Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Tebow experiment is inevitable

by Tim Layden

Nice of Tim Tebow to end the suspense early. But the debate on his future will continue unabated, and not just on blog posts and sports talk radio.

This debate has nothing to do with his place in college football history or fast-tracking his path to sainthood. Without taking another snap for the Gators, Tebow is already on the short list of the best to play the college game.

The commentary on his impeccable character is tiresome, but Tebow has already won a Heisman Trophy and two national championships. (If not for some very sketchy voting patterns this year, he would have two Heismans.) He could leave Gainesville next spring with two statues and three national titles, which would be unprecedented. I have no idea if he is a better college player than Doc Blanchard, but he's in the team picture.

Yet there is a far more intriguing argument on the table: Where does Tebow fit in the NFL? Does he fit in the NFL at all? I won't pretend to know the answer but I can guarantee there is no shortage of NFL executives and coaches dying to find out. And anybody who dismisses Tebow on the grounds he's just another college athlete who can't play the NFL game is on a different page from the people who will decide his football future.

In November I wrote a story about the re-emergence of single wing-based formations and plays -- a.k.a. the "Wildcat'' -- in the NFL and college football. Tebow's name kept coming up, and without provocation. Example: When I spoke with Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator (and former Miami Dolphins head coach) Cam Cameron, he was talking about playing in the NFL with a full-time single wing-style quarterback. He expressed skepticism and then added, "Maybe Tebow can do it.''

I hadn't asked him about Tebow. But he mentioned Tebow just the same. Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who has been a head coach in both the NFL (Dallas Cowboys) and college (Georgia Tech), did the same thing. And so did Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who introduced Tebow into our interview by saying, "Tebow, obviously, is a special one.''

The NFL is fascinated with Tebow because he represents a potential evolutionary step in offensive professional football. (Emphasis here on potential because it's all a guessing game at this point.)

Belichick says, "To win in the NFL you have to be able to throw the ball.'' And that is unquestioned. However, the complexity and athleticism of NFL defenses challenge the passing game in such ways that smart offensive minds are constantly trying to find a means to make the quarterback a more effective and dangerous player. They all would love to find a quarterback who is a threat to pass or run on every snap. All of them.

The option game has been a staple of college football for decades, whether in the Oklahoma T-formation under Bud Wilkinson in the 1950s or the Texas and Oklahoma wishbones in the 70s or the Vince Young/Pat White zone-read option in this decade. Yet the option has never translated to the NFL on the theory that professional defenses are too fast and too physical. Option reads would be ineffective because NFL players would overwhelm it with speed. And the quarterback would get mauled.

Slowly, however, rigid old rules are loosening. There is no movement afoot to install the Air Force flexbone in the NFL, but there is absolutely an interest in using option principles to complicate defensive preparation. "Somebody, someday is going to run the option in the NFL,'' says Gailey, "and when that happens, all bets are off.''

For now, the goal is more modest. Gradually, over the past several seasons -- culminating in the Miami Wildcat -- NFL teams have experimented with direct snaps to a single wing-style tailback. (With the Dolphins, that was Ronnie Brown). This forces the defense to account for an extra player as a potential ballcarrier and reduces the number of bodies they can commit to the box.

If that player is a threat to pass, the game is fundamentally changed.

Michael Vick proved himself a dangerous runner in the NFL. But he was never a consistently accurate thrower. Likewise Vince Young, albeit with a lesser body of work. Long before either of them, Randall Cunningham and Steve Young were effective throwers and dangerous scramblers, but with few designed running plays. The truth is the NFL has never had a player who can consistently threaten defenses equally with his arm and his feet. And the NFL collectively wonders if Tebow is that guy.

As I quoted Belichick in the Dec. 1 issue of Sports Illustrated, "It's going to be very interesting to see what happens when Tebow comes into this league. There aren't many players who can run and throw.''

Yet at lower levels of the game, dual-threat quarterbacks are becoming the norm. In youth and high school games, teams are running spread offenses with zone reads and quarterback off-tackle runs. It's remarkable that Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan were so successful in the NFL as rookies this year, and they are both traditional pocket quarterbacks in the mold of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. But as Belichick says, "There's a lot of interest in what you could do with a real athlete back there, like an Elway, with his ability to run the ball.''

Said Gailey in SI, "Over the next 10 or 15 years, it's going to evolve because the runner-thrower is the kind of quarterback the college game is producing now.''

Tebow is the prototype of that quarterback. At 6-foot-2½, 238 pounds, he is big, strong and relatively fast. (Not Vick fast, but not Manning slow, either). He has the girth and toughness to withstand hits, although probably not a full season's worth of NFL hits. ("Look at how short the careers are for running backs in the NFL,'' says Belichick.). As a passer, Tebow is no Ryan, but he is a far more accurate thrower than Vick or Young.

