By George Chen
For the entirety of Saturday afternoon, Stanford fans screamed at TVs, punched walls, pulled their hair out and spewed strings of profanities never heard before in the history of mankind.
Nine drives to the USC 32-yard line. Five red-zone trips. Over 400 yards of offense. More than 6 yards per play.
But just 10 points. How was it mathematically possible? USC spotted Stanford the ball 32 yards away from the end zone on every possession and taunted the Cardinal, “I dare you to score. I triple dog dare you.” And the Cardinal just cutely giggled and said, “No thanks.”
The only emotion that rivaled the disbelief of Cardinal fans at the outcome of the game was the frustration — and in some cases, genuine anger — felt towards David Shaw’s play-calling in the red zone. Some of the comments on social media had me thinking I was covering Alabama football. A few golden examples:
Okay, Shaw has lost privileges to call plays in RZ
— JK (@LSJU97) September 6, 2014
Someone at the game go take shaw’s headset away.
— Fellinline (@fellinline) September 6, 2014
Like most Stanford fans, I was upset with Shaw during and immediately after the game. I felt that he had cost Stanford the game, and after the loss I even messaged my friend Joey Beyda, “That was 90 percent on Shaw, 10 percent on the players.” But looking back at it now with a cooler head and having had some time to dissect the game, I realize how absurd that statement was — and how absurd some of the criticisms of Shaw have been in general.
I’m not writing this column to defend David Shaw — or to make excuses. But I do want to give Cardinal fans an objective, emotionally detached and bigger-picture perspective on his red-zone play-calling. You might still be upset with Shaw after reading what I have to say — and that’s fine — but I hope you’ll at least understand that the cause of the Cardinal’s recent red zone failures extends far beyond Shaw’s personal struggles in play-calling.
First, can you name college football and NFL coaches who are spectacular at red zone play-calling? There aren’t many. I think sometimes fans don’t appreciate how hard red zone play-calling is. Shaw certainly isn’t the only elite coach at either the college or NFL level who has struggled with it — look no further than his predecessor, Jim Harbaugh. Remember the 2009 Big Game, when he let Andrew Luck throw the ball instead of giving it to Toby Gerhart on second-and-10 at the Cal 13-yard line with the game on the line? That may have been Harbaugh’s worst decision in his time coaching at Stanford. Four years later in Super Bowl XLVII, Harbaugh called three straight passing plays near the goal line, a decision that many people thought cost the 49ers the championship. We’re talking about one of the top three coaches in the NFL, and he has struggled with red zone play-calling on the biggest stage.
Every year, every football coach from high school to the NFL stresses the importance of red zone play-calling and execution, just because it’s so hard to master. The pressure shifts to the offense inside the red zone, as defenses can play much more aggressively without having to worry about getting beat over the top. Most teams have practice sessions dedicated solely to red zone situations (third down and red zone offense are the two things that Stanford practices every week) because how well a team does inside the 20 can be the difference between a 6-6 and a 10-2 season. Not many offensive coordinators or head coaches would lose their jobs if scoring touchdowns in the red zone was easy. If a coach can know how the defense will react after every snap and how a play will turn out every time in the red zone, then even Lane Kiffin could be a head coach.
And we haven’t even mentioned Stanford’s horrific execution in the red zone yet, and that was certainly on the players, not Shaw. How bad was Shaw’s play-calling in reality, when taking execution into account? Since we’ve got three weeks of waiting — Stanford’s next real game is at Washington, after Army and a bye week — why not painfully walk through every Cardinal drive and see?
Drive #1: Stanford marched down to the USC 21 but two costly penalties called on the Cardinal O-line pushed Stanford back to the Trojans 44. Technically this wasn’t in the red zone, but even if it was, no coach in the world should be expected to find a way to convert a second-and-32.
Drive #2: Stanford drove to the Trojans 13 before a bad snap out of the Wildcat formation on second-and-6 resulted in a loss of 16. On fourth-and-22 at the Trojans 29, Shaw decided to punt.
There are two different decisions to break down here. The first is the decision to run the Wildcat. Listen, I know that the Wildcat has become a running joke among Cardinal fans, and I’m not a huge fan of it either. Yes, maybe it might’ve been better to have Montgomery line up as a running back next to Hogan to show the threat of a passing play, but at least Shaw is getting the ball into the hands of his best playmaker. I hated the Wildcat with Tyler Gaffney last year, and I’m not a huge fan of Wildcat with Montgomery either, but I also don’t think it’s the worst play in the world. And to Shaw’s credit, the Cardinal actually picked up two first downs throughout the game by using the Wildcat with Montgomery taking the snap. You can’t blame the fumble on the Wildcat. That was just a poor snap.
