The trouble with tempo

Austin Meek of the Register-Guard has a great feature today on Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, and one of the factoids in the column is that the Ducks actually ran a faster tempo this season than in previous years.

“The Ducks averaged a play every 20.15 seconds this year, putting them just behind Texas Tech (19.79 seconds per play) and Baylor (20.0). Oregon’s pace was 20.5 seconds per play last season,” Meek wrote.

The tempo didn’t help them in the red zone, where they often looked disorganized and ineffective. For the season they scored red zone touchdowns just 69% of the time. They were also held to 48% on fourth down tries this year. Together these were two critical categories where tempo failed to be a consistent advantage.

Too-often wounded Duck: With a gifted passer and a great stable of running backs next year, is the up-tempo, no-huddle spread still the best design for the Oregon attack? The system is so widely copied in the PAC-12 and around the country that it no longer poses a unique challenge to opposing defenses. The Ducks might be better able to keep Mariota healthy in another scheme, and the defense could benefit if Mariota and company occasionally took time off the clock (Mark J. Rebilas photo, USA Today Sports Images.)


The trouble is, the tempo presents less of a problem for defenses than it used to. Oregon used to be an outlier running pace in the PAC-12, so much so that other teams would fake injuries to slow it down. In 2010 Shane Skov limped to the sideline, but in 2013, he just smashed the Ducks in the mouth.

Tempo isn’t the huge advantage it was then, because now 10 of the conferences’s teams are running it, or trying to. Even Texas, the school of Earl Campbell and James Streeter, ran a up-tempo, no-huddle spread this season.

If defenses aren’t catching up, they are at least catching their breath. The Ducks didn’t seem to confuse Stanford or Arizona with their tempo, particularly the Wildcats, who made tempo a non-issue by running 84 plays of their own, including 65 rushes for 304 yards.

Texas has already played both Texas Tech and Baylor. Fast snaps will seem normal. The Webfoots will have to execute blocks to win the day a week from Monday.

It’s something that will have to be reevaluated in the off season. The spread and the fast pace are no longer the significant edges they were five years ago when teams were struggling to get ready for something unique during Oregon week, running two scout teams and ordering extra wind sprints.  Now, it’s Smash Mouth, old school Stanford that’s innovative, and the Ducks are doing the same thing everyone else is. Chip Kelly, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady have even brought versions of it to the NFL.

Both Arizona and Stanford slow-played the zone-read and thoroughly grounded the Oregon running game. Expect Texas to employ the same strategy. The thing is, though, Marcus Mariota is healthy now, and the results could be a lot different. It really is players that win football games. The play cards and x’s and o’s just give a framework to work their magic.