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College game breeding next-generation play schemes

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PRINCETON, N.J. -- When Bob Surace arrived at his interview to become Princeton's next head football coach, he began talking about Joga Bonito, a Portuguese phrase that translates to "The Beautiful Game."

The words were used by Nike to market a positive brand of soccer during the 2006 World Cup. The phrase, however, was more commonly associated with the artful and viciously offensive attack employed by the Brazilian national team, especially during the overlapping reign of Robinho, Ronaldo, Zé Roberto, Ronaldinho and Kaka -- a group that formed arguably one of the most potent soccer offenses in recent history.

Their style was made for the YouTube era, a dizzying array of snap passing, trickery, footwork and sniper-style goals that seemingly could only be dreamed up on a PlayStation joystick. But it was also the perfect amalgamation of the talent their manager had to work with.

Every game, all season

The combination of practicality and showmanship was not lost on Surace, a Princeton grad and former collegiate offensive lineman, who rocketed himself into the coaching conversation due to his penchant for understanding the marriage between the two.

At a previous coaching stop, he ran a multiple quarterback offense with Western Connecticut State. Upon his arrival at Princeton, he began to realize the talent was there, both athletically and intellectually, to run it at warp speed. He has 21 different personnel groupings and 42 different formations in his playbooks.

There are multiple times in a game where he'll run plays that feature a quarterback handing the ball off to a second quarterback with a third in the slot. The Tigers scored 40 points in their season opener, 52 the week after and 44 two weeks later.

"You can't coach in fear," he said, smiling. "You just do it."

During the NFL season's midpoint, we take the time to ask ourselves: What's next? Who is the next Chip Kelly or Greg Roman or Frank Reich? What is the next rapid no-huddle? When can we expect the next sweeping change to bubble up from high school and college, eventually rescuing a team brave enough to take a chance?

Surace's office, nestled just behind the stadium here in south central New Jersey, is a good place to start. Maybe not to rip off his playbook directly -- a three-quarterback system could work in theory, but not with the current 46-man gameday roster size in the NFL -- but to absorb his philosophy. He thinks of quarterbacks the way baseball scouts think of shortstops, the mind set that every great baseball prospect starts out as a shortstop. He is on a constant quest to build a better, smarter and more cohesive unit -- everyone offers themselves up for the greater good, everyone experiments, everyone listens. 

And somewhere along the line, the simple things, like inside-zone running plays, got easier. Princeton leads the Ivy League in rushing and red-zone scoring percentage. It converted almost half of its third downs and put up more than 420 total yards per game.

"High school football -- if you have the next Brady or Manning or whatever, God bless America. You're going to throw the ball or you're going to drop back," he said. "Those guys, you talk about the last 20 years of football, but it's just those guys.

"There's a lot more Tyrod Taylors, who sat on the bench and how can they affect a game plan? We have plays where all six skill position guys are on the field, they were all high school quarterbacks."

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The future of NFL gameplay could be inspired by the game's roots, especially if teams continue to struggle with quarterback development. Like Surace's Princeton offense, which draws on the single wing, NFL offensive coordinators are growing increasingly enamored with ways to incorporate the schemes that stand the test of time: option and veer.

The Bengals under Hue Jackson and the 49ers under Geep Chryst are some of the latest coaches to try and incorporate more triple-option elements into their game plans. In the coming years, they will not be the only ones, even though some perceived it as a passing fad that dissolved with Robert Griffin III in Washington.

Willie Fritz, the head coach at Georgia Southern, pilots the best rushing attack in the NCAA Division I FBS. The Eagles put up 385.6 yards per game thanks to their ability to confound opponents each week.

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In a recent interview with NFL.com, Fritz, who runs his own unique brand of triple-option football, explained he'll change blocking assignments almost weekly, making the way that he's protecting a triple option or traditional zone-read play completely different from the prior game.

"Run games are becoming just as complex as passing attacks,"he said. "We're changing who to block and who not to block. We're trying to change things up every week with formations and motions, but it's more about who we're blocking and who we're not blocking.

"You have to be really disciplined. But if you try those things and (the defense) fits it wrong, say they have a guy who was supposed to slant to the B gap and he never gets there, now you have a big play."

