Cam Cameron: Whaddya Know, Whaddya Say?

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

There's still been no official announcement, but at this point the rumors are way too hot to ignore: LSU appears to have reached out to former Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Malcolm "Cam" Cameron (show of hands, seriously, how many thought his real first name was Cam?) about joining the coaching staff.

It's widely known that Cameron and Les Miles are very old friends from their days as Michigan assistants (I believe one stood in the other's wedding, or something along those lines), and many have often wondered whether this would inevitably happen as Cameron's tenure in Baltimore became more tenuous.

My best guess would be that Cameron will sign on as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, effectively taking Steve Kragthorpe's spot on the staff. He would likely move on to some sort of administration position, likely so that he can maintain his health insurance as he fights his battle with Parkinson's Disease. Greg Studrawa would, ostensibly, move back to coaching the offensive line full-time, though he might maintain some sort of cursory title like "running game coordinator" to justify his salary. We'll get to that later.

The oddest fact that I could probably tell you about Cameron is that he's only 52. That seems odd, but he's been a name in the coaching profession for so long that you tend to picture him as a much older guy. Made his name as a quarterbacks and receivers coach at Michigan from 1985-1993, dovetailing the end of Bo Schembechler's time and Gary Moehler's tenure as head coach. During that time, Cameron developed future NFL players like quarterbacks Jim Harbaugh, Elvis Grbac and Todd Collins and receivers like Amani Toomer, Derrick Alexander and Heisman Trophy Winner Desmond Howard. From there, he joined Norv Turner's staff with the Washington Redskins from 94-96, where most notably he's credited with developing Gus Frerotte and former eighth round pick Trent Green. Frerotte made the Pro Bowl in 1996 the year after Cameron left. From there he spent five seasons as the head coach at his alma mater, the University of Indiana. It wasn't all that successful a tenure, but his teams did break some school offense records and had multi-purpose dynamo Antwaan Randle-El, whom Cameron used in a variety of positions.

His return to the NFL in 2002 is where things got interesting for Cameron. During another five seasons on Marty Schottenheimer's offensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers, Cameron is largely credited with blossoming players like LaDanian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and, of course, Drew Brees. After some seasoning in 2002/03 (remember when the team drafted Phillip Rivers to replace Brees?), this unit consistently made the NFL's top 5 in scoring and top 10 in total yards. Brees made the Pro Bowl in 2004, Gates became the best receiving TE in the game, and Tomlinson would go on to break the league touchdown record in 2006 and earn MVP honors. Cameron was named the NFL Assistant of the Year in 2005 by Sports Illustrated.

Afterwards, there was a single-season disaster as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, and Cameron went back to coordinating on John Harbaugh's staff with the Ravens. His impact there was immediate -- the Ravens went from 24th in scoring offense to 11th in 2008 despite a rookie quarterback in Joe Flacco and a running game that featured Le'Ron McClain and an injured Willis McGahee. His offenses in Baltimore were consistently in the top half of the league, but clearly dissatisfaction set in and reached a boiling point this year, when Harbaugh let Cameron go after a week 14 overtime loss to the Redskins.

What exactly happened? I sought some opinions from some Baltimore sources. Bruce Raffel of the SB Nation Ravens site Baltimore Beatdown was good enough to offer his:

If you ask most Baltimore Ravens fans, former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron should have been the former offensive coordinator a lot sooner than after week 14 of the 2012 regular season. Most fans were calling for his head after the end of the 2011-12 season, as his play-calling seemed to be too predictable and was reported to be part of the reason QB Joe Flacco's progress was not nearly what fans thought it should have been at this point of his career. Rumors floated about friction between the two on the amount of leeway Flacco had to call audibles and Cameron's apparent reluctance to put more on Joe's "plate."

You know it has to be scary when we sat in our seats at Ravens games and called out the plays before the ball was snapped, thinking that if we knew the plays, then what about the opposition? Most people don't think it was a coincidence that when Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator, Flacco's performance changed dramatically as he led the team on a run that ended with a Super Bowl victory.