Shaw’s decision to punt technically wasn’t in the red zone, but it obviously drew the ire of Cardinal fans. I don’t think we have all the facts about Jordan Williamson and whatever might have been going on that day to make a comprehensive analysis of the punt. But after the game, Shaw defended his decision by saying that he valued field position and trusted his defense. It certainly wasn’t a popular choice, but Shaw was at least somewhat right. Ben Rhyne’s punt went for a touchback, yes, but it should’ve been downed inside the Trojans 5 had the coverage team played it better. And, as Shaw said, the Cardinal defense forced a three-and-out on the following USC possession anyways. I think you can call Shaw’s decision to punt conservative and maybe a bit surprising, but no harm was done — you could even argue that it worked.
Drive #3: Stanford scored a touchdown on third-and-goal from a 2-yard run by Patrick Skov. Stanford ran four plays inside the red zone. One of them was a muffled snap, but the Cardinal still punched it in. Nothing to blame Shaw for.
Drive #4: Stanford drove down to the Trojans 16. Hogan found Montgomery for an 8-yard gain before Remound Wright rushed for a 1-yard gain to bring up a third-and-1. Stanford called a timeout to stop the clock with 19 seconds left in the first half. With just one timeout left, the Cardinal committed an illegal formation penalty and then somehow managed to follow that up with a delay of game. On third-and-10, Hogan tried to hit Devon Cajuste on a slant but was almost picked off, and the drive ended with a field goal.
First, give credit where it’s due, because a great play call led to the 8-yard completion to Montgomery. For most of the first half, Stanford hadn’t seen much success throwing to the outside despite the fact that USC was leaving its undersized defensive backs on islands. So rather than even attempting to go with the back-shoulder fade, Shaw dialed up a pass play with crossing routes, a slow-developing play that allowed Montgomery to get open. The run by Wright came on a straightforward halfback dive, which might not have been very creative but was still a play that fans should be able to live with on a second-and-2.
The penalties were just mind-numbing. That’s all I have to say about those.
The third-and-10 play call, though, might just have been the worst decision of the game. It was nearly identical to last year’s play in the Coliseum that Stanford ran twice unsuccessfully. Down in L.A., the first attempt resulted in an incompletion and the second ended with Dion Bailey picking off Hogan in the red zone.
Substitute Cajuste for Montgomery running the slant route, and you saw the same exact play last Saturday. However, it did look like Hogan made an audible before the snap so we can’t be entirely sure yet if that decision was made by Shaw or Hogan. It also didn’t help that Hogan was staring down Cajuste the entire way. But still, regardless of who made the choice, why run the same play that had already failed twice against USC? Better question yet: Why is it even in the playbook against USC?
Drive #5: Stanford was gifted with the ball at the USC 30 after a great punt return by Montgomery. Hogan scrambled for 14 yards. An incomplete pass to Cajuste, a 4-yard rush by Wright and then another 3-yard rush by Wright led to a missed 26-yard field attempt by Williamson (which surprisingly went wide right, not wide left).
Not much you can say here. You could maybe argue that the Cardinal should’ve passed on third-and-6 and that the draw play was too conservative, but Stanford was up by a field goal and Shaw’s play-calling still should’ve led to an easy three points.
Drive #6: Stanford drove down to the Trojans 3 and faced a fourth-and-1. Hogan handed the ball off to freshman fullback Daniel Marx, a play that ended in no gain and a turnover on downs.
Before we talk about the fourth-down run, I’d like to point out that Shaw picked the perfect time to go with a read-option play on third-and-4 at the Trojans 20 earlier in the drive. Hogan pulled and easily picked up the first down.
As for the fourth-down run, I have mixed feelings. I could see why Shaw went with the fullback dive because a similar play resulted in a 2-yard touchdown in the second quarter, but I also don’t understand why he would place the ball in the hands of a true freshman at such a critical moment in the game. I don’t know if giving the ball to Ward or Skov instead would have made a difference and I know that Marx did look good running the ball in camp, but a case could be made that Shaw didn’t go with the best option available.
Drive #7: Stanford fumbled and lost the ball on the first play of the drive. Hogan’s fault.
Drive #8: A 23-yard touchdown pass to Austin Hooper on third-and-4 was negated because of a chop block penalty called on Wright. Stanford couldn’t convert a third-and-19, and Shaw chose to punt from the USC 32-yard line.
Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren made a brilliant play call on the touchdown pass that was called back. Montgomery, Cajuste and Hooper lined up on the left side of the field, with Montgomery running a comeback route, Cajuste running a corner underneath and Hooper running a post over the top. The Trojans secondary looked confused and decided to converge on Montgomery rather than worry about the tight end.
There’s not much a coach can do to salvage a third-and-19, and my thoughts on the punt are similar to what I said for Drive #2.
Drive #9: Stanford never reached the USC 20. Facing a third-and-6 at the Trojans 25, communication between the Cardinal O-linemen broke down and Trojans linebacker J.R. Tavai burst into the backfield untouched and hit Hogan from his blindside to force the game-sealing fumble.
