I have an old television and an old DVR, and sometimes my television and DVR cause each other problems. Every once in a while, the sound disappears when watching something on the DVR, or when the television switches between standard-definition and high-definition channels, or for no apparent reason at all. When it happens, I have to start working from the ground up. I have to turn on another input, like the DVD player, and see if there is sound from the television when it is on. That tells me whether the TV has sound or not. If it does, then I have to decide what made the DVR malfunction, first by changing channels, then by turning on another recorded program, etc. It's an arduous process of variable testing and elimination that takes all of two minutes. It's basic troubleshooting.
This season has made me think about Tony Franklin more than once. For those who haven't been buried in the minutiae of college football since 2007, Tony Franklin is the current offensive coordinator of Louisiana Tech. His offense was first nationally in scoring this season, fourth in passing yards, 17th in rushing. It's not my ridiculous envy of Louisiana Tech fans (or fans of the other 112 programs with a better offense than Iowa this year) that have brought Franklin to mind. In fact, my ruminations on Tony Franklin's offense have nothing to do with anything he or his offense did this year. I'm more interested in what happened to Tony Franklin four years ago, when he was offensive coordinator at Auburn for six weeks.
Franklin started as a running backs coach with Hal Mumme at Kentucky in 1997, learning the Air Raid from Mumme and offensive coordinator Mike Leach. When Leach was hired to Oklahoma by Bob Stoops, Franklin became Kentucky's offensive coordinator. Kentucky's offense was good, but Kentucky was not. Mumme resigned after the season, and Franklin was out of football coaching. He worked as a consultant for eight years, teaching the Air Raid to high school and college teams all over the country.
In 2006, Franklin became the offensive coordinator at Troy. Within two years in Franklin's system, Troy had gone from one of the nation's worst offenses to one of its best. In December 2007, Franklin caught the eye of Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville, who had just finished another 8-4 season with Al Borges' pro-style power offense. Tuberville wanted to adopt a spread look (in large part because Nick Saban had arrived at Alabama), so he fired Borges and hired Franklin before the team's bowl game. Running the Air Raid after just eight practices, Auburn beat Clemson in overtime to win the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Franklin was kept on to coordinate the 2008 Auburn offense, though Tuberville kept the rest of the 2007 offensive assistants who had coached under Borges. Presumably, Auburn was to become an Air Raid team and run "The System" that Franklin had taught all over the country. But, whether because of confusion or cold feet or sheer stubbornness, Tuberville changed his mind, He required that Franklin work Auburn's traditional power running game into the Air Raid. He slowed down the no-huddle up-tempo components of the offense to protect the defense. He demanded Franklin use the run to set up play action passing, rather than passing to open up the interior running game. Smart Football explained it best, as Smart Football often does:
Every coach I speak to says the same thing: I don't know what they are doing at Auburn, but it ain't the Airraid. So what's going on? I'm not an insider, but my best sense is that the other coaches on the staff (including Tuberville) never bought into the system - maybe because Franklin did a poor job selling it internally, or maybe he thought he didn't have to - and now their offense is simply a muddle, a grab-bag of pseudo-spread garbage....
Now, this is raw speculation, but here's my best guess: Franklin comes in, and does not bring in any other staff. The rest of the staff does not buy into this system. They didn't think it would work, and Franklin has not convinced them. They are convinced they don't have the players (more on that in a bit) and that either they can't go too spread too quickly, or they have to keep some other elements, or the play-calling is off, or something. Plus, since he didn't bring the rest of his staff in, Franklin had to coach the coaches in his offense, and at that he apparently did a poor job.
Once you start going in multiple directions on offense, you lose focus, and all the paranoia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In college there is simply not enough time to try to do everything. It's the converse of Bobby Bowden's old quote about defense: If you try to stop everything, you stop nothing. Here we could say if you try to be everybody's spread, you're nobody's spread. And Franklin knows this.
