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The TCU Offense: Why didn't it work in 2013?

TCU's offense was so bad that it kept the Big 12's best defense not only out of conference title contention, but out of a bowl game (and resulted in both Co-OCs being out of a job). HawkeyedFrog breaks his silence to share his thoughts on the biggest reason that the offense failed.

Offenses are better when this doesn't happen.
Offenses are better when this doesn't happen.

*Please forgive my absence this past month folks, I've been absolutely swamped with work for my Masters and had some laptop issues that seriously threw off my groove.  I'll be getting up my belated Meet the Commits posts soon, but I thought we could do with something with a little more substance first.

The offensive line was really, really bad.  Casey Pachall had been away from football for a year and then broke his arm before he could get into a groove.  Waymon James couldn't control himself (either walking out on team meetings and practices or possibly with recreational drugs).  We're not running the ball enough.  Trevone Boykin is a bad quarterback.  The wide receivers can't get open.  Did we just throw bubble screens on first and third down?

The list of why TCU's offense was so bad in 2013 is not a short one by any means, and depending on who you ask any of those reasons may be at the top of their list, but to me the main reason why we have two new offensive coordinators this year is best answered by another question- What kind of offense did TCU run in 2013?  We're long past the point where you can just call on offense "the spread" and have that communicate any meaningful information about your offense.  Over half the Big 12 runs the spread, but Oklahoma's offense doesn't look much like West Virginia's, and even less like Auburn or Oregon's spreads, so just calling an offense a spread doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot anymore.  Instead you need to look closer as to what the offense is trying to accomplish by spreading the defenders out- are you trying to take advantage of fewer men in the box to run the ball up the middle?  Are you counting on your slot receivers creating a mismatch against linebackers or safeties one on one?  Are you leaving men unblocked to create a sort of option play?  Or are you sending people downfield on routes that they can break off when they reach the open area of a zone to force the defense to defend the entire field?  These are the elementary questions you should be asking when you're designing an offense- against the opponent's base defense what exactly are you trying to accomplish?  This is the key to determining an offense's identity and it shouldn't vary too much week to week- your base plays should always work fairly well against a base defense, and it's up to your opponent to adjust the defense to them, compromising other areas of their defense to take away your strength and leaving other areas open, and that's when an offensive coordinator's creativity really comes out to shine with plays like screens and reverses to punish the defense for not playing honest.  When the defense adjusts to those little gimmick plays and are giving you the look you like again you go right back to gashing them with your bread and butter so your offense always stays one step ahead of the game.

This is why, to me, the two complaints that stand out the most about TCU's offense last year are "We're not running the ball enough" and "Did we just throw another bubble screen?"- they point decidedly to a lack of offensive identity, which is a problem that TCU hasn't had in a very long time.  Whether it be Fran's wishbone that whipped USC in the Sun Bowl, Schultz's short side option attack that kept TCU in constant title contention in CUSA or the zone read and inverted veer that Justin Fuente crushed the Mountain West with, TCU has always had a run first mindset as its base offense.  Run the ball until the defense starts cheating to try and stop that damn option that's grinding down the clock or that inverted veer that's seeing three different running backs pick up six yards per carry, then flip it out to a speedy and talented wide receiver in space and let him go to work- whether that receiver was Cory Rodgers, Jeremey Kerley or Josh Boyce, the differences weren't all that great.  The first time that TCU really felt like it had abandoned the running mindest was in the Fiesta Bowl (which I'll endeavor to never mention again) where the Frogs slung the ball around all evening against Boise State to very little effect.

