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Figuring Out what Pep Hamilton Means by a "Run-First" Offense

Pep Hamilton has been talking up the Colts' emphasis on the running game, saying that the Colts are a "run-first" team and a "power running" team. But what does he really mean when he says that? Josh Wilson gives his take.

"Well I think the flow of the game in a lot of ways dictates what we are able to do. We are a run-first team, we are a power running team and that's well-documented. I think we talked about that quite a bit since we kicked off training camp, but at the same time, the bottom line is we got to find ways to outscore our opponent. We feel like it takes a lot of pressure off the quarterback if we can of course run the football and force defenses to pack the box and that's going to open up opportunities to create big plays in the passing game so it's a two-fold effect. The run game opens up the passing game and vice versa so we are hoping that this Sunday night we are going to have an opportunity to go out and execute all the plays that we call on game day." - Pep Hamilton on Wednesday, August 14, 2013

If you have been paying attention to the Colts and their offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton this offseason, you've at least heard of the Colts' emphasis on running the football. Pep Hamilton, formerly Stanford's offensive coordinator, is a really bright young offensive mind who was a tremendous hire for the Colts to replace Bruce Arians, now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

But the one thing that has caused a lot of discussion, arguments, and confusion amongst Colts fans is Hamilton's repeated emphasis on running the football. Just Wednesday he said the Colts are a "run-first team" and a "power running team." Obviously, with Andrew Luck at quarterback and with the way the league is going, fans want to pass the football, and the fact that Hamilton keeps talking up the run game gets people worried and upset.

And it doesn't need to be that way.

Look, Hamilton knows what he is doing, and he knows what an amazing player he has in Luck. In fact, he probably knows better than most people, as he worked with Luck at Stanford as well. And his plan for the Colts offense impressed Sports Illustrated's Peter King, who talked with Hamilton for 20 minutes while visiting camp on August 14.

I think that if fans got a chance to meet with Hamilton one-on-one and discuss this offense like King did, they would feel the same way - they would love the coach and the direction his offense is going. Because after hearing what he has said, seeing what he is doing, and hearing what fans are saying of his offense, I see huge disparity there. Why is that? Quite simply, it's because Pep Hamilton hasn't gotten the point across adequately what he really is trying to do. I think a lot of us know what it is that he is trying to do, but he hasn't done the best job at explaining it.

When he talks about being a "run-first" and "power running" team, people go off talking about how they will be running the ball a ton and how as a result they will be handcuffing Luck - or something along those lines. They say that passing wins in the NFL, not running, and that the Colts' new offensive coordinator is just outdated and they have concerns about whether he can win in the NFL - or something like that.

What Pep Hamilton really means when talking about running the football is that the team wants to have a threat of a running game so much so that defenses have to respect it and focus on it. That in turn will open up more and better opportunities for Andrew Luck to throw the football. Pep has indeed mentioned that, too.

Overall, Pep Hamilton wants balance. That's the magic word. Balance. Pep Hamilton wants the Colts to be a balanced football team in the run and pass game. He mentioned how he thought the Colts did a good job of that in the first half of the first preseason game, but then got away from it in the second half due to the large deficit.

A bit of fact checking, however, shows that the Colts called 28 pass plays in the first half and 11 rushing plays. That's 71.8% of plays called being drop backs. Is that really balanced? No. I guess if you compare it to the second half (22 pass plays, 3 rush plays - 88% pass), it definitely is, but I don't think that 71/29 is a balanced split percentage-wise. And I'm sure that Pep doesn't either. (For those wondering, the run/pass balance when Andrew Luck was in the game was 7 pass plays to just 3 run plays.)

As my friend Tom James from the Terra Haute Tribune Stare says, however, "there is balance, and then there is balance." Balance, when it comes to run/pass balance, doesn't mean a 50/50 split. They aren't going to run it exactly as many times as they pass it, and the number likely will be closer to 40% rush and 60% pass. And that could still be balanced.

What Pep really wants is an offense that always has the threat to run, not one that is always running. And the Colts' coaching staff as a whole really wants an offense that can run the ball to protect a lead.

