Seven Myths About Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech Offense
Fans of Georgia Tech football know two things about Paul Johnson's "flexbone" option attack: One, it racks up gaggles of yards and points and two, it is consistently underrated by SEC-centric analysts and the football-watching public. But how much of what is said and written about the Georgia Tech offense is anything close to accurate?
Let's examine several popular myths about the Yellow Jackets' playbook.
Georgia Tech Runs a "Triple Option" Offense
Paul Johnson is amused by the description of his offense as "the triple option." "The triple option is one play. We run it maybe twenty percent of the time," he remarked in a recent interview. "It would be like calling the I-formation the "sprint draw" offense!"
Watch a Georgia Tech game on national TV and you will hear the phrase “triple option” over and over again. While the word “option” is a convenient catch-all to describe the myriad of reads, pitches, traps and hand-offs in the Tech offense, Johnson is right—the nickname of his team is the Yellow Jackets, not the Triple Options. Georgia Tech blocks, tackles, runs, passes and kicks field goals much like any college football team. But Johnson’s complex spread-flexbone playbook is often oversimplified by print and TV analysts who should know better.
The Flexbone Is an Outdated Gimmick
Those who dismiss Johnson's offense out of hand usually say one of two things: that the flexbone is a gimmick designed to “trick” an unwary defense, or an old, boring, out-of-date throwback to the Pop Warner era, before the forward pass rose to prominence.
In reality, these arguments cancel each other out. Yes, the option has been around a long time, long enough that if it really amounted to a gimmick, defensive coordinators would have “figured it out” a long time ago. Johnson’s modern flexbone, with which he resurrected an ailing Navy program a decade ago, is actually based on a version of the run-and-shoot offense, spreading the game out to create even more running lanes and confusion for opposing defenses.
From the deadly ground game that made Nebraska a perennial contender in the '80s and '90s to the prolific punch of today's Ramblin' Wreck, teams have historically proven that the option play is no passing (or running) gimmick. Johnson’s combined 141-58 record as a head coach at GSU, Navy and Georgia Tech shows that his offense is not smoke and mirrors, but a system of plays designed to consistently counter any modern defense.
A Big, Fast Defense Will Shut It Down
Remember Tim Tebow? Most fans are familiar with his national titles at Florida in addition to his more recent success as an NFL quarterback. But few remember that when Tebow and Urban Meyer teamed up at Florida, cynics claimed that their run-heavy option attack would never work in the SEC because the defenses were too big and fast. The same naysayers were befuddled last season as Tebow’s patented read-option sliced up NFL defenses.
But as Vince Lombardi wrote, “football is relative.” It doesn’t matter if your safety weighs 215 lbs. and runs a 4.5 40 when Georgia Tech’s Synjyn Days weighs 215 lbs., can get to the edge with similar speed and dish out punishment of his own.
In fact, option teams can often overcome a bruising, athletically superior defense with plays designed to keep big, aggressive defenders off-balance. When Georgia Southern, a flexbone team from the FCS, played Alabama on November 19 of last year, their offensive linemen were outweighed by as much as 50 lbs. by the Crimson Tide’s maulers up front. But GSU ran for 302 yards and scored 21 points, more than LSU could manage in two games against the eventual national champions.
Receivers Can’t Flourish on a Flexbone Team
One disadvantage Tech faces in recruiting—and the biggest reason their offense is unpopular on the FBS level—is that NFL prospects don’t want to be pigeonholed playing in a system that never shows up in the NFL. Receivers and tight ends are pressured to sign at schools that air it out.
But Tech’s play-action passing game has flourished under Paul Johnson, using the constant threat of the run to produce big plays while developing stud receivers for the next level. Demaryius Thomas, who led the Yellow Jackets in receiving from 2007-2009, caught 32 passes for 551 yards last year for the Denver Broncos. Last season's main downfield threat for the Yellow Jackets was Stephen Hill, who was drafted by the New York Jets in 2012. Interestingly, both have caught passes from Tim Tebow.
3rd and Long Is Tech's Achilles Heel
Whenever Tech faces a third-and-long, TV commentators react with a predictable theme—now they’re gonna get it. “This is not their strong suit,” Craig James will say in a wink-and-nod tone as the Jackets face a third down and six or more yards. Since the flexbone is not considered an explosive passing offense, the common belief is that GT can't engineer a big play to gain the needed yardage.
Again, the myth is far removed from reality. In the Johnson era, the 'Jackets' offense has been consistently at or near the top of the ACC in “explosive plays,” or plays of 20+ yards. Because of this big-play potential, and because Tech’s running game usually puts them in more manageable third down situations, the 2011 Yellow Jackets ranked second in third-down conversion rate among FBS schools, converting a whopping 53.85 percent of the time.
Also, is any team not at a disadvantage when it’s third-and-long? Florida’s pass-happy offense converted only 32 percent of its third downs last season, to rank 111th out of 120 FBS programs.
Option Teams Can't Come Back to Win
Another similar trope is trotted out whenever the 'Jackets are trailing—the flexbone can’t bring a team from behind to win.
Run-heavy teams do face a disadvantage in a two-minute comeback situation where time is of the essence. But Georgia Tech has displayed the ability to come back under Johnson, partly because his ball-control offense is a defense’s best friend.
In 2008, the Yellow Jackets were trailing the Georgia Bulldogs 28-12 at halftime in a game where the GT defense allowed four Matthew Stafford touchdown passes in the first half. But the Tech offense took over, hogging the football and putting up 26 points in the third quarter en route to a dramatic 45-42 comeback win.
The Flexbone Can't Win a Championship
Paul Johnson's offense is in a unique situation among FBS/NFL strategies and schemes. The modern flexbone has never won an NFL or BCS championship—in fact, Georgia Tech's dive-blocking scheme is illegal in professional football—but it has also rarely been tried by teams with championship-caliber talent.
Georgia Tech does not recruit to the talent level of Clemson or Virginia Tech, who in turn consistently lose recruits to the powerful SEC. Yet, Tech managed to win an ACC title (that was later revoked) in the 2009-2010 season despite competing against bigger, faster and more talented opponents.
With Tevin Washington entering his senior season at QB and a more experienced defense, the 'Jackets have an outside shot at a BCS title bid should they go undefeated in 2012. But the real championship potential of the flexbone will probably only come to fruition if one of college football's premier programs, like Alabama or USC, decides to hire Johnson...or copy his playbook.