Football 101 - Air Garrett, Part II

This is the Third in a series of articles where I will talk about the basics of Football 101.

  • The precursor to the first article: Is This Really Air Garrett
  • The first article in the series: What Are All These Numbers And Letters
  • The second article in the series: The Receiver Route Tree
  • Last article we dealt with the Reciever Route Tree and talked about some of the more common route names that are included in that tree. We also mentioned a little about some of the nuances in the differences between the Garrett Playbook and the "Air Coryell" Playbook.

But before we get into "option reads" and all that we first should talk a little about the "Pro Set" because usually the "Father of the modern Passing Game" (Sid Gillman - although some call Don Coryell the father ), ran the majority of his plays from that "Pro Set." Keep in mind that the position of the backs are not important for this discussion. They could just as easily be in the "I" formation because we are talking about the number of backs, TE's and Wide Receivers.


"The Pro Set was the default NFL scheme for most of the 1960s to the 2000s. While it is more of a formation, the underlying philosophy of the pro set was based on becoming more successful at passing while still providing 1 or even 2 backs to help protect the QB.

The Pro Set features a TE, 2 WRs, and a Halfback and fullback, often split behind the QB. While QBs can take a snap from the center from the shotgun position, in general the pro set QB takes the ball under center to allow for better play action fakes to the running back.

The Pro Set in the 1970s and earlier was generally a running offense that used play action fakes to setup deep passing attempts when defenses stacked up vs the running game.

The Pro Set enabled NFL teams to run successfully and is structurally a sound set. So much so that even though the Coryell and West Coast Offenses were dramatic changes in view to a pass first philosophy, both have historically been executed out of the pro set formation.

Next we need to talk about what I call the "5 Decisions."

  • The Pre-Snap Read - (PSR) The QB will try to get an idea of the Defensive Secondary Alignment before he takes the snap from the Center. Usually the Defensive Secondary will give what is called a "Tell" about their Alignment. On about 80 percent of the Sets one of the DB's alignment will be the "key." On the PSR, the QB must first identify how deep the corners are, next he must determine the number of Safeties, next the position of the "Will" backer, and then the number in the box. He does this by continually scanning from left to right. NOTE: One of the reasons I love Rob Ryan's defense is that he uses these well know "keys" to have them be in motion and not set, to take away the QB's PSR, so that all he is left with is the post-snap reads which makes things much more difficult.
  • The Audible - Based upon the PSR, the QB may call or Signal an Audible. This is not necessarily the same as signaling for a "Hot Route" as it usually will be a change of the play based upon what the QB saw in the PSR. For example, if the FS is playing up or in the middle, and the "Z" is single covered, the QB could hold up "1" finger and glance at the "Z" to tell him to change his route to a "Double Move", which is what I believe happened on that TD to Dez in the Buffalo game. The Cowboys also use another type of Audible called the "KILL, KILL" signal. This was discussed by me in my Precursor Article "Is this really Air Garrett?"
  • The Post Snap Read - Once the ball is snapped, the QB will continue to survey the Defensive Set and try to get even a better idea of where the "soft spot" is in the defense with the idea they may have "shifted" coverage. If they have shifted into a coverage that is very unfavorable for the route that was called, then if that shift is to where the defense is sending a blitzer that may not be picked up by the blocking assignments then the receiver must automatically go to his "Hot Read" which is normally a slant, quick out or other quick hitting route depending upon where the DB is lined up. Very often a "Zone Blitz" will cause a "Hot Read" action.
  • The Hot Route - The "Hot Route" as already discussed is an audible or it can be just a "read" by the receiver and the QB when they see a blitz coming that could be too much to handle. Larry Brown was a hero in a Super Bowl because he "stayed home" because the receiver failed to recognize or read the blitz, hence he didn't run the "hot route" slant, and instead he ran the wrong route, (a "go" route), and that left Larry Brown with a "gift."
  • The Option Read - The option read is often occurring during the post-snap read by the QB and the receiver. It was very prevalent in the Bill Walsh West Coast Offense.

    In the Bill Walsh West Coast Offense..... "plays unfold quicker than in traditional offenses and are usually based on timing routes by the receivers. In this offense the receivers also have reads and change their routes based on the coverages presented to them."

    "On any given route, a receiver has as many as three options; a hitch, a slant and a fly, depending on what the defense is showing. The quarterback is responsible for recognizing the defense and the reaction of the receiver to it and adjusting the route if needed. This explains the communication mistakes that commonly occur on West Coast offensive plays where the quarterback throws to a spot that the receiver is running away from."

