I Believe They Can Fly: Air Coryell, Cam Cameron & the LSU Offense, Part 1

It's that time again: another prospectus for the 2013 Tiger offense. What's changing, what's not and what the coaching staff are trying to accomplish.

Part One: Background

Back again at this long-form type of piece, just like in 2010 and 2012 (in two parts), taking our best shot at trying to decipher what LSU will try to accomplish this season on offense. And again, it wouldn't be possible without the previous work of some people that understand these things better than I: Chris Brown at Smart Football; this post he put up on ESPN's Grantland; SB Nation's San Diego Charger's blog, Bolts from the Blue; Air Coryell.blogspot; X &O labs; and football xos.com, which had a couple of valuable playbooks to sift through. If you are new to the site, I highly recommend both the previous links and the ones in this next graph.

So what does Cam Cameron mean for the LSU offense? We've discussed the previous problems, and what needs to change (if you haven't read, I recommend -- it's important to understand the problem before we discuss solutions). We've talked about Cam Cameron's credentials and background and used words like "Air Coryell", "conceptual", "route trees", a bunch of numbers, and names like "Drew Brees", "Kellen Winslow" and "Norv Turner." So how about we get into some of the specifics about all of that? Sound good? Great. Let's go.

As previous discussed, Cameron became a national name as an offensive assistant under Norv Turner, a disciple of the Don Coryell, legendary head coach with the San Diego Chargers back in the Dan Fouts/Kellen Winslow days. We've come to think of the West Coast Offense as a style associated with Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s, but if you want to be truthful with the term, it's a good umbrella for both the San Francisco and San Diego offenses. Both were popularized in the region, both were known for featuring the passing game at a time when the NFL was incredibly run-heavy, and both have helped put multiple quarterbacks into the NFL Hall of Fame. The differences are as follows:

  • Coryell's style revolved around deep and intermediate routes opening up the short passing game, with a power-based, physical running game as a constraint. Walsh's revolved around the short passing game as a way of getting the ball to playmakers in open space, with that creating opportunities down the field and complimented by a running game that was more misdirection-based (often called "finesse" but I hate using that word to describe guys like Roger Craig and Tom Rathman), with a lot of counters, draws and trap plays.
  • The Coryell offense relies on speed and timing from its wide receivers, with a lot of shifts and motions in formations (the NFL had just enacted the "Mel Blount Rule," banning the jamming of receivers after five yards). Routes need to hit the appropriate depth at the right time, and his offense often encouraged "speed" cuts on routes, or more rounded angles that allowed the wideouts to change direction without breaking stride (Note: this has also become more common as receivers get bigger -- 6-4 guys with long strides can't start and stop as quickly for the sharper cuts). Walsh popularized the option route, and relied on his receivers making precise adjustments mid-play to, frankly, run to the spot that the defense left open. Essentially, Coryell preferred to stretch defenses vertically, whereas Walsh stretched them horizontally.
  • In a quarterback, Coryell preferred having a big, strong-armed guy that could get the ball down the field and on time. Timing, and getting the ball out, is a premium for the QB but most concepts are designed to be read deep-to-short. Guys like Fouts, Troy Aikman and Kurt Warner were able to stand tall in the pocket and deliver that deep ball with the pass rush bearing down. Walsh's ideal was the Joe Montana-type. Smart enough to not only read the defense, but anticipate how a receiver might read it, and make accurate short throws, specifically with regards to hitting receivers in stride so they could run after the catch.
  • At a practical level, one of the main differences in the two styles is in terminology. Coryell was the originator of the numbered NFL route tree, 0-9, and used them in play lingo to designate the routes for the X (split end), Y (tight end) and Z (flanker) receivers, with other players usually designated with a word. For example, "525 F-post Swing" -- X runs a 5, Y runs a 20 (inside receiver/tight end routes would typically have a multiple of 10 instead of a single digit, for brevity's sake), Z runs another 5 while the F-back (usually the fullback, but we'll explore that more) runs a post and the running back swings out of the backfield. Walsh's playcalling would feature the more complex verbage you're used to hearing in those NFL Films packages. Actually telling every player in the huddle exactly what route they were running in the huddle. So the same playcall would include "X-Curl Y-Cross Z-Curl" in place of the numbers. I'm not totally sure why, but I imagine it's so that it forces a quarterback to better memorize playcalls.

Route Tree

Any semi-educated football fan has probably heard of the NFL route tree.

