When Mack Brown took the head coaching job at UNC, it was abundantly clear that he was looking for an Air Raid disciple to run the offense. He targeted Kliff Kingsbury and David Yost, and then Graham Harrell, and then, finally, when it started to look like the search was getting desperate, managed to land a guy most weren’t even sure was available in Phil Longo, previously the offensive coordinator at Ole Miss. It’s an exciting hire for sure; as we’ve already discussed, OIe Miss was 12th in the country in offensive S&P+ in 2018 and 9th the year prior. He’s an innovator within the field itself, particularly known for his scheming to take responsibility off the quarterback. From this Fox Sports profile from a couple of years ago:
“The guy that is the most important is the one I was asking to do too much,” he said. “I just want him to execute the play. Our quarterback gets the signal, IDs the coverage and takes the snap. We delegate all the QB’s duties out to everybody else.”
In this system, the QB goes from first look to second look to third look. “We don’t even call them reads,” Longo said. A QB “reading” to see a linebacker’s hips or shoulders or his movement in regards to a nearby wideout and slot receiver usually dictates the quarterback assessing—and projecting—what will be the most difficult situation and throwing the opposite. “We don’t do that. I think that adds another step. It’s about trusting our receivers to attack the space and get in the right place.
It’s clearly worked for him, as evidenced by the aforementioned success. There have been, though, some who have voiced concern over an apparently bigger-than-normal drop-off in Ole Miss’ offensive performance against good defenses the past couple of years. S&P+ is opponent-adjusted, so you’d think that was accounted for, but it is possible that Ole Miss consistently overperforms against talent-deficient teams just as much as they seem to underperform against really good ones. Let’s stick a pin in that for now.
Longo’s playbook, famously, features less than 30 plays that the players are assigned with adjusting based on the defensive looks they’re getting. As that FOX profile says, “His offense can run, say, 4 Verticals or “95” [Y-Cross] (an Air-Raid staple) 10 times in a game and it can look like six different things depending on what the receivers are seeing.” That article linked in the last paragraph expresses some concern about “a thin line between simple and predictable,” seeming to express a conviction that this scheme just doesn’t hold up against well-coached defenses. But what does this actually look like? Let’s dive into the tape.
The first thing to know about Longo is that in addition to Air Raid staples like Y-Cross and Four Verts, he really, really likes short curls. Here’s what those first three look like, with diagrams from SmartFootball:
- Y-Cross with 2-wide, 2 running backs. Note the options to break in for the X receiver and the options to sit in zone for the Z receiver.
- Four Verts, the most popular play in football. In Leach’s Air Raid, it’s not as simple as 3 go’s and a deep post; all 4 receivers are encouraged to look back or even break off their routes if they see an opening.
- All Curls with 2 running backs going to the flat. One of the oldest passing plays in football. Depth can be adjusted.
And here’s Longo’s short All-Curls in a quick GIF:
You can see how the receivers know what to do basically pre-snap. D.K. Metcalf at the top, whose release might be his biggest asset as a wideout, releases lazily on purpose to transition into blocking his corner, who’s playing press. A.J. Brown in the slot sees his corner playing pretty close to the line and the boundary receiver on his side facing a corner playing 10 yards off, so as soon as he curls, he sees the ball being delivered, knows it’s not to him, and lowers his shoulder to block as well. And the guy who gets the ball, DaMarkus Lodge, knows that on his curl, he’s going to be open and get the target as a result. Even against Alabama’s vaunted defense, this play works for quick, decent yardage.
As the Air Raid has gained more and more prominence in the last few years, it’s also gained a ton of variations. From a quick look, it sees as though Longo’s style of Air Raid doesn’t go quite as far as some of his contemporaries do. For example, one of the original WTF aspects of the offense was the half-yard to full-yard splits between offensive linemen, designed to make it so that edge rushers had a longer way to go before hitting the quarterback and blitzers would be neutralized by quick throws. Longo does this to an extent, but he also frequently has his linemen in a spread-like shallow V formation, which gives linemen the option of basically neutralizing the distance aspect on deeper plays.