Left tackle Andrus Peat and left guard Joshua Garnett looked like they were blocking for a run play instead of staying in to protect Hogan. Mental mistakes by the O-line were a common theme on Saturday, and fittingly enough, the final mental mistake ended the game.
If the drive-by-drive breakdown was too lengthy for you, the bottom line is that while some of Shaw’s play calls were bad, some were also really good. That doesn’t excuse the bad ones, but to say that Shaw’s red-zone play-calling cost Stanford the game is ridiculous. It’s not fun and sometimes unfair to blame players for losses at the college level, but the dismal execution on the field on Saturday contributed much more to Stanford’s loss than Shaw’s play-calling did.
In many ways, Shaw reminds me a lot of his own quarterback, Kevin Hogan. When it comes to both Shaw’s red-zone play-calling and Hogan’s mastery of the offense, the one word that comes to my mind is “inconsistent.” Stanford scored on every red zone trip it made at home last season, but was one of the worst in the nation for red-zone efficiency on the road. Hogan similarly looked great at home last season but played below average in most road games. And not surprisingly, there’s been a strong correlation between Hogan’s level of play and Shaw’s red zone play-calling.
Like most people, I thought Shaw handled his press conference well by shouldering the blame for the Cardinal’s epic red-zone failures, but I could care less whether he admits it or not. Shaw needs to find answers for himself, not his critics. I think it’s easy for people to blame all the red zone failures on Shaw because, one, he’s the coach, and two, sometimes he can be defensive — or stubborn, if you think that’s more accurate — about his play-calling. I know, because I’ve been guilty of it myself sometimes. It’s always easy for fans to look back on his decisions in hindsight, point out the flaws and say, “Shaw should’ve done this instead.” If you do that, you will always be right and Shaw will always be wrong.
But it’s never that black and white. It’s never as simple as discarding the Wildcat from the playbook.
On Saturday, people said Shaw should’ve let Hogan run a bootleg instead of giving the ball to Marx on fourth-and-1. Sure, but that’s exactly what Shaw did against a Sarkisian-coached Washington team last year, and the Huskies were more than ready for it. Last season, people complained that Shaw took the ball away from Hogan in the Rose Bowl Game and relied too heavily on the running game. Maybe, but people should also remember that they complained when Shaw put the game in Hogan’s hand against Utah instead of running the ball. Yes, the running game was working for the Cardinal, but if people think that Shaw should have trusted Hogan in the Rose Bowl Game against the best defense in the country, then surely they shouldn’t have had a problem with Shaw trusting Hogan against Utah’s defense with the Cardinal trailing.
And even in cases where the critics may be right, remember that Shaw basically has under 10 seconds to make the play call — and that’s on top of worrying about personnel. That’s huge pressure. I’m not making excuses for Shaw because that’s his job, and he certainly needs to improve. But let’s not forget how hard it is to recognize the situation after the previous play is over, make the call and then deal with personnel. Shaw’s problem in the red zone has never been his football IQ — if there is a problem, it’s his ability to improvise and make the best call on the spot. That takes practice, and only years of experience can give you the necessary practice.
If you don’t believe anything I’ve said in this column, then at least do this: Remember what you thought of Shaw two years ago. You and I didn’t even know if Shaw was actually a good head coach or if he was just riding on Harbaugh’s recruits. He was unproven in 2012, but in a span of just two years, he’s now recognized as one of the top coaches in college football and the most sought-after guy for a vacant NFL head coach position. Even though it’s widely known that saying Shaw will leave for the NFL in the near future is equivalent to saying that Kiffin will take over for Nick Saban at Alabama next season, the media still writes about it. He’s shown that he can win games, recruit five-star athletes and develop two-star players. Red zone play-calling just happens to be one of his weaknesses, and it also happens to be a weakness for many college football coaches. You should give him time to improve — don’t forget that this is just Shaw’s fourth year as head coach. Being a negative fan won’t help.
Root with me for David Shaw to get better at red zone play-calling, just like you and I rooted for Jordan Williamson after the Fiesta Bowl, for Shayne Skov after he tore his ACL and for Ty Montgomery after a disappointing sophomore season.
And finally, it’s only Week 2 of the season. Don’t act like the season is over just because the Cardinal lost a game. Remember when Stanford beat then-No. 1 USC at home two years ago and every Cardinal fan thought that it was one of the biggest wins in school history? The Trojans finished the season 7-6 and lost to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Oh, and Stanford lost twice after that “huge” victory and still ended up winning the Pac-12 Championship Game. The road to the conference title — and the College Football Playoff — has always been through Oregon, and the loss this past weekend didn’t change that one bit. Saturday was just one of those days where Murphy’s Law took over. It happens.
Take a deep breath, Cardinal fans. Stanford football is going to be okay.
Contact George at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.