Blame it on Tennessee

Seems like everybody wants to blame somebody these days to support their own views or opinions.

In politics, they blame elected officials or the party in power.

In business, it’s the recession.

In football, it’s usually the head coaches – but these days it has even trickled down to the coordinators.

The blame game. Ah, such sweet bitterness. Gimme what I want or I am going to take your lunch money and call your mama bad names.

Me, I blame Tennessee, but more on that later.

It appears that fans feel they have become entitled not only to cheer the wins and boo the losses but to call the plays, make out the three-deep roster and script the halftime speech. Just winning, apparently, is no longer good enough.

There’s an old saying that everybody thinks they are experts at three things: 1) Running a restaurant; 2) Lighting a fire; 3) Calling football plays.

Which is one reason Steve Addazio has taken so many slings and arrows, along with his boss Urban Meyer.

The good news/bad news is that fans are smarter and some of them feel they have superior knowledge. With all the information overload in today’s world, no wonder they think they have it all figured out. And when they don’t get their way, they immediately point the finger. The Internet and talk radio make it easier and quicker.

OK, so I’ll play along and tell you a little bit of the reason I say Tennessee is at fault. (By the way I “blame” Tennessee for some good things as well as some not so good).

Much of the modern day football conservatism came out of the school of Tennessee’s Gen. Robert Neyland. And perhaps that is some of what we’re seeing again in college football today.

Neyland, a military man, laid the foundation for controlling the clock with the running game, flipping the field with the kicking game and relying on hard-rock defense to produce turnovers. He called it his “Seven Maxims.” Sound familiar? It’s not unlike Urban Meyer’s “Plan to Win.”

As a matter of fact, Neyland ran the single wing at Tennessee – the formation Meyer used with Tim Tebow at the controls.

* * *

If it’s true that football cycles repeat every 50-60 years, then it appears the running game is back in vogue. Even Steve Spurrier has run the ball more times than he has passed it at South Carolina so far this season. Marcus Lattimore rushed for 182 yards last week and the Gamecocks have a running backup quarterback in Connor Shaw.

As the defenses have adjusted to the passing game with faster players, the offenses appear to be countering with stronger offensive lines and more powerful runners – even at the quarterback spot. Florida has gone away from the option-read and appears to be developing a hybrid mixture in the Spread.

With Tebow gone and Johnny Brantley in his place, most of us figured the Gators would be throwing the ball more, as Meyer did with his 2006 team when Chris Leak was the QB—especially when Leak showed up unannounced at spring practice to mentor Brantley.

So far the Gators have run the ball 37 more times than they have passed it in three games and kept it on the ground 62 percent of the time. Plus Addazio and Meyer have thrown less on first down, deploying a low-risk, simplified the passing game. So while Brantley is pretty accurate, with more than 60 percent of his passes completed, his overall yardage is considerably below where it should be (455 for five TDs).

The thinking being, perhaps, is that until Brantley and his young receivers can get on-the-job training week by week, he’ll just hand the ball off most of the time and let Trey Burton take the Wildcat snaps. Clearly the Gators want to be a running team.

Part of this theory could be born out in Meyer’s comments prior to the Tennessee game when he said:

“Third and two is critical. Fourth and two is critical. We’re going to go for it. I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage, but we all understand what’s coming up here in the next few weeks. A lot of discussion about that. Who we are on third down and two, I can’t tell you right now. I don’t know who we are against Tennessee – I don’t know that. But that’s what we’re doing right now.”

To some this would be considered good, sound football – see Neyland, Woody Hayes disciples – and to others it is Old School, Smashmouth and boring.

There have been moments when that strategy has worked well, like when Jeff Demps broke off the 72- and 62-yard runs in the first two games. But as one critic pointed out on an Atlanta radio station remarked: “Hoping Jeff Demps will break off a 62-yard run is not an offense.”

