When the final epilogue on Kirk Ferentz's time at Iowa is written, "That's football" won't be the first thing mentioned. It will be mentioned, though, right around the third paragraph on the post-2009 program malaise, the part of the story eventually lost to memories of 2002 as Kirk receives the Hayden Fry-like program sainthood he deserves.
But when Ferentz attempted to explain Iowa's meltdown against Nebraska, and the 2014 season that meltdown so perfectly encapsulated, with the verbal equivalent of a shrug (and sent the media and fans into a frenzy), he gave those disgruntled fans a sarcastic rallying cry. Iowa Book & Supply, less a home for the hardcore side of the fanbase than a local institution, started selling shirts almost immediately. Twitter immediately turned it into a hashtag. And Ferentz guaranteed that a two-word non-answer would make it into that epilogue nonetheless.
Ferentz said it three times during that postgame press conference, essentially throwing his hands up and admitting there were no answers to what ailed Iowa in 2014. There was no lack of talent, at least not by Iowa standards: The Hawkeyes had an Outland Trophy winner at left tackle, an NFL-level right tackle, a pair of destructive defensive tackles, one of which could join Scherff in the NFL Draft's first round. There was no lack of experience: Iowa had returning starters at twelve positions and upperclassmen scattered throughout the depth chart. There was no injury issue: Aside from September surgery for Brandon Scherff and a two-week problem for Jake Rudock, Iowa maintained near-perfect health throughout the season. There was, in effect, nothing to hang this season on. Hence "That's football."
It felt like a blow-off line at the time, a placeholder until Ferentz could conjure up a different excuse, but with two weeks to examine it, "That's football" feels less like an exasperated sigh and more of a statement of belief. Because when you look back at it, Iowa has been playing "That's football" football for a decade.
The Basic Philosophy
Ferentz would hate anyone examining his basic football philosophy, especially in mathematical terms, but let's try it anyway. Let's start with the basic tenets of that philosophy, the things that he absolutely and steadfastly refuses to abandon. Kirk Ferentz, somewhat surprisingly, is an offensive-based football coach, and Kirk Ferentz offensive football is based on a zone running game predicated on the outside zone as a foundational play (as we discussed earlier this year, the strongest proponents of this strategy—and there's no doubt Ferentz is one of them—believe that the outside and inside zone are the only two running plays a team needs). Ferentz refuses to go to a complete hurry-up offense (he told Greg Davis he'd like to have it at times, but come on). And the man absolutely abhors turnovers.
Defensively, Iowa remains in bend-don't-break mode even after Norm Parker's retirement, and while Ferentz does not exert as much control on the defensive side of the ball, Iowa is going to remain 4-3 with a pass rush coming from the defensive line and primarily zone coverage behind them as long as he is here. There's usually little blitzing (2013 being a uniquely personnel-mandated exception) or tomfoolery beyond a simple stunt by the defensive linemen. Again, this is designed to prevent big plays; safeties generally play deep and keep skill players in front of them, and corners give receivers ample room to catch short passes so long as those receivers are not getting deep.
The dedication to the zone running game and the deep zone coverages come from the same source. When run properly, zone running proponents claim that the outside zone is an unstoppable play. If the defense plays straight-up, the line should be able to seal the edge and let the running back flank the defensive line while interior linemen are cleaning up linebackers. If the defense slants or overloads, a seam should open for a cutback run counter to the slant or overload. There will be variance, but over a long enough timeline, the zone running scheme should win. The same goes for Iowa's defense, which (when run correctly, a caveat we're going to have to assume for the early part of this examination) forces an opponent to execute somewhere between 10 and 20 consecutive plays to score. Most college offenses, with their 20 hours of practice time a week, have difficulty doing that, and either eventually stall or commit a turnover.
Essentially, the core tenet behind both Iowa's offensive and defensive outlooks is that the offense's ability to act (and defense's necessity to react) means that fortune trends in the offense's direction, but that there is considerable play-to-play variance that can temporarily move things in the direction of the defense. Over a long enough timeline—a theoretical infinite football game—the offense wins out, and it holds true for both sides. But if a team suffers enough negative variance over a short timeline, that can change the outlook considerably.
