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Tutorial Tuesday: The passing game route tree

The quest to further our football knowledge continues.

Alabama State v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The purpose of these articles are to gain a greater understanding of not just the game of football itself, but also as windows into the schemes that new head coach Mike Norvell has brought with him to Tallahassee. If you have missed any of our previous entries, you can find them here.

Usually Tutorial Tuesdays are for defense, but this week we thought we’d switch it up a little bit and do some more offense. We’ve done a pretty extensive review of the running game, so it’s time we expanded into the passing game. What better place to start than what receivers are asked to do?

Here’s some generic route trees:

Route tree

As you can see, while we have common names for each route, some systems label each route with a number. Different systems even use different numbers to describe the same route. In general though, the even numbers go toward the middle of the field while the odd numbers go toward the sideline.

Therefore, the beginning of any conversation about a passing game really starts with a conversation about language.

Old school West Coast offenses were notoriously word-heavy. They tried to specifically describe everything happening in a play from the formation to the pass protection to the actual routes. Here’s a couple typical Jon Gruden playcalls:

Green Right X Shift to Viper Right 382 X Stick Lookie and Green Right Strong Slot Spider 2 Y Banana.

Don “Air” Coryell is credited with naming routes with numbers, like above. This allows the playcall to be easier to visualize. Here’s a couple simple calls. In the first one, you can see that the receivers will be in trips, with one running a go route (9), one an out (a 5 in his system), and one a flat route (the 1):

Trips Left, Slippy 951 Fade and 525 F Post

Then we have the Erhardt-Perkins system, which brilliantly uses words to describe entire pass concepts. An example might be:

F-Right 72 Ghost/Tosser

Where F-Right is the formation, 72 is the protection, and Ghost and Tosser describe two pass concepts, one to each side of the field. This system instantly became extremely popular and now most coaches utilize it, including Mike Norvell.

The Erhardt-Perkins system has numerous advantages beyond just less verbiage. Using a single word to describe two and three-man route concepts speeds up the process between the coach making a playcall and the snap, which makes it easier for an offense to play with tempo. Further, word association makes it easier for a player to learn a route rather than by memorizing the entire route tree, especially since route trees can be nearly infinitely complex these days and you’d need a different number for each route. Routes now go all over the field, and often have options built in based on the coverage and leverage of defenders.

Also, it allows an offense to mix and match concepts, combining man and zone beaters, into different formations. To use the example above, Tosser is simply double slants which is a man-coverage beater, while Ghost is the common Stick concept that attacks zone coverage. You can call the same Ghost/Tosser out of multiple formations, or mix Ghost with a different man-coverage beater instead of Tosser and vice versa. In the end, the system does what all coaches strive to do — make it easy for your players to remember and execute and difficult for opponents to prepare for.

Gus Malzahn, from whose tree Mike Norvell hails, also likes his concept words to have a theme. For example, Malzahn will call a play “Moses” and then the play action version of that play is called “Egypt”. Most of Malzahn’s concepts are named after biblical references, the benefit of which is many of his players are already familiar with them. It’s a good bet that Norvell follows the same principle, whether his are named after animals or states or cartoon characters.

The following is by no means an exhaustive — just a cursory — example of the routes in Norvell’s offense, but it can give you an idea of what the receivers in this offense could be doing on any given play.

There are slants, screens such as bubble, tunnel, and tailback, flat routes, go routes, digs, posts, comebacks, curls, speed-outs, crossing routes, and much, much more. Since Norvell is a Malzahn disciple, it might be helpful to show you some of the route trees in Malzahn’s offense, thanks to our friends at College and Magnolia:

Malzahn route tree
Malzahn route tree

As far as pass concepts in Norvell’s offense there’s all the things you’d expect and more — Stick, Flood, Smash, Four Verticals, Double Screens, Post-Dig, Post-Wheel, All-Curls, and of course all your RPO combinations. Flood, which is where three routes will “flood” one side of the field usually at a short, intermediate, and deep depth, is a favorite of Norvell’s. As we’ll get into in the coming weeks, Norvell is also like Malzahn in the way he uses routes, motion, and pulling offensive linemen to disguise what they’re doing and confuse defenders.

Join us in the comments to discuss further!