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The Unsystematic Offense of Chris Petersen and the Washington Huskies

After yet another anemic offensive performance last Friday, Huskies fans are trying to figure out what exactly the UW coaching staff is trying to accomplish.

Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

For Husky fans who are still dreaming about what could have been had Steve Sarkisian's record-setting 2014 offense actually have been built upon, the results of the Chris Petersen / Jonathan Smith offense have been a nightmare.

The Huskies continued that nightmare on Friday night in a game that saw the offense produce just two field goals and no offensive touchdowns.  While any fan could reasonably expect the team to struggle in a game that featured a true freshman starting QB going against a ranked team whose defense practices against that same offense every day, the results were worse than could have been imagined.  UW generated just 179 total yards and averaged a paltry 1.3 yards per rush.

Pathetic, no matter how you slice it.

Much of the chatter on the message boards following the game focused on both the lack of identity in Petersen's offense and the questionable playcalling by the offensive coordinator.  To the latter point, there is little doubt that there are legitimate critiques to be levied here, both in terms of how much of the playbook was utilized and how plays were called in response to the Boise State defensive strategy.  But I'm more interested in addressing here the former.

What, exactly, is the identity of a Chris Petersen offense?

It wasn't that long ago that Petersen was viewed as one of, if not the most, innovative offensive minds in college football.  From 2001-2013, a time period that covered Petersen's time as offensive coordinator and head coach at Boise, his Broncos finished top 5 in the NCAA in scoring offense a whopping eight times - including finishing first twice and second twice.  While you could say that this is a reflection of who they played, consider that the other teams that show up comparably on that same list are teams like Oklahoma, Florida, Oregon and Baylor.  Bill Connelly's F/+ progression chart also demonstrates Boise's offensive prowess using advance stats over a similar time period.

So, the fact that Petersen has proven to be able to excel on offense is not a point up for debate.  Just about every metric you could use - standard or advanced - proves this.  The question really is "how?"  What, exactly, is the Chris Petersen system?  How does it differ from some of the spread passing, pro style or zone-read types of offenses that are dominating the college landscape today?

It seems the lack of a system is exactly the kind of system that Chris Petersen likes to run.

Good question. I'm not sure that there is an answer.

When asked about it in 2012, Jeff Choate (then the RB coach for Boise State) made a cogent observation about what makes Boise's offense so good.  He said, "We run plays, we don't have an offense.  It's what we do."  It seems the lack of a system is exactly the kind of system that Chris Petersen likes to run.

Of course, to say that Petersen is unsystematic in how he approaches offense is a bit misleading.  He does have a philosophy that was honed during his developmental years.  Petersen himself credits much of his approach to key influencers like Dan Hawkins, Jeff Tedford, Dirk Koetter and former USC coach Paul Hackett.  Much of what Petersen has had to contend with during his career has involved having to find ways to succeed when his personnel is overmatched athletically.  Not unlike how Chip Kelly took Oregon's offense to stratospheric heights, Petersen believes that putting better athletes into such a system can only amplify the results.

But, what are the principles of that offense?  What is Chris Petersen trying to accomplish with his offense at UW?  Why is it going so poorly?  I spent the weekend breaking down film from some of Petersen's Boise games between 2009-2012 as well as his UW games from a season ago.  While I still have more questions than answers, I have three observations that I think might help shed some light on the situation with today's Husky offense.

A Numbers Game

At the heart of the Petersen philosophy is the idea that athletic disadvantages can be neutralized simply by outnumbering your opponent at the point of attack.  Groundbreaking sentiment, I know.  However, this one principle neatly explains why Petersen is less concerned with things like having a defining tempo or a defining playing style.  He wants to create situations where there are more blockers than defenders wherever it is that he wants to put the ball and he is willing to pull the levers of "formation" and "tempo" to do it.

How to create those advantages is they key question.  Petersen believes strongly in keeping his options open once he gets to the line of scrimmage both in terms of play calls and alignment of personnel.  One of the reasons that you see so many formations and so much shifting of formations pre-snap is because Petersen and his players are reacting to whatever it is they see from the defense in order to gain an advantage.

