Column: Getting Back to the Navy Offense
I have been writing about the Navy football program for 15 years now; first as an occasional contributor, then as a blogger, and now as the publisher of TheMidReport.com. I get a lot of feedback on what I write, and most of it is positive, or at least polite. There is one criticism that I hear fairly often, though: that I am too deferential to the coaching staff.
The complaint is not without merit, although it is a little off the mark. It is not that I am unwilling to criticize. It's that before I criticize, I try to make an honest effort to understand why certain choices were made, or why things happen the way they do. If I don't do the homework, then what is my criticism worth? More often than not, having a better appreciation for the factors that lead to a coach's decision makes it more difficult to find fault with that decision.
Many of the coaching decisions that have received the most scrutiny concern any change that is made to the Navy offense. The option-based scheme has been the primary ingredient in Navy's success over the last 15 years, so it is understandable that fans get nervous whenever a winning formula is tinkered with. There's no doubt, though, that subtle changes made to the offense under a decade of Ivin Jasper's guidance have only made it more effective. We've seen new formations that have confused defenses and given Navy a numbers advantage. The outside zone has helped the Mids to find running lanes against entrenched defenses that stack the box. Running plays out of the shotgun moved the mesh point into the backfield, making for easier reads against certain defensive stunts.
Many of these innovations were introduced to the Navy offense for games against their service academy rivals. Army and Air Force run their own option offenses, and both teams are skilled at defending them. All three programs struggle to execute against each other, and it isn't unusual for those contests to be low-scoring affairs. The Navy coaching staff has introduced wrinkles here and there to try to change that pattern. The culmination of these efforts came last year when the Mids hosted Air Force.
As well as the Falcons have defended Navy in the past, they have been inexplicably hopeless against New Mexico in recent years. The Lobos didn't run an inside veer-based offense like Navy, but it was option-based, and it has gashed the Air Force defense, averaging 49 points per game in their last three meetings. Navy's coaches talked to their counterparts in Albuquerque (since departed) over the offseason to see if they could use some of those ideas against Air Force, too.
They did, and to great effect. This wasn't just the addition of a few wrinkles; Navy's offense looked completely different when they stepped onto the field, lining up in shotgun formations and utilizing motions and plays that they had never employed before. The Mids ran for 471 yards that day in a 48-45 win. Navy's gamble paid off. Unfortunately, the offense might have been a little too effective.
Navy didn't just start practicing their Air Force game plan that week, but it was still only something that they worked on part-time throughout the season. For a part-time project to work so well was eye-opening. There is a problem with going too far down that path, though. The offense didn't work because Navy was especially proficient at it. The offense worked because not only was Air Force demonstrably inept at defending it, but they weren't prepared to see it from Navy. Despite this, the "Air Force Game Offense" has been integrated into Navy's overall scheme, and we see elements of it (and the more basic version used in the Army-Navy game) almost every week now.
For Navy to get back to its winning ways, this needs to change.
The problem is not that these plays are poorly designed, or that they can't work from an Xs and Os perspective. Navy ran for more than 350 yards per game last season, and they entered Saturday's game as the nation's leading rushing team. Navy's offense is as potent as ever when the Mids execute properly. The problem is that far too often, they do not. The question, then, is why that is the case. For an answer, we need only to listen to what the coaches have told us in the past.
One thing that Navy's coaches have always stressed is that the spread option isn't an offense in which one can merely dabble and hope to be successful. Its effectiveness is a result of its precision, and that precision only comes from being fully committed to the offense. For years, we have heard opposing coaches talk about how difficult it is to replicate the speed of Navy's offense in practice. There is no way for a scout team to learn in a week what Navy's players do over and over again, day in and day out.
But what happens when Navy's players aren't as dedicated to running the offense as they used to be? What happens when there is a whole suite of new plays that they also spend time practicing? That means less time is spent on practicing the regular offense, which makes players a little more hesitant. They make a few more mistakes. Suddenly, Navy's offense doesn't become quite as hard for defenses to simulate.
I'm not a football coach, so statements like these require a measure of humility. It's entirely possible that I'm wrong about this. I don't think that I am, though. So many of the problems that have plagued Navy for the last two years can be explained this way. Missed blocks. Missed assignments. Missed reads from the quarterbacks. Confusion coming out of timeouts. Broken plays. Plays that develop so slowly that defenders have time to recover and track the ball carrier down from behind. Even some of the penalties can be traced to this. Players caught out of position commit holding penalties. Players that don't communicate or aren't clear on their assignments commit chop blocks. Players that are unsure of themselves false start. The one thing that can tie all of these problems together is a simple lack of reps, reps that they would normally have received for these plays if the offense hadn't been augmented with so many additional plays.
Compounding the issue is the fact that Navy has expanded their offense at a time when it made more sense to scale things back. Malcolm Perry is a year behind in his development as a quarterback after spending most of last season at slotback. He would likely have benefited from a more back-to-basics approach. I was hopeful that was the case last week when Jasper commented to Bill Wagner after practice about simplifying the offense. Unfortunately, what that really meant was going back to the offense that the Mids used against Army last year, when Perry had just switched back to quarterback. Air Force wasn't caught by surprise this time, and the result was one of the worst offensive performances in recent memory.
It might be tempting, then, to think that the problem is at quarterback. Don't fall into that trap. People want to believe that the quarterback is the real problem because it offers the easiest solution, which is simply to make a switch. However, the same complaints about the offense existed last year with Zach Abey at quarterback. This year, Navy's offense hasn't performed any better with Garret Lewis under center. That isn't a criticism of either of those players; when the real problem isn't with the quarterback, changing quarterbacks won't solve anything.
Perhaps the most striking evidence of the real issues facing the offense came from Jasper himself after Saturday's game. Jasper mentioned that the team was caught off guard when Air Force lined up in an even front. There was a time not too long ago when that sort of thing didn't matter. Ken Niumatalolo has laughed about times when his team would spend all week preparing for one defense, only to have the opposing team line up differently. When Navy was simply running the usual Navy offense, it didn't matter; because they constantly practiced against multiple fronts, they could easily adjust. Only now, when Navy is running something different, has a curveball like that become such an obstacle.
Much was made in the offseason about the players' efforts to focus on the culture of Navy football and to get back to doing the things that have made them successful over the years. Perhaps it's time for similar introspection from the coaching staff. For years, Navy football has been known for doing one thing but doing it perfectly. As Niumatalolo has often reminded us, the line between winning and losing at the Naval Academy is a fine one, and by trying to do too much, he may have crossed that line.
The Navy offense is the best in college football. It's time to start running it again.