Which way is the right way?
On a small but densely packed Pacific archipelago off the coast of South America a young man had a startling idea reinforced by what he saw before his eyes. Multiple organisms that were related to one other had evolved differently in the separate island environments they were subjected to. But was it the environment that changed the organisms directly, or was there some other explanation for their survival? Might not the organisms themselves be an instrument of change in the manner in which they lived?
The beginnings of that journey led to the most startling and controversial theory explaining evolution and the origins of planet wide diversity, one that is still being hotly debated today. But Charles Darwin’s observations were unequivocal—certain organisms seemed perfectly suited to their particular environment, while close genetic cousins that developed in a different environment showed particular qualities that fit those individual conditions.
Change those environments, and the organisms from one environment will struggle and even fail in another, even alongside their close brethren of the same species. There is nothing wrong with these creatures, they simply aren’t in the correct environment that allows them to thrive.
Which brings up the question of another sort—that of a quarterback for a given style of offense, say, for example, of the Auburn Tigers. In nearly all respects Sean White is an excellent choice: smart, alert, sound in judgment, well practiced and as dynamic a leader we could ever hope for. I have little doubt that his attributes were and are the cause of Coach Gus Malzahn’s selection of him as the starting quarterback.
That he is capable of great production of yardage and efficiency was made perfectly clear in our game against Arkansas State. However, as many have pointed out, in the harsh environment of the Southeastern Conference, at least one defense has learned that, despite his abilities, he isn’t a threat to run the ball and take off for long yards on the fundamental offensive play—the zone read play.
On a given run, his average is just under three yards per carry.
In sharp contrast …
John Franklin III has shown a glimpse of tremendous potential on that particular play. This is evident in the short span of time he has been able to be on the field. In the fourth quarter against Texas A&M, it seemed to kindle a wild hope among the fan base that the latest ‘Master of the Zone Read’ had arrived on campus. Certainly his 9 yards per carry and dynamic game play sparked a tremendous upsurge of rushing production in dramatic fashion.
Additionally, this capability seems to complement the inside running game of Auburn’s running backs.
It’s hard not to like seeing that, and I’m sure this is the particular lighting in a bottle that Gus Malzahn keeps trying to discharge on the field of play. It is clearly evident in both the first and third games of the season that this is exactly why John Franklin III’s name is called time and again, depending on the game situation.
The problem I have is the means of placing that ‘perfectly suited organism’ into the particular environment in which it can thrive with abandon. That is by player substitution depending on down, distance, field position and defensive tendencies. Doing it the way Coaches Rhett Lashlee and Gus Malzahn have attempted isn’t working against a defense that is equally capable of adapting their player mix and schemes to combat it.
Sun Tzu said it best ‘All warfare is deception.’ If your enemy knows your plans, you have less hope for victory
There is no question. No matter how dynamic the play of this offense, if the style or specific play selections can be anticipated by a capable defensive coordinator and alert players on the field, it will be less successful that it otherwise would, and the offense’s play must evolve or fail in the environment to which it is subjected.
The numbers show this story quite well.
When Auburn sends in John Franklin III and Kamryn Pettway, the rushing yards and yards per play explode. When Kerryon Johnson and Sean White are in, the rushing yards are less but the passing game begins to stretch the field. The differences have already been seen on the field of play and in the particular play of the defense.
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Sean White expertly continuing a zone-read play in open space without the ball. The defense keyed on his mesh point and then concentrated on the runner, ignoring his movement after the handoff altogether. He’s not a credible threat running the ball. When he does attempt it, he will get fewer yards than John Franklin III. This is not a judgment on his overall ability as a quarterback. It’s just in those particular conditions and environment, he struggles—an alert, fast, quality defense facing Auburn on mid- to long-yardage plays can simply ignore White’s contribution to any given run play.
This is not so in the case of John Franklin III. His yards per play and dynamic ability to run at speed to evade defenders has been perfectly displayed on several occasions (even though I still hear Bear Bryant’s voice in my head whenever he does—commenting bitterly about the late great Kenny Stabler, “There go the Snake, carrying the ball like a loaf of bread”*).
However, the question remains, who is the right choice going forward? In facing the average, or exceptional, SEC pass rush, skilled and capable linebackers, alert and able secondary, and adaptable defensive scheme, which of these quarterbacks gives the team the greatest chance at achievement and victory?
The answer must be—the player best suited to the environment in which the team finds itself. Trying to fit a similar type of player into that same role will be a less effective endeavor. This is a key decision facing the Auburn coaching staff at this point in the season, and on that selection rides the fate of the team.
I must admit, I simply don’t know what that answer should be. I’m merely a fan observing the struggle and situation. I don’t coach these players and am blind to other evidence shown in practices, team meetings and discussions. The early evidence and numbers may show one result, but as we have seen time and again, early numbers in the SEC don’t count for much. It’s still too early to tell, and the people who can choose are paid much more than I am to make those selections based upon many more criteria than I ever can hope to have access to.
Is a 10% advantage in the passing game equal or superior to a 20% advantage in the run game? Will it matter game to game? Is it about big plays passing or big plays running and the efforts of opposing defenses to counter the Auburn offense? Like I said, I don’t know the answer to these questions.
The stakes are high—maybe not survival of the fittest in the Galapagos Archipelago but close enough for Auburn fans. This is why this game is such an all-consuming passion for us. We are captivated by the drama and mystery of the unfolding events and the particular selections made.
Say what you want about this season and this team, it’s must-watch TV no matter what. Hopefully, we can overcome and master our fate when the time comes.
War Eagle. Would love to see the above at the end of the season.
*Even as the ever-ardent Auburn fan since the age of 6 when my older brother was a freshman there, I and my entire family would still watch the Bear Bryant show religiously. If you lived in Alabama or Northwest Florida in the 1960’s and 70’s you simply could not avoid watching and hearing the words and wisdom of the sport’s greatest coach. Old, cantankerous, boozy and brutal, he still illustrated an incredible grasp of the game of football that has rarely been equaled and never surpassed.