Football

The Stark Reality of Tech’s Red Zone Offense

Someday when I look back at my first post on Staking the Plains I may wish that I’d made a triumphant entrance proclaiming all that is amazing and wonderful in Texas Tech football. I may long for a post slinging mid-August Kool-Aid at all of you loyal readers, bursting onto the scene like the great Donny Anderson himself – but that really isn’t my style.

Despite what my future self may retrospectively long for, I want to dive into something a little more depressing. Don’t get me wrong, I love some good sunshine pumping, but I also live in Lubbock, and we’re getting inundated right now with negative news (thanks a lot Bart Reagor and the majority of the Texas Tech Board of Regents). So I’m just not in the mood to pump the golden rays, I want to sling a little realism around about something that absolutely has to change to see any success this season.

I’m not planning for Inside the Numbers to be a weekly post, but I will be coming back to it from time to time when there’s something interesting to dive into, and today’s topic is something that’s haunted me since I first heard it referenced by Aaron Dickens halfway through the 2017 season. When I came back to it this week and did a deeper dive I was floored by the stark reality of what I saw. In my opinion this is an absolute must-improve statistic for Texas Tech Football in 2018.

Red Zone Offense

Before you look at the chart below I want to address what is going to be an 800lb first round draft pick gorilla in this conversation by the name of Patrick Lavon Mahomes, II. I know the knee-jerk reaction is to attribute all of these differences to the exit of Pat Mahomes and he is certainly a contributing factor to consider, but I believe there are more variables and I will outline some of those below. I hope you commenters bring up other points too because I’m not going to discuss every single contributing factor, this isn’t The Athletic after all.

It’s also important to mention briefly how red zone offense is calculated by the NCAA. It differs from the NFL where field goals are not even considered in the formula. In the college game, they are given equal weight as any other attempt, including a touchdown.

RZ TDs + RZ FGs / RZ Attempts

Many argue that touchdowns and field goals should be weighted to account for their point differentials. My initial reaction is to agree with this. Calling settling for a field goal in the red zone the same as scoring a touchdown is laughable both mathematically and from an offensive success perspective, but hold your horses I’ll get to that in a minute.

RZ Att RZ Passing TDs RZ Rushing TDs RZ FGs Made RZ Scores RZ % Rank

2016

63

26

20

11

57

90.5%

15

2017

62

18

15

10

43

69.4%

125

 

Field Goals

The first thing that comes up in any conversation about red zone offense, particularly for Texas Tech’s 2017 season, is field goals. Tech kickers went 12 for 23 in field goal attempts last year, that’s an abysmal 52.2%. That would blow Steph Curry’s 3-point percentage away, unfortunately, this is the wrong kind of “Guns Up 3-Ball.” The misses can be attributed to Clayton Hatfield’s nagging hip injury which sidelined him for most of the season, however, the attempts themselves are not the fault of kickers.

If you break down Texas Tech’s 2017 season you’ll see that not only was the lack of red zone production shocking, the 10 made red zone field goals are indicative of a decreased level of offensive production, and a lack of discipline that has become all too common. In several instances, field goals were kicked inside the 10-yard line, forced by delay-of-game penalties on 3rd or 4th down. That’s obviously not accounting for costly misses as well. Ex: A miss on 4th & 2 from the 13-yard line against Kansas State that ultimately cost Tech the game.

Additionally, several red zone field goals were kicked from far beyond the 20-yard line. Anytime a team touches the red zone, all action in the rest of the possession are red zone stats. Unfortunately, due to sacks, penalties, and other losses Tech was pushed backward and forced to settle all-too-often in 2017. Some may argue that a field goal is at least points, but if you’ve sniffed the red zone and you end up attempting to get three points I call that settling. In other years (2016) when Tech’s offense is much more likely to score a touchdown, settling may seem more palatable because it happens with less frequency, but it’s still settling.

I’ll come back around to penalties later but know that Tech dropped from 110th in the country in penalties to 122nd from 2016 to 2017, proving that things truly can always be worse. A combination of decreased red zone efficiency and a continuing lack of discipline forced Tech into field goal attempts in the red zone despite serious kicking woes. However, Tech also saw a marked decrease in overall offensive production, particularly in the passing game.