There are generally two types of advantages that Petersen is chasing.  The first is a straight-up numbers advantage.  By shifting a TE in motion away from the strong side of the defense over to the weak side, he can effectively create a new rushing gap for a ball carrier to run through where there isn't an extra defender.  Pretty easy stuff and, frankly, pretty easy for the defense to adjust to.  But, when Petersen has three players change their position pre-snap and then puts another guy in motion, the number of moving pieces are harder for the defense to follow and allow Petersen a better chance at creating an undefended gap for a ball carrier.  Here is an example of some of that shifting and motion taken from Friday night.

UW Boise O Play 5

The second type of advantage that Petersen is going for is one of leverage.  Not only is he concerning himself with the number of blockers versus defenders, but he's trying to create a favorable angles to make it easier for his players to win their 1:1 matchups.  Whenever  you hear Petersen talking about the "details" on offense, odds are that he is talking about leverage.  To establish this advantage, the post-snap movements by the blockers, the motion man and the ball carrier / quaterback all need to be in synch.  If a RB takes an outward cut on a play where the blockers are trying to create an inside lane, the leverage is lost.

Check out this simple example from the Cactus Bowl.  On this play, you'll see two failures.  After the snap, the slot receiver blocks down on the OLB.  The RT is supposed to seal off the DE to create an outside running lane for Dwayne Washington.  There is not a numbers advantage here, but there is a clear intent to create leverage and space with both the blocking and the Z receiver clearing out his CB with the route.  But the RT can't pin is guy in.  The DE wins the 1:1 and gets outside the block, thus turning Dwayne Washington back inside (failure #2) where UW has no leverage.

Details, people!  There was a safety coming down, so it's not exactly clear that D-Dubs would have gone long had that play gotten outside, but it would've certainly been a 1:1 between Dwayne and the S - a matchup that fits his strengths as a RB.  With that in mind, this was a good play call, but the execution failed.

Advantage Through Deception

The example above was a pretty routine play with no pre-snap motion.  That is actually unusual in the UW offense.  My eye-ball estimate is that there is some kind of movement or motion on 3 out of 4 UW plays (although, curiously, not so much in the Cactus Bowl).

The motion utilized by the Huskies serves two purposes.  The first is what we referred to above: giving UW an opportunity to create numbers advantages wherever they want to get the ball.  The second is probably more prevalent in this UW offense:  motion to create deception.

I mentioned that Jeff Choate made some comments about the Boise State offense back in 2012.  He said that much of the pre-snap formation changes and motions are "a show game for the defense".  Check out this gif of Jake Browning's first play from Friday night.

Note that the offense sets, Browning barks a signal and then each one of the position players changes their set.  All of that happens before Josh Perkins is then brought into motion.  The result of all of that movement?  You don't see it in the gif, but most of you will recall it turned out to be a dive play by Dwayne Washington to the left.

Basically, there was no tactical advantage gained by Chris Petersen by running all of that pre-snap activity.  But note the response by the defense.  No fewer than six defenders changed their positioning as a result of the offense's activity.  Whether or not anybody was confused is up for debate.  But what we know is that some of the defensive cues were triggered and that all of UW's movement, at the least, gives the QB a chance to gather more information about the defense's intentions.  Presumably, as time goes on, Browning will have the freedom to check into other plays or take advantage of any package options the play called affords him.

Forming Success

The last element that I'd point out regarding Chris Petersen's approach is the unique utilization of odd formations in the offense.  Sometimes, Petersen will run the same play but use different formations simply to prevent the defense from making an easy read.  More times than not, however, Petersen is using player positioning in formations to create a tactical advantage for an individual involved in the play.

I've taken some stills of a few formations that Petersen used in the Cactus Bowl - all from plays that happened in the first half.  A few things you might note from them.  The first is that (I think) each one of them is played out of 12 personnel (1 RB and 2 TEs).  The second is that despite similar groupings, the starting position of each player varies significantly play to play.  You'll have to trust me on this because I can't paste in a dozen more JPEGs here, but UW will use up to a couple of dozen formations all tolled.

