Thursday, July 31, 2008

Regarding "The Spread"...

I've been asked more than a few times over this excruciatingly-long off-season what I think about "the spread" coming to Auburn. I really haven't been able to answer that question (certainly not well) in a few words, so here are more than a few:

I still think the world of Al Borges. Anybody who doesn't appreciate what he did for Auburn has completely forgotten the night-and-day difference between the AU offense in 2003 as compared to 2004 and 2005. Everybody forgets today that Auburn didn't just light up the league in the undefeated '04 season, but also led the SEC in offense the following year--and that was with Brandon Cox under center. I still don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with Borges' offense--at least nothing that three or four NFL-caliber wide receivers wouldn't have fixed. And that, of course, was the rub.

Obviously, things changed dramatically in 2006, when Auburn fell way back in the offensive standings, and again in 2007, when the Tigers darn near hit rock bottom on that side of the ball. While it's reasonable to think some of the difference was due to the natural progression of defensive coaches on the other teams getting more familiar with Borges's schemes, I think it's clear that losing Anthony Mix, Devin Aromashodu and Ben Obiwankenobi after '05 and Courtney Taylor after '06 was what really spelled doom for the Gulf Coast Offense.

All four of those guys are on NFL rosters today, and with all due respect to the wideouts on the current AU roster, we have not seen their like since. And it's showed. The Tigers lost nearly a thousand yards of total offense from '05 to '06. Once defenses knew there wasn't much of a deep threat, they could close down to a 30-yard box from the line of scrimmage, and Cox was turned into a punching bag as a result (and although nobody ever talks about it on the record, I think it's safe to assume that Cox's health problems were at the very least not helped by the poundings he took on the field).

Why did AU get in such a hole at receiver? The easy answer is that wideout recruiting fell off, but why that happened is a little more complicated. In an age of high school kids putting a premium on early playing time, it had to be hard to recruit new receivers as long as the "big four" still had eligibility. It wouldn't surprise me if the luxury of having those four guys around also made the staff somewhat complacent (there it is again, the one great flaw of the Tuberville era) when it came to signing newcomers at the position: "Hell, we'll get some next year."

Making things worse, once the positions did open up, prospects watching Auburn games no longer saw an offense they wanted to play in. WIthout a dependable passing game, Auburn fell back out of necessity to a power running attack, and I've yet to meet a top receiver who relishes the idea of spending most of his games as a blocker. That feedback loop continued to the point where the Tigers rarely cracked three touchdowns against SEC competition.

As good as Borges is when he has the right tools, continuing to use an offense built around players you don't have is a losing proposition. We'd already seen what happened to Auburn when Terry Bowden decided to insert the 1990's Florida State offense in a team that didn't have 1990's Florida State players at the "skill positions."

So, something had to change. If the players weren't going to change (and they weren't, certainly not in the short term), the offense had to, and making things harder, it had to change in a way that enticed more players of the kind Auburn didn't have to sign up. Whether the shift from Borges' pro-style attack to Tony Franklin's much-lauded "spread" was the right change or not... well, like they say, that's why they play the games. We'll see.

I'll be the first to confess that I have never been an fan of "the spread," at least not "the spread" as lazy sportswriters tend to use the term. I didn't like it when Bowden went five-wide and threw on most downs in 1995-98. These days we'd recognize that offense as a close relative to Texas Tech or Hawaii. That kind of imbalance is a recipe for two or three disasters a year in the SEC. I also still don't care for Urban Meyer's offense, which is just a gussied-up version of the Single Wing with more receivers; ditto for Rich Rodriguez's version at West Virginia. In the end, both are really just the option run out of the shotgun.

That said, I am comforted by Franklin's insistence that he intends to run a balanced attack out of his shotgun formations. I'm as dedicated a fan of the running game as any SEC fan anywhere, but history tells us that while you can't win if you can't run, you also can't win big unless you have balance.

There hasn't been a great Auburn team since the Bo Jackson-led Wishbone squad of 1983 that was not also a balanced offensive team. Indeed, the great strength of Borges' great run in 2004-05 (and Bowden's in 1993-94, for that matter) was the unpredictability of an offense that could either run or pass in almost any situation.

If Auburn can get back to that, things on the Plains will be just fine. If not... but there it is again: that's why they play the games.


Tony Barnhart interviews Auburn's Tony Franklin today. A highlight:

The spread is a formation, not an offense: "Some people spread the field to run it, like West Virginia. Others spread the field to pass it, like Texas Tech. It’s what you do after you spread the field that defines your offense. We spread it to figure out what is going to work in any particular game and then we just do that. At Troy we basically ran it half the time and threw it half the time. We just always took what the defense was giving us. (Note: Troy rolled up 488 yards in a 44-34 loss to Georgia last November). Our plan at Auburn is to throw first and run second but if we find a running play that works, we’re going to do that. I’m not hung up on who gets the ball and how we do it. I just want to score points."

