MHR Primer: The Urban Meyer Offense in Denver? (Part 3)

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 14: Tim Tebow #15 of the Denver Broncos throws a pass against the New England Patriots during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

"There's no such thing as luck, there's a big word called investment. If there was luck, why work as hard as we do? I've never been involved in a game where the most invested team lost." Urban Meyer



In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the philosophy behind the Urban Meyer offense. In Part 2, we looked at the running game. In this part, we're going to address the elephant in the room -- Tim Tebow and the passing game. Critics of Tebow will contend that he has not, and more importantly, will not be able to master the intricacies of the NFL passing game, that he is a running quarterback who cannot throw. . I would suggest that those people are most likely correct, IF, and only if, Tebow is asked to play the game ala Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. His supporters will argue that all he needs is the time to take reps in a normal off season, so as to become familiar with his receivers and for the offensive line to develop a bit more. Personally, I fall somewhere in between those two extremes.

I do believe that Tebow has been unfairly characterized as a quarterback who cannot throw -- his 46.5% completion rate in 2011 not withstanding. Consider for a moment: this is the same player who, in 55 college games: completed 661 out of 995 passes (66.4%) for 9285 yards, 88 passing touchdowns with only 16 interceptions, was awarded the Davey O'Brian Award (for best NCAA quarterback) in 2007, won the Heisman Trophy in 2007, and was awarded the Manning Award (given by the Sugar Bowl Committee to the quarterback they deem the best in the US) in 2008. I have a hard time believing that he could achieve all of that if he cannot throw effectively.

Now it's time to dispel some of the misconceptions about the Florida passing attack in general and about Tim Tebow in particular. It must be acknowledged that during Tebow's tenure in Florida, the Gators were primarily a running team -- having run the ball 59% of the time. This fact, however, can lead to a very skewed perception of Tebow -- the perception that he was more likely to rely on his feet than on his arm. As I hope you will come to see and agree: this perception is not entirely accurate.

Run the route with me.

The Perception of Tebow as a Run First Quarterback

As was mentioned above the jump, during Tebow's time at Florida, the Gators ran the ball 59% of the time. Therefore, it seems logical, since they ran a spread-option running game in which the quarterback was an active runner, that Tebow was a run-first quarterback whose passing was merely incidental to his game. I'm not convinced that this is an accurate perception. I will again point to the 66.4% completion rate (661 out of 995), the 9285 passing yards, the 88 passing touchdowns as signs that he was an effective, though perhaps not prolific, passer. By way of comparison, the NFL's two most recent Super Bowl quarterbacks came out of college with the following stats (please keep in mind that Tom Brady was only a 2-year starter in college): Eli Manning, 60.8%, 10,119 yards, 81 touchdowns; Tom Brady 62.3%, 5351 yards, 19 touchdowns. Just for fun, let's look at Drew Brees, who played in the same spread offense at Purdue from which Meyer drew his inspiration for his own offense's passing attack: Brees, 61.2%, 11,517 yards, 88 touchdowns.

There is one further piece of evidence worth considering. As has been repeatedly acknowledged, the Gators ran the ball 59% of the time. What about Tebow's personal run/pass balance on those plays when he was the passer and/or ball carrier? We might expect it to be similar to that of the team. It was not. Tebow's freshman year -- when he was a backup to starter Chris Leak -- is the only season in which Tebow ran more times than he threw (89 runs to 33 passes). In each of his remaining three seasons, Tebow threw the ball more times than he ran with it. In his sophomore and junior years, the balance (running to passing) was 38% to 62% (210 runs to 350 passes) and 37% to 63% (176 runs to 298 passes) respectively. In his senior season, his balance was the direct opposite of the overall balance of the team with Tebow running the ball 41% of the time while passing it 59% (217 runs to 314 passes).

So what do we do with Tebow's horrendous completion rate in 2011? Personally, I'm not inclined to buy into the view that he simply isn't going to be an effective passer in the NFL. I think there were three major issues which exacerbated his struggles in 2011. First, there was the lack of a normal off season. He did not have a chance to engage in the normal sort of coaching, access to the film room, OTA and mini camp workouts to begin building a connection with the receivers. Second, there is an obvious need for Tebow to improve in his ability to read NFL defenses quickly and accurately. Third, the nature of the passing game used in Denver -- Josh McDaniels and Mike McCoy installed a passing game that was very similar to what McDaniels had run in New England. This was an Erhardt-Perkins-style system which utilized play-action passes, short drops and passing out of the pocket to set up deep throws. Tebow, on the other hand, had been trained in a West Coast Offense-style which features more of a horizontal passing attack. Not only that, but Meyer used his spread running attack in lieu of some of the short passes of a pure West Coast Offense, though those elements were still present.