Now, far be it from me to contradict Bruce -- the Ravens are his team, and he's certainly watched them more than any of us, Poseur exempted. But looking at Cameron's overall track record, I still think there's cause for excitement.

I would of course quote the gospel of Breesus, but Poseur beat me to that one. But among some thoughts on Cameron from the always helpful Chris Brown of Smart Football (which is always a must-read):

He's basically a Coryell/Norv Turner guy and had some success, especially with the Chargers, but also has worked to do more with less at times, particularly when he was at Indiana with Antwaan Randle-El as his quarterback. That was pre-zone read and such, but they mixed in some pro style stuff with some true option, including triple option, and drop-back game.

Links to some highlights of Cameron's IU offenses here, here and here (also thanks to Brown).

The interesting thing about Cameron is that he coached with Les at Michigan in the days of yore. Honestly to me the big question about Cameron is not so much whether he's an upgrade or not -- he probably is, but his resume is honestly similar to Kragthorpe and coaches I know think Greg Sturdwa is a great coach -- but I think the identity issues at LSU are top down. Will Cam's experience, reputation and rapport with Les going back to Michigan help him be more autonomous? And will he be able to tailor his offense to college kids after more than a decade in the NFL?

I think he's at core an NFL/pro-style person but it's encouraging that he adapted his offense around Randle-El. Those Indiana teams had little talent outside of Randle-El, but he tore it up in a bunch of ways. It's interesting to wonder how he would've done if they had some of today's technology -- zone reads, shotgun spread, etc.

I've always said that LSU doesn't need some supersonic Air Raid/spread option/super fancy offense, they just need a handful of things that they do well and fit together, and some really good coaching for the players. Cameron should help with that, but time will tell.

Here are some facts on Cameron. The man clearly knows something about quarterback development. Despite the knocks on him about Ray Rice, has shown a willingness to ride his best horses (fun stat - Rice averaged all of one more carry per game under Jim Caldwell than he did under Cameron). The Ravens were in the top half of NFL offenses under Cameron at the time of his departure. Even at the advanced level, they were 16th in the Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. Since the firing, that metric increased all of three spots to 13th. The Ravens improvement was as much about perception and Cameron's departure serving as a rallying point as it was anything. It's certainly clear that there was a personality conflict, and that likely had as much to do with anything.

Is he a perfect coordinator? No. But if you know one of those, by all means, do pass his name on. A true fact we never really think about with coaches, is that they're hired to get fired. Coordinators have a thankless job. Offense or defense, we tend to ignore their successes and focus on their failures. Did Cameron have some in Baltimore? Sure. But the truth is, the Ravens have been a franchise built around defense, and Cameron began to change that with Flacco, Rice and Co. In the entire history of the NFL, only a handful of running backs have had more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage in an entire season, and Cameron has coached two of them (Rice and Tomlinson). Did things go bad? Sure. But they always do. Not to pick on Bruce's criticisms, but they're no different than the complaints every fan base has about their coordinator. You're only as good as your last game, and coaches fall out of favor, or make mistakes, all the time.

Go ask Georgia fans about Mike Bobo. There are plenty of Alabama fans that didn't care for the job Jim McElwain did as he netted them two national championships. Hell, perhaps the Tide's most important assistant during this recent run has been Joe Pendry, and he was hired a year after his Houston Texans offensive line set a new league record for sacks allowed. Tennessee fans are still waiting to shout "THIRD AND CHAVIS" basically anytime LSU gives up a third-down conversion. Sean Payton was once stripped of his playcalling duties with the New York Giants, and still had to share them at his next stop with the Dallas Cowboys. Jimmy Johnson took several years to warm up to Troy Aikman, and at one time burned a first-round pick to take Steve Walsh in the supplemental draft. The way a coaching tenure ends does not always have to define it. Mistakes are made and (hopefully) learned from. The bottom line is that Cameron achieved a lot of positives in Baltimore. That, combined with his time in San Diego and previous college stops gives reason for excitement.