    In this article we will expand the concept of the "Garrett Playbook" and discuss why once again as in the precursor article, it is NOT exactly the "Air Coryell" philosophy. So, before we talk about the Don Coryell philosophy and why it is different than what Garrett has in his playbook, let's look at who were the coaches that influenced him - Sean Payton, Jim Fassell, John Gruden, Nick Saban, Norv Turner, Ernie Zampese, Tony Sparano, and Garrett's father.

    Now with that background, let's look at the concept of "Air Coryell" and what it suggests. It suggests that the "Passing Game" became what it is today because of Don Coryell.

    Well, that is kind of true. But, according to Ron Jaworski, the father of the modern passing game was actually Sid Gillman. Every pass happy Coach has Sid Giillman to thank.

    "From Don Coryell to Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren....every fan who loves the bomb should be grateful to him." - Ron Jaworski

    "Sid designed his receivers' routes to look different, while the distance of the quarterback's throw remained the same. In Sid's scheme, receivers positioned themselves by using the hash marks. How much space those receivers left between their own tackle or tight end was critical. It insured that a quarterback's throw on specific routes would never vary in distance."

    "He sent assistant coach Tom Bass to consult with a mathematics professor at San Diego State University in the early 1960's. Their mission: to figure out geometrically where the players needed to be on every passing route so that the ball would be in the air the same length of time."

    (From 'Games that Changed the Games', by Ron Jaworski, David Plaut and Greg Cosell)

    This is the birth of the concept of Timing, and Rhythm for 3, 5, and 7 stop drop passes, and made it the science of the "Timing Based" offense. He was the first to understand that you needed to utilize the whole field, i.e., not just the "Vertical" aspect of the passing game, but the "Horizontal" as well. He wanted to stretch the field from sideline to sideline.

    "His credo was 'the field is one hundred yards long and fifty-three yards wide. We're going to use every damn inch of it and force the other guy to defend all of it."

    The principle of "best located safety", (throw the ball to the receiver who is farthest from either safety on the field), is still used today as a theme or rule for today's NFL QB's.

    Sid taught Coryell and Coryell taught Ernie Zampeze. Norv was a Coryell guy. He was and is very committed to the timing based offense. And as you can read in this article by Calvin Watkins, much of that system is in place here in Dallas in 2011. Including the three digit pass numbering system that I described in my last article, XYZ, each with a route tree number.

    Having said that, Garrett is also familiar with the West Coast Offense (Gruden), where all the routes are both timing based and are option read based. And while Garrett probably uses similar or the same basic language as Coryell, he has obviously put in his own nuances like some option reads by the receivers on certain routes.

    In the book Blood, Sweat and Chalk, Garrett talks about how if Coryell was here he would recognize most of the plays. Now, keep in mind that since that quote Garrett has evolved that offense and put in the "option reads." In an interview with Roy Williams, Roy explained that While Mike Martz is still using the Timing Based System with a few wrinkles of his own, when Roy got to Dallas he found that it was more of "run a route and see what happens" offense because of the "option reads."

    (Now, please don't pile on poor Roy and say that he was the only one that was in the mode to "run a route and see what happens." LOL! )

    When Troy was here, it was obvious that on every throw, Troy was throwing to a spot and not to the receiver, while if you watch Romo, he is going through his reads and waiting for a receiver to get open and then he throws to that receiver and not to a spot. At least that is the way it looks to me. Now, I might add that not every play is that way, my eyes tell me that the deep outs are timing based and are thrown to the spot.

    While the Tight Ends kind of disappear in the Mike Martz offense, Garrett is more similar to Coryell in that the Tight End is very involved. Now, it should be noted that a good coach puts in the type of plays that are suited to the talent he has, and perhaps the tight end being used as much as he is, is more due to the talent of Jason Witten.

    So, while Garrett's offense is similar, it is different in that he is not really using the "Timing Based" offense of the "Air Coryell" era. There is an element of timing in his offense where the QB is throwing the ball to a receiver/spot after he has made his cut instead of before he makes his cut.

    And keep in mind that the "option read" is not just a pre-snap read, but a "post-snap" read as well.

    Understanding Garrett's Offense:

    Before we get into the concepts of the Garrett Offense, we should first talk about what the strategy is in general for the offense to do it's job the best it can.

    In football in general, there is a huge chess match going on between the Offensive Coordinator and the Defensive Coordinator for the other team and then vice versa.

    If the offense executes the play called perfectly and the Defense executes the play called perfectly, then the play should gain the amount of yards it was meant to get because each play is designed to get a certain yardage if both sides execute as expected. If the execution is not perfect, then the play will get a little more or a little less because the execution will never be absent completely.

    But, if the Defense executes the defensive call perfectly but the offense has called a play that was not what the defense expected, perfect execution is not what matters, because the wrong defensive call will usually result in a much bigger play than expected for the offense even if the execution was less than perfect and again vice versa.

