BBD Editor Anthony Macari
You may ask what offensive system will Head Coach Doug Marrone and Offensive Coordinator Nate Hackett bring to Buffalo. Will it be the K-Gun, the West Coast, the Run and Shoot, Air Coryell, the Spread Option or the Pistol? The answer is yes. Hackett and Marrone’s offense, much like Sean Peyton’s in New Orleans is a Frankenstein monster of the NFL’s greatest hits. The key to the offense is having an intelligent QB and versatile weapons that can create mismatches.
The NFL is a copy cat league and almost every offensive system being run, is really a variation, combination or an adaptation of something that has been run before. Both Marrone and Hackett are students of the game who have no problem barrowing pieces of systems from the leagues successful systems and integrating them into their attack. This multiple look approach itself isn’t even original. Marrone adopted this approach from the time spent on Sean Peyton’s staff. Peyton is known to use up to 30 different formations and packages before a half. Peyton’s attack is steeped in both West Coast principles meant to spread a defense out horizontally and Coryell’s deep aerial attack meant to spread a defense out vertically. Likewise, at Syracuse, Marrone implemented West Coast timing routes and got his backs involved early and often in the passing game. At New Orleans, Reggie Bush was used in the backfield or in the slot, giving the offense multiple looks with the same personnel on the field. Combining the speed and versatility of a RB like Bush with a big TE target, a speedy receiver and a big tall receiver would create mismatches all over the field no matter what the system being implemented.
While Marrone was working in New Orleans, new Bills Offensive Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was working in Buffalo as a quality control coach. He was with the Bills when they decided to dust off the old K-Gun no huddle attack. Jim Kelly shared the Bills playbook from the ‘90s and Hackett went to work studying the intricacies of the attack. The K-Gun offense itself was a combination of multiple offenses barrowing primarily Cincinnatti’s No-Huddle attack designed by Sam Wyche and Kelly’s Run and Shoot offense he learned under Mouse Davis while with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers. The Run and Shoot was a system perfectly married with a no-huddle attack because it relied on the QB and receivers to read the defensive alignment and adjust their routes accordingly. If the corner or safety was off the line, the receiver ran a short route, inside he ran out, outside he ran it in. However, the Houston Gambler attack was almost entirely a passing system, with running plays meant as a change of pace only after a team committed additional resources to defend the pass.
The K-Gun kept a TE on the field, usually in the slot to either pass protect for deeper routes, run block off tackle for a power attack or as a big target weapon to create an additional mismatch. Like New Orleans attack and critical in the West Coast offense, the running back was used as a weapon in the passing game and took advantage of the horizontally spread out defense in the running attack. Having a versatile and talented back like Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas kept the attack humming. At the 3 receiver positions, having a combination of talents was key. Andre Reed was the primary target in the passing game. He was a dynamic versatile route runner who could equally work the middle of the field, sideline or slip deep behind the coverage. Having a true deep threat in James Lofton kept defenses honest and prevented them from flooding the short zones.
At Syracuse, two weeks before the season began, Marrone and Hackett installed a no-huddle up tempo attack that required a whole new terminology. The QB, Ryan Nassib was made responsible for reading the defense pre-snap to determine coverages and pressure. Like the K-Gun, the base offensive formation was 3 WRs, a single back and a TE. However, the routes run were taken more from the New Orleans playbook with mostly West Coast quick timing routes. The burden was put on the QB to read the offense to decide where to go with the ball, but the receivers ran their pre-determined route without adjustment unlike the run and shoot attack used by the Bills.
The Orange used a power back alone in the backfield when the wanted to impose their will in Jerome Smith. Zone blocking schemes often left the end lined up away from the run unblocked to add an extra blocker to the run direction. The majority of Smiths 1305 yards came between the tackles. Pistol formation kept the play action pass as an option and the TE in the seam or a deep route by Alec Lemon or Marcus Sales. When Smith was in the backfield, the Syracuse attack looked more like a Coryell offense that looked to get you to either cheat up to defend the inside run, then burn you over the top or get you to play back to defend the deep pass run by multiple receivers and then burn you with the run up the gut. As a change of pace, Prince Tyson-Gulley came in for Smith. Gulley, a smaller, quicker back, was much more of a dual threat. He would either line up in the backfield or get spread out in the slot. As the #2 back, Gulley still managed over 1,100 all purpose yards in the Orange attack (830 rushing / 282 receiving).
So, putting aside for the moment QB, the Bills would seem to have several key skill position pieces to run a Marrone / Hackett offense, particularly at RB. Their ability to take full advantage of two different style backs at Syracuse bodes well for them to take advantage of both CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson. The up tempo attack provides more snaps per game, which helps get both backs into a rhythm. Obviously using CJ in the passing game and running game will fully take advantage of his entire skill set and create mismatches all over the field. The no huddle attack also gets more effective as the game goes on and the defense gets tired.
Syracuse scored 229 of its 397 total points for the season in the 2nd half compared to 168 in the first. Stevie Johnson’s ability to beat one on one match-ups also makes him a perfect fit. If David Nelson comes back healthy, his height advantage makes him a nice fit to go with TJ Graham’s speed potential outside. Donald Jones also has deep speed, but shouldn’t be looked at as a #2. Bringing in another either speedy or taller receiver would be a priority addition this offseason. Scott Chandler has also developed into a reliable receiving threat who’s size and hands would be an asset in a Marrone / Hackett attack. So, outside of QB, look for the Bills to add one more receivers to the attack. That receiver could be any type, but look for it to be a receiver who presents a significant challenge and mismatch either with size or speed rather than a jack of all trades threat.
QB is a discussion in and of itself. An obvious choice to find a fit for Marrone and Hackett’s offense would be to draft the QB who ran it for them in college, Ryan Nassib. However, in a draft with 31 other teams, it is impossible to arrange to both get value and guaranty you get a specific targeted player. Taking Nassib at 8 would be a reach no matter how you try to justify it and waiting until the 2nd round may be too late. While varied skills are needed to run this offense, the most important skill needed is a high football IQ. Like Jim Kelly when he was running the K-Gun, plays are called on the line and the QB has a great deal of responsibility to make pre-snap reads in coverage and pressure. The ability to quickly process information is critical, both pre-snap and in play. A quick read and release will further exploit a mismatch or a burn a blitz. After football IQ, like in the west coast offense accuracy is critical on short timing routes. The third most critical skill is arm strength to stretch the defense vertically.
While athleticism is always a tremendous asset to a QB, the ability to make in pocket adjustments is more critical than being able to burn a defense with your feet. While some spread option was utilized as well as some pistol formations, for the most part the backs ran the ball and the QB either handed it off or threw it in all of the offenses integrated into the Marrone offense. I am sure they would be capable of adjusting the system to fit a particular strength or hide a weakness of a QB, but looking for a system fit to what they have run, athleticism would be on the last rung of the list of priorities.
No matter who’s under center next year for the Bills, look for the offense to be an exciting brand of up tempo football. Marrone will exploit the skills of the players on the roster to create mismatches and try to stay one step ahead of the defense to keep them off balance and to wear them down both physically and mentally by the 4th quarter. This offensive attack puts a large burden on the defense because they too will have little rest between series. Pairing a no huddle attack with an attacking, break or be broken defense makes sense because it will limit their time on the field. Look for more high scoring shootouts to come in Buffalo. Hopefully, like in the heyday of the K-Gun, the Bills will be on the right side of those shootouts more times than not.