Cameron comes from the Norv Turner branch of the Air Coryell offense family tree. The Coryell style (for those that don't know, named for longtime coordinator/head coach Don Coryell of the San Diego Chargers in the late 70s and early 80s), of course, was defined by the development of what we now know as the "NFL route tree" consisting of nine basic patterns, a play calling system built around those numbers (ex. "525 F Post Swing" -- the numbers indicate routes for the 2 WRs and TE) and an offense built around high-octane, downfield passing outside of the hash marks while using tight ends and backs underneath and over the middle of the field. It's also a conceptual approach in the Ehrhardt-Perkins sense, using multiple formations and personnel groups to run a lot of the same plays and create matchup problems for the defense (with Coryell's Charger teams, this usually meant for Kellen Winslow). With the Dallas Cowboys in the early 90s, Turner combined this passing game with Emmitt Smith's powerful running. Those teams were never insanely productive through the air (Aikman never topped 3,500 yards in a season), but they were incredibly efficient -- the very quality the Tigers lacked last season.

This fits the style of play LSU has, at least in theory, attempted to use under Miles: lean towards balance as a means to an end, passing to score and running to win. More importantly, Cameron is a coach that Miles has both a tremendous personal relationship and a professional kinship. The general structure of the Tiger attack likely won't change: multiple formations, a power- and zone-based running game with a concept-based passing attack heavy on play-action. Cameron brings a pedigree, even with his time in Baltimore taken into account. A guy that will never have problems finding work in the NFL as a quarterback coach or coordinator.

That relationship will probably get a lot of play in local media and message board chatter in the coming days. "Les trusts him." "Les won't meddle." All of the ways that further the narrative that if the offense is struggling, it must be because Miles is "calling the plays" or "influencing the gameplan" as though it's some sort of anomaly. Listen folks: game-planning and play-calling are always collaborative processes, on every coaching staff at every level of the game. Offensive line coaches help choose the run plays and protections that will fit a specific opponent. This helps determine formations and pass play selections. Backs and receiver coaches influence personnel choices based on how they perceive individual matchups, and yes, a head coach will have input as well. In-game, they may also suggest plays, weigh in on tempo ("lets pick up the pace" or "let's see if we can grind ‘em down a little here," for example) and of course, make calls on fourth-down decisions. They'll even throw in a play-call or veto one every now and then. Sometimes, if the head coach makes it known that they're using all four downs, it influences the third-down play-call. This is a natural process that every single staff in the country goes through every game week -- casting it as some sort of tyranny of the head coach over the offense is an oversimplification, a rationalization of confirmation bias (notice how this never comes up after a good offensive game?) and flies in the face of logic when it comes to Miles. If he were such a micromanager, he'd never be able to bring in veteran coaches, especially former NFL guys like Cameron and Adam Henry. Just because a play worked or didn't work, doesn't mean that Les Miles called it or forced it on his offensive coordinator. Every coach may have an offensive style they want to see, and just because a coach may favor the run does not make him a walking Woody Hayes speech.

What's more, this hire appears to allow Stud to move back to the offensive line, which frankly, is what he does best. The job he did this season of cobbling together a senior backup with bad knees and two freshmen into an offensive front that held Jadeveon Clowney without a sack and pushed around the nation's best run defense is incredibly underrated. He also happens to be one of the more popular coaches with among his individual players. Personally, I'm glad he'll stick around, assuming that is the case. As for Steve Kragthorpe, I hate that LSU never got to offer him some professional redemption, but he has a much bigger battle on his hands with Parkinson's Disease. And with the news that schools can now expand football staff beyond the nominal assistant coaches, LSU can find some sort of role for him as a scout or analyst of sorts. He certainly paid dividends on the recruiting trail in this recent cycle.

But look, let it not be said that this suddenly brings LSU's offensive struggles to an end. We've spent too many years watching LSU sit in the bottom of the national offense rankings to believe that any one man can bring that to an end. Every team is different and every struggle is different, but that does not change the fact that there have been struggles and they've popped up too many times. But giving a proven football mind like Cameron a now-experienced quarterback group of receivers, a running back corps with power and speed and a big and athletic offensive line, and things are certainly looking up. Some of the progression has to come from the players themselves -- concentration, focus and work ethic. There's nothing wrong with tempering some expectations right now, but this is a hire that would give anybody reason for optimism.

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