    This is why the old excuse of "we didn't execute" is often just a cop-out for the coordinator because he doesn't want anyone questioning his play calling which is the more important factor. The best example was when Garrett was calling pass plays with a 24-point lead against Detroit, but running plays should have been the right call. If the defense guesses the route, then even if the offense executes perfectly, if the defense is "sitting on it", you will see bad results such as a "pick 6."

    What matters is the defense has to "guess" what play the offense will try to run, so it can try to have the correct Defensive formation to counter what the offense is trying to do. If this is done, then there is a good chance that the defense is holding the offense to the 3 yards or less on 1st, 2nd and 3rd down and that will leave 4th and 1 or more and then the punt follows.

    For example, suppose the Defense is expecting run and has 9 in the box and the offense has it's 2 TE formation with 2 WR and 1 running back. Well, the defense is expecting run because the offense has been predictable in that in say 85 percent of the time they were in this formation, they ran the ball but instead the Offense had the right pass for that defensive formation.

    This demonstrates how important it is that just as the Defense doesn't want to become predictable, neither does the offense. Execution is very important, but we can see that "fooling" the defense will give the biggest rewards.

    Having said all that, each Coordinator has a "Down and Distance" play chart that they use to try to counter what they expect from the other team based upon their tendencies on that "formation" and the current down and distance.

    I say all of this to lead up to what most offensive Coordinators want more than keep the other side guessing by being "balanced."

    In order to not be predictable, it all starts with 1st downs. A team wants to have their "history" of "tendencies" show that they are right at 50/50 on the most important down....First down. Garrett calls this "Being on Schedule."

    Ideally the goal is to get at least 3-4 yards on first down, both in the running game and the passing game. Four or more is excellent and can keep you in the 50/50 option for 2nd down.

    On 2nd and more than 6, the plays get more predictable just because it is more difficult to pick up more than 4 yards on a run because that is the normal yardage for a running back. In fact, the average yards to go on 2nd down is usually more than 7 yards to pick up a first down.

    But the key is to get to 3rd down and have less than 4 yards to go. So, you can still run half the time. This means you must get close to 3 or 4 yards again on 2nd down.

    The key stat for any running back, is that he has an average of more than 4.0 yards per carry. If you have a running back that is averaging less than 4.0 yards per carry, then he is not your guy. Now keep in mind that if he is the "short yardage back" and is being given the ball on the 2 yard line all the time, then you have to factor that in. But, if he is the feature back, he needs to average better than 4.0 yards per carry.

    Now all of that was to get you thinking about the importance of not giving the defense any "Tells" based upon your "formation" and your "down and distance", because those are the two things that the defensive "Quality Control" manager will study most to get any tendencies from you.

    So, now for Garrett formations:

    Next, to really understand what Garrett is doing, a person should understand a very commonly used Formation terminology that the Cowboys use. One of the differences that the Cowboys use is to place an "S" in front of some of the normal designators to signify "Shotgun." So, it then becomes obvious that the ones without the "S" are under center. The chart is simplified by recognizing that there are always "5" skill positions/players on the field, and they always are designated by three groups, RB's, TE's, and WR's. So, if we know what the first two group counts are we can know that the WR's are what is left of the remaining 5.

    Formation/Package Skill Players on the Field
    11 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR
    12 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR
    13 1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR
    21 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR
    22 2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR
    23 2 RB, 3 TE, 0 WR
    S01 Shotgun, 0 RB, 1 TE, 4 WR
    S02 Shotgun, 0 RB, 2 TE, 3 WR
    S11 Shotgun, 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR
    S12 Shotgun, 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR

    So, a "12" package or the "12" formation is where we have 1 RB and 2 TE, and that means there is 2 WR. And a "S12" would be the same thing but it is run out of the shotgun.

    Bob Strum tracks all of the stats for the different Garrett Formations. Here he talks about the concept, and here is the Seattle game stats on those formations. And then finally here are the stats from Bob on the Buffalo game.

    Be sure and keep in mind that much of my posts are about "what is", some of it is based upon what I hear in post game interviews, articles I read, and what I see with my "eyeballs." So, if you find something you disagree with, ask and I will try to tell you my source for it.

    Below is the standard formation chart as found in the book "Take Your Eye Off The Ball." This is from a page in that book.


    Here is a link to the book.

    Well this post is getting a little long, so I had better save a little for next time.

    The poll was clear that I should do my Football Series once a week, so since most of the time I have the most time to do this on the Weekends, I think I will start doing them on Saturday evenings from now on, although I may post some other articles that are not of this series at other times.

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