Smart Football also talked to a high school coach who had run Franklin's system, who confirmed that Auburn's offense was not Franklin's system:
It seems to me that Franklin is getting told what to run on offense. Tubs wants to run the ball to set up the pass and Franklin likes to set up the run with the pass. I never saw any hurry up offense from AU at this weeks game . . . . Franklin has said that to be successful in this offense you must be good at the screens, and get a lot of snaps (maybe like 80) on offense. I don't think I have seen but maybe four screens all year and I don't think they are close to getting 80 snaps.
Auburn's offense, this hodgepodge of ineffective "pseudo-spread garbage", ground to a halt. Tuberville fired Franklin seven weeks into the season in an attempt to save his own job. He was unsuccessful. Tuberville and his staff were fired. Everyone was bitter. Things did not end well.
Make no mistake due to the hype about his ability to conform to his personnel: Greg Davis surfaced at Iowa with a system. He had spent his last five years at Texas running a spread-ish, up-tempo offense that attacked the flanks (the vaunted "horizontal offense" that we were warned about) and used the pass to set up the run. He spent his year off from coaching touring college programs, spending time with Charlie Weis at Florida, Gus Malzahn at Auburn, and Tom Herman (who he taught as a grad assistant at Texas, and who is now coordinating Urban Meyer's offense at OSU) at Iowa State. None of those three coordinators is known for his stodginess or fondness for running the play clock to its end. As Davis told reporters while he visited his son, a coach at Tulane, during August camp:
"As camp started, I started here obviously, and the idea was just to see how other people do things, the way other people install, the way other people practice, because it's just hard to do that when you are wrapped up in it," Davis said. "It's a redshirt year, and I can tell you it's not as much fun as I thought it was going to be. My wife, we have 41 years of marriage. She said, I took you for better or worse but not for lunch."
If anything, Davis' year away from coaching could only have reaffirmed his commitment to the four-wide up-tempo football he had been running at Texas. When he arrived at Iowa in February, he talked openly about what he hoped to run, and what Kirk Ferentz and he had discussed implementing:
"I think the average fan would say that the Big 12 was probably a more wide open, no huddle, tempo oriented, spread the field. And again, the average fan would say that the Big Ten, you would think of downhill, physical.
"Hopefully we'll be able to find of merge. From the very first time Kirk and I started talking, it was about blending philosophy, about blending the way we call things, and creating something that was 2012. That's what we are trying to do."
In June, he went even further, stating that his goal was to push Iowa's tempo while keeping the huddle:
"When Kirk hired me, he asked about taking Iowa's run game and blending it with my passing game," Davis said. "He talked about no-huddle and tempo. He said he'd like to look at it a little, but that he didn't want to become a no-huddle team, but he wanted to have some of it."
Davis went on to say that he wanted to get the play call in to the quarterback quickly enough that the team could be set at the line with 17 seconds left on the play clock. Essentially, Iowa would attach the old Kirk Ferentz zone stretch running game to Davis' passing offense, and would do it more quickly than before. And it would happen with Kirk's hand-picked coaching personnel, most of which had worked under Ken O'Keefe and Ferentz for over a decade. Davis would have to teach these old dogs his new philosophy, new techniques, new tricks. And he'd have to do it as the outsider in a program that had become positively Kremlin-esque.
Where Auburn had hired Tony Franklin, got cold feet about jumping into the up-tempo spread pool, tried to merge the system with a power running game, and ended up with a grab bag of crap, Iowa openly welcomed the grab bag of crap from Day One. When it didn't work -- and anyone who looked at this with knowledge of recent history should have seen it wouldn't work -- Davis' philosophy was further subsumed by Ferentz's.
