Over the last several years, much has been made of the Oregon Ducks’ innovative, electric offense. Unique formations, placards with weird pictures, a breakneck pace and lopsided point totals more befitting a basketball scoreboard have made the Ducks’ offense the fascination of fans and the media.
But take a look at the Pac-12 statistics, and you’ll see that the Ducks’ offense is looking up at one squad: the Stanford Cardinal.
Oregon averages 46 points per game, the fifth-most in the nation. Stanford checks in at 48.2 points per game, third-best in the country — and its offense couldn’t be any more different from the Ducks.
Three tight ends, seven offensive linemen, few spread formations. The highest time of possession in the conference. No funny pictures. No need for YouTube videos that explain the offense. Just results.
So how does one of the nation’s most potent offenses come together without the flashy style and weird formations the Ducks have made so popular?
The answer lies somewhere among the brains of Stanford head coach David Shaw, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and run-game coordinator Mike Bloomgren – the trio of NFL-tested play-callers who work together to craft the Cardinal’s offensive plan.
Shaw, the Cardinal’s first-year head coach, hand selected Bloomgren and Hamilton to work with when he was creating his offensive staff last year, promoting Hamilton from his position as wide receiver coach and pulling Bloomgren from the New York Jets’ staff. Together, the three bring 21 years of NFL coaching experience and three inimitable but compatible viewpoints to the table.
“We don’t exist in three different worlds, the head coach, the pass game guy and the run game guy,” Shaw says. “But I think the biggest thing is, we’ve got outstanding communication. We, by the end of the week, we make it all fit, so that there’s not separate parts of our offense. It all fits together.”
Bloomgren, on the other hand, praises his boss for creating an environment that allows the offense to be successful.
“We all work together very well, and I think that’s unique because I’ve been places where that wasn’t the case,” he says. “I think that all starts with Coach Shaw. He’s so easy to work for and so good, he has great knowledge of the running game as well as the passing game, he’ll bounce ideas off of both of us and we get together on a Monday night, and we kind of throw it all in a pot and see what’s worth looking at.”
Together, they’ve spawned a Cardinal offense that is powerful, balanced and efficient –averaging over 500 yards of offense a game and in the top 25 nationally in both passing and rushing yards per game. Additionally, under the tutelage of Hamilton, the team’s red zone guru, Stanford has scored every single time it has been to the red zone this season — a perfect 52-for-52 — the only team in college football to do so this year.
The offense they’ve created directly reflects each coach’s experience at the pro level, Bloomgren says, and gives them a chance to succeed because teams are unprepared to handle a team that uses a NFL-style offense.
“People are preparing for the spread more and more these days and building their defenses around it,” he says. “So when we have the opportunity to bring them into our phone booth and put seven linemen out there and say, now you have to fight us right here, we’ve done okay with that.”
Shaw also highlighted how his own time going against top-tier defenses prepared him to create his own offense.
“I spent four years at the Baltimore Ravens playing against, for a year, a [Dolphins defensive coordinator] Mike Nolan defense, and then for three years, a [Jets head coach] Rex Ryan defense. It was hard,” he says. “Every single day, you better have multiple answers, you better have protection issues, and I’m talking about the offseason — you’re just trying to get through a spring practice against Rex, because every single play is a blitz . . . So you learn how to diagnose your own offense against the worst possible looks.”
On game day, the coaches’ collaborative effort all goes into a game plan that could contain up to 300 plays, according to senior wide receiver Griff Whalen. Shaw and Bloomgren patrol the sidelines while Hamilton, who previously coached for six different NFL teams, takes a bird’s-eye view from the coaches’ box to give himself a more complete perspective.
“I’ll tell you that’s one big difference for me, being in college ball as opposed to the NFL, you don’t have those pictures in between series,” Hamilton says. “You have Polaroids in the NFL so you can get a better idea of what they’re doing and how we need to adjust, but we don’t have that luxury in the NFL, so I have a better vantage point in the box.”
Bloomgren also says that his experience in the NFL has made it hard for him on the sidelines at times.
“You get so spoiled by [the Polaroids] in the NFL in confirming what you think you saw,” he says. “Down at USC in the first half, they didn’t have the jumbotron replaying plays, and I felt so lost, because that’s what I’ve leaned on all year. If I miss something or think I saw something and I need to confirm it, I just get my eyes on the jumbotron after we make the next call.”
Each play call goes to quarterback Andrew Luck directly from Shaw, who Hamilton says has “the ultimate veto power” for any suggestion, although he doesn’t exercise that authority very often.
“He trusts in our preparation as a staff and the plays that make the [offensive] menu,” Hamilton says.
Together, the three play-callers have the ability to suggest a new plan of attack at any time, even when it might fall under another coaches’ point of expertise.
“Red zone in particular is one of the many areas that I take charge of,” Hamilton says. “But we all have input as to what schemes we use down in the red zone, it’s not just my ideas or my brainchild.”
Bloomgren does take a little credit for himself when it comes to one set of plays in particular that are new in the Stanford playbook this year.
“I had the opportunity to do our whole Wildcat package [with the New York Jets],” he says. “We called it the Seminole package in New York, and that was kind of my baby there.”
So while the Stanford offense might not have many of the unusual bells and whistles of the Ducks’ multifaceted attack, Shaw says that the team’s success is a testament to the quality of his coaches.
“I give those guys a lot of credit being able to come back and put it all together, so that, number one, it makes sense for our players,” Shaw says. “Because we can go up there and try to be gurus and geniuses and confuse the heck out of our guys, but we make it accessible to them to help them play fast and do things, hopefully, that make sense.”
In the end, the results are all that really matters, right?
The Cardinal and Ducks will match up their high-powered offenses on Saturday at 5 p.m. in Stanford Stadium.