Football, of course, is not played over an infinite timeline. Rather, a team gets as many plays as it can run over a 60-minute time period; for Iowa, that is usually somewhere between 50 and 80 plays in a game. When you hear coaches talk about playing with an "aggressive" defense or an "explosive" offense, they're doing one thing: Trying to turn up positive variance for their offense and negative variance for their defense. A high-risk offense and defense (think Baylor, which tries to up the yardage per play on offense at the risk of zero-benefit incompletions and negative-benefit turnovers, while utilizing an opportunistic, turnover-generating defense that can give up big numbers to a good opponent) is banking on the fact that it can maximize its production and get enough negative plays out of the opponent to turn them south.
Nobody would characterize Iowa as an "aggressive" defense (in philosophy, not in player mindset) or "explosive" offense. Kirk Ferentz is a conservative guy, and he has an NFL-based mindset. Instead of increasing variance, Iowa does its best to eliminate it. Those deep safeties and zone coverages are supposed to prevent the big spikes in positive variance for the other team, and the can't-lose running game (and hyper-conservative horizontal passing game) reduce the Hawkeyes' own negative variance to nothing beyond the occasional fumble. Reducing the game to its most basic elements, then executing those elements better than the other guy is the bedrock of this program. That execution should result in fewer mistakes on offense, which in turn means fewer chances for the opposition to take advantage. It should result in more mistakes by the opposing offense, because the offense has to run a bunch of perfect plays with more efficiency than can be expected from a college football team to score.
At the end of the day, however, variance is still going to be there, because players aren't perfect and the opposition sometimes does something to cause a negative result. Variance comes in the way a running back misses an obvious cutback lane, or a quarterback throws a pass behind an open receiver and into the arms of a safety, or a kicker that misses a chip shot field goal. In the NFL, where differences in talent are minimal, this variance is basically the entire game. There are teams that, either through improved execution or innovative strategy, can increase variance in their favor, but at the end of the day most NFL teams are within rock-throwing distance of .500 by the time 16 games are complete. That variance comes through the amorphous "playmaker," the guy who can bend the system to his whim once or twice a game. And when that guy beats you, there's little more to do than shrug. In that world, losing a game where the variance just turns away from you out of nowhere? That's just bad luck. That's no fault of the team itself. That's football.
So why isn't it working?
Let's start with the basic premise: Iowa is supposed to be better at preventing negative variance than its opponents, which means Iowa has to (1) have a positive turnover margin, and (2) cannot give up big plays on defense. It was bad at both in 2014. Iowa finished 99th nationally in turnover margin at -5 overall, almost exclusively the result of a defense that could not generate a fumble and an offense that generated plenty of them. The Hawkeyes finished -11 in fumbles this year, the third-worst fumble margin in the nation (only West Virginia and Eastern Michigan were worse). The Hawkeyes recovered three all season, a decent percentage when you realize they only forced five. Meanwhile, Iowa's offense handed the ball over 14 times. Only five teams in FBS football turned the ball over on fumbles more than Iowa in 2014. That's a boatload of negative variance, and essentially one free possession per game for the opposition.
As for the big plays, Iowa's defense got burned multiple times by UNI and never really recovered over the course of the season. The average touchdown scored against Iowa's defense was from 23 yards out; if you take the defense's uncharacteristic running game meltdown against Minnesota out of that, it increases to nearly 27 yards per touchdown play. Iowa allowed 11 touchdowns this season of 30 yards or more. And these figures do not include long plays that did not end in touchdowns, like Melvin Gordon's 88-yard run in the third quarter of Iowa's loss to Wisconsin or David Johnson's 53-yard catch in the first defensive series of the season. Iowa's defense gave up a 70-yard score to UNI and a pair of 30-yard scores to Nebraska. It never got much better.
When those two worlds collided, of course, it was disaster. Iowa conceded three defensive touchdowns this year (average length: 40 yards) and a crippling punt return score against Nebraska on special teams.
The takeaway: If the philosophy is to limit upward variance by the opposition, Iowa did a fairly horrible job of it this year.
