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Fundamentals of the FSU Passing Game

A look at some of the core concepts of Jimbo Fisher's offense.

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Alan Mundy

Among Florida State fans, there is a lot of confusion about just what Jimbo Fisher's offense is. When asked to describe it, fans generally default to generalizations like "pro-style", "multiple", "pro-style with some spread elements", etc. that ultimately don't tell you anything. Is there even such a thing as a "pro-style" offense that doesn't include spread elements anymore? In fact, FSU fans generally can't even agree on whether the offense is simple or overly complicated. On the one hand, freshman receivers and tight ends often struggle to function in the passing game, but then you have opponents such as Oklahoma's Tom Wort referring to Jimbo Fisher's offense as very simple and BC's Nick Clancy saying FSU "basically runs three plays". How can both be true? Let's find out.

Rather than operate on pure speculation and guesswork, we're going to look at one specific play from the FSU playbook and derive what we can about the overall structure of the offense.

For anyone worried that we are spilling the beans, rest assured that we are not -- because Jimbo Fisher already has. The play we'll use was explained in exhaustive detail (much more than is contained in this article) by Coach Fisher himself in a coaching clinic that was filmed and is now sold for coaches and fans to watch. This is a very oft-used play that isn't anything FSU opponents haven't seen many times on film. This is basic stuff, not trick plays or practice secrets. FSU's opponents will not learn a single thing from this article. You might.

Oh, and if you want the really in-depth breakdown, buy the video at the link above to have Fisher explain it in excruciating detail.

Without further ado, here's the play we'll be looking at...

We'll refer to the play as "Dallas", though names have been changed to protect the innocent. Coincidentally, this is the play (with a tag) Rashad Greene scored his 71 yard TD on against Duke.

One of the most basic things to understand about FSU's passing game is that the same plays will be run from a large number of formations, but there are functionally only three different variations of each play, broken down by receiver distribution side to side. Note that for the purposes of this discussion, wide receivers, tight ends and even backs are interchangeable. The three possible variations of the play are 3x2, 3x1, and 2x2. In this way, the offense can be extremely diverse and flexible formationally without increasing the burden on the offensive players beyond knowing where to line up. This allows the coaches to tailor their gameplan and create leverage advantages against specific defensive alignments from week to week while maintaining a high degree of consistency and execution. Frequently, FSU will make extensive use of a particular formation versus one particular opponent and then rarely if ever use it again that season(Shotgun split backs against BC last year, for example.). This is one of the major reasons that many fans feel that FSU's offense has "no identity" as formations and personnel are the primary things they use to identify an offense. FSU's offense operates on concepts that can be run from literally dozens of different formations (over 60) and personnel packages, essentially all of which fall into one of the three categories mentioned above. One of the hallmarks of good offensive design is that it appears complex to your opponents but is simple for your own players to execute. All offenses operate on this principle to some degree, but Jimbo Fisher carries it to a much higher level than most.

Despite widely varying formations and personnel, these are all 2x2 formations and the routes and reads for the QB will be identical.

Examples of various 3x1 formations.

Next, we'll actually dive into the play itself and the concepts behind it. This play features what are known as packaged concepts. In the past, pass plays usually consisted of one concept, with a series of control/hot routes that may or may not have been live, but were not the focus of the play; or, if the pass concept was a 2 man route, it might be mirrored on both sides and the QB would simply pick the side with the best matchup/alignment. Below are a few examples of these types of plays.

Y Shallow Cross - A staple West Coast offense play, the play is designed to hit the shallow or the dig behind it, depending on how the defense plays it. The quarterback may take a peak at the vertical routes, but the shallow and dig are the primary focus of the play.

The famous NCAA Pass, or "Mills" in Spurrier parlance. The quarterback will read the side opposite the best positioned safety.

Dallas, on the other hand, actually features two entirely different route concepts to each side. Between the two different concepts, the play should result in an open man against almost any coverage the defense chooses to employ. The quarterback will read the coverage shell to determine which side of the field he looks to (This can often be determined pre-snap.) and then he will go through a 2 or 3 step progression read to that side. This accomplishes a couple of very important things. First, all five eligible receivers could potentially get the ball depending on how the defense plays without the quarterback actually having to try and make five separate reads. Receivers who know they might get the ball will run better routes than those that know they are decoys. Second, this makes it all but impossible for the offense to be caught in a bad play. This reduces the guesswork involved in calling the offense as even if you don't get the defense you expect, you're still in good shape to have a positive play. It also means the play is good in a lot of different situations, whether it be first down, third and long, two-minute offense(FSU ran this play three straight times to get into field goal range at the end of the half against USF), etc. Jimbo refers to these types of plays as "blind calls" and they make up the core of his passing philosophy. By having plays like this that are good in so many different situations and against almost any defense, you reduce the number of plays you need to carry and can practice the plays you do carry more to execute them better.