 

Quarterback Play

It’s no secret that Pat Mahomes is an impressive quarterback talent. There’s a reason he was drafted #10 overall and will be the Chiefs’ starter this season. It’s unfortunate that the Red Raiders weren’t in a position to provide him a stronger supporting performance on all three sides of the ball in order to facilitate better than a 5-7 season. The chart below compares the passing offense production in 2016 and 2017. With the departure of Mahomes, Tech’s fundamental ability to move the ball down the field was reduced, and if the ball isn’t moving across the open field, the red zone will turn into a dead zone.

Passing Yards  Completions/
Attempts
YPG INTs TDs Total O Rank Passing O Rank Red Zone
O Rank

2016

5,556

428/653 (65.5%)

463

11

47

1

1

15 

2017

4,338

353/541 (65.2%)

334

12

35

16

9

 125

 

Hot take incoming: I don’t believe Nic Shimonek had the ability to run the Texas Tech offense in a way that utilized all of its strengths and potential. I know many will argue in favor of his ability because he is sitting on an NFL roster right now, well, Jared Lorenzen (the Hefty Lefty, the Pillsbury Throwboy, etc.) has a Super Bowl ring, so there’s that. I gained respect for our coaching staff because they weren’t willing to throw Shimonek under the bus, but it seemed apparent from the outset that he was the guy based on necessity.

I had a pre-season conversation with Eric Morris last summer and he responded to a booster asking about Nic by saying “well, he’s definitely confident.” His inflection, demeanor, and facial expression said to me “he’s not great, but he goes for it” and I think that sums up Shimonek’s play. He only threw one more interception than Mahomes did in our comparison seasons, unfortunately, that was in 110 fewer attempts, gaining 1,200 fewer yards, and tossing 12 fewer touchdowns. The completion percentage was similar, but the productivity was heavily reduced, and that’s with an extra game on the schedule too.

When the quarterback can’t execute the system at the highest level, production drops and coaches are forced to simplify the system, in turn making it easier to defend. There’s nowhere exceptional execution is more important than in the compressed space of the red zone. Any deficiencies will be exposed there and success depends on executing better than your opponent. In my opinion, the offense of 2017 was hampered by the play of Nic Shimonek.

I’m not saying there were better options (I mean there were but they all left). If you line up every QB from Kingsbury to Shimonek, I think you’d be challenged to find many others that struggled in this way (I know you’ll want to list them, I do too, feel free to throw in Taylor Potts snot-rocket gifs as needed). I’m not going to dissect Shimonek’s talent, arm strength, athleticism, leadership, or potential, but his inability to jump in and execute the offense kept production down. I’m neither qualified nor inclined to attempt to pinpoint whatever specific attribute(s) or deficiencies lead to Shimonek’s inabilities to produce at a level expected at Texas Tech, so I’m going with my gut and the numbers. I felt it all season and I still do, he wasn’t up to the standard.

I also know when I say that production is down I’m talking about down by Texas Tech standards. But dropping from the #1 passing and #1 overall offense to the #9 passing and #15 overall offense is a huge drop considering the production this version of the spread is capable of. Frankly, those levels of production have often been necessary to win, (or still not enough, sorry Pat, and BJ Symons, and basically every other QB since 2000) even in the days of improving defenses. Tech is simply not in a position at this point in its development to see the kind of dropoff that these tables demonstrate and still win close games, maybe at some point, but not yet.

 

Coaching

Professionally I’m a big believer in poor employee performance being a failure of leadership, so it’s no surprise that I believe much of the blame for the red zone woes and decreased production belongs at the feet of Eric Morris. Morris was the last holdout from the “let’s get the band back together” days of Kliff Kingsbury’s hiring. It was a fun storyline back then, but ultimately, experience, varied perspectives, and force of personality have won out as the coaching staff has continued to morph into a stronger unit. Between playing at Tech, a year as a graduate assistant at Houston, and his time coaching inside receivers at Washington State, Morris just didn’t pick up the perspective or variety of experiences he needed to innovate the only system he’s ever known.