The Passing Game - General Thoughts
The Meyer offense includes a variety of passes which are easily recognizable to any fan of the NFL -- shovel passes, play action passes, bootlegs, down the field passing, short horizontal passing, etc. The passing game utilizes the various formations presented in Part 2 of this series. The quarterback operates mainly out of the shotgun, but on some plays, he will line up under center to begin the play. Meyer's passing attack includes plays in which the quarterback takes a quick three-step drop (though if he has started in the shotgun, he does not take a drop). It also includes plays in which the quarterback takes a five-step, roll out drop with the backside guard pulling to protect the edge (again, if he has begun in the shotgun, the quarterback only takes a three-step, roll out drop).

Shovel Passes
It is appropriate to begin our discussion of the Meyer offense's passing attack by taking a brief look at the shovel pass. A shovel pass is a type of screen pass that is named for the motion the quarterback uses to deliver the ball. In a typical screen pass, the quarterback uses an overhand throwing motion, just as he would with any other pass. In a shovel pass, the ball is thrown with a forward pushing motion. There are two reasons to take note of the shovel pass in the Meyer offense. First, the shovel pass is run primarily out of the same formations that are used in the running attack. This gives the offense an alternative to an option pitch during a running play. Second, there are twenty-four shovel pass plays in the playbook. They typically take one of two basic forms. One starts in the Doubles formation and motions into a Split Left (or Right) Flex prior to the snap. The other starts in the Right or Left formation then motions into a Doubles formation. All of them are run out of the shotgun and feature a pulling guard. All of them featured two possible receivers for the shovel pass. The outside receivers were assigned to block the downfield defensive backs.

Pass Protections
On the more typical/traditional passing plays, the Gators featured six different pass protection schemes. They had a five-man blocking scheme. This featured one-on-one blocking by the offensive linement on the four defensive linemen. The center moved to the second level to take on the middle linebacker or one of the outside linebackers. Their six-man scheme worked the same way as the five-man with the following exception: the center takes on the middle linebacker and a running back takes on either an outside linebacker or a defensive back -- depending on which defender is rushing. There was also a variation on the six-man protection scheme called "the slide." In the slide, the offensive line zone blocked the defensive line to one side with the running back taking on the backside defensive end. There was also a variation on the slide called "sprint protection." This functioned like the slide with the addition of the quarterback rolling out to the backside of the zone blocking. The Gators featured two seven-man protection schemes. They follow the same basic scheme as the six-man. In one of them, a second running back takes on the backside outside linebacker. In the other, a tight end is used to double a defensive end, or -- if necessary -- he takes on a blitzing defensive back. Finally, the Meyer offense featured the use of play action passes and bootlegs to further freeze the defense.

Passing Trees

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The outside receivers are largely tasked with running routes that go fifteen or more yards. The inside routes were designed to be run within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. This works well with the philosophy of the Meyer offense's passing attack. Remember, Meyer drew his inspiration from the West Coast offense style of passing. However, Meyer replaced a majority of the West Coast offense's short, horizontal passes with runs, read-option runs, shovel passes and quarterback option passes.

The Passing Attack
The passing attack is divided into three broad categories: 80/90 passes, 200/300 passes and 400/500 passes. These designations have to do with the length of the routes, the quarterback drop and how quickly the passes are expected to come out. The different numbers have to do with whether the primary receiver will be to the right or the left.

The 80/90 passes feature the quarterback using the slide/sprint protection scheme and sprinting out to the flat. As he moves, the quarterback is reading the defense and has the option to either pass the ball or run with it. These routes are expected to go less than five yards. These passes are typically run with two running backs in the backfield, both of whom block on the sprint side, and incidentally offer the quarterback an additional option for a run. This group of plays also include the screen plays in the playbook. There are approximately nine 80/90 pass plays in the playbook.

The 200/300 passes represent the short to medium range passing plays. These feature the quarterback taking a three-step drop (unless the play began with him in the shotgun, in which case he does not take a drop). The routes are expected to cover five to nine yards. The ball is expected to be thrown quickly. The backside of the offensive line blocks to create a "cup" that protects the inside gap on the playside. The blockers are aggressive in their blocks with the offensive tackle using a chop block. These passes typically feature a single running back in the backfield who is responsible for blocking the playside, outside linebacker. This group of plays also include two passes in which a reverse is faked to a wide receiver. There are approximately thirty-seven 200/300 plays in the playbook.