He added: "The base part, the zone-read part, the double-option part of it, generally speaking that's going to be the same. You read the last man on the line of scrimmage. But you can also get something by not blocking a 3-technique or not blocking a nose guard. People call that a mid-line option, and you can still run a triple option off a mid-line."

Fritz said that his scheme has gotten to the point now where even a basic power play -- the baseline running play on which almost all offenses are built on -- will take on the look of a zone-read or option play because of the myriad schemes and formations he's using.

"A linebacker -- everyone is taught to squeeze and scrape (a technique used in defending zone read where the defensive end crashes the running back and the linebacker squeezes the quarterback in case he keeps the ball). Well now, if he does that on a basic power, he's out of position.

"You're making something look like something it isn't, and that's the beauty of it."

Fritz doesn't know just how beautiful this innovation will become.

With collectively bargained limits on NFL practice time -- a constant and lingering fear among NFL coaches -- rookies and second-year players are less prepared than ever. The rapid turnaround is forcing a lot of defensive coordinators to re-think the way they build their schemes, which is why Pete Carroll's defense in Seattle and Dan Quinn's in Atlanta are en vogue at the moment. They are, in essence, a catch-all defense that does not change much from week to week.

There is no way, though, that a defense could completely prepare for Fritz's small library of blocking schemes. At the least, he is giving himself a far larger percentage of succeeding with simple base power plays, which gives them an incredible amount of flexibility in the passing game once defenses start allocating more resources toward stopping the run.

"Obviously when RGIII and Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, they started running zone-read stuff but that kind of went away a little bit. But it's still a sound principle," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, another triple-option pioneer, told NFL.com. "In the NFL you don't want your quarterback running the ball too much, but if you're running a zone, defenses do different things.

"But what I've noticed is, a lot of the uptempo teams, people are moving fast but what they're really doing is just reading numbers. If they're in the box, you run it outside. If they're outside, you run it in the box and that's the true option concept. Everything is numbers based."

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Kevin Gilbride, the former Giants offensive coordinator, thinks the next big NFL innovation will come in the passing game. In fact, he wishes the current rules were in place during his 23-year run as one of the NFL's most potent play callers.

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In studying Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, Gilbride has noticed the game evolve beyond even a traditional shortened three-step drop.

"The problem, though, is that there are only so many quarterbacks physically and intellectually capable of doing that. When you look at certainly Tom Brady, but even Rodgers and Eli, they're getting the ball out of their hands so fast and it neutralizes the discrepancy in talent level between some of these over-powering defensive lines and offensive lines.

"I think there's going to be a continuation of that until it's somehow thwarted or the rules change."

The other area Gilbride sees rapidly expanding are legal pick plays, which are being run to near perfection by several NFL teams at the moment.

"I mean, this is incredible to me. I wish it was like this back in the day. They're just picking right away, right off the line and it's just unbelievable. Obviously, I'm prejudiced from an offensive standpoint."

Gilbride also said that the Packers are revolutionizing the way teams handle overload blitzes. Quarterbacks are more readily going to set up hot routes - quick passes to their No. 3 or inside-most wide receiver in order to negate the impact of the blitz. The trend was especially effective with the Giants and the way they move Odell Beckham throughout their formations.

In addition, he's seeing teams expand on the "sell it"play-action blocking scheme he helped develop with the Giants two years ago in which offensive linemen are employing strict run-blocking principles and techniques to a play-action pass.

"Teams are getting more legitimate run reactions from defenses, it's just taken off and it's amazing," he said. "The success - I know my last year we were horrific, but that was really the only thing we could do - we could run modified three-step drops or sell-it passes. Then two things happen: Guys get open fast and it neutralizes the pass rush, maybe for a count."

So many of these innovations, though, circle back to Gilbride's initial point. There are only a few quarterbacks in the NFL that have the intellectual capacity to cut their snap to throw time below 2.5 seconds on average and be consistently successful.

That's where minds like Surace and Fritz and Niumatalolo come into play. It's not about negating the quarterback as much as it's making life easier just in case a team doesn't land the next Brady or Rodgers. It's about disguising the simple things and returning the power to the offense, no matter how many passers they decide to put on the field at once.

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