When Kingsbury was hired I argued that it was too early, he needed seasoning, well we’ve had a front row seat to his trial by fire. Kingsbury and Morris both had incredibly short resumes when they traded in a locker for an office at Texas Tech. Regardless of drive and intelligence, they operate in a world where experience is the most valuable commodity. Kliff deserves credit for his growth as a coach and a leader. Many head coaches have 20 years of experience before taking on that heavy burden. He has learned to surround himself with coaches that have more experience than him, that’s a testament to leadership and growth. Unfortunately for Eric Morris he just didn’t fit that bill.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, I’m comparing the offenses of Patrick Mahomes and Nic Shimonek but trying to ignore that Morris was the offensive coordinator for both of them. My answer to that is above, Mahomes had the ability to run the offense at the level needed and Shimonek didn’t. Now, maybe a more experienced coach could have made those adjustments and still been successful, I don’t have those answers, but I do have some perspective to illustrate what may have been missing from the coaching side of things.

As I mentioned earlier, penalties have continued to plague this team, and that really comes down to a lack of discipline. Eric Morris is a really reserved guy, he displays self-discipline and control and he’s measured in his reactions. In person, he’s easily described as even-keeled and even withdrawn. That can be an important quality in specific situations, but when it comes to leading young men and inspiring them to buy into a vision and high level of work there’s a dynamism that’s necessary. Expectations to eliminate penalties and play with the right kind of control has fallen at Kingsbury’s feet, but it’s up to position coaches and coordinators to get players on board with the vision and to build a culture that addresses those issues. Morris just simply wasn’t building that culture.

 

Culture

Rob Verby from Fox 34 talked to the two offensive players Tech sent to Big 12 Media Days this summer (OL Travis Bruffy and WR Ja’Deion High). He asked them to compare the offense under Morris and new offensive coordinator Kevin Johns. Both responded that it is “night and day.” Travis Bruffy was extremely complimentary of Johns, but it wasn’t about Xs and Os, it was about culture. He talked about Johns building in systems of accountability for players. He explained that he is focusing on character, leadership, and putting systems in place to keep those things growing. Both players stressed the importance of the culture of excellence, and the expectations being placed on them to excel and lead, that is a huge piece of the pie in the pursuit of success. People overlook culture but it can be the X-factor in the difference between good and great.

Morris is probably a fine coach, and I certainly hope he finds success at the University of the Incarnate Word. However, I don’t think he was ready to be an offensive coordinator at this level. Broad leadership experience is needed to grow players and culture, and broad and varied football knowledge is necessary to innovate and expand into new offensive scheming.

I think it’s a testament to Kingsbury’s leadership and growth as a coach to see a Big 10 guy like Kevin Johns here, specifically (according to Johns’ story about his interview) because of the wrinkles and different perspectives he brings with him, especially in incorporating the running game. But if what these guys were stressing is true, he’s not just bringing fullback play and a lead blocker, he’s bringing with him a culture of accountability and high expectations and that can pay dividends now and into the future.

 

Conclusion

I included “stark reality” in the title because I do think fixing the root causes symptomized by abysmal red zone play in 2017 is absolutely essential to success this season. With Clayton Hatfield healthy again there will be a bump in confidence and production. However, the goal should be not kicking at all in the red zone. Kicking field goals from the 6, 8, or 13-yard lines, etc. were painful to watch in 2017 and can be tracked in points lost when a field goal is settled for. When you pursue the exercise of calculating points left on the table when Tech kicked, the Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Kansas State, and USF games look quite a bit different.

I do believe quarterback play is an important variable and that is still obviously a question mark this year. However, informed, innovative, experienced coaching can be counted on to handle whichever quarterback gets the nod. My gut tells me Kevin Johns can deliver that steady hand to the offense, and furthermore, I believe Kliff is becoming the coach we’ve been waiting to see. My concern is that every pundit is talking about defensive improvement while all-but guaranteeing automatic offensive production based on Kingsbury’s track record, yet as we’ve seen above, that production is not guaranteed, and it will depend on some variables coming together for Tech this year.

When it comes down to it, strong red zone production all depends on standing on strong foundations and the disciplined execution of fundamentals. Mixing in athleticism and playmaking is nice when things break down, but the basics are where the hay is made in those situations. Tech will need a kicking game to be confident in, a quarterback with accuracy and a strong handle on the system, a coach adjusting to the ability of his players, and a culture of discipline and commitment to excellence that players believe in.

In two weeks we’re going to have a pretty good idea if we have one or all of these things or not.

“Champions are champions not because they do anything extraordinary but because they do the ordinary things better than anyone else. “

                                                                                                      – Chuck Noll

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