The classic Air Raid wide alignment works for the classic BYU-style Air Raid, but with coaches like Kingsbury and Longo who want to stretch the field vertically, you’re suddenly very susceptible to blitzes. This more spread-adjacent line fixes that problem.
Compared to his Air Raid contemporaries, Longo might want to take some of the mental load off his QBs, but physically, he demands nothing short of the best. Not only does he scheme a lot of long balls, but he seems to have no regard for where a play starts on the field. He throws from a hash mark to the opposite numbers frequently, turning what look like quick-hitters into comparatively long plays. With a quarterback with a plus arm like Jordan Ta’amu, this wasn’t a problem for the Ole Miss offense, as he routinely zipped the ball across the field without giving defenders time to catch up. We’ve seen what happens when your quarterback doesn’t have that arm strength on swing passes to the field side, and it’ll suffice to say that it’s not pretty.
But that’s enough reminiscing. Instead, let’s look forward to a future where UNC can do this against Alabama-level defenses:
You don’t have to take my word for D.K. Metcalf having an insane release at the line. He turns around a corner at the line of scrimmage and this play is going for 6 before Ta’amu has completed his drop. This ball travels 30+ yards in the air from hash to opposite numbers; like I said before, Longo’s offense requires a big-time thrower (Welcome aboard, Sam Howell). This looks like verts with 3 receivers instead of 4, with the slot man, A.J. Brown, realizing that he’s double-covered deep and breaking off into a curl to give his quarterback a throwing window. It ends up looking like an Air Coryell play with max protection and 3 receivers trying to win one-on-one. This is what people mean when they say the same play in Longo’s offense can look like 10 different things depending on what the defense is showing.
There’s also stuff like this:
That’s a modified Tare route combination at the top with 2x1 instead of the classic 3x1, with the outside receiver clearing out with a 9 route and the slot receiver running a quick out (with as much max protection as I’m seeing here, even against Texas Tech, I’m starting to wonder how much confidence Longo had in Ole Miss’s very capable offensive line). It’s a very popular play in basically every offensive philosophy you’ll find, and it’s usually paired with a backside slant in case the quarterback sees one-on-one on that side and the action on the play side gets the linebackers out of the way. That slant can become a huge play very quickly. So here, the fade and quick out work like they’re supposed to, and Brown is open for a quick 5. On the other side, the backside linebacker and free safety don’t make any false steps, and the Texas Tech outside linebacker actually seems to recognize what’s going on and steps into the slant lane. Since he lined up at the line of scrimmage, Ta’amu saw a hole where the slant should be, identified one-on-one with Metcalf, and has been looking that way the whole time instead of the play’s original first read. On a classic Tare, that’s advantage, TTU. But here’s where that reaction and adaptability comes in, because Metcalf sees the linebacker back off into the slant lane and turns his route upfield, dusting the corner with his release and subsequent stack, and hauls in another bomb (Another hash-to-opposite-numbers 30-yarder in the air).
So this is all well and good, but we’d see similar things, maybe less improvised but no less prolific, from a host of young-ish Air Raid acolytes (Longo is 50). What Mack Brown brought Longo in for, in his own words, was because “he’s taken what they did with the Oklahoma system with Lincoln Riley and he’s combined [it with] the power running game... And that’s who we’ll be.” So what does Longo’s run game look like? How many plays in that 28 or so are devoted to the run game?
Well, from a quick survey, he’s got a few zone read packages, at least a couple of RPOs, runs his fair share of power (including counters), he’s got a speed option, and he infuses a healthy dose of QB Draw if he can. This excellent article from Ole Miss’s Rivals site previews what Longo had to offer them coming up from Sam Houston State and is way more informative than I have the space or knowledge to be, so check that out. For my part, I’ll just put in a few clips.
