An Interview with Chris Brown Part II: Urban Meyer at OSU

By Ross Fulton on May 31, 2012 at 10:00a

Today's interview picks up where we left off last week with Smart Football's Chris Brown.  Today I focus with Brown upon Urban Meyer and what he believes his impact will be at Ohio State and where he sees the 'spread' offense going.

RRF: The first article in your book regards Urban Meyer's philosophical development, and you have often written about Meyer.  How has Meyer's philosophy developed since your article, and what do you think Meyer's offense will look like at OSU?

CB: Well, the first place I'd suggest to find that answer are all the great pieces you've written for 11W. But I think what I basically foresee is that Meyer's offense will look pretty much like his offense always has, in that it will be spread but multiple-formation with a heavy focus on the run, but with two slight variations. First, think he'll use even more "power" personnel at Ohio State than he did at Florida (and certainly more than Utah), both just because of the personnel and because I think he almost envisions himself running a Woody Hayes or Lou Holtz type power offense, albeit from the spread. Second, in contrast to that -- and to balance it out -- I think Tom Herman's influence will be to help Meyer package a lot of simple quick screens and short passes with the run game, both to give Braxton Miller easy throws and to help serve as "constraints" for the run game. Other than that -- and aside from the fact that Braxton Miller, while a great talent, won't be running as many quarterback dives up the middle as Tim Tebow did -- I think Meyer's offense will look very similar to what he did at Florida.

RRF:  In your study of Meyer's time at Florida, what were the issues when Meyer's offense failed?  In other words, what are the necessary predicate conditions for his approach to succeed?

CB: The first predicate condition is Meyer needs a mobile quarterback, and he has that at OSU When his offense didn't do as well -- in his first year and in his last -- he did not have Tim Tebow, instead working with Chris Leak and John Brantley. This isn't to say that Miller needs to lead the team in rushing like Cam Newton did a few years ago for Auburn, but the entire theory behind Meyer's offense is that an athletic quarterback changes the fundamental arithmetic of the game by occupying a defender and being a threat to run the ball on any play, even if he only runs it a few times a game.

The other issues they had on offense at Florida -- and look, he won two National titles there, which isn't too shabby -- largely were focused on a couple of areas. One was, somewhat inexplicably, Florida's red zone touchdown percentage cratered after Dan Mullen left. In 2008, when Tim Tebow was a junior and Meyer won the BCS championship game, against conference-only opponents Florida scored touchdowns over 70% of the 43 times they were in the red zone. The next year, in 2009, again only against conference opponents, they scored a touchdown only 29% of the 41 times they went into the red zone -- and this was still with Tebow as their quarterback! That drop in touchdown percentage explains almost all of Florida's drop from 43 points per game to 26 points against conference opponents from Tim Tebow's junior to senior seasons. (I'm excluding non-conference opponents since we all know that a few games versus directional U can really skew the stats. And all stats are via the invaluable

The other area of concern is that it seemed Meyer had a difficult time developing playmakers at the outside wide receiver spots. They had great slot receivers and space players like Aaron Hernandez and Percy Harvin, but never got great production from those outside guys despite many of them being top-flight recruits. This was a bit more of a mystery to me (especially since Meyer was a long-time wide receivers coach) but I think much of it may have had to do with the focus on the running game and maybe the limited package of passing plays they used at Florida. This is something I'll be watching from Ohio State this fall, especially since, despite his talent and ability, Braxton Miller is still developing as a passer.

RRF:  Where do you think the "spread" offense is going?

CB: The term "spread" has been disabused to the point that it is almost meaningless, referring to everything from Meyer's offense to Mike Leach's to any time the New England Patriots use the shotgun. So it's difficult to predict the future of something so hard to pin down, but I'll hazard a guess. Right now the arithmetic of the game remains in the spread offense's favor. This is why offensive numbers at every level seem to go ever higher, and defenses are still playing catch up. Spread offense's like Meyer's -- which can run the ball with power, use the quarterback as a true dual-threat, but still use multiple receivers who can spread the field horizontally on quick routes or vertically on longer throws -- force defenses to make a variety of unpleasant choices. If they try to double down on the run game and match the offense's numbers in the box versus essentially option football with the quarterback as run threat, they are susceptible to these quick outside throws and downfield passes, particularly in the seams.

But if they use two deep safeties to stop the passing game, they are hopelessly outnumbered in the run game and will struggle to stop a determined spread-but-power-based run game like Meyer's. This is why, despite the fact that the mentality he wants to bring is essentially a smashmouth power run-game one, Meyer believes in the spread.

