Reviewing the up-and-down 2013 Stanford offense - and looking ahead to 2014

Harry How

Stanford's offense was much improved, but plagued by inconsistency... will it remain that way next season, too?

Reader, I most often write to convince you of something. This is not the case with this particular piece on the up-and-down Stanford offense -- or, if I do convince you of anything, it’s that the Stanford offense was a mystery wrapped up in an enigma with a nougaty riddle of a center.

I can’t figure it out; consequently, the outlook for the 2014 edition of the offense promises further oddness.

OK, let’s start with something obvious: the Stanford offense improved substantially and was a pretty darn good offense, if too erratic and overall short of the standard of a national contender. Stanford averaged about 5 points per game more in 2013 than the year before, despite benefiting from fewer special teams and defensive touchdowns and playing a vastly more difficult schedule.

Yards per play increased from 5.53, 8th in the conference, to 6.35, 2nd in the conference. 3rd down conversion percentage went from 38.07% (5th) to 49.75 (1st). There was one prominent regression: touchdowns in the redzone, which sagged from a mediocre 60.78% to 57.69% - surely the number one problem to address and solve for the Stanford offense next year.

Advanced statistics appreciated the improvement: ESPN’s FPI ranked Stanford 46th in 2012 and boosted the team to 18th in 2013; Football Outsiders’ F/+ combined ranking called Stanford the 36th best offense in 2012 and the 15th best offense in 2013 (pre-Rose Bowl).

In a vacuum, the improvement is appreciated, and without it Stanford would not have secured its second straight conference championship. But expectations were high on the outset of the season -- but justifiably so? At the beginning of the season I noted that Stanford needed to be averaging 20+ points per game more than its opponents to be a serious contender for the national championship, and preferably closer to 26. That was an extremely heavy lift, and my guess is too heavy a lift given the talent on hand -- somehow Stanford had to find 6 to 10 more points on offense. Which is, you know, a lot -- the equivalent of going from a replacement-level QB to a top-flight one, is my guess. I suspect there are improvements to be made from a coaching perspective -- that ought to be made -- but large-scale improvements are always difficult. (Keep in mind that Vegas expected us to win around 9.5 games in 2013.)

Similarly difficult will be the task in 2014, assuming the expectations are for more elite teams. Given the number of comments I’ve heard in the same tone (though not to the same degree) as the anonymous emailer to Jon Wilner going all "PAWWWLLLL FIRE DAVID SHAW," I think it’s safe to say that this is indeed the case. It’s a near certainty the defense will regress at least some degree, meaning that the offense must surely advance to an equal or greater degree. (Assuming we care more about performance than achievement.)

The Stanford offensive outlook is confounding. On first glance it looks very promising in the passing game, and not-so-much in the running game. But first glances are deceiving and I don’t know what to think.

Outlook

OK, let’s start with the passing game. At first look it’s very promising, as mentioned. All receivers of consequence return, and they are good. Ty Montgomery is excellent. Michael Rector and Devon Cajuste are explosive. Francis Owusu is promising.

The quarterback would also, casually, appear promising. Hogan’s 8.92 yards per attempt and 79.7 adjusted QBR both rank quite well -- 13th and 16th in the country, respectively. But it’s in digging that you become worried. It’s been evident for a while that Hogan is inconsistent and the stats back that up well. For example, Hogan has three of 2013’s best 20 games, according to QBR, and 4 of 2013’s best 40 games. No one matches the former stat; only Marcus Mariota matches the latter.

Hogan, unfortunately, had a lot of bad games as well -- he must’ve, for the math to work out. But even that, on some level, may not disturb too much: experience can cure inconsistency. So the outlook for the passing game is complicated by one mystery and one disturbance.

Let’s start with the mystery, and it’s one that’s been talked about for a while: the disappearance of the intermediate game with Hogan in 2013. The passing offense went aggro in 2013 as an antidote to the sluggishness of the 2012 offense, and it worked really, really well -- 2013 was the most explosive Stanford passing offense since 2010: 13.88% of pass plays went for 20 yards or more in 2013, versus 8.77% in 2012, versus 12.23% in 2011, versus 12.66% in 2010.

But for whatever reason Hogan seemed to pass up intermediate routes; oftentimes check-downs seemed not to be available at all. What happened? Surely going long more frequently was a smart way to take advantage of fast wideouts and opponents keying on Stanford’s power run game -- but did it have to go so far? Some commentators have suggested that the reason for the disappearance of the intermediate and short passing game is the change in personnel: better wideouts, nonexistent tight ends. But I’m not sure that solves it; it’s a little lazy to end the search there.

First of all, as a theoretical matter wideouts are allowed to run short and intermediate routes -- I seem to remember the "slant" and "curl" from my Madden days. Indeed, Jordan Pratt, Jeff Trojan and Kodi Whitfield all averaged between 8.3 and 12.6 yards per reception. Second, it ignores the personnel that weren’t used. Ryan Hewitt caught 11 passes in the half-season Hogan piloted in 2012 -- which is more than the 9 passes he caught in the entirety of 2013. That stat holds an important clue -- it’s often a staff decision or a quarterback decision that determines the personality of a passing offense.