In theory, player development should work to improve both sides of variance. Talented players should be able to limit downward variance and improve top-end variance, effectively making that trend line slant further upward. And Iowa's best team have had those players. This team had them, as well.
Ferentz and strength coach Chris Doyle have long been noted for their ability to turn some fairly rough raw material into NFL-level football talent, and to their credit, that hasn't changed much in 16 years. Iowa just turned a three-star recruiting afterthought into an Outland Trophy winner and didn't look grossly outmanned in any game this year despite starting exactly two consensus four-star prospects (both on the offensive line). Doyle remains in many ways Iowa's secret weapon.
But two things have happened that make the sort of talent advantage enjoyed by the 2002-2003 teams impossible now. For one, Iowa can't afford a 1-10 downturn, meaning that a group of five freshmen can't be put on an offensive line and thrown to the wolves in 2014 and turn into road graders by 2017 as they did from 1999 to 2002. Second, and more importantly, teams have caught up. No longer is Iowa the only program utilizing an NFL strength & conditioning program, an issue that comes to the forefront later in this post.
Iowa keeps turning two-star prospects into NFL talents, but they're mostly only getting developed to the point that they are equal with their more highly-regarded opposition. Any talent edge that Iowa enjoys over anyone is marginal, at best, and not enough to overcome other problems that cause negative variance. And at positions where Iowa has struck out in recruiting or been decimated by attrition and been forced to rely on underdeveloped players—the parade of young two-star linebackers is a prime example—it is at a significant disadvantage.
The quarterback is crucial to Iowa's primary philosophy. No player can generate negative variance like a bad quarterback, because his decision-making process has the most pitfalls. An incomplete pass is effectively a negative play. An interception is exponentially worse. Ferentz has opted for his conservative, first-do-no-harm quarterback at almost every turn. He preferred Jake Christensen over Ricky Stanzi until Christensen's position was no longer tenable, then brought him back for another chance anyway. He did his level best to force the turnover gene out of Stanzi's DNA, and did so by 2010. He kept James Vandenberg under center in the lost cause season of 2012 to limit the damage. And he's opted for Jake Rudock's conservative play over C.J. Beathard's more potent arm at every opportunity.
The problem, though, is that Ferentz's mindset runs contradictory to all modern thinking on the subject of quarterbacking. I am loathe to praise Trent Dilfer, the ESPN NFL talking head who is now running the Elite 11 high school quarterback camp, but his description of his own career in Bruce Feldman's new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks sounded awfully familiar:
Dilfer described himself as a onetime "high-ceiling" guy who had all-world talent, but he said that by the time he was about thirty years old, he'd been reduced to a "game manager." Or, worse still, a guy who played to not make a mistake, instead of making a play.
"The QB position has been minimized by many of my coaches," he said, "and my aggressiveness and intuitive feel for the position had been stripped away by years of 'Don't screw it up,' negative-reinforcement coaching."
When did Jake Rudock play at his finest in 2014? The last five minutes against Ball State, the first half against Pitt when Iowa had lost to ISU the week before, the Illinois game following an embarrassing loss to Minnesota, and the second half of the Wisconsin game. What did those four games/situations have in common? Rudock and Iowa had nothing to lose. They were behind to Ball State when he turned it on. They were behind to Wisconsin when he started firing it deep. And they were left for dead after the two worst losses of the year when he returned sharp and prepared, with playcalling to match. There was nothing left to screw up; there were only plays to make. It was when Iowa went conservative—i.e. where Rudock was clearly instructed not to screw it up—that things went sour.
Alabama is sort of the platonic ideal of Ferentz football. The Crimson Tide were traditionally low-tempo, run-heavy, pro-style offense by definition. Like Ferentz, Nick Saban's philosophy leaned toward limiting the number of plays in a game, executing with so few flaws that the opposition could not get any high-variance plays through without a herculean effort or a complete fluke, and trust the talent and scheme to win out eventually. Where Ferentz's talent base left him much closer to the 50/50 line, Saban had nothing but the upward curve created by superior talent over every opponent in his favor, and the difference in final records naturally ensue.