Yet defenses develop answers. This isn't the same thing as simply saying "things go in cycles." I don't really think they truly do. In a very generic sense, sure, sometimes the run or the pass or umbrella or press type defenses are more in vogue than at other times, and in that limited sense things are cyclical. But the specific strategies take leaps forward, often incorporating those older ideas but always in new ways. Right now, we're still in the age of the spread, though maybe we're getting towards the end of it. Football history, however, is replete with examples of devastating offensive attacks that suddenly, often without warning, simply stopped working. The T-formation blew teams out by forty, fifty, sixty points a game -- until suddenly no one ran the T-formation anymore. The wishbone was unbelievable, until every team was using the Miami 4-3 and was "spilling" the option from the inside to out to the sideline, where it could be hemmed in and contained.

Eventually, some intrepid defensive coach will figure out how to match the spread's arithmetic, and when it happens it will hit the spread offense like a ton of bricks. But no, it hasn't happened yet; for all the hand-wrining about the spread, the math remains in its favor, and the statistics back up its success.

But if you want a clue to where the antidote to the spread might reside, I'd suggest looking to the defense run by Alabama's Nick Saban. His team -- and more specifically, his defense -- is the obvious counter example to the above narrative of spread-as-dominating force. And a big part of that is the math: Through a combination of man coverage and some sophisticated pattern read techniques that enable him to play a Cover 3 yet not give up those easy throws to the seams, he can put only a single safety deep against run-first spread attacks and therefore still stack the box for the run game. Meyer and Saban traded wins and losses back and forth when the two of them were in the SEC, and the games were tough, hard-fought games.

And, if Meyer wants to win a National Championship at Ohio State -- and given what a coach he is and the kind of talent he has and will bring in, that's clearly within reach -- it's highly likely he'll need to go through Saban to do it.


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bassplayer7770's picture

Very cool.  Thanks to Ross and Chris for Part 2.

TheHannimal's picture

Great piece.  Simple numbers game hinging on the quarterback adding a run dynamic to the screen and downfield passing choices (the same way I run my offense in video games!).  Interested to see how the B1G defenses look against this "new" offense.  With all the positive hype I was curious as to the how and why's of any offensive failures Meyer has faced.  I think Herman is going to help immensly during the in game chess matches and I fully expect OSU to shred the conference.  Saban did well partly because he is a great coach but it definitely helps that he has pros at pretty much every position - I dont think anyone in the B1G can and/or will match that talent.  I like our chances in the's to hoping the Bucks dominate on a national level too.

Bukirob's picture

I wonder if part of the reason that Meyer's offense (principly during Tebow era) did not see a lot of success with passing to the outside recievers is due more to the QB's inability  to make those reads?  One of the big knocks on Tebow is that he is a "line of sight" reading QB.  His lack of development in truly reading a defense may have had more to do with the issue than a flaw of scheme...

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tennbuckeye19's picture

True. I also wonder if it was a scheme issue or a weakness in the quarterback. In order to develop a receiver, the receiver has to get the ball, right. If the QB isn't getting the ball to the receiver, the receiver can't make plays. 
I would be curious to see Tebow's stats of attempted and completed passes and the distance of the pass. 

tennbuckeye19's picture

Its still puzzling to me that Meyer recruited Brantley to play at Florida when the kid clearly did not have the skill set needed to run his offense. Brantley was a top 50 recruit nationally out of Florida and one of the top pro-style quarterbacks in the nation for the 2007 class. Of course the son of Cecil Newton was also a part of Florida's class in 2007, so perhaps the thought was that Brantley would not see nearly the amount of playing time he ended up receiving.

Maestro's picture

Brantley did beat out Newton in the spring, but I have to wonder if some of that was because of off-field things.  I have questioned UF fans about Brantley and they all say that Meyer simply "had to" recruit Brantley hard because he was a native son and had set all kinds of Florida high school records.  It certainly didn't work out very well for any of them.

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tennbuckeye19's picture

Yeah, I did a little research on Brantley, and he actually committed to Texas first, but de-committed and later signed with Florida. He had an uncle who had played at Florida as well. And yeah, he was a star in Florida high school out of Ocala. 

chadwyck11's picture

Just bought his book on Amazon. Excited to get it tomorrow!

Steve Earle Bruce Springsteen's picture

I think part of the reason Meyer offenses didn't experience much success against Saban defenses was because they lacked a true power running game outside of Tebow. No matter what you try to do, guys like Rainey and Demps were going to get crushed by teams like Alabama coming out of the backfield. Perhaps having bigger running backs, and a more power-oriented running game that doesn't solely use the quarterback, is enough to make the difference in a hypothetical match-up against Alabama.
I'm still not really sold on the hurry-up offense as a technique employed by championship teams. Yeah, it worked for Auburn when they had a transcendent, once-in-a-generation talent at quarterback, but if you put a hurry-up finesse offense up against a powerful, hard-hitting defense, I'll take that defense every time.

