By John Harris
July 15, 2013
Throughout the 2012 season, the Texas A&M Aggies offense emerged as one of the most dynamic groups in the country. This was a team that showed it could move the football under the leadership of former QB Ryan Tannehill the past two years. But, with the arrival of a new coaching staff, new scheme, a star-laden offensive line and some kid named Manziel, it changed the fortunes of A&M football forever as it embarked on its new voyage in the most dominant football conference in the nation.
Heavy statement, sure, but look at what's transpired since walking out of the tunnel for that opener with Florida. A Cotton Bowl win, a top five ranking, a Heisman Trophy, a head coach so accomplished in one year that NFL teams (literally) came to his doorstep and upcoming Kyle Field renovations to put the Aggies home on par with -- or beyond -- any team in the nation.
That's all? Well, for now. How did it happen? No one single, definitive answer, but I studied one culprit. The offense.
I watched nearly every A&M game last year and went back and studied how they succeeded (or didn't) against three legendary programs -- LSU, Alabama and Oklahoma. It became clear, studying the Aggies' offense under the leadership of former OC Kliff Kingsbury (and Clarence McKinney in the Cotton Bowl), that the offense had no definitive style. It wasn't 100% Air Raid offense. It wasn't a zone read offense. It was more a combination of aspects pulled from a number of different schemes.
More important than scheme was the philosophy: "Think quickly. Go now. Put the defense back on its heels." That all said, a few aspects of the offense stood out in watching tape.
We'll be studying tempo in both college and the NFL throughout the summer, but it's clear that A&M understood how to use tempo to gain an advantage against a stressed defense. Defenses make poor decisions, mainly in alignment and assignment, when looking for that next breath. Unless a team's offense runs this type of up-tempo scheme, there is no way to mimic the pace in practice, so the first time a team realizes how fast it has to play, the Aggies are in the end zone.
In the Florida game, I was down on the field and watched a talented and physical Gator defense sucking wind five plays into the game. Florida was forced to take an early time out just to get everyone on the same page; it paid off as a tremendous goal line play on a corner route by Matt Elam kept the Aggies out of the end zone. It was one of only two times ALL SEASON that the Aggies didn't score a touchdown on their first drive. The Aggies established the pace of the game from the very first snap and teams struggled to keep pace, with few exceptions.
When teams got A&M in second-and-long and third-and-long, tempo slowed such that opposing defenses had a chance to get into game plan defensive looks. Furthermore, the tendency for defensive coaches early in the game was to keep it simple, few blitzes, for example, until their defense was able to adjust.
Part of that reluctance was the struggle all teams had handling the rapid pace. Alabama tried to ease into the game and didn't bring additional heat until it was 14-0. LSU didn't blitz once until third down in the red zone on the first drive. Consequently, it's not only the players that have to adjust to that speed but defensive coordinators as well.
Tempo is exacerbated for defenses with Manziel's speed and precise decision making, but more on that later. Manziel's assets are what separate A&M's offense from others that play the game at a 80-90 play per game pace.
We've all heard coaches talk about taking what the defenses gives you, but the Aggies take that concept to another level. A perfect example of this was in the Alabama game. The Aggies threw six stick routes, most of them to Ryan Swope and nearly every single time on first down. Manziel's quick release and the reluctance of the Crimson Tide secondary to challenge the receivers in press coverage allowed those quick, efficient throws. (Of course, when 'Bama did press A&M's inside receivers later in the game, Manziel dropped a dime on Malcome Kennedy on the post corner route for the game clinching touchdown.)
But, if Manziel didn't like the look to the trips side for some reason, he'd look backside to his 6'6" receiver Mike Evans. The Aggies, often, showed trips or motion to quads to one side and then threw to Evans, the lone, boundary-side receiver. Roll coverage to the field and a defensive coordinator left a six-foot-or-under CB locked up on the former basketball player. Give help to that corner to even up the coverage and Manziel snapped off the four yard stick throw in the slot to get to 2nd and six right now. That desire to take what Alabama gave them was evident more than ever against the Crimson Tide.
Nothing is ever perfect defending Manziel given his improvisational abilities, but it was slightly surprising to see teams sit back and let the Ags dictate to them as much as they did. Sure, the common rule of thumb facing a mobile quarterback is to not blitz recklessly; it doesn't allow any seams in the defense. But the problem with allowing Manziel to sit in the pocket against a standard four-man rush was that the game slowed down each and every snap for Manziel -- such that when OU dropped seven and rushed four in the second half, he sliced them up with his passing acumen.
