During the past seven weeks, a new David Shaw has seemed to emerge as the play-caller on Stanford’s sideline. While none of his moves may be entirely unprecedented, this altered figurehead has generally appeared more adventurous and animated than before as he’s led his team to multiple decisive victories.
This surprising change has more or less coincided with an even more shocking one: the sudden emergence of an unstoppable Stanford offense. The Cardinal’s recent performances have been hands down the best stretch of output for the squad since the Andrew Luck era. Shaw’s side now looks more like a playoff contender than a group that fell to Northwestern on the first week of the season.
It hasn’t taken long for people to assume that the first phenomenon was what caused the second. There are few things that the Cardinal have been better at in the last few seasons than poking fun at Shaw’s conservative play-calling, and the moments in which our minds haven’t been able to believe what our eyes are seeing on the field now seem to verify our notion that things must have changed. I suppose none of this should be too surprising — it’s a lot easier to remember “the Catch” than some random run between the tackles (even if Christian McCaffrey is the one making the run).
The hype has reached a point, however, where people are starting to forget that Francis Owusu’s magical grab merely put an accent mark on a victory that had already been earned, and Stanford’s game-winning margin against USC came only after it grounded its air raid. Regardless of what our hearts want to believe, it has been old, boring Stanford that has kept incrementing the victory column of Stanford’s score sheet.
For every thrilling route, Stanford has chosen many more out of its typical, physical playbook. The Cardinal are still effectively utilizing running backs and tight ends, for example, at an impressive clip during their supposed makeover. Stanford’s ratio of yards gained on the ground versus through the air is closer to the numbers with Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor at back than it was with no primary carrier last year, a testament to just how important this possession-centric style remains to the team.
The picture favors Shaw’s traditionally trusted playmakers even further when you realize that only one wide receiver places amongst Stanford’s top four players in total receiving yards. As exciting as some of the plays to these options have been, they are mere outliers in Stanford’s overall attack.
Even the notable exceptions to this trend may not have been successful had Stanford not forced its opponents to over-prepare for the next run up the middle. At a press conference last year, Shaw spoke of the power of breaking play-calling tendencies when his opponents are least expectant. It has been easy to see the wisdom in this idea lately as Stanford’s adversaries have done little more than look on in shock each time the Cardinal have dialed up a new surprise, something that has greatly contributed to these plays’ effectiveness.
I don’t mean to imply that every drive this year could have just as easily been run in 2012. In fact, there was even a stretch in which Stanford’s offense did look radically different, but it only lasted for about 70 minutes. The Cardinal’s flea-flicker against UCF was both a risky and an inspired play call, and from the second quarter of that contest to the beginning of the third quarter against USC the Cardinal looked like they might be transforming into a new team entirely (and honestly, with Kevin Hogan playing the way he was, it would have been silly not to).
But by the start of the second half against USC, the minimum six-minute drives had returned. McCaffrey and the backfield still provided plenty of reasons to get excited, but it was more of the type of excitement that hasn’t typically caused Shaw to go crazy on the sideline in the way we have seen him recently.
So go ahead and let your jaw drop when Shaw runs another unbelievable play next week, but instead of rushing to decree how “different” this look is, I ask you to consider a more accurate term. After the disappointment that was last season, perhaps the simple word to describe Stanford’s performance and execution was forgotten.
That word is “better.”
Ask Andrew Mather about his new favorite display of emotion from David Shaw, or whether he prefers the emotionless Shaw of seasons past and the “50 Shades of Shaw” shirt at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.