The Fatal Flaw in the Bruce Arians Offense

In a previous article, "Can Football Be Saved From Head Injuries?—A Historical Perspective," I related some of the information found in a short book titled "The Forward Pass in Football." Written in 1921 by a college coach, Elmer Berry, the first chapter detailed some of the history of football in the first decade of the 20th century. I was struck by the similarities between that situation and our own time. Serious injuries and deaths threatened the continuation of the game and major changes to the rules were made as a result. That portion of the book inspired the article linked above. The next chapter of the book prompted the present one.

During the early days of football the forward pass was not unknown, but it was never a legal play until the first major changes in the rules took effect in 1906. But though it was legal, 15 years after the rule change, when Elmer Berry wrote the book, the forward pass was still a minor part of the game for most teams. The author bemoaned the lack of interest in the forward pass shown by the big college football programs. His book both displayed the practicality of the pass as a strategic element in football and gave technical advice for executing it properly. He believed the forward pass was practically indefensible, other than by interception, and laid out suggestions for its use that sound strangely familiar.

In fact, I was most intrigued to discover many elements of Bruce Arians’s offense outlined in its pages. One of the strategies Berry suggested, however, is one Steeler Nation has frequently called for but not often seen.

Bruce Arians was called many things during his tenure as Offensive Coordinator. One of the nicer ones was "stubborn." But I now believe the situation is much more complex than mere stubbornness on Arians's part. I am convinced Bruce Arians has a copy of "The Forward Pass in Football," and I am further convinced this book was seminal in the development of his offensive schemes. Unfortunately, I think a few critical pages are missing from his copy.

Let’s look more closely at the applicable passages. First, here is the basis premise of the author:

"The first fundamental of a successful forward passing game is that the forward pass should be used as a regular ground gaining play and not simply, as so many teams seem still to do, as a sort of last desperate chance. With many teams the attack may be summarized practically in this manner: first and second down, runs; third down, forward pass; fourth down, kick. And then they wonder that the forward pass doesn’t succeed and stigmatize it as a dangerous, treacherous and unsuccessful play! Rather a team must have the confidence to use it often on first and second downs, and even on special occasions, on a fourth down...it must be used frequently, persistently and continuously." (emphasis in the original)

Check. The Steelers offense for the past several years at any rate could certainly be characterized as utilizing the pass "frequently, persistently, and continuously."

Here is the secret of this style of play, according to Professor Berry. This bit was obviously still in BA’s copy of the book:

"The early successes of the forward pass were secured almost solely upon the principle of putting the passer a distance of fifteen yards back, then letting the opposing line come charging through absolutely without resistance. Practically the whole offensive team was sent down to receive (apparently) the pass, thus confusing the defense as to who was eligible and furnishing interference as soon as the pass was completed." (emphasis mine)

Check. The subtlety of this method lies in "letting the opposing line come charging through absolutely without resistance." This could explain the seeming incompetence of the offensive line at times—it was, in fact, not incompetence but a strategy to confuse the defense!

Next, the long pass:

"The ability to make long passes is fundamental. With the secondary defense playing ten yards back and possibly covering twenty yards more...the pass going outward at an angle must often travel fifty-five yards to clear the secondary defense."

Check. At least, if the long pass wasn’t succeeding, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Next, "All Eligible Men Open:"

"...as a general principle a regular forward pass play should aim to get as many eligible men as possible open to receive the pass. These men should be so spread that they cannot all be covered by the defense. The passer then selects an open man or the best open man to whom to pass.

This method puts great responsibility upon the passer. It fits in with the idea of putting him well back and giving him as much time as possible to make his choice.."

Check. Five-wide, anyone?

There are a number of other sections clearly present in Arians's copy, including one on planning for interferences and the use of the interference of a long pass as equivalent to a punt. Check.

Now comes the segment I suspect is missing from Bruce Arian’s copy. I believe the copy he was using originally belonged to Bill Walsh, who tore several pages out for safe-keeping. Clearly Arians didn’t realize they were missing:

"Although such long passes need not often be used, the knowledge that the offense possesses the ability to make them is necessary to keep the secondary defense back so that short, sharp passes may succeed for the disconcerting gains of the regular ground gaining attack.

On this basis the pass should be used for short as well as long gains. A running play that gains two and a half to three yards is regarded as successful. Why should not the pass be used in the same way? Passes that give little or no gain in themselves, but put the receiver in position for open field running, and at least a few yards gain, disorganize the defense."

Here is the other missing piece of the puzzle:

"The ideal forward pass formation is one from which a kick, pass or run is possible. As the starts it should be difficult to diagnose whether a run or pass is intended. In fact, as a team becomes [more polished] in its performance it may often switch in its intention, running out a play on the call of the passer that was intended for a pass, because the defense laid back and waited; and conversely, though not so often, a pass may be made to an open man on the call of the passer, though the signal called for a run. This represents high art in team work..."

Suddenly everything becomes clear. We now see the lack of disguised intentions and the all-too-infrequent use of the short pass not as stubbornness or the sign of an intractable character but as the lack of a few crucial bits of information. The "almost but not quite" feel characterizing Arians' tenure is instead a tragedy of almost Aristotlean proportions. For Aristotle, the "fatal flaw" responsible for bringing down the protagonist was not a moral failing but a matter of the ignorance of some small but vital piece of knowledge. For example, Oedipus was unaware of his parentage, and therefore ended up killing his father and marrying his mother. Creon’s ignorance of the decree forbidding Antigone to bury her brother led to her death.

Likewise, perhaps the fatal flaw in the Bruce Arians offense was not having those few missing pages in his copy of "The Forward Pass." Had he realized the importance of the "short, sharp pass" and of disguising the intentions of the offense on any given play, the rest of his scheme might well have worked exactly as anticipated.

We can only hope Todd Haley either has a different offensive scheme or a complete copy of the book.

Note: Regular readers of BTSC know two things about me. First, I was never an Arians basher and might even have been characterized as an Arians apologist. Second, it's hard for me to resist a good joke. In this instance the second portion of my persona trumped the first. Really, I thought BA got way too much grief around here. But I just couldn't resist as the possibilities of this post presented themselves to me as I read "The Forward Pass." (The book, BTW, is available on Kindle for the bargain price of $0.00. Such a deal...) I wish Coach Arians well in his new position with the Colts, except, naturally, when they play the Steelers : )

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