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Playcalling and the Debate on Swinney vs. Napier

Last year, going into the Maryland game we were pretty discombobulated on offense. There was fairly little rhythm to anything that wasn’t part of a scripted drive, and it ended up costing us a big home game against TCU. During those first few games you would not be able to say what our intentions were on offense, e.g., whether we were a running team or a pass-happy team. In the Maryland game the offense totally shifted to passing, and as we went through at the time in the game review posts, it was predominantly shotgun-based. Before last season even began, I heard from several folks that Billy Napier preferred a more run-oriented attack similar to what he ran at Furman, while Dabo Swinney (who also came through an I-formation based system at Alabama) preferred a spread passing attack. What we saw early on was a bit of a hodgepodge, but at Maryland it was all spread against a team that didn’t have much of anything on defense. They threw the ball around all day and lost 24-21.

After that day, the fans latched onto the information that leaked out which hinted that there were too many fingers in the playcalling-pie at Maryland. Napier stormed off after the game without answering questions, and with the revelation that Dabo signaled in the wrong protection on the last play (resulting in a sack), we started asking the question about who is really calling our plays. They denied it totally at the time, saying that Billy Napier calls all the plays for the offense. I believe that was a complete falsification.

But after that game, the system changed totally. CU went to an I-formation based system that had great success with it. The passing attack was predominantly play-action based and the clear intent was to get the ball to our 3 best players. We didn’t deviate too much from this philosophy and finished the year on a relatively high note. Therefore, most people had confidence in Napier’s playcalling coming into this season and the expectations of 9-3/10-2, considering the talent here and with Parker back, were not unreasonable.

In the preseason I thought that if we came out and played to our strengths (experienced OL, two RBs, solid defense) that we’d turn out alright for the year. If we came out and threw the ball around with Swinney’s preference for the 4-wide shotgun attack, we’d lose.

This year we seemed to start out with these ideas on offense. After rolling over NT and PC, we went to Auburn and dominated them up front in the 1st half, and took advantage of their overpursuit with screens. For whatever reason those screens were abandoned at halftime and the staff didn’t adjust to the obvious fact that Andre Ellington was the better runner of the two that day. After Parker got the late hit to the back, the offense couldn’t finish things off and we botched the snap on the kick that would’ve extended the game and given us another shot.

But then the next week the offense didn’t look the same, and the next week, or ever since. The play calls weren’t even the same. What looked like Napier’s system from last season appeared to be totally abandoned vs. Miami, and we threw the ball 30+ times and lost. It was even more apparent against UNC, when we didn’t attack a depleted defensive front and again lost.

What I believe happened is that Swinney was so crushed by losing to his hated rival Auburn, because we couldn’t hit big passes to end it, that he basically said "To hell with this run-based system, I want to throw the ball and force these receivers to grow up", and directed Napier to install the things that they took from their offseason visits to Texas, which runs an almost-entirely shotgun offense and hasn’t been able to run the ball adequately for several years.

What I see out there since Auburn is two themes on offense, and it is almost like we’re calling plays from two different playbooks. One is all shotgun, pass-oriented, with a couple draws, zones, and zone read option plays to try to keep the defense honest. The other is an under-center book, based out of one-back and the I-formation, that is rush and play-action based. After that, there are a few various single plays/formations that seem to be stuck in as an afterthought, like the Wildcat or the Pistol, which we see once or twice a game and never again.

Even a few of the staple plays of any run-oriented offense have been totally abandoned, which confuses me even more. When was the last time you saw us effectively run a counter? What about the IS/OS Trap? I note every play we run from the I-formation, and all I ever see is Isolation, Power O, Power G, and a Sweep. Occasionally, and not every week mind you, we’ll try a Toss sweep or a Speed Option. We run our single-back formation plays as predominantly inside zones, with one or two stretch plays thrown in, and occasionally moving an H-back around to make them into (effectively) I-formation plays with a lead blocker.

In the gun, we’re as I stated above. There are no midline option reads, and off the top of my head I can’t recall more than one or two counters/traps ever called. We even abandoned the Pistol plays that were installed, and stopped aligning the RB 2 yards back from his normal Gun position. Those are both things that let you give the RB that extra second to read his blocks and make the cut. Now, we put him outside the OT and even with the QB depth, and we have had zero running threat from the shotgun since.

I don’t think there are two people calling plays from these two playbooks, which would end up with more delay-of-game penalties and the like from not agreeing on the calls. This philosophical shift is done in gameplanning starting on Sunday afternoon, when the entire staff gets together to study the opponent’s film. Swinney and others are telling Napier to rep X plays from the Gun and Y plays from under-center on Monday, and he lets Billy call them. I do think others interject with ideas like "hey lets try this!" on occasion on Saturday, and Swinney changes the play call, resulting in a few plays that seem to have never been repped in practice, or suddenly sticking something in that loses all rhythm of the drive. That’s definitely a sign of inexperience, and to my knowledge no one other than Brad Scott has experience running a spread system….and even FSU under Brad was I-formation much of the time.

So, if you accept this, saying you just want Napier gone because of his calls doesn’t make much sense. You don’t know who is running the show in film study on Sunday/Monday that influences the gameplan, and Billy is not the one teaching individual techniques to players. The only one he coaches directly in one-on-one situations is Parker (who has not progressed as he should either). Dabo wants control of the offense himself and wants to be involved in all the playcalling. He believes that will keep his head in the game and he’ll be able to adjust better. I don’t agree with that point of view. I think he’d be better off observing instead of discussing the next play call and signaling it in. If he took a step back and watched the ebb and flow of the game, taking notes, I think he’d be able to make a more informed decision on the plays.

It’s certainly the head man’s prerogative to change plays, and Bowden should’ve done it more than he did, but Dabo doesn’t have experience calling them, and even if another staff member calls a particular play, Dabo is the one signaling them in instead of thinking "hey this is stupid, we’re running the ball down their throat, why not keep going with it?". My bet is that his ego won’t let him give up these things with a new offensive coordinator coming in. If you want a new OC, you might as well want a new HC.

One thing I've definitely noticed about Dabo is that his optimism runs so deep that its to a fault. He believes guys like Xavier Dye and Terrance Ashe and Brandon Ford really are capable of great things. He truly believes Jamie Harper is an outstanding running back. He believes he's so good at playcalling that he can just change anything at any time and it'll work. Unfortunately for him thats not true. His own optimism and hardheadedness blinds him to what actually is happening on the field. A new OC will not change these things, a more experienced OC will not let Dabo walk all over him in playcalling, and end up quitting. A new offensive staff, from top to bottom, may be able to teach them techniques well enough to do things right, but he's so confident in his staff choices that he is not going to go on a firing spree. We're stuck.

Throwing the ball 30-40 times is not what this team is going to be strong at this season. I personally have a preference for running it, but I'm not against throwing the football, despite what you may think. Far too many folks think I'm all for running it 65 times per game with the same RB, thats not true. However, Clemson has a good-enough OL and, until Andre went down, RB group to justify a 60/40 run/pass ratio. Kyle Parker doesn't need to be throwing the ball 40+ times in a game with a group of WRs who barely know the offense, and an older group of WRs who just aren't any good at all. Every time he's thrown it over 30 times, we've lost.

Dabo just doesnt see that, and even if Napier or any other staff member does, it won't matter.