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45buckshot's picture

well, to be more correct, UM3 did beat Saban the first time, but then lost the 2nd time (in the SEC championship game), so i wouldn't say he didn't experience any success against Satan's defenses.
That said (it might have been Mullen leaving?), but i agree with the idea that he might have recruiting players for speed, and ended up with a smallish backfield--similar to what happened to RichRod at tsun. To be honest, i think that's why we always have such a tough time with Wisky--they beat the hell out of us when we play them, because we're set up now to beat all the spread teams in the B1g. 
But i'm excited about the hurry-up offense (see my comments below), because what it does is force the defense to show their hand--no shifting around before the snap. And if you can do that, then all the offensive techniques of constraint and spreading the field can be used to their maximum effectiveness.

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
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Ahh Saturday's picture

Of all Urban's hires, I think Tom Herman was the most inspired.  He understands Urban's approach, is whip-smart, and young enough to still see the game creatively.  The next generation of the "spread", whatever that might be, will be the product of this collaboration between Herman and Meyer

YTOWNBUCKI's picture

He is exactly right that the term "spread offense" gets thrown around a lot.  Football has always evolved into something new as time goes on.  Look at the late 80s and early 90s, all option attack offenses.  Then some defenses started to figure it out and that evolved into having big bruising running backs.  This is of course was counteracted with bigger defenders, which happen to be a little slower.  Now you have the "spread", which teams are starting to counter with smaller and faster defenders.  So I think that in the next few years, the power football game is going to come back.  This puts B1G teams at a huge advantage down the road.  Nobody in the country recruits size like the B1G and with good reason.  Anyone remember when RichRod was recruiting "spread" defenders?  They got murdered in the run game by virtually every conference opponent.  Power football will be back, gentlemen.

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45buckshot's picture

i like the question about potential flaws in UM3's attack. the lack of developing outside WRs doesn't bode well for us, since we already have that problem... but if i had to put my finger on why i'd say because he needs athletic QBs. Tebow wasn't the greatest throwing QB ever, so it makes sense, to me, that none of Florida's outside WR's exploded.
Theoretically then, if Braxton can throw the ball better--and i think he can--the receivers would develop faster. 
Peyton Manning was almost a mind-reader with his WRs, and it was just hard work. I read about how he worked with Marvin Harrison so that he would know what Harrison would do in any given situation (coverage). Then i watched them just pick apart defenses. 
So i hear Braxton is doing this work with Stoney and maybe Smith...
More concerning is why FL's redzone percentage "cratered" after Mullen left. i haven't seen enough footage to even hazzard a guess as to why, but this could be a problem for us too... i don't see Herman staying forever; if we win an MNC in the next 2-3 years Herman then will be gone to HC somewhere (like Mullen). So the possibility of this pattern repeating itself it certainly there...
But i don't see UM3 making the Brantley mistake again. We've already got our next athletic QB commit lined up ;)

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
—G.K. Chesterton

45buckshot's picture

i just went and read Chris' article on Saban's defense ( and i think UM3 might win the rubber match ;)
the play he breaks down works because Saban's defense shows cover 2, then right before the snap shifts to cover 3 and puts outside pressure on a WR (which ends up forcing a turnover).
so disguising coverages is nothing new, defenses have been doing that for awhile. that's why Oregon's offense is doing so well.
Switching to the no-huddle defeats this kind of defensive strategy; the defense doesn't have time to show one coverage then switch to another. if they try that, before they can switch the QB hikes the ball. 
UM3 got to see Oregon run their offense as a broadcaster, and is in the process now of implementing it as OSU... 

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
—G.K. Chesterton

timdogdad's picture

for some reason i think of last years offense and i have a caveman rolling a square block in the back of my mind.  but this year i keep flashing thomas edison and all of his inventions.  we're always gonna have defensive talent and no more excuses on special teams. add an urb and herman offense and look out!   man i want to win a crystal football beating the sec. 

nickma71's picture

If they try to double down on the run game and match the offense's numbers in the box versus essentially option football with the quarterback as run threat, they are susceptible to these quick outside throws and downfield passes, particularly in the seams.

In other words, the pro style offense of Wisconsin, Michigan (of the past), USC.... Except you have to have a quarterback that is very rare with his feet, and that goes for the rest of the offense. If they are not faster than everybody else, you are in big trouble. See Rich Rod for refrence. Or Mike Leach against...anybody.

TheHostileDwarf's picture

Great article again. Thanks, Ross. I just picked up Chris's book due to this article and the last one. Looking forward to it.