Against Quarters coverage, the post route should be open for a big play because the safety becomes a man defender on the tight end and the corner is playing outside leverage.

No doubt you’re saying to yourself at this point, "That sounds great, but opponents see these plays on film, what if they recognize them and jump the routes?" Well, the FSU offense has several built-in ways of dealing with this problem before you even look at audibling out of the play.

The first of these methods is the employment of option routes. When you look at Dallas, you have a post-dig concept to the 3 receiver side. Under normal circumstances the tight end/slot receiver will run vertically 10-12 yards, break inside and run across the middle of the field. The idea is to entice the safety to jump the in-breaking route and hit the post behind him. But what do you do if the other team has a great corner who is blanketing the post route and the safety recognizes the route combination from film study and jumps inside the dig to pick it off or wall-off the TE from getting to the middle of the field? Simple, the TE breaks his route to the outside and now has nothing but green grass in front of him. Against a traditional post-dig route, the defense could force a check down to the back or get an interception, but by building in flexibility with the option route the offense can actually turn the defense’s play recognition against them and potentially hit a big play. It should be noted that this is the read that Beau Reliford botched against Oklahoma in 2011 that led to a terrible looking interception. He turned out inexplicably when the middle of the field was wide open

If the tight end feels a defender walling him off from the inside, he will seek to collision the defender and turn his route to the outside.

The second method Fisher’s offense uses to expand the flexibility of the play is a tag system. Simply by adding the receiver’s designation (X, Y, T, Z, A, etc.) and the name of the route, any individual route can be changed to any route in the offense. One of the few weaknesses of Dallas is against a true Cover 2 (With the CBs off the line, as opposed to press alignment in Tampa 2.), so a common adjustment would be to call "Dallas Z Corner", pictured below.

Dallas Z Corner - Through use of tags any individual route can be changed to any route in the offense.

Another method that is fairly unique to FSU’s offense is the ability to flip the play at the line of scrimmage. The direction of the play is determined by which side the back goes to and FSU has a very simple system whereby they can go the line with the play called to either side and let the QB read the defense and choose which way to run the play, to take advantage of an unbalanced defense or a particular personnel matchup.

Dallas against Cover 8: A combo coverage consisting of quarters on one side and Cover 2 on the other.

The same play flipped at the line to get the slot receiver matched up on the safety vs. Quarters coverage.

So, what conclusions can we draw from all of this? At the end of the day, there is a minimum threshold of complexity that is required to be successful against the defenses a major college program can expect to face. That threshold can be lowered somewhat if your offense is unique or new, but as defenses adapt either the offense will have to grow or you will have to continue inventing new stuff, which hurts your ability to be consistent year over year. Teams that are constantly changing offensive coordinators or rewriting the playbook every year are rarely successful.

Where teams diverge is their particular solution to having all the requisite answers to the questions posed by the defenses they’ll face. You can either have a high volume of plays with limited flexibility, or you can have a lower volume of plays that have more flexibility built into them. The degree of freedom the quarterback has to audible also vastly affects the number of plays you need to carry. Somewhat counterintuitively, as the freedom the quarterback has to check into different plays increases, the volume of plays you need decreases. When you hear coaches talk about succeeding with 10 play or 20 play offenses, understand that they are really referring to a number of base concepts that have multiple variations.

The FSU passing game is built around a limited number of core concepts that are employed in a wide variety of formations and personnel groupings. The offense has a high degree of flexibility in both the pre- and post-snap phases, but generally doesn’t require extensive progression reads. The quarterback is set up for success assuming he is well versed in the offense and gameplan and gets the team into the correct play. The high degree of freedom the quarterback is granted places a similarly high burden on him to understand what he sees and make the right calls. This is intentional as Fisher feels it is easier to teach one quarterback how to read one play versus multiple coverages than it is to teach ten other players multiple plays. Given the success he has had with a myriad of different quarterbacks over the years, it is hard to argue with this point of view. On the other hand, it cannot be disputed that EJ Manuel has struggled at times in the pre-snap phase of the offense during his career. His improvement in this area this year has played a large role in the increased success of FSU’s offense.

First down rate measures the percentage of drives where an offense gets a first down (In other words, drives where the offense does not go three and out.). In 2011, FSU’s first down rate was .591, which ranked 76th nationally. So far in 2012, FSU’s first down rate is .833, good for 3rd in the country. This is a massive difference and is close to the biggest year over year improvement in a decade. Obviously, a sub-par slate of defenses and greatly improved offensive line play play major roles in that improvement, but another significant factor has been Manuel’s far better performance in the pre-snap phase. It remains to be seen whether this improvement will continue against the better defenses on FSU’s remaining schedule.