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College Football: Examining Georgia Tech's FlexBone Offense

Contributed by: Todd DeVries
Last Updated: Jul 18, 2011 8:15 PM

Paul Johnsons offensive schemes are some of the most tried and true in college football today. He has been running the same system since he was named the offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern in 1985, with a few tweaks here and there. But what Johnson really likes to do is run the triple option. Johnson uses the veer, where

Paul Johnson's offensive schemes are some of the most tried and true in college football today.  He has been running the same system since he was named the offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern in 1985, with a few tweaks here and there.

As a defensive coach prior to 1985, Johnson always felt that the wishbone offense with two wide receivers was the toughest thing to defend.  Of course, being in the wishbone makes running the triple option easier, but it can really limit an offense's ability to pass the football.

When Johnson was still a defensive assistant at Georgia Southern, the staff visited the Houston Gamblers of the USFL.  The Gamblers were a pure run and shoot team.  They were still using the shoot's initial formation which was created by Tiger Ellison in the 1960's.  Four wide receivers, with the slot receivers within arm's length of the offensive tackle. 

The Georgia Southern staff decided to use this formation to improve their passing game but still based their offense on the triple option.  Oddly enough, they decided to base their run game off the Cowboy and Gangster series out of Ellison's old run and shoot playbook.  

If you were to watch Georgia Tech play June Jones' run and shoot SMU Mustangs, It would seem inconceivable that these two offenses are not so distant cousins.  Both are derivatives of Tiger Ellison's creation.

When Johnson was named Georgia Southern's offensive coordinator, he inherited the scheme and has used it ever since.

One can not blame Johnson, he has had success everywhere he has been.  Although the Yellow Jackets had a disappointing 2010 season, they were still the number one rushing team in the country.  When Johnson was the head coach at Navy, his team also led the nation in rushing several times.  How can Johnson use the same plays year after year and still run the ball so effectively with inferior size and speed?

One big reason is the triple option.  But Coach Johnson likes to credit the flexibility of the flexbone.

By using a balanced formation with two wingbacks/slot receivers (Johnson calls them "A" backs), the offense never tips it's strength pre-snap.  And by motioning one of the "A"backs just before the snap, Johnson can create a numbers advantage at the point of attack.  Through the use of motion, the offense can also run any "I" formation plays if they desire.  And with the "A" backs lined up practically in the slot, the offense can immediately threaten the defense with four verticals or any other pass play that can be run out of a four receiver set.

But what Johnson really likes to do is run the triple option. 

Johnson uses the "veer", where the entire offensive line blocks down and leaves the defensive end unblocked.  He also likes the "midline option", where the playside tackle is now unblocked.  If the tackle reacts to the fullback dive, the quarterback will simply keep it and take it to the outside and option off of someone downfield. 

There is an old saying in option football, "If you can't block 'em, read 'em."

The thinking behind the triple option is that by leaving one player unblocked, you can double team the other defensive lineman and then work to the linebackers.  You not only have a numbers advantage but you have great blocking angles.  And through the use of the midline option and the veer, the offense can choose who to read.  If an offensive line can't handle someone, they can leave him unblocked and just read him. 

And by changing up the blocking schemes, defenses cant just play "assignment" football and think they are going to shut down this offense.  The website has an article on this topic.  The website The Birddog has a video of two consecutive option plays run by Georgia Tech a few years ago.  On the first play, the defense forces the quarterback to pitch the ball and the safety comes up and makes the play.  On the very next play, Paul Johnson called the exact same play to the other side.  Only this time, the slot receiver blocks the safety and no one has the pitchman.  Touchdown Yellow Jackets!

Of course, Johnson uses much more in his run game than just the option.  He runs all the other stuff, the counter, the sweep , the draw, his run game is as diverse as they come.  He just uses them as constraint plays.   Plays that punish the defense when they get out of line trying to defend the option.

Two of Johnson's bread and butter pass plays are right out of the run and shoot playbook.  "The Switch" and "The Go."  Both plays are great against a Cover 3 defense, which makes sense because teams are going to want to get that eighth man in the box against Tech.  Defenses will also want to play zone so they can handle the option better. 

"The Switch" is just a four verticals route with the two backside receivers switching routes.  These two backside receivers can adjust their routes if the defense is not in Cover 3.  But the idea of this route is to create a two on one with the free safety.  The two outside receivers take out the two cornerbacks who are covering their deep third responsibilities.  The quarterback can now hit one of the seam routes against a defenseless free safety.  If the linebackers drop and run with the receivers, the quarterback can just check the ball down to a wide open running back.

"The Go" is a trips route.  The outside receiver runs a go route.  Again taking the cornerback with him.  The middle receiver runs a seam route and looks for the ball just as he clears the flat defender (usually a strong safety in Cover 3).  He can adjust his route if the defense is not in a Cover 3.  The inside receiver runs a flat route and looks for the ball immediately.  This is a simple read on the flat defender.  If the defender drops to the seam, the quarterback will hit the flat.  If the defender runs to the flat, the seam will open up nicely.

Wow!  Why not just use the entire run and shoot passing game along with the flexbone running game?  Wouldn't that be something!  Paul Johnson has proven himself to be a smart football coach.  Unfortunately, there is not enough practice time to get good at both.  Execution would suffer so much that neither the run game nor the pass game would even be decent.  It's better to be one dimensional than to be good at nothing.

Paul Johnson has proven that you can be one dimensional and still win.  It is wonderful to see someone go against conventional wisdom and be successful.  Critics call his offense "too gimmicky" because it doesn't look like everyone else's.  If it was gimmicky, somebody would have figured out a way to completely shut it down in the last 26 years.

You can find highlights of the 1992 Holiday Bowl on YouTube when Paul Johnson was the offensive coordinator for the Rainbow Warriors.  You can see that the offense looks very similar to the current Georgia Tech scheme. 

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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