As Jon Gruden is formally announced Tuesday in Oakland as the new head coach of the Raiders, attention will turn to just how much he has changed since he last coached in the league. Much has been made of his sub-.500 record after winning the Super Bowl in the 2002 season, as he failed to win another playoff game with Tampa Bay. But he has spent much of his nine years out of coaching studying and learning about various trends and concepts around the league and in college.
So what exactly should we expect from Gruden in Oakland? Let’s take a look.
In the West Coast offense, which was created by Bill Walsh and run by Gruden during his previous stint in the NFL, the personnel groups all have different names, as opposed to the simpler number system incorporated by many other teams, in which the first number means the number of backs on the field and the second number refers to the number of tight ends. 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) is the most commonly used personnel group in today’s NFL. Gruden would call that “Zebra” personnel.
Here’s a list of the personnel groups as they’re often known in the West Coast offense:
21 — Regular/Base
22 — U
23 — U Goal line (UGL), also known as Y
20 — E
11 — Zebra (some West Coast teams might call this Gator)
12 — Tiger
13 — Trey
10 — Eagle
When it comes to play calls, it gets a lot more complicated. One of the longer play calls we know from Gruden is “U Zap to West Right Tight F Left Fake 99 Toss Crunch Naked Right.” It’s an incredibly long play call and the type of call that will take a lot of time for the quarterback and the offense to adjust to, particularly if they haven’t been in a West Coast offense before.
The structure of a West Coast offense play call is important. The calls always start with any type of shift, then the formation. That is followed by any motions and the play series or protection. Once all of that is established, then the actual concept is called, plus any individual adjustments to the concept and finally the snap count before the huddle is eventually broken.
This is how “U Zap to West Right Tight” would look. The U is the second tight and the tag zap tells him to line up at fullback before shifting to a new position. The tag “right” tells the Y tight end to align to the right of the formation, while “West” tells the U tight end to align outside of him. The rule is remembered by the phrase “it’s warm in the West, so go outside.”
With the shift and formation sorted, next comes the motion.
In this case, the motion is “F Left”, meaning the flanker (Z receiver) motions to the left of the formation.
Next up is the protection or play series and the play concept. “Fake 99 Toss Crunch” is a play-action fake. The intent is to fake the 99 toss crunch run to the left. Odd numbers are to the left, even numbers are to the right, so if they wanted to fake the run to the right, it would be fake 98 toss crunch. The “Naked Right” part tells the quarterback he’s bootlegging to the right and has no protection when doing so. He would typically have three receiving options: one deep, one intermediate crossing route and one check down in the flat.
Short passing game
The West Coast offense is predicated on a shorter passing game. The idea is to run shorter, underneath routes with the quarterback throwing on time and in rhythm, getting the ball out of his hands quickly, something Derek Carr excels at, and allowing receivers to make yards after the catch.
Gruden will often call two plays in the huddle, which will force the quarterback to decipher the defense pre-snap and pick which play to run depending on the look the defense gives him. For example, Gruden might call “Double Wing Right 2 Jet Circus can it with 200 Jet Smoke.” Those are two different passing plays, called from the same formation, which are designed to beat different coverages.
This is “Double Wing Right 2 Jet Circus.” “Double Wing Right” is the formation while “2 Jet” is the protection. “Circus” is the passing concept and it tells the receivers to run corner-flat combinations designed to beat cover-two and Tampa-two defenses.
The second play called is “200 Jet Smoke”. It’s run from the same formation, but instead of running corner-flats on either side, “Smoke” tells the receivers to run slant-flat combinations on either side. This works well against man coverage and cover-three.
If the defense shows two deep safeties, the quarterback is to use the original call, “2 Jet Circus.” However, if the defense only shows one deep safety in the middle of the field, it’s likely he’ll get cover-one, a man coverage, or cover-three. In that case, Gruden would ask his quarterback to “kill” the first play and run the second play, “200 Jet Smoke.”
This makes things easier on the quarterback in one way, because he’ll get to learn a core set of concepts and know which to go to against different defenses. But it will also mean long play calls in the huddle as Gruden cycles through the formations and motions to help disguise those core concepts.
I would expect Gruden to install a power running game in Oakland. He used various power run schemes there before, and the Raiders have a big, powerful offensive line that suits the power scheme, with runs like counter, duo, and G lead installed. Gruden traditionally likes to involve a fullback, which has somewhat fallen out of favor in the modern NFL. Don’t be surprised if Gruden is one of the few coaches in the NFL who will still use a fullback for these types of plays.
This is an old school isolation power run. It’s designed to give the running back a two-way go on the middle linebacker, or “Mike.” The offensive line and tight end are to split the defense with their blocks, isolating the fullback on the Mike. The running back has to read the Mike and make his cut to either side of him, depending on how he’s blocked.
Much of Gruden’s traditional play-action game, such as his now famous “Spider 2 Y Banana” play, requires a fullback to execute. So I’d be surprised if he doesn’t have a fullback on his team come September.
One of the biggest trends in the NFL since Gruden left has been the increase in no-huddle offenses. A high percentage of college teams run no-huddle spread offenses, meaning a large portion of players entering the league aren’t used to huddling and long wordy play calls that are associated with Gruden. During one of his QB camp shows, Gruden even said “If I ever come back and coach, I’m never huddling again!” But don’t expect him to stick to that. I wouldn’t expect his language to change significantly, but perhaps he could shorten some of his terminology to incorporate some of those up-tempo, no-huddle aspects that used seen across the league.
Another thing that has entered the league in recent years has been run-pass option plays, or RPOs, which isolate a specific defender for the quarterback to read, and from that read he can either hand off or throw a pass. Gruden has often stated that RPO stands for ridiculous protection offense, because the quarterback is often left with no protection if he opts to throw. So I wouldn’t expect him to be relying on RPOs during his comeback with the Raiders.
What he might take from those RPOs and no-huddle offenses is how spread teams run the ball based on box counts. The philosophy of the spread run game is to take defenders out of the box and run the ball if the number of defenders in the box matches the number of blockers available. Gruden, historically, has used beefy, run-heavy personnel groups and formations to run the ball, trying to create as many gaps as possible. But in actuality, all that does is bring more defenders into the box.
Gruden’s return to the NFL will undoubtedly be in the national spotlight for most of the 2018 season. While his traditional West Coast offense is fairly standard, it will be very interesting to see how much he adapts it to fit the modern game and how open he is to adding in different philosophies from the college game.
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