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Steve Spurrier's Offense Is Still Genius, but His Personnel Decisions Aren't: A Reply to Skulls and Spurs

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Yesterday, Skulls wrote a somewhat controversial column here at GABA claiming that Steve Spurrier is no longer to be considered an offensive genius. The argument made a number of good points, the main gist being that our offenses haven't produced with any consistency and that the reason is that Spurrier is no longer the innovative coach he once was. I'm not going to argue that our offenses have been productive; that's certainly not the case. Only the 2006 offense was truly good, with the 2010 version being OK but inconsistent. However, I don't think the problem is as much Spurrier's offensive "genius," per se, as it is poor personnel decisions.

A lot of Carolina fans, and fans in general, like to blame offensive woes on poor playcalling and unimaginative offensive schemes. This is perhaps only natural, and I'm certainly prone to doing so, myself. When given the opportunity to levy blame for your team's problems on either your players or on your coach's playcalling and schematic decisions, you tend to want to lay them on the poor decisions. If you don't, it's difficult to find hope for the immediate future, as it's hard to improve personnel in the short term, and on one level, most teams will never be able to match personnel with the sport's elite.

However, "genius" and schematic decisions are probably overrated, as it might make more sense to blame our woes on personnel. Many coaches will tell you that at the end of the day, execution accounts for the vast majority of the outcome of a game. Which linebackers hit the hardest? Which QB makes the best decisions? Which kicker knocks down the FG? If schematics come into the equation here, it's mainly in the sense that you need to recruit players who are capable of playing effectively in your system. That is, if you're going to run a complex passing offense, you need a heady QB, a huge offensive line that pass blocks well, and a group of receivers with the varied skill set necessary to make the routes work. If you're going to run the spread option, it's nice to have a big, mobile QB who can make plays with his feet and take several big hits each game without folding. You get the idea.

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I think Spurrier has failed in two ways in this regard. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, he retained John Hunt for far too long. Hunt's recruiting for the offensive line and his coaching of the guy he brought in was an utter failure. He produced few linemen of note, notoriously shallow depth charts, and the guys that remain on the roster from his recruiting classes have failed to live up to their potential. Spurrier's offense requires a good running game and, because it relies on deep drops and long receiver routes, it requires excellent pass blocking. The players Hunt brought in and coached haven't done enough to contribute to those goals. I take it as being very significant that some of the best players--particularly Garrett Chisolm and Rokevious Watkins--from the slightly improved lines of the last year and this one were not products of Hunt's recruiting evaluations or coaching. I have high hopes that in a couple of years, Shawn Elliott will have corrected these problems. Unfortunately, it's not likely that he's going to have profound success doing so this year--we simply lack the personnel options. If Spurrier had canned Hunt more quickly, though, we might not be in this position.

The other major failure of Spurrier's tenure, as Skulls rightly points out, has been questionable QB evaluation and coaching. Spurrier had two decent QBs, Blake Mitchell and Syvelle Newton, fall into his lap when he got here. Since he arrived, he has brought in only two more, Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia. (I'm of course hoping that Connor Shaw and some of the backups work out, but that remains to be seen.) Outside of these players, the QBs who have played under Spurrier at South Carolina have burnt out in one way or the other, and the good ones have all failed to live up to their potential for one reason or another. Mitchell never managed to consistently thrive due to poor line play. Smelley--IMO, at least--was ruined on a mental level by the trials and tribulations of 2007 and 2008. Garcia--well, I think that in this case, at least, intelligent observers can agree that the QB's failures are more his own fault than Spurrier's. At any rate, Spurrier has failed to recruit and develop a QB who can consistently run his offense with competence.

All of this said, I still think Spurrier's offense works--that it's partly still genius. In fact, I'm willing to say that's it's genius more than ever these days. Spurrier has adapted in a way many coaches haven't, incorporating elements of the spread option while retaining the distinctive flavor of his pro-style downfield passing game. He's also capable of taking risks sometimes. Anyone who thinks the Emory-and-Henry spread is conventional hasn't been watching much football.

Unfortunately, Spurrier's innovations and willingness to take risks aren't enough. When Spurrier acquired his reputation for genius, he had both philosophical innovation and talent on his side. Now, he only has one of the two, although he has, to his credit, vastly improved the talent stockpile in Columbia, which is one of the big reasons he's led us to historic success. And who knows? With a QB in Shaw who seems intelligent enough to run the Spurrier system and an offensive line coach in Elliott who seems ready to make moves in the right direction on the OL front, perhaps he'll have both talent and innovation in his corner again very soon.