This play is low-key fascinating. Watch #32 on Bama, 2nd-team All-American linebacker Dylan Moses. Alabama is in what I think is a disguised Cover 1; both safeties start out deep but the free safety backpedals at the snap as the strong safety charges downfield, while every receiver has a man on him. Moses has the slot receiver, Brown. Brown motions as if for a jet sweep or swing pass, and Moses first follows him like a DB in man coverage would, then slows up and re-aligns as if Alabama is in zone, passing Brown off to nobody. A swing pass to Brown might have picked up a first down there, but Ta’amu has already diagnosed the numbers advantage in the box and decided to stick with the run. Moses basically negates this with his recognition of the look Ole Miss is showing him, his eyes never leaving the running back as soon as the ball is snapped. If Ole Miss didn’t have one of the best left tackles in the country, this play would have been bottled up for about 3. As it is, Greg Little does just enough on the counter to alter Moses’ pursuit angle, and Scottie Phillips squeezes through for a nice gain before Moses brings him down.
Here’s some good old-fashioned power from shotgun, with the right guard pulling and the tight end coming across to create a gap—calling it a hole seems like a stretch—for Phillips to squeeze through. This is what Mack Brown got Longo for, the ability to do this against a vaunted defensive front. It didn’t happen consistently, as Phillips ran 12 times for just 44 yards in this game (according to the box score, but this play is just... missing) as it rapidly got away from the Rebels, but early in the game, this is what you want to see.
Longo tried both of the above runs a couple more times in this game. The G/T counter got 3 yards once and got stuffed once, and power got 11 yards once. You start to see a problem here against elite-level defensive talent with elite coaching that can make this kind of in-game adjustment.
Here’s some option for you:
This is a pretty standard zone-read. Auburn actually has the perfect defensive playcall here, as the defensive end crashes on the running back and the safety comes up to play the quarterback. He just gets beat, as Ta’amu gets the edge on him and scampers for the first down. They don’t set the edge on the running back’s side very well, but the DE is fast enough to make that a non-factor. Ta’amu sees the crash and keeps, and it’s unclear whether or not he sees the safety planning for this. Either way, he wins the battle. Longo clearly can gameplan for a mobile quarterback, as Ta’amu had 87 carries over the course of the season. That’s something to keep in mind as a 3-way quarterback competition takes place in Chapel Hill among Jace Ruder, a bona fide running threat, and Cade Fortin and Sam Howell, who can both move around but aren’t going to make defenses worry.
So with all this, let’s re-visit the fact that Ole Miss fans seem to be okay with him being gone despite what looks like a really good portfolio. The prevailing notion seems to be that he wasted the best offense that Ole Miss might ever see, with a great quarterback, one of the best receiving corps in the nation, one of the SEC’s better runners, and the best left tackle in the nation alongside an OL with experience and talent, giving them a scheme that essentially amounted to “be better than the guy across from you.” When they faced defenses with every bit of blue-chip talent that they did, and/or when opposing coaches adjusted to the fact that they literally knew every play in Longo’s book, he couldn’t do anything about it. So they say. And yes, there are hints of that in the above. That G/T counter worked once against Bama, but only with a great play from the left tackle. The read option is schemed against, but works anyways because of superior talent. But just as often, there are examples where it works out. Longo has a real knack for RPOs that end up with a tight end wide open down the middle of the field; in watching the 5 games I did for this breakdown, I saw it more than once per game, every time with nobody within five yards of the receiver. That’s not talent, that’s scheme.
Also, Ta’amu has a gorgeous deep ball and really good mobility, but there are aspects of his game that are lacking that show up in a big way in this offense. He can’t handle pressure up the middle, which is necessary with an Air Raid OL alignment, and his ability to read defenses isn’t bad, but it’s inconsistent. In the red zone, he missed this matchup with his best receiver on an RPO, preferring to hand off against a crashing defensive end:
He got pick-sixed against Alabama by being baited into throwing the backside slant in 3x1 Tare into triple coverage when the quick out was open. It was Bama, so some desparation is forgivable, but that kind of desperation happened all year against good teams, as the Ole Miss defense just couldn’t stop anybody. He also was a little loose with the football, losing 3 fumbles on the year to go with 8 interceptions. He had really high highs and I get why fans love him, but a quick perusal shows that he’s not blameless here.
And the intangibles in Oxford were really lacking. With everything that had recently gone on around Hugh Freeze, the team in 2018 that had just seen him be forced to resign was really talented, but clearly unsettled from it all.
