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Frank Reich’s offense: The Maryland years

How former Maryland head coach Bobby Ross influenced Frank Reich

Over the next few days I’m going to give you more intricate details on what I expect the 2018 Frank Reich led Indianapolis Colts offense to look like. I have arrived at this conclusion based on his history as a player and a coach. I will say, that while this is an educated theory (I subjected myself to all 16 San Diego Chargers contests of the 2014 season for this series, you’re welcome) it is at best a theory. We don’t know, beyond a shadow of a doubt what his offense is going to look like, but I feel I can get pretty close considering his influences and what the man himself has said.

Tomorrow morning we will cover Frank Reich’s time in the NFL and progress as the week goes on, culminating in what I expect The 2018 Indianapolis Colts offense to look like. I hope you enjoy reading about the Colts new head coach as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing this piece.

If you missed yesterday's intro to the series you can catch up by clicking here.

The Maryland Years

You needed to see this picture twice

Frank Reich could make an argument as having been the most lucky or unlucky quarterback of all time, either title would be fitting. Unlucky to have sat most of his college career behind Boomer Esiason, unlucky to be drafted by the Buffalo Bills only to sit most of his pro career behind Jim Kelly, at the same time very lucky to have stretched his time as a backup into a 13 year professional career. Sitting for three years behind Esiason while at Maryland gave Reich an opportunity to absorb head coach Bobby Ross’ offensive system.

In 1984 offenses looked a little different than they do today. In fact Bobby Ross ran a “balanced offense” out of a modified split backfield version of the wishbone. If you have questions about the wishbone offense, I suggest you go to Seymour, Indiana and ask anyone who played for the Owls between 1970 and 2005 (I have no idea if/when Seymour High School updated their offensive system, the rumor was they had always ran it and “always would” but “always would” can vanish when trying to keep pace with schools like Columbus East, right down the road).

From my recollection Seymour ran it as well as any team I ever played against and a well executed wishbone was maddening to defend. As a defensive lineman every single run play looked the exact same. “Reading screws” was useless, you couldn’t predict where the ball would be on any given play, you simply tried to maintain your gap assignment and tackle the guy who actually had the ball.

Remember that line in Remember the Titans where coach Herman Boone says “I run 6 plays, split veer. It’s like Novocaine. Just give it time, always works.” That was more or less Seymour’s offense and that bit about giving it time was true. It never failed, by the time the 4th quarter came around they would almost always break off at least one long run. Frank Reich’s college coach Bobby Ross famously only had 11 different runs in his playbook. Just like Novocaine.

But Ross didn’t just stop with well executed misdirection, before the 1980 NFL season Ross was an assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs. In the linked article from the Washington Post, Ross said of the development of his system:

But the winter and spring before the 1980 season (as an assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs), I did this study. I had been pretty conservative. But I started thinking that balance was the key to having a good offense. I don’t even know where I got the idea from.

I got the films of the four most balanced teams in the NFL that year -- the L.A. Rams, Dallas, Atlanta and New England. Not the best passing or the best running teams, but the ones with the best ratio of run to pass.

”I cut up the films into 13 different categories and just studied: ‘How do these guys get outside on running plays? When do they throw on short-yardage situations?’

”I came away even more convinced of the balance, and through that, unpredictability. And I just went from there. I finally had a philosophy of offense. For the first time, I didn’t care what other people said, and that was a big step.”

The last two lines in the first paragraph will be surprising to anyone who has listened to a football coach talk in the last couple decades. He’s not sure where he got the idea to be balanced, maybe he was a time traveler, came to 2018 listened to all 28 (wink, wink) NFL head coaches post season press conference. He would have heard 28 out of 28 talk about being balanced.

For 1980, the idea of balance was ahead of its time.

In 2018 when a team is “balanced” it means they have a run/pass ratio close to 50/50, really anywhere near 45% run could be called balanced today. So what did balance look like to Bobby Ross in the 1980’s? Over the last 10 games of the 1983 season the Maryland Terrapins had 2,930 yards rushing and amazingly 2,930 yards passing. The run/pass ratio wasn’t quite the same. The Terrapins had 306 passing attempts and 457 rushing attempts.

Sure, it’s easy to sit back and criticize the coach, those numbers break out to 9.58 yards per pass attempt compared to 6.41 yards per rush attempt. Passing resulted in more yards per attempt, that’s a good thing, right? Of course, but this offense was considered progressive. It was dangerous. It was 8th in the nation with 32 points per and 6th in the nation with 446 yards per game in 1983.

This offense was considered to be a “multiple-pro offense”. Ross drew acclaim for the flexibility of his offense, anyone could catch a pass, anyone could get the ball at anytime, it was balanced in more than one way. He took what he learned by studying both college and pro schemes and created a style that was uniquely his own and highly effective.

This run play isn’t much different from what you would see from the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles split zone:

Obviously there are major differences, namely the Terps aren’t using a zone blocking scheme, but the general idea is the same. The play is blocked to the left, the tackle pulls (in the 2018 version of the split zone this is the TE) and he works up field. It’s tough to tell if the play side TE was supposed to block the defender or release him to get to the next level, if he was supposed to release him the pulling tackle would have been responsible for kicking him out to create an outside run. The pulling tackle looked as if he had to adjust his route as Vols defender #62 does a good job containing the edge.

Meanwhile the fullback goes to the backside of the play to replace the pulling tackle. He doesn’t replace the block, instead those defenders don’t know for sure he doesn’t have the ball. He freezes them just long enough that the tailback has a chance to gain yards on this play.

While this isn’t a 1 to 1 to the modern split zone run, if it was designed to go to the outside, it’s very similar considering the amount of change that’s taken place in the past four decades of football innovation. Further the principals of numerical advantage, misdirection and leverage remain the same in 2018 as they were in 1982.

Pass designed to go to the RB:

Most pass plays saw the Terps send their backs on pass routes. On occasion they would have dummy pulls and the fullback would block while Reich would roll out looking down field. This play, isn’t that. This is a designed clear out for that running back. This is what other coaches complained about with Bobby Ross’ offense. Reich takes a 7 step drop, his receivers go deep (sorry I can’t be more specific, the 80’s didn’t have great TV angles and the replay angles were somehow worse for determining anything beyond 5-10 yards) while the other back clears out the middle for the crossing route underneath.

Reich hits his back foot and it’s an easy gain. Unfortunately it was called back due to a block in the back but that’s hardly the point here. This wasn’t in any way a West Coast offense, yet they wanted to find ways to get their running backs the ball in space.

It’s interesting how much of what Bobby Ross implemented in the early 1980’s that Frank Reich has spoken of implementing in 2018. No, Reich isn’t bringing back a ton of traditional splitback formations and I will personally guarantee his idea of balance isn’t a 23 run/pass ratio. Rather the ideas that Ross designed his system around; a multiple, flexible, unpredictable system that would look to get everyone the ball in multiple ways.

The lessons Frank Reich learned as a young man seem to have left an impression, but they hardly tell the whole story of Frank Reich’s scheme history. Nor does Bobby Ross’ heavily wishbone influenced system cover all of the principles he will draw from to establish the offense we’re going to see for our 2018 Indianapolis Colts. Next we’ll take a look at the systems that made Reich’s 13 year professional career as successful as it was.

Frank Reich’s offense: The Maryland years

Frank Reich’s offense: The NFL years

Frank Reich’s offense: The assistant coaching years, part 1

Frank Reich’s offense: The assistant coaching years, part 2

Frank Reich’s offense: The 2018 Indianapolis Colts, part 1

Frank Reich’s offense: The 2018 Indianapolis Colts, part 2