UW Cactus Bowl O Play 1

UW Cactus Bowl O Play 2

UW Cactus Bowl O Play 3

UW Cactus Bowl O Play 4

One other commonality you'll find is that Petersen's formations almost always end up in an overload to one side or the other (in the JPEGs above, the two "balanced" formations became imbalanced following motions by the H-back).  This is important because it explains a lot about how Petersen thinks about offense.  Everybody knows the teminology of "A gaps", "B gaps" and "C gaps".  With his overloaded formations, Petersen can create a "D gap" and sometimes even an "E gap".  If the defense chooses to defend those new gaps, then Petersen and his QB have a chance to adjust.  If the D doesn't adjust, Petersen maintains the kind of numbers advantages noted above.

Another subtle but interesting aspect of all of these formations is where different players actually line up.  To the naked eye, there is no rhyme or reason.  Sometimes a receiver will be a yard off the line.  Sometimes two.  Sometimes a RB is in pistol position.  Sometimes he is literally at the QB's hip.  Sometimes a TE is split wide.  Sometimes he is in the backfield.  Sometimes it looks like he is just floating out there in space.  All of this is intentional.  Not only does it give the defense something to deal with, but it often allows for a player to either get a head start in creating separation or puts him in a position to start/stop his motion activity on the exact timing that Petersen is looking for.

The presence of Jake Browning would seem to suggest more of the playbook is open than what we saw a year ago, even if consistency remains a work in progress.

One last thought on these formations.  Obviously, these kinds of imbalanced formations are more common today than they were five years ago.  However, you often find them used in spread passing teams with WRs spread around.  Petersen is unique in that he still prefers to run out of this offense.  That is why he commonly utilizes two TEs on the field.  It maximizes his ability to both run or pass as well as to reveal less information that the defense can react to.

So, Why Isn't It Working?

My guess here is as good as yours.  However, I would note a couple of things.  First of all, this offense is far more complex than what Sark ran in 2014.  In fact, it looks a lot more like Sark circa 2011-2012 with the shifts and formations that Sark ultimately had to scrap in order to pick up the pace.  The consequence of all these complexities - the exact positioning pre-snap, the coordation of motions and resets, the recognition of the defense and the adjustments of assignments - is that the learning curve is high.  Its no surprise that Boise State's offenses were at their best when they were running juniors and seniors out there.

Secondly, Petersen's offenses by definition require players to make decisions based on the objective of the play.  Unlike an Oregon team whose players all get a specific route or a zone to block (only the QB and RB really have to make a "choice"), Petersen's offense commonly requires multiple players to make a choice based on their reads of the defense and where the coach wants his numbers/leverage advantage to be.  To be successful, not only do players need to be able to execute, they need to be able to individually read the defense and then make a choice that complements the one being made by other players around him.

There is a lot more to it than I can summarize in 2500 words.  As I was doing my research  comparing UW to Boise State circa 2009 - 2012, I did find a few interesting contrasts that might be interesting nuggets to tuck away.  First, UW's offense last year was significantly dumbed down.  There were fewer motions and formations utilized than what you saw with those Boise offenses or with the offense that Jake Browning ran on Friday.  Second, a relationship between faster tempos and reduced formation / motion utilization is clearly observable over Petersen's past three seasons.  Finally, you can see a clear "speed of execution" difference between Petersen's Boise teams and his UW team a year ago.  His Boise players were good about running to spots, throwing to spots and not deviating from the planned routes whereas last year's UW team seemed slower and more reactive to whatever the defense was trying to do to them.  Perhaps this is a symptom of unfamiliarity with the playbook or the dreaded "thinking too much".

It would seem that UW is well down the track of adopting the full offense that Chris Petersen wants to run.  That offense looks almost exactly like what he ran at Boise State and is characterized by a focus on creating leverage and capitalizing on information (both reacting to incoming data and disguising outgoing data).  The presence of Jake Browning would seem to suggest more of the playbook is open than what we saw a year ago, even if consistency remains a work in progress.