There are two legitimate criticisms of Longo’s offense that I want to address before I finish. The first is summed up in this series of tweets:
“Greedy blanketed DK!”— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) December 5, 2018
Wanna know why? Every route was the same. For Greedy, just Open to the sideline and run. Knew what was coming every play bc Ole Miss is so predictable. Took their own best player out of the game with poor scheme
Go back up and look at D.K. Metcalf’s inside releases on go routes. Not being allowed to do that against a premier cornerback is definitely a problem. But there are a couple of bigger-picture things here. First is the lack of positional flexibility at the receiver spots. The X receiver is always the X receiver, which makes the offense simpler for him but probably errs on the side of “too simple.” In the LSU game, Greedy Williams let Metcalf have a couple of easy curls, willingly turning his hips to the sidelines to avoid getting beaten deep. A.J. Brown claims he knew the entire offense, but despite outside receiver size and route-running skills, played virtually the entire season out of the slot; I can only assume this was to protect his outside receiver teammates from having to learn more positions. When the offensive playbook is as small as Longo’s is and your primary emphasis is on teaching players to react, there’s definitely room to teach multiple positions. Running backs and tight ends can line up in the slot and receivers can move around. It makes you more dangerous while not straying from the concept of simplicity.
There’s also that thing about “free routes” and “get open” plays. It kind of just sounds like a verbalization of the Air Raid mantra of “run to grass, throw to grass,” but it’s not. Brown here takes pride in his ability to “run NFL routes,” as in, he knows he’s an NFL-caliber wide receiver and can separate against 99% of college DB’s one-on-one, but beyond the concern about having that kind of personnel, it’s detrimental to your offense for the quarterback to have no idea where his receiver might be until he looks. Worst-case scenario, it brings to mind Chazz Surratt staring at a receiver, waiting for him to get open by any means necessary before throwing to him. Read-and-react still needs structure, and Longo’s alleged willingness to let go of that is something that needs to be curtailed in the Tar Heel edition of his offense. Look again at how the plays in the beginning of this breakdown were improvised. They worked out because there was a plan A and an expectation of what to do if that was blown up somehow. Without that plan A, there are too many options to be able to attack a defense quickly enough to matter.
The second criticism is of what we’ll call Ole Miss’s 2018 do-or-die offense. The offense was ridiculously good even backed up near its own end zone, ranking 11th in the country in success rate when backed up, per Bill Connelly. In the normal run of play, they were fifth. They got a ton of first downs on first and second down, ranking 3rd in that category. But on third down, their success rate was just 38.4%, 73rd in the nation. I don’t have the answers for why we see such a drop, but it’s definitely at least partially due to the offense and Ta’amu’s inability to respond well to blitzes (particularly up the middle). Blitzes got home nearly 20% of the time against Ole Miss, which was 127th in the nation. On passing downs, Ta’amu was sacked 11% of the time, also abysmal.
The other aspect of do-or-die offense is red zone offense. Longo’s offense doesn’t turn it over in the red zone, which is great, but also has a hard time scoring touchdowns. Every aspect of Longo’s red zone offense was mediocre, and the tape backs it up. Ta’amu was often forced to freelance once he got close to the end zone; teams blitz more frequently around there and it showed. This has the same problem as the third down issue above, but unlike then, where if Ta’amu wasn’t sacked either he had room to run or a receiver could adjust and work back to him, he didn’t have much space to make plays happen with his arm or legs, and scoring suffered accordingly. Basically, Phil Longo needs to find ways to take on blitzes better.
Fans, including myself, are excited about this hire, and there’s clearly a lot to like. A few problems, but nobody’s perfect, and as for Longo not being able to succeed without elite offensive talent... first of all, Ole Miss and UNC’s 2018 teams were 7 spots apart in 247’s Team Talent Composite, and second of all, as I’ve shown and said above, Longo may need his players to execute and execute well even beyond their coaching, but he also has shown the ability to scheme guys open. And every offense in the world is going to have a mix of those things. All in all, it’s clear that the offensive coordination of UNC’s football team is taking a major step in the right direction in 2019 and beyond.