bring in the right assistants to get the job done properly. Whether Franklin as an individual was the right hire or not (he certainly doesn't look like it at this point), trying to shoehorn a spread attack into the straight-out-of-1980 abilities of Nall and Company was a terrible mistake.
However you feel about Will's opinion on Tubby's assistants, it's flat impossible to have sat through last Saturday's game and not think: What "this" is is a terrible mistake.


Anonymous said...

hey, on a positive note, how about those white cleats saturday? if we are going to play like total crap, we can at least look sharp doing it.

Beef said...

Another tremendous post, Jerry.

Anonymous said...