Screen_shot_2012-09-06_at_10

via assets.sbnation.com

There are slight variances team to team, but in general they are defined as:

0. Screen/quick hitch

1. Five-yard hitch

2. Quick slant (at five yards)

3. Out, break at 10-12 yards

4. In, break at 10-12 yards

5. Comeback at 15 yards

6. Curl at 15 yards (Note: sometimes 5 & 6 swap, depending on the playbook)

7. Corner route

8. Post route

9. Go or streak route

A couple notes -- one of the easier aspects of the tree to remember is that even numbers break in, odd numbers break out. In the image above, they show a post-corner for the 7-route -- that's a common trick to create extra room to get to the corner on routes that are near the sideline. Routes run to the wide side of the field would just break to the corner.

Inside routes for slot receivers and tight ends are slightly different:

Insidereceiverroutetree_zps447cf45d_medium

via cdn2.sbnation.com

The main differences revolve more around the need to create room for the tight ends.

0. Shallow cross

10. Flat

20. Shallow cross

30. Eight-yard out

40. Inside release and in at 10-12 yards

50. Five-yard curl

60. Inside release with a 6-8 yard curl

70. Corner route

80. Downfield option route: deep curl, cross or post

90. Seam route

Playcalling

In general, a playcall in this system will name the formation, protection, any motions or shifts, the numbered routes, followed by the named ones for the remaining receivers (be them backs or other players). Some teams would slightly change the numbering, going from an "XYZ" order to the strong-to-weak sides of the formation, or other variants. There's an X-, Y- and Z-receiver on every play, but those designations don't always pertain to the split end, tight end and flanker. In a four-wide set, the Y- will likely be the other receiver on the line of scrimmage opposite of the X. And of course there are always other designations for backs and tight ends, such as F- or H-. In one look the Y- may be the slot receiver while the tight end is designated as the H. That sort of thing varies team-to-team. The concept of the plays is obviously what matters here.

Prior to adapting to the passing game, Coryell was an I-formation coach groomed on John McKay's "Student Body Right" Southern Cal staff. So he always placed a lot of value on power-running. But as the talent on the teams he coached shifted, he began to see the value of the deep passing game, and most of his passing concepts featured at least one deep option, even if the route's only value was to help create space for the other receivers. Deep passing creates explosive plays, either by opening up yards-after-catch opportunities short, or in the running game. He taught his quarterbacks to read most route concepts from the deep option on down, largely because from the snap of the ball, deep throws are usually the easiest sight reads. A quarterback is expected to identify man- versus zone-coverage pre-snap, and from there reading the deep safety or safeties should tell where the best one-on-one matchup is. A lot of the plays that people like to dismiss as "one-read" plays are often deep conflicts.

People will talk about deep options on every play, but that's not totally true either. Good passing games always try to stretch the field horizontally as well, and Coryell certainly saw the value of the of the quick passing game. He also helped to popularize the screen game as well. A call like "Scat 22" or "Scatt 55" generally means a three-step drop and quick slants or curl routes for all receivers. Likewise, other tags like we talked about in last year's prospectus could swap a back or a tight end and a receiver, or add a double move. Calls like "sluggo" (slant-go), "pump" (hitch-go) or "special" (post-corners, or corner-posts) could also adjust the route number. Everybody has added their twists to the style over the years.

Evolution Through the Years

Coryell was succeeded by guys like Joe Gibbs (his offensive coordinator with the Chargers), Ernie Zampese (another Chargers' assistant), Norv Turner, Al Saunders, Mike Martz and of course, Cam Cameron.

The Chargers offense itself evolved to fit a special talent in Kellen Winslow, whom Coryell found multiple positions to line up at order to find the best matchup to exploit. Eventually, Winslow would simply line up in the slot with another tight end in traditional position and replacing the fullback on some running plays. With a bigger, speedy back like the late Chuck Muncie, this led to the creation of the modern one-back set. Gibbs would later employ a similar look with John Riggins, who had previously been a fullback himself. This led to the H-designation being moved to a reserve tight end that would often motion around the backfield, creating the modern H-back position.

When he and Zampese moved on to Jimmy Johnson's Dallas Cowboys teams, Turner actually compressed the offense down to some more basic looks, emphasizing the running game much more prominently. This was done for a couple of reasons: Troy Aikman had a rough transition to the pros, and the coaching staff took a while to fully warm up to him; those Cowboys teams, due to one of the best draft runs ever by Johnson, could legitimately claim better talent than a lot of the other pro teams they faced; and Johnson, going back to his Miami days, was always a big proponent of simple schemes that allowed his players to react quickly and not be burdened by too much thinking.

Of course, certain plays have been constants. And not just among the Coryell style -- these plays, or variants of them, are used by almost any team that throws the ball, be it at the high school, college, or NFL level. No coach is going to let a perfectly good concept go unused.

Part 2 -- Concepts & Practicum

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