The effectiveness of the offense really exploded when Mike Schultz left for Illinois and the much loved Justin Fuente took over playcalling, even though the Frogs went to a more balanced attack they had the deadly and highly innovative (at the time) inverted veer as a base play and both the running game and the passing game flourished.  The reason TCU's offense flourished wasn't because of some new wrinkle in a play, though- defenses catch up really quickly, and visions of Casey Pachall running the zone veer with regularity give me night sweats (Love your long ball Casey and I'm glad you got your life on track, but you still run like you've had a few too many)- it was because Fuente mixed in the change up plays with absolute mastery.  Linebackers starting to swing out to mark the quarterback on the zone read?  Boom, reverse to the slot receiver who cuts straight to where the linebacker should have been.  Cornerbacks are trying to jump routes because Casey is threading the needle on deep outs?  Double move and Boykin is running free to the end zone.  Linebacker is tired of giving one of TCU's bowling ball-like running backs a full head of steam before meeting him in the hole and starts to creep up?  Play action right into his zone.  Safety is playing ten yards off the slot receiver because he's gotten burned on a double move?  Quick bubble screen to the slot for an easy five yards (with the potential for more if the safety isn't a sure tackler), and on and on.  Yep, reverses, play action, double moves and even bubble screens- all those things that clogged down the offense so much in 2013 were present in Fuente's seasons, and were often the biggest plays of the game.  In fact, TCU's offense ran most of the same plays that Fuente ran when he was here, so how did the offense get so bad?

Since we're in baseball season right now, think of a pitcher staring down a batter with two strikes.  You've burned him twice with the fastball, but he fouled off the third and this time he's just chomping at the bit for you to throw it one more time.  Instead you throw your 62 MPH offspeed, the guy takes a huge whiff and strikes out.  If the guy had been expecting the off speed that ball would be six rows deep in the stands, but because you mixed it in and didn't tip that you were going to throw it you ended up with a big result.  That play action pass is your change up- you call it when the defense is expecting run and good things happen, but if it's third and ten and you haven't run the ball once this entire series, the pass rushers will be by your run blocking linemen in a flash and your quarterback is eating dirt.  Same for that much reviled bubble screen- if the safety isn't ten yards back, but is instead right up on the line when the ball is thrown, some guys in the stands are going to come to the conclusion that Trevone Boykin is a miserable quarterback and it's time to go to the freshman backup (I'm not going to argue that either way as I haven't ever seen Boykin in a well coordinated offense).  What happens to that pitcher if he decides that the change up is his go-to pitch?  The same thing that happened to the TCU offense in 2013- it gets blown up.  The thing about screens, play action and reverses aren't that they're bad plays, it's that they're cheat plays.  When the defense is cheating to try and take away the play that you're successful with, you mix one in and it pays off with big results to let you go back to that base play.  You run a reverse of a play that you're succeeding with, you run play action off a play that you're succeeding with, you throw a bubble screen because the defense is reacting to something you succeeded with- if the defense isn't cheating they're going to get devoured, because the guy whose go-to pitch is a 62 MPH straight ball is the guy that gets demoted to the batting practice ball chucker.  TCU's 2013 offense didn't have a base play, run or otherwise, that the opponent had to be sure to defend every time and as a result the Frogs were left playing rock-paper-scissors with only paper and scissors to work with.  Can you go too far the other way?  Absolutely- go back in time to 2006, it's third and three- what is Mike Schultz going to call?  If you guessed "option to the short side of the field" you would have gotten a stop and a field goal attempt from Peter LaCoco.  Not a good situation, sure, but that was still a TCU team that could out-talent a lot of opponents on offense and the defense was so good it didn't matter if the offense only got points once every five or six attempts.  In 2013 TCU's offense couldn't even guarantee you a first down once out of every five or six attempts, and that's why Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham are now wearing purple and in the cushy offices while Jarrett Anderson and Rusty Burns have been moved to "other football related positions in the program"- in a 8x8 cell under Amon Carter stadium licking the stamps that go on TCU recruiting envelopes.  Will Cumbie and Meacham end up restoring TCU to its ground based roots?  I'd like it, but it wouldn't be the worst thing for TCU to move to a more air raid style offense with four verticals as its base play- those sorts of offenses can work in the Big 12.  An offense with a bubble screen as its base play cannot.