Iowa Football: Is Kirk Ferentz's Offensive System Outdated?
The discomfort and disconnect of Iowa fans toward Kirk Ferentz's pro-style, run-heavy offense is not new. Their displeasure in the form of football last popular in the 1980's has been roundly criticized for years.
Interestingly—but not surprisingly—the issue comes to the forefront most often when the Hawkeyes are having something less than a spectacular season. In other words, when it's working, no one is upset with it, but when it fails, it's the devil's game.
In the wake of disheartening losses to Iowa State, Central Michigan and a thorough thumping at the hands of Penn State, the voices have grown even louder. I myself have been highly critical of Coach Ferentz and his crew of assistant coaches.
So, as we contemplate Iowa's upcoming trip to Evanston, Illinois to take on a team that has been a thorn in the Hawkeyes' side for years, I'm compelled to address the question head-on.
Does Kirk Ferentz's offensive system work or is it outdated?
It works when the right people do the right things.
That's the simplest answer in a nutshell. Yes, it does work.
While Iowa is struggling through some horrible losses and while the immediate future of the team looks somewhat bleak, it was working just a couple of weeks ago. It worked for the most part last year and it worked pretty well in 2010 too.
Iowa's win in East Lansing was no fluke. Sure, Michigan State may not have played their best game and they made mistakes that ultimately cost them the game. That's just football.
The fact that Iowa was in that game to the very end is indicative of the fact that Ferentz's system can work and work well.
Beating No.12 Michigan last year was no fluke. Playing No.7 Wisconsin down to the wire and beating No.14 Michigan State in 2010 weren't flukes.
Those games were the result of a system working the way it was designed to work. That's the key and the core problem the Hawkeyes are having right now. They aren't performing the system the way it was designed.
In fact, they haven't been for a few years now—not consistently, at least.
A Pro system is centered around play at the lines. It requires an offensive line that can create good running lanes and then turn around and protect the passer for long stretches of time. If they do their job correctly, just about anyone can run the football for positive gains and can do it down after down.
Just about any quarterback can look like a star under this system. If the line does its job, receivers should have plenty of time to get open and the quarterback should have plenty of time to find them.
However, that's also part of the system that isn't working right now. A Pro system also requires receivers that run clean routes, know how to get open and can go up into the air to snag passes. Most importantly, they have to catch what's thrown their way.
Iowa has had a big problem this year with receivers failing to get cleanly open, failing to come down with the ball as well as with the quarterback failing to put the ball where the receivers can catch it.
We could get into the whole defensive argument, but that's for another time. Suffice to say that Iowa isn't putting up the best defensive numbers in the Big Ten, but they're not putting up the worst either.
A Pro style offense is dependent upon every player being able to do their job and do it correctly. One weak link in the armor and the whole system can come apart.
Every system is like that, honestly. You'd have a hard time running a successful spread offense with players built and trained to operate the Pro system. Just ask Rich Rodriguez.
Some systems though, can be operated even when the parts and pieces aren't all there. Not the Pro system. It's too fickle to handle deficiencies well.
Iowa's problem isn't the system. Iowa's problem is that the players aren't operating that system the way it's designed.
Some of that is the coaches' faults. Some of it is due to injury and some of the blame resides with the players themselves. But the system is fine and it can work.
Don't believe me?
Alabama largely runs a Pro style system that isn't at all unlike Iowa's. They just do it much better. Stanford runs a system almost identical to Iowa's. Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin all run a Pro system. Boise State runs a Pro system. USC runs a Pro system.
The difference between Iowa and all of those teams is that they run it better than Iowa does right now. They have (or had in the case of Boise State) enough depth to sustain injuries and keep winning. They have strength at the lines that allow the rest of the system to work.
They just do it better.
Now if you want to blame the coaching staff for not having the players better prepared for the games, be my guest. However, please don't blame the system. There are several highly successful teams around the country that run the very same system and have continued success.
If you Think the Pro style is outdated, talk to the teams that run the Option.
So, Georgia Tech hasn't had so much success the last couple of years. Navy isn't a national powerhouse.
Still, both of those teams run option attacks and the option dates back even longer than the Pro style. American football is derived from Rugby and the forward pass wasn't even a part of the original game.
The spread offense, so loved these days, often implements elements of the option attack.
Really, no style goes completely out of date. While the option attack isn't exactly a mainstay in college football as a base offensive system, Georgia Tech used it to great success for a number of years. Nebraska used to use a version of it under Tom Osbourne and won national titles.
Again, it all depends on the players. If the players understand what they're supposed to do and execute their assignments successfully, it will work.
Iowa's system is no different. It isn't the sexiest offense, but you can't say it isn't used fairly widely in college football and to great success. Iowa isn't using it to great success, but the system itself is viable and current.
The real problem is the play-calling.
If Iowa's system can work and it isn't really outdated, then why have the Hawks lost embarrasing games to Iowa State, Central Michigan and Penn State? What are fans really upset about?
They're upset that the plays being called are ill-timed and far too conservative. That's not a systemic issue, that's a coaching issue.
I was very highly critical of former offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe. It seemed to me that O'Keefe was exceptionally predictable in his play calling.
Wouldn't you know though, that as O'Keefe went to Miami to help the Dolphins, Greg Davis came to Iowa from Texas and has done the very same thing. The offense is predictable, the player depth isn't available and Iowa is struggling.
It has then become clear that the problem isn't at the OC position. It's at the Head Coach position.
Kirk Ferentz apparently loves predictability. Either that, or he doesn't understand how to effectively mix the play calling to throw off opposing defenses.
It's no secret that Ferentz is risk-averse. It's also no secret that he prefers a straight forward attack in all phazes of football and expects the players to perform at the highest level.
Iowa's problems are that the players apparently aren't ready or able to perform at that level.
It really wouldn't matter if Iowa attempted to pass more and run less. The quarterback play isn't consistent enough to suggest that an aerial attack would be any more successful than the ground attack.
It wouldn't matter if Iowa stuck solely to the ground and left the pass game virtually untouched. RB Mark Weisman has been fantastic (before his injury) and there's plenty of potential with the run game, but none of the runners are quite good enough to carry a one-dimensional offense entirely.
There are two answers to Iowa's issues right now.
First, Coach Ferentz—via Greg Davis—can start mixing up the plays and digging far deeper into the play book. Getting the tight ends more involved would be a welcome change, but simply calling plays that no one expects could be incredibly beneficial.
Or second, we can just wait until the players become healthy enough and competent enough to run the system the way Ferentz calls it.
Remember that the O-line was creating huge holes before Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal went down with injuries. Remember that the passing game was fairly effective against Minnesota.
It can be done, even with this group of players.
However, the line has suffered with those losses and QB James Vandenberg isnt' playing well enough to expect that Iowa will have any kind of consistent success with this group. It'll continue to be an adventure every week, wondering which team will show up.
I think though, that the answer Kirk Ferentz will give (without ever saying so) is the second one. He's not going to change his play calling. Why would he now when he's led this team to more success than failure over the past 14 years doing the exact same thing?
So fans, we'll just have to wait until the personnel and depth are available for the system to work again. What other choice do we have?
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