Innovation, History and a Prediction
By Lou Burruss
I tend to find defense more interesting than offense, so maybe this is a little biased, but my impression over the years is that defenses are much more complicated and varied compared to offenses. Tactics like stacks have evolved over the years but are still fairly unsophisticated. I remember DoG’s strategies regarding possession (they also deserve credit for the clam; maybe that’s why they won 6 championships) and Jam had Plinko in the early 2000s. Shortly after we saw a move to horizontal stacks and spread offenses with isolations and big cutters. But compared to defense these seem like minor adjustments. Do you agree?
So my question is who are the best offensive strategists in the game today, what are they doing, and how much more room do you think there is for more advances (dummy motions, o line formations prior to the pull, etc.)?
The period you reference (95-05) was a particularly fruitful one for development of big new tactics. It’s hard to believe it now, but there was time when playing zone for 3 passes and then switching to man was considered really tricky! What is interesting about the current strategic development is that the focus is more about the recycling and refinement of ideas and techniques than developing new ones. Vert, largely disdained for a decade, is the most obvious example of this but I’d include Doublewide’s 4-man cup as a defensive example.
If we weigh the impact of these various innovations, offense definitely holds sway over the defense. Sure, almost every team at Nationals has the potential to run a variety of different defenses, but they don’t actually use them very much. All the Open teams are dependent on tough man-to-man for their success. Ironside and Revolver, arguably the two most successful Open teams over the last 5 years, rarely play zones or junks. There are two champions (some of the Fury teams, DW) that won on the back of their innovation on defense, but many, many champions have won on their offensive innovation. Windy, NYNY, DoG, Furious and Sockeye were all on the cutting edge of the sport offensively.
There are some teams running some interesting offensive stuff right now. I was really intrigued by the Japanese crowd-stack that they unveiled for the U23 and World Games campaigns. It wasn’t hugely successful, but it was eye-catching. They were running a classic Boston-style vertical, but shoved over toward the strong side 8-10 yards more than is traditional. This completely jammed up the strong side but created vast oceans of space on the weak side. The weird thing about it was that they never really seemed to take advantage of that space. Occasionally they’d run a Godiva-style continuation out of it, but far more often they’d go right back into that gummed up strong side space. It was like they’d been practicing all season on a field 25 yards wide.
I also really like the Big Man endzone offense utilized most notably by Beau and Revolver, but there are a number of other teams using a similar system. In essence you run a traditional two-handler vertical stack, but instead of relying on a conservative dump-swing to generate strike opportunities to the corners, the dominant player of the two handlers is given license to do whatever they want. This creative play typically results in a give-and-go to the open side or an easy break around as the defense overcompensates. There is plenty of footage of Beau, but I’d also recommend the footage of Freechild with either Ego or Rhino. Beau gives you size and power, Freechild quickness. The change in athletic style gives each offense a really different look even though both are operating out of what is essentially the same system.
Even though teams have begun recycling classic styles, there is still a lot of room for innovation. Offense is a challenge of managing limited resources. Teams have put a lot of effort into managing one of those resources, space, but not much has gone into managing the other limiting factor, time. Some teams approach this through checkdown systems (0-3 huck, 4-6 comebacks, 7-9 dump, 10 hail mary) or take-the-open-look tactics, but all these systems are very rudimentary. The other area open for innovation is how teams see the field. As we build external structures like stacks, we build internal mental structures that guide our decision making. People unfortunately and accidentally build structures that limit what they can do. As throwers become more and more adept, the range of what is possible will continue to expand. Players who are combining open vision with exceptional throwing ability will be the newest generation of great throwers to take the game to new heights.
There continues to be discussion about the new Championship format and how teams are going to approach it. (I am still hoping for the elimination of the 1v4 game. Did you know a team could go 4-1 and not make the Pro-Flight? Or 1-4 and make it?) Here’s what teams will do on Thursday: the top-end teams will play it straight. During pool play, they will stick to O- and D- lines, but play slightly deeper than usual. Because the incentives for winning are so much less, teams will call subs like they are winning by four: an open O line and all the way down the bench on defense. These top teams will also sit all of their slightly injured players. (If you want a historical precedent, from the traditional format, look at the last round of power pools where teams were 4-0 and playing for the 1-2 spots.) Where things get really interesting is with the marginal teams. They don’t want to play it straight – if they do, they’re likely to go 1-2 or 0-3 and then get beat in the round of sixteen, so these teams will take bigger gambles. What you’ll see is teams resting/sitting their top 2-5 players for the two pool play games they’ve judged as losses and then taking a shot at the one team in your pool you think you can pick off. No one wants to be the 4 in a 1v4 match up, even with all the parity and so forth. The odds of winning that game are not good.
As has been previously noted in many places, this format really rewards top-end talent and de-emphasizes depth. Expect to see a lot of Beau, Gibson, Stubbs and the other 5-star players once elimination starts. (Are any of these teams bold enough to sit them on Thursday?) The team that most benefits from this format? Nemesis. Coach Kubalanza is exceptional at generating production from the top handful of players on his roster and a cursory watching of their games this season is all it takes to see this strategy is in full effect. Under the old system, their stars would be hard pressed to keep pace by semis and finals; under the new one, they’ll be just fine.