The challenge for NFL thinkers is how best to use Tebow. Can he be a full-time quarterback? (Not likely, unless he is re-made as a pocket passer). How many times can he carry the ball, making himself a threat without getting, as Belichick says, "broken in half?'' (Maybe 10 times a week? Maybe only five?). Can an NFL offense function effectively with two quarterbacks. Say, Tyler Thigpen for 40 snaps and Tim Tebow for 20? What would this do to your salary structure? Is a Super Bowl worth paying two quarterbacks NFL-starter money?

No answers here. Not yet. But know this: The questions are being asked by the people who write the checks. The Tebow Experiment is forestalled for a year, but it will absolutely take place.



Sunday, January 11, 2009

Running down a dream

By Gabe House
Macomb Journal
Sun Jan 11, 2009, 02:06 AM CST

Stefan Flynn spent the last several months running.
Flynn wasn't running from anything, but rather, toward one thing in particular: a state championship.

The prolific tailback from the Illini West Chargers - who sported an undefeated 14-0 record and captured the IHSA 3A state championship - was instrumental in a football campaign that perfectly captured all the hallmarks of a storybook season.

"It was great, something I've been looking forward to all my life," Flynn said. "It was a great accomplishment, and it gives us a sense of pride. I think it gives our towns a sense of pride too."
But even as Flynn spoke of pride - as well he should with 1,552 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns in a remarkable junior year - one could hear the humility tempering his voice.
The Chargers' opponents only saw one side of Flynn all season long - the bulldozing battering ram that refused to go down. What they all missed was the young man's supreme ability to remain modest while making trip after trip to the endzone.

"He's very humble," said Illini West head coach Jim Unruh. "When you go to interview him, I'm going to guess the first thing he's going to talk about is the offensive line he was able to run behind. He's very sincere in giving credit to other people."

And that is exactly what Flynn did. And has done all season long. Game after game, surrounded by a throng of media on the field, Flynn always deflected individual praise, instead opting to give credit to the members of his offensive line.

Ross Hutson, Kane Sherman, Travis Hobby, Kyle Hartzell and Luke Burling were the unsung heroes in Flynn's mind. If he said it once, he said it 14 times. Those guys were the reason he rolled up a ton of yards and points throughout the season.

"All of them put in the time in the off-season," Flynn said. "They all had the same goal to win a state championship. They work just as hard, if not harder, than anyone on the team."
And all that hard work paid off.

Between Flynn, his offensive line and Unruh's stalwart single-wing offense a perfect storm had coalesced for the Chargers. Just one year after getting bounced out of the playoffs in the first round with a 7-2 record, Illini West turned around and surprised many pigskin pundits with its domineering ways.

Illini West's championship run came just two years after the towns of Carthage, LaHarpe and Dallas City converged to become the singular entity known as the Chargers. As playoff season descended on Carthage, signs sporting such slogans as "3 towns, 1 Dream" dotted the roadways and schoolyard.

And with three communities providing support - and young men eager to play football - the Chargers never had a lack of a fervent fan base, something Flynn particularly enjoyed.
"The fans are great and they come out to every single game," Flynn said. "We had just as many people at the state game as we had at our home games. It's a great help to hear them cheering you on."

The cheering has subsided for now, though. The Chargers proved themselves and ran the table. Now, Flynn has other things on his mind.

There's next season to think about, for one thing. And church. Flynn said he regularly attends services in Colchester and wouldn't have the success and accolades without that presence in his life.

Also, of course, there is school. Flynn - who said math is his favorite subject and engineering will be his chosen major - stays pretty busy with his studies. Engineering seems an apt choice for a young man who helped fabricate a banner season on the football field.

"I feel that the college coaches, if they're not already recruiting Stefan Flynn, then they're just asking to get fired," said Illini West athletic director Troy Noble. "He's only going to get better. He's a kid who's not satisfied ... because he realizes how fortunate he was this year."
When asked to sum up Flynn's character Noble also said if he had a daughter that Flynn, or someone like him, would be the ideal candidate to date her. That's a pretty big endorsement.
Flynn, though, wasn't sure how to take that one.

"Uh ... I don't know," Flynn said with a chuckle. "I might be a little scared if I was dating Troy Noble's daughter. I'd have to be running a few more wind sprints if I did something wrong."

Macomb Journal, 203 North Randolph, Macomb, IL 61455


Making it look easy

By Gabe House
Macomb Journal
Sun Jan 11, 2009, 02:01 AM CST

Jim Unruh never really had aspirations to be a coach.

It's odd, considering his father, Paul, won the first IHSA 3A state title for football far back in 1974 with West Chicago. Even that, Unruh said, did not provoke him to follow in his dad's footsteps.

"It was just something I kind of fell into," Unruh said. "I don't know when you get into teaching and coaching if you ever really plan on coaching a championship game."
And yet, Unruh has been there a handful of times, most recently with 2008 Illini West Chargers in a 21-14 victory over DuQuoin. The team - with a perfect 14-0 record - gave him his first 3A title 24 years after his father did the same thing.
But when the Chargers stepped on the field at Memorial Stadium in Champaign it was more than the climax to an incredible season. It was the crowning moment for Unruh to prove his coaching strategies could succeed at the 3A level.