Three times getting goose-egged in the first quarter, the Gator offense has had to resort to halftime adjustments and great depth in their lines to gain second-half advantages, but they are also allowing inferior teams to hang around way too deep into the game.

People who are used to seeing Tebow dial in the end zones with regularity are a little stunned when they first got a look at these 2010 Gators.

“Next time they come back,” a Tennessee writer quipped in the Neyland Stadium press box at halftime, “be sure and tell them to bring their offense.”

The talk radio shows and the message boards of sites like this one are rife with negative comments like that – so much so that many of the longtime Gator fans who see the glass half full at 3-0 are getting a bit weary of hearing or reading it.

* * *

So what is the offense? Truthfully, nobody knows.

Sometimes, critics will say, it looks like the players and coaches don’t know – especially when it appears the Gator offense is struggling just to get the ball snapped and the play started. 

At times, with so many young players on the field lacking experience, or when something as fundamental as receivers bumping into each other or the quarterback-center exchange breaking down, it looks even worse. Meyer registered his disappointment in the development of the offense this week when asked what had to be done.

“We just have to improve,” Meyer said. “Johnny and his receivers and the offensive line, yes, yes, yes. There is a lot of urgency. I have been saying that we have to start seeing results. We are, but I’m a little bit more down on the offense right now. But they’re getting better.”

Some might call it a balanced offense, others would say it was schizophrenic. But if this Gator team is going to consider itself physical and ground-oriented, it has to win the war in the trenches. At times that didn’t happen against Tennessee.

In fact, on third-and-1 near midfield against the Vols, a breakdown in the blocking allowed a linebacker to trip Moody short of the marker. And on fourth down, Mike Gillislee was stopped short as the ball went over.

Converting those kind of plays is crucial for a team that feels it can dominate the lines of scrimmage and resorts to a physical ground game as its personality. If, indeed, that is “who we are.”

Later in the fourth quarter, with the Tennessee game still in doubt at 24-17, the Gators were finally able to run the ball with Demps and Mike Gillislee for the winning drive of 51 yards. However, it took Brantley’s 24-yard completion to Deonte Thompson and his third-down completion of 12 yards to Carl Moore in order to set that up.

Meyer thinks with the return of the veteran offensive linemen and hard work in practice, there will be vast improvement.

“The essence of really any offense is the chemistry of the offensive line and consistency is what we’re looking for,” he told the SEC Media Wednesday. “We’re starting to see that in practice, and when that happens, we’re obviously going to expect that in a game and that hasn’t happened. Training camp it (the offensive line) was makeshift the last month and a half. For the first time in a while, we’ve had two weeks of practice together now.”

Urban says he’s good with Brantley’s play because his QB has “taken care of the ball.” While Meyer does think his team has gotten more physical, he also admits his offense is “predictable in certain situations.”

And that brings us back to conservative football, the “three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust” philosophy of Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and ol’ style Tennessee football. A long time before Urban arrived in Gainesville, Gator fans got their belly full of that philosophy. His name was Bob Woodruff.

* * *

The other day, while waiting for a press conference to start, Jeremy Foley was kibitzing with a few media members, who were chiding the Florida AD’s team about the deficiencies of the offense. It was good nature bantering, but when the reporter got a little edgy, Foley quickly brought up the fact that nowhere on the two crystal balls for Meyer’s national championship did it mention the offensive stats.

And later in the week, when guard Carl Johnson was asked about the offense, he made a similar reference: “No one remembers how the offense performs when you’re holding that crystal ball, they just know that you won.”

While nobody has mentioned it yet, there is that old adage that “offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.”

Well, sometimes. That’s assuming the coach is good enough to win championships, which Woodruff was not.

* * *

Throughout the 1950s, Woodruff used his carbon copy of Tennessee’s playbook and attempted to win with it. It took him five years to even make a bowl game. Anything over five wins was successful. His offense was duller than dull and his third-down punts drove fans nuts.