Another thing that Pep Hamilton said was that the Colts are a "power running" team, and most fans (including myself) think of goal line and short yardage as the primary spots for a power running game to manifest itself. But look at first preseason game and you'll see that nine times in that game the Colts were in a situation where they had four yards or less to get a first down, and every single time they went to the air. Every single time. Added to that is the fact that Delone Carter, the team's best short yardage back, was just traded away.

So what does Pep Hamilton mean when he says power running? It's a mentality. The Colts want to be a very tough and physical football team, and that's what Hamilton is trying to instill right now with the team. They want to be able to line up and smash the other team in the mouth. It doesn't mean that they always will, but it means that they want to have the mentality and the mindset that they can, and they want to be physical enough that they can. That's what he means by power run game, and the addition of fullbacks shows even more so that Hamilton wants more physicality from his offense.

Watching the Colts for the past few weeks during camp, I can tell you this for sure: they do have a commitment to the ground game. It's just not in the way that Pep Hamilton has talked up, and it's in a way that most fans would be happy with and honestly are convinced the team will do.

The Colts run the football, sure. But nobody would get the idea that this is a running football team just by watching them. That's where the disconnect comes between fan opinions and Hamilton's words. But realize that, whether Pep says so or not, the team's commitment to running is hidden throughout everything they do. Obviously, the most obvious is the handoffs. That's a given. But what about the play action passes? The Colts have been running a lot of play action in camp and the only way that works is if the threat of a running game is there. So the Colts need to have at least a respectable enough run game that opponents hesitate on Luck's play action for just a second. That's what they need to do, and that's what they are committed to do. Hamilton noted this as well in the August 14th presser that I keep referring to: "We feel like it takes a lot of pressure off the quarterback if we can of course run the football and force defenses to pack the box and that's going to open up opportunities to create big plays in the passing game so it's a two-fold effect. The run game opens up the passing game and vice versa"

An extension of that play action passing game is that the Colts have run a lot of bootlegs and rollouts with their quarterbacks in camp as well. That's basically running with the quarterback before the pass comes, in a way (and it provides better opportunity for the quarterback to tuck and run if nobody is open).

Another point is that the Colts extend their running game a lot by very short passes and screens. I remember Andrew Luck reflecting on his first NFL touchdown pass (a 63-yard dump off pass to Donald Brown on his first preseason snap) before the first preseason game, and Luck said that, "I don't know if you can categorize it as a pass. I literally did nothing. Donald Brown and the linemen and the wide receivers did the rest." This year, that may be able to be said a lot. The Colts have shown that they likely will run quite a bit of screen passes to their receivers and running backs, and they will deploy a much shorter passing game than last season. Just look at the game against the Giants in the second preseason game, where at one point in the game, in a span of just 4 plays, Pep had Luck throw 3 screen passes. We will see a lot of dump off passes to the running backs, fullbacks, tight ends, and screens to receivers, and it will basically be just an extension of the running game. Not exactly, but pretty close.

Is that what Pep Hamilton has in mind when he talks about running the football? I don't know. But what I am confident in is that Hamilton's emphasis on the run game has more to do with a mentality and timing than it does power running and run first. Hamilton wants this offense to have a physical mindset and he wants them to be able to run the football when they need to run the football (to pick up a key first down, at the goal line, at the end of games protecting a lead, etc.). THAT is what Pep Hamilton means when he talks about running the football.

Unfortunately, he hasn't done the best job at explaining that, which has led to a lot of confusion and speculation amongst Colts fans. And it doesn't have to be that way. All it takes is a logical and reasonable look at what Hamilton actually means when he talks about the run game.

And one thing I'm certain of is this: if every fan got 20 minutes to talk over this philosophy with Hamilton like Peter King did, they'll come away just as impressed as he was and they'll love the direction this team is going.

Because they're not trying to limit Andrew Luck at all. They're trying to do things that will help him become an even better and more efficient passer. They can't throw it 627 times again this year. They can't place it all entirely on Luck's shoulders. And so they're trying to develop a run game that can compliment Luck's passing attack and cause defenses to respect both the run and the pass.

Pep Hamilton isn't trying to do anything abnormal at all. He just has been very outspoken about it and he hasn't done the best job describing what exactly he wants to do. I know that I didn't either. But let me just implore you to look at what Hamilton actually means instead of just the words he says. And when doing that, you'll begin to see an offensive philosophy that should make you pretty comfortable with where this team is going.