Read the whole thing.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


Daily newspapers used to be important things. Before television, they were the primary way most sports fans found out who won or lost games, who was in contention, who was on the outs. Even in the TV age, the daily paper was your connection to your team(s), and the only means of reading up on box scores, or standings, or the real mainstay of sports writing, opinion columns. For most of my soon-to-be-forty years, whether you liked it or not, you had to buy the paper if you wanted to know what was going on.

All that started to change, of course, something over a decade ago. The internet unleashed news and sports writing from the grasp of printing press and TV station owners, and put the ability to reach hundreds, thousands, or even millions of other people in the hands of just about anybody with a computer. While the blogging revolution was going on, the web also revealed who the most important employees of a given newspaper really were: not the columnists with lifetime sinecures, not the beat reporters with one eye on the AP wire, but rather the little old ladies downstairs who took the orders for want-ads. While online news and sports sites thrive and grow more profitable by the year, newspapers are in a fiscal nosedive as advertisers and subscribers alike take their attention and business elsewhere.

All of which brings us to 2008, and a fascinating exodus that's occurring just under the radar in the sportswriting world. As print newspapers become less and less relevant (and far less profitable), more and more top talents are jumping off the sinking ship to ply their trades online. In blog parlance, it's called "taking the Boeing," a phrase coined by uber-blogger Glenn Reynolds when ace political writer Mickey Kaus agreed to bring his hugely-popular Kausfiles blog under the umbrella (Slate being owned by Microsoft, which shares its home city of Seattle with aircraft behemoth Boeing--it's a stretch as a joke, but it works).

Around these parts, Neal McCready left the Mobile Press-Register to become the feature writer for's Ole Miss site around the beginning of 2008. I'd said for years that McCready pretty obviously would be a lot happier if he were covering Mississippi instead of Auburn and Alabama, and by all indications (including an acidic and very funny kiss-off email that was widely forwarded around), Neal finally agreed. He's clearly having a ball in his new job, and good for him.

That said, I was stunned when Phillip Marshall "took the Boeing," or rather the SI ESPN Shuttle a month or so ago. Marshall has newspaper ink running in his veins; his father Benny was a legendary sports editor at the Birmingham News, and Marshall himself has been a major figure in the Alabama media for most of my own lifetime. He was easily the best sports editor, reporter and writer the Montgomery Advertiser has had in the last 30 years, and in his more recent gig as the Auburn beat writer for the Huntsville Times, he won the state's top award for sports writing in both of the last two years. But Marshall walked away from the Times in June to set up shop in a brand-new Sports Illustrated ESPN-affiliated AU news and blog site, Auburn Undercover (which I must say has a dumb name, but great content).

The exodus is not limited to Alabama's papers. Fort Worth Star-Telegram living legend Wendell Barnhouse recently hung up his newspaper spurs to become the Big 12 Conference's online reporter. Under less voluntary circumstances, Jay Christensen (who wrote the blurb about Barnhouse linked just above), was recently axed thanks to the floundering LA Times' efforts at cost cutting. Christensen's previously-anonymous blog The Wizard of Odds was (and is) among the very best college football sites out there, and I'm betting that Jay will go a lot farther online than he would have in the stratified world of big-newspaper sportswriting.

Even when people don't leave their big-media home bases, they're finding more readers by going online. For my money, the best two college football writers in the country are Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Ivan Maisel of ESPN. Barnhart's online-only AJC blog is far more timely and interesting than almost anything that gets printed in the actual paper, and Maisel's work scarcely ever sees physical print at all these days; the vast majority of his stuff is online-only at

All of which makes one wonder how far all this is going to go. The market is proving that small outfits concentrating on a single team or school or sport can do quite well; there are three full-time all-Auburn news and message board sites running right now (full disclosure, with several friends of mine working in various jobs), and they're all making money. Sports sites with broader appeal are also doing fine, and all the proof you need of that is Orson Spencer Mellencamp's recent taking-of-the-Boeing to become a feature writer with the Sporting News.

Readers are leaving newspapers far faster than the better writers. I remember hearing my dad gripe about the state of the Montgomery Advertiser about a decade ago. Gannett had bought out what was up until that point the best paper in the state, and their low salaries and Mickey Mouse editorial template quickly ran off everybody with any smidgen of talent. "What can you do?" he asked me rhetorically. "You have to get a paper, and even this garbage is the best one around here."

Now Dad has an iBook with a wireless hookup, and every newspaper in the world is as close as his end table. He used to get three daily papers while I was growing up; now he gets one, and I'll bet you he won't renew it the next time a bill arrives.

As a lot of people who worked for secure local monopolies pre-web are learning, my dad is hardly unique.