The capper was the night he was playing Rice, had the ball at midfield and elected to run out the clock with a 10-10 tie. His famous quote was: “I’ll gamble to win, but not to lose.” Shortly after that he was fired and a former Tennessee player was brought in to replace him.

Ray Graves, even though he was a defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, had his marching orders not to be so conservative. He opened up the offense with his winged-T formation and in the very first big game against his old school, Georgia Tech, he took a huge risk and elected to go for two points, beating his old boss Bobby Dodd, 18-17.

Unfortunately, another Tennessee coach came home to Gainesville and failed miserably. Replacing Graves after the greatest record in history with the Super Sophs (9-1-1), Doug Dickey took a pure drop-back passer in John Reaves and tried to build an option offense around him.

Graves had also brought a quarterback from his home state named Steve Spurrier, who won a Heisman Trophy and later would produce the school’s first SEC titles and national championship. Singlehandedly Spurrier change the SEC into a passing conference with high-octane offenses.

So what’s so bad about Spurrier doing that? Well, he went and spoiled a bunch of folks.

* * *

A few old-time fans remember the frustrating days of Woodruff and get migraines thinking about that.

Graves had let things slip away and the program flagged in the late 1960s, as Georgia hammered Florida 51-0 in the rain.

Dickey never got the program off the ground.

And then Spurrier brought fans such jubiliation by pounding his rivals into submissions, taunting them and putting together a string of SEC championships like a necklace of pearls. There was a bunch of “Fun” in that “Fun ‘N’ Gun.”

Four Tennessee coaches – two of whom conjure up flashbacks, one of whom was moderately successful and still another who made everybody think wide-open offense was an inalienable right to every season ticket holder. Except that Spurrier has learned better up in Columbia, S.C.

What does this mean for Meyer? Not much, probably, except to demonstrate the transition of offensive football and show that the danger for all coaches is in clinging to any one philosophy whether he has the athletes for it or not. One can’t get stuck in a mode, as Woody Hayes sometimes did.

It is said that Ara Parseghian, who played for wide-open Sid Gillman and later coached under Hayes at Miami (Ohio), knew about Hayes’ mentality and exploited it while at Northwestern. If Ohio State ran a play and Northwestern stopped it, Woody would often go right back to it, just to show his old assistant that his team couldn’t stop Hayes’ offense play after play after play.

But Northwestern did. “Woody was just so damn stubborn,” said Parseghian, who was more Gillman than Hayes.

I don’t think Urban is that stubborn – he’s just waiting for his playmakers to emerge.  But he says there has been modest progress. Given Meyer’s ability to adapt the offense and his success as changing the Spread—see Chris Leak and see Tim Tebow—one most acknowledge his track record for adapting to his personnel. He has been masterful at it.

“I wish I could stand up here and say I have seen enough (progress),” Meyer said. “I’ve seen us win some games. I’ve seen us do some good things, but I have not seen enough to say we’re right on that edge … The thing I have seen is some receivers step up and make some plays.

“I’ve seen Johnny Brantley go into Tennessee with 100,000 people and control the game, and I was very concerned about that because we have seen enough new starters come into our stadium and look like new starters. I don’t think we looked great, but John at least managed the game and did what we had to do to win it.”

* * *

So it’s not exactly The Fourth of July every Saturday with the Florida offense. You know that. I know that. Even Urban Meyer knows that. After three games the Gators are ranked 83rd nationally and next-to-last in the SEC for total offense. It could have something to do with the players who went to the NFL after last season—two of them starters now (Maurkice Pouncey and Aaaron Hernandez).

This is the new Florida football, yet another version of the Meyer Spread.

Instead of the Fun ‘N’ Gun, it’s the Run ‘A’ Ton. At least for now.

In the end, Meyer will most likely smooth out the kinks in his offense, open it up for Brantley and perhaps realize his goal of getting the ball more into the hands of those playmakers – which, of course, is the fundamental principle of the Spread offense.

You remember that old Spread offense, don’t you?