For example, I watched the passes Evan Crower threw against Washington State and Cal this year -- and discovered 61.5% of his passes went to targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage; approximately 23% of passes went between 10-20 yards of the line of scrimmage; and 15.4% of passes went beyond 20 yards. Those numbers are similar to Hogan’s against UCLA, possibly Stanford’s least vertical of the season. Now, those are garbage time statistics and, moreover, a small sample size. But they suggest that with the same staff and similar personnel, the passing game is capable of being more short- and intermediate-oriented.

So it’s a mystery: did Hogan change from a quarterback who sought out short and medium options in 2012 to a chuck-it-downfield guy in 2013? Did the staff, for whatever reason, believe that Hogan would be better suited to throw it downfield like, all the time?

Because it certainly seems that the staff attitude shifted on Hogan -- oddly, they seemed to trust redshirt sophomore Hogan less than redshirt freshman Hogan. Hogan ran less and passed less in 2013 than in 2012. Perhaps that’s a consequence of running fewer plays per game (Stanford ran 61.8 plays per game in 2013 versus 67.7 in 2012, another curious factoid), the increased proportion of garbage time, or the seeming desire to restrict Hogan’s running against weaker teams.

But even as a percentage of plays, Hogan plays (running plus passing) comprised less of the offense than the year before: (42.2% versus 49.7%). The type of plays the offense ran changed as well. Per Bill Connelly, Stanford ran 67% of the time on standard downs (21st most in the country) -- and 50% of the time on passing downs (6th most in the country). In 2012, those numbers were 63.3% and 38.5%: above average, but not hugely so.

That seemingly wasn’t the plan before the season. Here’s Shaw in a pre-season interview with Football Scoop:

I'd love to be 50-50 run-pass as long as we're passing and running with efficiency. I believe that we had [in 2012] one of the better running backs in the country and we were going to feature what he could do well. I thought we had an inexperienced quarterback with a cast that was developing around him passing-wise, and we smartly did what we should have done. Hopefully we can be as balanced as we hope to be this year coming up with a young receiving corps that we think is talented, losing our top two tight ends (from) a year ago, but still being able to have a good running game with some experienced running backs.

Now here’s Shaw in a pre-Rose Bowl press conference:

We have to run the ball. We run the ball. That's who we are. That's what we do. We will throw the ball, as well, but we want to be a 60‑40 run team. That's just who we are right now.

The last sentence does not sound terribly enthusiastic about this particular fate, but that’s just my interpretation.

At any rate, the question is, what changed? Certainly the wide receivers did not disappoint. Shaw was extremely enthusiastic about Luke Kaumatule at TE during preseason, but that didn't work out; at any rate, that doesn't seem to be an insuperable problem. What about efficiency? Keep in mind that in more limited opportunities Hogan threw 10 picks and fumbled the ball 7 times (3 lost). 13 turnovers is an extreme number for someone handling the ball so rarely.

Hogan’s inconsistency in completing the ball might also be troubling from an efficiency perspective. In two games -- Oregon State and USC -- he threw so poorly he looked as if he’d forgotten to throw the ball. His completion percentage -- 61.1% -- is right at the danger zone. To use a basketball analogy, is Hogan like the three-point sharpshooter or under-the-basket garbage collector who is extremely efficient in limited opportunities (but who can’t do much more)? That’s the brief idea that occurs to me.

At any rate, it certainly appears as if Shaw et al. lack some confidence in their quarterback. Additionally, it seemed as if Hogan was restricted in the audibles he could call -- he would sometimes go long stretches without calling any. (Take, for instance, the Washington game, as Ben Muth observed.) And that lack of trust raises a question. While the 2013 approach improved the offense substantially, further improvement in 2014 will require a shift: the offense appears to be stocked with wideouts, with uncertainty in the interior offensive line and at running back. So the obvious place to shift, from this vantage point, is towards more of an aerial attack -- perhaps closer to that 50-50 state. But do they have the quarterback (and the trust) to shift that way? (Or...might there be a quarterback change?)

(Random other notes:

* The offensive line was a tad overrated this year. The mysterious road woes remained mysterious and woeful throughout the year. Stanford ranked #16 overall in sacks allowed but #38 on the road in sacks allowed. While losing the interior offensive line is worrying, with the impressive 2012 offensive line class coming fully online, there’s the possibility that 2014's line could be better than 2013.

* I continue to believe pistol should be used more in the offense. Your running back goes downhill and you can read-option! Fun for the whole offense!

* I’m pessimistic about the running backs. Discard what the coaches say and focus on revealed preferences: we started out with Gaffney and Wilkerson roughly splitting carries and ended it with Gaffney monopolizing the totes. Generally this worked fine, but sometimes Gaffney looked worn down, for example near the end of the Oregon game. Yet the coaches rarely seemed to trust your Remound Wrights, Ricky Seales and Barry Sanderses. There are a few possibilities, of course: lack of trust in pass protection, for example...but you can’t dismiss the idea that they’re simply not much good. Would be interesting to see if Kelsey Young gets a shot at RB.)

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