The first thing to go was tempo. Since Vince Young graduated from Texas at the end of the 2005 season, Greg Davis has coordinated 77 games. In his last five years at Texas Davis' teams averaged 72.5 plays per game, lower than Franklin's 80-play target but significantly higher than the 64 plays Iowa averaged per game in 2011 or 62 per game it averaged in 2010. Iowa ran 82 plays from scrimmage in its opener against Northern Illinois, in retrospect the shining moment of the 2012 season. The Hawkeyes ran 70 plays against Iowa State, 71 against UNI, and the up-tempo was quite literally punted. Iowa broke the 70-play mark just once more in 2012, against Northwestern (and that's just a sign that Iowa was playing into Northwestern's hand again). Of the 17 games Greg Davis has coordinated since 2006 where his team failed to reach 64 plays, six occurred after Week 3.
This may seem trivial. It is anything but that. Davis teams are marginally better for each play run up to play 70 (at which point production plateaus), averaging a touchdown per game more in contests where they meet that benchmark than in games where they take 60 or fewer snaps. More damning: In games where his teams took more than 70 snaps, Davis teams were 34-7. With less than 70 snaps, they were 20-16. With less than 65 snaps, they were 10-11.
Iowa averaged 63.75 snaps in 2012. The Hawkeyes managed just 62 a game during the six-game losing streak that ended the season. And, as Kirk Ferentz tried to spin yesterday, they were five points per game from finishing 10-2.
When things didn't roll easily for this offense early, Davis' tempo -- a component clearly necessary for the success of his system -- was the first thing to go. The "blended" philosophy of this offense became extremely dependent on the zone stretch to the left side, became increasingly dependent on the tight ends, became increasingly slow in the huddle, as Ferentz went full-on Tuberville on Davis. It was a slow-moving disaster. It was a drought to match this summer.
It's now time to troubleshoot, to run the components individually and definitively determine what the cause of the problem is. We have two components -- the Davis passing game and the Ferentz zone running game -- blended together. Take it away, Hawkeye Game Film:
What startled me most about this set of numbers is Iowa's struggles running the ball. Some people would like to label Iowa as ‘Offensive Line University'. If that is the case, wouldn't you think Iowa would do better than being in the bottom quarter or third in Big Ten rushing in five of the last six seasons?
In eight of the 14 Ferentz era years, Iowa has finished 9th or worse in the league in rushing and up until 2010 it was an 11 team conference. That's only happened twice in passing during those 14 years. It has an 8.3 ranking average in the Big Ten and a 7.0 average in the Big Ten 1999-2010, before it became a 12 team league. Seven out of 12 is below average.
Since 2003, Iowa has not finished in the top half of the Big Ten in rushing offense without the help of a Doak Walker Award-winning halfback. Think about that for a second: Iowa's offensive lines full of NFL talent have resulted in top-half-of-the-conference production once in a decade, and that was with four NFL linemen and the nation's best back. AND THEY FINISHED FOURTH. If it's not talent -- and the running game is the place where it isn't a talent issue at Iowa -- it's execution or scheme, and scheme is the only constant over that time.
Just a reminder: This is the part of the offense Kirk Ferentz wanted to keep. This is the Ferentz component of the malfunctioning system, and it hasn't functioned properly for ten years. It is the main culprit.
If Iowa really wants to troubleshoot the offense, if it wants to determine what is making the system malfunction and the sound to turn off, it should isolate the components. All indications from yesterday are that Greg Davis is coming back, a fact that I might be slightly less apoplectic about than others. But if Ferentz and Davis are going to figure out what works, Ferentz needs to get the hell out of Davis' way and let him run the offense he wants to run. If it works, then we know it was either the running game or the unholy marriage between the two that was causing the problem, and Kirk can be a genius again, and everyone gets happy. If it doesn't work, we know Davis is a contributing problem, that he didn't sell the system sufficiently or adequately marshal his assistants and players toward his vision, and we can pursue a new plan.
Kirk Ferentz's default is to regress, to fall back on the things he knows, to just watch the television on mute and save the money on the Geek Squad guy his wife wants to call. But if he's really going to troubleshoot this, and he is really going to keep Greg Davis in the program, he's going to have to let Greg fix the whole thing -- the passing game, the running game, the personnel -- for him, without him, and exclusive of his precious overrated running game.