Not coincidentally, the few times that Alabama has lost under Saban in recent years have come in games where high-variance plays did happen, and so when Saban brought in Lane Kiffin to run his offense and went up-tempo this year, it was an admission of the basic math behind the game: If you have better players than the opposition and run more plays in the course of the game, you have the curve in your favor and are extending it long enough to cancel out any fluky variance in the opposition's favor. You're taking the game closer to infinity, where the variance in the game should cancel out. Alabama's win over Auburn is a perfect example of this.
Iowa doesn't have better talent than many of the teams it faces, and so slow tempo is a survival mechanism, a chance to let variance work in its favor. When coupled with reduced negative variance due to execution, it's a recipe for staying in the fight against the Ohio States and (formerly) Michigans of the world, and Ferentz's record of wins and closer-than-expected losses against those programs speaks to its general success.
Of course, when you use it against lesser opponents, it lets those opponents stay in the game, as well. The dogmatic adherence to slow-down offense that keeps Iowa within a touchdown of Ohio State is the same dogma that has Iowa losing to 2-10 Iowa State or 4-8 Central Michigan or 2-10 Minnesota, et cetera. Over a long enough timeline, Iowa should have enough talent and experience to win those games. But when the timeline is compressed and variance like Steele Jantz happens, those games can be (and too often are) lost.
At the heart of all of this is the fact that all of it is now, for lack of a better term, program dogma. If the offensive coordinator's passing game doesn't fit with Ferentz's zone running game, it's the passing game that must adapt. If Iowa would be better at a high tempo against would-be cupcakes, it would rather just huddle and make sure —Iowa's players, the opposition's players, the fans in the stands, Chris Spielman up in the booth—knows what is happening next. If Iowa could be better with a quarterback with higher upside and higher risk of error, it's a risk Ferentz is not willing to take.
When Kirk Ferentz arrived at Iowa, he was a bit of a radical. Iowa ran what was essentially a state-of-the-art pro-style offensive system and played at the margins—special teams, again—for an added edge. The zone scheme was established, but not seen on the level that Ferentz was teaching, in the college game, and the benefits of that coupled with a pro-style strength program were immediate. If you drop the first two seasons, where Ferentz inherited one of the barest cupboards in college football, he annihilated the existing Big Ten coaches. From 2001 on, Iowa was 30-13 against coaches who were in the conference when Ferentz was hired.
But as those coaches left and were replaced—every program in the conference except Northwestern has replaced its coach at least twice since Ferentz was first hired—and Ferentz went from a radical to the dean of Big Ten coaches, that edge evaporated. Gone was the dated thinking of Joe Paterno, the bumbling incompetency of Bobby Williams, the call-the-play-before-the-snap predictability of Barry Alvarez, and the pizza-a-day strength program of Lloyd Carr. You know how all of those young coaches talk about how they respect and admire Kirk Ferentz? It's because they took all of his ideas and incorporated them into a new framework. The zone isn't run like Iowa runs it anymore, at least at the college level. The defenses aren't so simple. The player development programs are manned by true pros. Iowa's "Moneyball" edge is gone, and it has been for quite some time. Ferentz is just 35-33 against Big Ten coaches hired after he took the job. And they're all substantially newer than him now.
When he was asked on the call-in show earlier this year why his team continues to run outside zone as its base play despite having a converted fullback as the primary ballcarrier, Ferentz says it's because that's what Iowa football is. That view of one particular play is beyond dangerous. It allows for something that isn't working to continue because it is dogmatic. To Ferentz, the zone running game is good in and of itself and cannot be removed, for the entire enterprise will come crashing down without it. If it is what you are and it is removed, you are nothing.
That way of thinking bleeds down to every other area of the program. The evident problems of this program in 2014—and 2013, and 2012, and 2011, and even 2010 before it—stem from its basic philosophy of how the game is to be played. Iowa has to make tectonic changes in order to meet the challenges of the modern game, to avoid another disappointing 7-5 season and also-ran bowl trip, but doing so would call Ferentz's entire philosophy into question. That worldview already allows for "That's football" as an answer to a question, because football is variance, and variance can lose you a 17-point lead with 17 minutes left to play. In that sense, it is an acceptable answer to him. The problem is that it's Ferentz's version of football that allows that to happen, and that football is long gone.