The 400/500 passes represent the medium to long range passes. They also represent the overwhelming majority of the Meyer offense's passing plays. The plays have the quarterback take a five-step drop with a partial roll out (unless he begins the play in the shotgun in which case he takes a three-step drop). The routes are expected to cover fifteen or more yards. The backside of the offensive line blocks to create a "cup" that protects the inside gap on the playside. The blockers are aggressive in their blocks. Once again, the running back has the responsibility for blocking the playside, outside linebacker. All of the Gators play-action passes are 400/500 passes. There are approximately 116 400/500 passes, plus twenty-three play-action passes, in the playbook.

Consider the breakdown of the pass plays in the Meyer offense for a moment:

1)Twenty-four (or 11%) of the passes are shovel passes, which are functionally little more than an option run.
2)Nine (or 4%) are short range passes designed to go less than five yards and allow the quarterback the option to run.
3)Thirty-seven (or 18%) are medium ranged passes designed to go five to ten yards.
4)139 (or 67%) of the passes are long range passes designed to go over ten yards.
5)What this means is that 72% of the passing game was designed to be a glorified run or a long range pass.

This might help us to better understand why Tebow struggled so much with the short (under ten yard) passes. He had been conditioned by his coaching at Florida to consider using the shovel pass and/or running for short gains on passing plays. He was also conditioned to take long shots down the field on the majority of his other passing plays. Does it excuse his performance? Not at all. What it does is help us better understand why he struggled. I seriously doubt that the McDaniels/McCoy offense featured the same kind of set up for the passing game -- in particular, the choice to use shovel passes and runs in place of, for example, the quick slants used by other teams.

Implications For Denver
The critical question which most people want to pose is "Can the read-option offense work in the NFL?" If all you're doing is running are read-option runs with an occasional pass sprinkled in, the answer would obviously be "No." But, I would submit to you, that that is the wrong question. The read-option run was only a small portion of the offense run by Tim Tebow at Florida.

A more appropriate question would be "Can an Urban Meyer-style offense work in the NFL?" The answer here would, in my opinion, have to be a resounding "Yes." Let's start by reviewing some key components of the Meyer offense:



The Meyer offense begins with a spread offense. This is not new to the NFL -- though it has only recently become popular as a base offense. The 2007 New England Patriots used it extensively during their 16-0 regular season run. The Houston Oilers, Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions have used it in the past. Bill Walsh used it in the 1980s to create his West Coast Offense with San Francisco. Chan Gailey introduced it in Kansas City in 2008 then took it with him to Buffalo. Green Bay has been using it frequently to capitalize on the talents of Aaron Rodgers.

The Meyer offense uses the shotgun formation as the primary set for the quarterback. Again, this is not new to the NFL. It is merely a matter of how much the shotgun is used, as opposed to having the quarterback under center. The biggest difference -- and we saw glimpses of how this can work with the Broncos in 2011 -- is that Meyer ran "traditional" runs out of the shotgun. Counters, traps, isos -- all runs found in any NFL playbook -- supported by zone blocking were all run from a shotgun formation.

The Meyer offense uses motion to deceive the defense by changing formations prior to the snap. Again, nothing new.

The Meyer offense uses a West Coast offense-style passing attack, with the caveat that the Meyer offense uses shovel passes and quarterback pass/run options in place of the shorter, horizontal passes of the West Coast offense. The running game, the shovel passes and the few short passes in the playbook are designed to open up the passing lanes for the majority of the passing plays -- which are long range passes.

The key difference, from what I could discover, is that the decision on exactly what is going to happen on the play -- in many cases -- does not occur until AFTER the ball is snapped. The quarterback must be incredibly astute at quickly reading the defense -- in the midst of the play -- and make the correct choice on what to do with the ball.


So, what we have is an offense which features plays, formations, and protections which can all be found in current NFL offenses. The only two major differences would be that it is run almost entirely out of a spread, shotgun formation and it features the quarterback making post-snap reads to determine which option is the best choice for the given play -- as opposed to pre-snap reads that result in an audible.

Should Denver choose to go in this direction, they will be facing some immediate needs. They would need a backup quarterback who could run such a system effectively should Tebow go down to injury. They would need to make sure that they have four or five receivers who are speedy enough to run the long routes, but who are also able to be effective blockers for the running game. They would also need to do some serious development with Tim Tebow. His biggest needs, in my humble opinion, are not in the areas of footwork and mechanics. Rather, they are in the area of learning to trust his teammates to do their jobs (in other words, quit trying to do it all himself) and in drastically improving his ability to accurately (and quickly) read NFL defenses.

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