Only College Can Run This Offense
Lincoln Riley is a man in demand. The 36-year-old Oklahoma Sooners college football head coach is a highly desired NFL head coaching candidate, whose name surfaces each time there’s a vacancy.
His coaching record is formidable. After two seasons as Oklahoma offensive coach, Riley replaced Bob Stoops as head coach before the 2017 season. Over the past three seasons his team has compiled a superb 36-6 winning record, reaching the College Football Playoff semifinals in each of those seasons.
Riley has developed back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners in quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, and got the best out of a third quarterback last season - talented former Alabama player Jalen Hurts. Mayfield and Murray are progressing well as starters in the NFL. Hurts will get his chance in September.
Riley is keen to scotch the rumors each time he’s linked to a role. He has a good thing going in Oklahoma. But the irony that the NFL is currently poring over the entire college football system is not lost on him. It wasn’t too long ago that college coaches like him with their offensive methods were treated with a degree of curtness by pro football.
The System Shaping the NFL College football suddenly finds itself in vogue. A quick glance at the head coach line-up in the NFL reveals a number of new coaches - notably Matt Rhule in Carolina and Kliff Kingsbury - with the Arizona Cardinals, who have come from the college ranks. For generations, it's been the incubator for all the NFL’s new player pipeline. Now it's coaches are being coveted by the professional league.
That’s because a style of attacking play has transformed the NFL. It has the track speed of sprinting and shooter's mentality of basketball. Epitomized by Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes II and Kyler Murray, if you can score fast, keep the scoreboard ticking and scheme your way past the other team, then your offense will carry your team far. The players and the aggressive offensive scheme fit are revolutionizing the game. Finally, college football is getting some of the credit. The recent prevalence of two offensive schemes with college origins, play action and run pass option, has disrupted the NFL. The basic difference between the two is that a run pass option gives the quarterback several different options - to run or pass - while the play-action pass is a fake run that is a pass. NFL defenses have struggled with the dual threat of speed and the clever play design, and have been slow to catch up.
Football writer Albert Breer from Sports Illustrated spent time with TCU college head coach Gary Patterson last off-season. Breer’s observations on the influence of the college game, stemming from his conversations with TCU, were farsighted. “Over the last few years, the NFL has seen an explosion of a trend that started with the Wildcat over a decade ago - offensive concepts from college football are trickling up to the pros, and it’s now morphed into a tsunami,” he writes. “Ideas once derided by the pro-football types as gimmicks and gadgets have become staples on Sunday, as they’ve long been on Saturday.” Kliff Kingsbury and Lincoln Riley stand out as young coaches operating player-led systems, where there is a more empathetic approach to players than the historical prototype of the authoritarian college coach. I wrote about Pete Carroll embodying the former qualities when I profiled the Seahawks recently. The courtship from NFL clubs speaks to how vulnerable they are to the new offensive schemes. Many teams go up tempo with zone read, playing without a huddle and using little time to score. That can force the opposition defense to be on the field for more plays, wearing them down and leaving them vulnerable as the game goes on. On defense, the safety and linebacker positions have evolved to try and adapt and read offenses. Or at least slow them down. College Football 101 There are stark differences between pro football and college, but it really boils down to this: NFL players get paid, college athletes don’t. In 2019, the NCAA - the body overseeing college athletics - finally allowed college athletes to be compensated in third-party sponsorship and endorsement deals. Aggressive play calling by coaches is a feature of college football. College is more likely to recruit talented international players, offering them a scholarship. Kickers from Australia and Ireland are especially popular right now. In the end, this helps the NFL, who can claim to be broadening its horizons with international players. The top football programs bring staggering amounts of money into college athletics programs, and the head coaches are handsomely paid.
Big time college football programs want to be seen as a pathway to an NFL payday. Senior college coaches tell players to come and join their program and they’ll be developed into a pro player. It is what sells the program. With all it has going for it, it’s enough to ask why do successful college coaches jump ship for the NFL? After all, only three coaches in history have won National Championships and Super Bowls. Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and Pete Carroll make up the hallowed few. After glittering records in college football, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and Chip Kelly all struggled to make the transition to coaching professional football. Kelly’s time as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers was marred by acrimony and ostracizing the rest of the organisation, players and fans. With the Eagles, Kelly accumulated too much power for a new coach, adding general manager with responsibility for all personnel decisions to his empire. All found coaching adults a distinct departure from the tone they could address teenagers and young men. Their pro football record will note they failed in making the transition to the NFL, and all returned to college football. In Saban’s case, he is considered the best college coach of all time.
Mike Leach has coached in Texas Tech, Washington State and is now with Mississippi State. His offensive concepts have underpinned college football for decades. Leach is no shrinking violet and he’s been critical of how the NFL has spurned aggressive college offensive schemes, his own included. Leach has a perfect linchpin role in this blog post, as he gave Lincoln Riley his coaching start at Texas Tech, where his quarterback was one Kliff Kingsbury. You can see the connection. Leach, an iconoclastic coach, spotted Riley’s intellect, and invested in him. The story can only get better if Riley and Kingsbury go head to head in pro football one day.
Oklahoma! Lincoln Riley’s style of introducing a player-led system has already made him one of the great offensive minds in college and pro football. He seems remarkably settled in Norman, Oklahoma, and focused on bringing his Sooners to the summit of college football. Interviewed recently on the Move the Sticks podcast, Riley talked about how college football has closed the gap with the NFL. “It felt as if you didn’t run a ‘pro style offense’ that it was like playing two different games. It’s been fun to see the league head in that (college) direction. Pro football has been more fun to watch as a result.” The allure of the NFL might not hit anytime soon, but Lincoln Riley could find when he’s achieved all he can at Oklahoma, there’s an offer he can’t refuse on the table.
One wonders what defensive coordinators will have up their sleeve if he does change zip codes. The coach who knows first hand how the NFL shunned college football, is perfectly equipped to remind pro football what it's been missing.