Will conference membership slow down the Navy offense?
When the Naval Academy decided to join the Big East (now the American Athletic Conference) for football, there were several arguments both for and against the move. Among the latter were concerns that playing the same teams year after year as a conference member would lead to a familiarity with Navy's offense. The more these teams played Navy, the better they would supposedly get at defending them.
That line of thinking resurfaced over the summer. One writer went so far as to declare that "the mystique is gone" from Navy's offense. Bill Wagner of The Capital posed the question to the league's coaches at AAC media day, and they rightfully dismissed the idea. To agree would have been an insult to the 2015 Navy squad, and would have made for some choice bulletin board material for this year's team.
That doesn't mean that there isn't a grain of truth to the idea. Familiarity undoubtedly has been a factor in games between the three service academies. People get better at things through experience, whether it's football or anything else. Coaches will figure out what they like and don't like against Navy through trial and error, and over time that will help them come up with better game plans.
But wouldn't that be true about any offense? This is Tom Herman's second year at Houston. Is anyone asking if the Cougars' offense has lost its mystique? Philip Montgomery took Tulsa to a bowl game in his first season after inheriting a team that won only two games a year earlier. Who's saying that they'll take a step back because coaches will know what to expect from their offense now? Nobody. That's because people see these as "real" offenses, while the spread option of Navy is still a "gimmick offense." And if it's just a gimmick, then coaches just need to find the corresponding defensive gimmick to shut it down.
Well, it hasn't happened yet. It is somewhat incredible that these narratives regarding option offenses have persisted for so long, and in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If you're tempted to recycle some of these arguments, here are some points to consider:
Navy has always played teams multiple times
Navy was an independent, but that doesn't mean that they used to play a brand new slate of teams every year. From 2008-2015, Navy played multi-game series with 21 different schools, including annual games with the other service academies and Notre Dame. Navy playing familiar teams isn't a new phenomenon, and that's just since Ivin Jasper's been calling the plays. It doesn't take into account the three decades that Paul Johnson has spent running a similar offense for four different teams in three different conferences.
There's gobs and gobs of film out there. At this point, who doesn't know what Navy is about offensively?
Playing the same schools doesn't mean that you'll be playing the same people. There's a tremendous amount of turnover among college coaches. Navy's 2016 schedule includes seven teams with head coaches that have less than two years in their current positions, and turnover among coordinators is just as frequent. The schools might not change, but the coaches crafting their game plans do.
Familiarity helps against defenses, too
I once earned a mild rebuke in my formative days as a Navy football writer. I had made the mistake of describing the Navy offense as "Paul Johnson's offense" even after the former Navy coach had left for Georgia Tech. At the time, I just used the term out of convenience, since I didn't know what else to call it. I received the helpful suggestion to call Navy's offense, well, the "Navy offense." In retrospect, the obvious term was indeed the correct term, not because of pride, but because of accuracy.
Any offense is made up of two parts: the scheme, and the playcalling within the scheme. When Johnson left, the basic scheme remained, but a new person was making the decisions on which plays to run. Over time, even the scheme has changed. With different assistants coming together to find different solutions for problems presented by different opposition, the offenses of Navy and Georgia Tech have evolved into their own distinct species. They might have a common ancestor, but they aren't exactly the same.
The point here is that these offenses have evolved, and will continue to do so. They aren't static entities run by robots, with programmed responses to various inputs. The coaches evaluate what they like and don't like every year. They tinker with incorporating various ideas. In other words, just as defensive coordinators will make changes as they gain more experience against Navy, Navy's coaches will do the same. Familiarity cuts both ways.
That's not to say that Navy wins every game now. Of course they don't. The players still have to execute whatever it is that the coaches draw up, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the coaches have second thoughts about the plays they call. Either way, it doesn't mean that the offense has been "solved" any more than when any other offense has a bad day.
There's a reason why option offense myths persist. There aren't very many schemes that look like Navy's, Georgia Tech's, or Army's. The analysts on TV don't want to take the time to learn about something they'll rarely see, so they lean on the same talking points they've always used for these offenses.
Don't fall into the same trap.