Oklahoma DC Mike Stoops decided to roll the dice and drop his entire back seven into coverage and give Johnny ample time to throw. Big mistake. Manziel couldn't exploit Florida's back seven in coverage in game one, but by the end of the season, he was more comfortable staying in the pocket and taking what he wanted in the passing game. That all said, the one team that gave Manziel the most trouble was LSU in large part because they blitzed him intelligently.
After eschewing the blitz early, DC John Chavis threw a number of different blitz looks at Manziel late on the Aggies' second drive of the game. Consequently, the Tigers had a ton of success bringing the slot corner off the edge, sometimes from as deep as five yards from the line of scrimmage so as to force Manziel's eyes to focus on that blitzer and not down the field.
The increase in heat forced A&M into a field goal on that drive, and it limited offensive success for the rest of the game. Chavis didn't live and die by the pressure, but he picked his spots throughout the game, holding A&M to nothing but a late touchdown after the game was all but decided.
The other aspect in the blitz that gave A&M trouble was upfield rush by the LSU Tigers defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo while blitzing inside or off one of the edges. Why was that key? Manziel's blitz habit was to escape when he could, so when he saw a clean blitzer, he looked to escape out of the pocket to the opposite side. But, when he bolted the pocket, he ran right into an LSU defensive end.
Oklahoma was so skittish of Manziel leaving the pocket that it played a linebacker and a safety or two safeties in spy technique. One had the running back out in the pass route and one had Manziel. The Aggie quarterback beat that look for a huge run for a first down when the defensive end lost contain and then knocked over safety Tony Jefferson, who was spying on Manziel. However, later in the first half, Oklahoma gave the blueprint when it rushed three, blitzed two in between the A gaps and the DE kept contain on third and eight. Manziel had no escape lane and his only outlet was a four-yard dump off throw to Ben Malena to force a punt.
Unfortunately in the second half, A&M's protection improved against a four- or five-man rush, and Manziel picked apart the Sooners in the second half from the pocket.
Some coaches are so married to their scheme that they'll either start to show tendencies that defenses can exploit, or they'll run bad plays into perfectly called defenses because, well, that's what they do.
But, the Aggies didn't seem to fall into tendencies from game-to-game, keeping aspects of the game plan opponent specific. Against LSU, every time that an Aggie went in motion, the Aggies threw the football. It may have been a swing pass or bubble screen, but guy in motion meant it was a pass.
So, thinking that I found a tendency that others could exploit, the first time that A&M sent a guy in motion against Alabama, it turned out … to be a run. And, then again, the next time. A&M didn't show any set tendencies from week-to-week that teams could exploit. Kingsbury and the Aggies added unique wrinkles each and every week (the quarterback counter against Arkansas was brilliant) to take advantage of each and every team they faced.
The narrative that evolved throughout the 2012 season was that Johnny Manziel was nothing but Johnny on the Fly. His best plays were made when a play broke down. He was just a good athlete making incredible plays.
That is still true and 100 percent on point; he is a magnificent athlete.
But he's an even better quarterback, and his decision making is on par with some of the best in the game -- especially in the passing game.
He doesn't force the issue, even though he has the arm strength to do just that. He knows the precise amount of touch to make on nearly all of his throws. He can drop the corner or fade route on a dime. He can zip the slant on the numbers. He rarely makes a throw that puts his receiver in peril. If you watch the man, without bias -- hard as that may be -- you'll see the same thing. He just doesn't take head scratching risks in the passing game, which is nearly unbelievable for a first year starter in the toughest conference in college football.
Manziel threw four interceptions in the three games that I watched. One occurred when the receiver broke off his route erroneously. Two were deflections on throws that were absolutely right on the money. By no means is Manziel a finished product, but when examining other quarterbacks around the country, Manziel made better decisions than more experienced college quarterbacks.
Is he perfect? No. But find me a perfect quarterback who's not on a video game. He did make some questionable run decisions, attempting to beat a four-man rush with an improvised quarterback draw out of empty set. But, as the season progressed, those decisions were few and far between.
Given all of the success for the Aggies in 2012, it's going to be nearly impossible to replicate that offensive performance this season. But, given the factors listed above and aggressive new offensive leaders, Clarence McKinney and Jake Spavital, the 2013 Aggies offense will be the most explosive the school has ever seen.