The single-wing offense is what Unruh swears by. And why not? It gave him three state titles at the 1A level from 1998-2000, one in 1995 and three runner-up finishes in 2A from 2002-04.

Still, when the towns of Carthage, LaHarpe and Dallas City converged to become Illini West two years ago, many people questioned the wisdom of sticking with Unruh's traditional offense. It can't succeed at a higher level of play, many said. It just won't work.

Unruh didn't listen to them, though, even after the Chargers were bounced from the 3A playoffs with a 7-2 record in the first round last year.

"There were some questions on that. Myself, I never questioned that, though," Unruh said, regarding his basic schemes. "Well, I'd seen enough teams be successful running very vanilla systems, and I've always been a believer in running what we've run and trying to run it to perfection. That's how I've always coached."
And, obviously, it paid off.

Junior tailback Stefan Flynn racked up more than 1,500 yards and 23 touchdowns to lead the Chargers. Drake Schmudlach and Mitch Beals, meanwhile, combined for similar numbers as well. The single-wing offense everyone had criticized dropped dividends in spades for Illini West.

"The biggest thing for me is seeing how successful his teams were before in using it," Flynn said. "And also knowing how well he knows the offense and how well he can teach it."

Unruh, however, maintained it was the team that did all the work. According to him, coaching football is not particularly difficult. It's as simple as putting the right players in the correct spots and letting them make plays, Unruh said.

"It goes all the way to the beginning of the season to practices to camp to seven-on-sevens when you set your goals so high each and every week you prepare, and your players demand themselves to get better," Unruh said. "That's the hallmark of a championship team."

That mentality proved to be a keystone for the Chargers, especially in the semi-final and championship games when they took halftime deficits into the locker room. Unruh and his coaching staff - who aren't exactly the "fiery speech" kind of guys - simply told the team to keep doing what they're doing. Things would work out if they stuck to the principles.

"He's more of a soft-spoken leader," Flynn said. "But there's nothing you can say bad about a guy who's won five state championships."
And despite Unruh's many trips to the title game, there is one thing that makes the normally reserved coach a little more animated; stepping on the field before the title game and basking in the history that pervades Memorial Stadium, if only for a few moments.

It's something, Unruh said, that never gets old.

"It's awe-inspiring ... to be able to coach at the University of Illinois where you've got all the great high school and college coaches that have coached at that field, and the players that have played there," Unruh said with a trace of reverence in his voice. "It's awe-inspiring to step on that same field to coach a football game."

Jim Unruh through the years
Year W-L
1986 6-4
1987 7-3
1988 13-1
1989 10-1
1990 5-4
1991 7-3
1992 9-3
1993 10-1
1994 10-1
1995 14-0
1996 8-3
1997 6-4
1998 14-0
1999 14-0
2000 13-1
2001 6-4
2002 13-1
2003 13-1
2004 13-1
2005 11-1
2006 7-4

Illini West
2007 7-3
2008 14-0

23 yrs. 230-44

Macomb Journal, 203 North Randolph, Macomb, IL 61455


Title game offers blueprint

Title game offers blueprint
Matt Hayes

Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009 - 12:26 a.m. ET
MIAMI--A funny thing happened this fall: The NFL copied college football, which two years earlier, copied high school football. And now the Wildcat formation--or whatever funky term teams use--is the hot, new changeup in the coaching world.

Until next fall, that is. Until the sport of copycats adapts to something else.

"You're always looking," said Florida coach Urban Meyer, "for that little edge."

By the end of tonight's BCS national championship game, that edge could be Florida's speed-based, shotgun option offense, or Oklahoma's no-huddle, pass-happy scheme. It's fairly simple in the coaching world: Someone wins, others follow.

"Anyone who says they don't isn't telling the truth," said Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt.

It was Nutt who introduced the Wildcat, which he later changed to WildHog, to college football three years ago as coach at Arkansas. His new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn brought it with him from Springdale (Ark.) High School, and now many in the game (and a few in the NFL) find a handful of snaps for their best athlete in what amounts to an old-school, single-wing formation.

Two years ago, LSU copied Nevada's Pistol Offense--single back, shotgun run formation--and it became a staple of the Tigers' national title run. This time around in the championship game, there are two more examples from which to choose, each with drastically different time frames for execution.

Oklahoma took the play clock rules changes this offseason and instituted a no-huddle scheme around the 40-second window from the end of the previous play. More plays meant more opportunity, and led to the highest-scoring team in the history of college football.

Florida's goal of recruiting speed first--no matter the size of the player--since Meyer arrived in Gainesville in 2005 has transformed the immensely popular spread option offense. Because the Gators run the option so well, it makes every other part of the offense that much harder to defend.

"You watch and you learn," said Texas coach Mack Brown. "We all do it one way or another."

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