Saturday, June 11, 2005

Know Thine Enemy: Syracuse's Greg Robinson | by Michael

(This is part 1 of a series.)

The Irish weren't the only team to undergo a coaching makeover when they hired Charlie Weis last winter. Five of the eleven teams on the 2005 schedule will enter this fall with a different head coach patrolling the sidelines: Syracuse, Washington, BYU, Stanford and Pitt. Additionally, a sixth team, Southern Cal, has a three-headed offensive coordinator to replace the departed Norm Chow.

The philosophies and schemes of these opponents' offenses and defenses will very likely change, but by how much? What can Notre Dame fans expect to see from these teams in 2005, and will these teams thrive under new leadership? Over the next few weeks, we'll evaluate these coaching changes, starting with Greg Robinson, the new head coach at Syracuse.

Greg Robinson,
Syracuse University

Bio/Record: Take a look at Robinson’s bio. An assistant coach for the last thirty years, this is Robinson’s first head coaching opportunity. He is known as a fiery, enthusiastic coach in the mold of Pete Carroll (more on that later). Last year he served as the defensive coordinator for Texas, and prior to that he had served as an NFL defensive coordinator for the Chiefs, Broncos and Jets. Robinson replaces Paul Pasqualoni, who coached at Syracuse for fourteen years and compiled a 107-59-1 record. One month after getting a vote of confidence from new athletic director Daryl Gross, a 37-point blow-out loss in a bowl game changed Gross's tune. "Sometimes you just know you need to make a change."

Notable staff: Former Irish RB coach Desmond Robinson is back after coaching high school football in Connecticut; Major Applewhite will coach QBs after working as a graduate assistant at Texas; former Bears OL coach Bob Wylie is back in football after a brief absence.

Offensive philosophy: Brian Pariani is the new offensive coordinator, and he comes to Syracuse from the Broncos, where he was the TE coach. Robinson’s relationship with Pariani goes back to the days when Robinson coordinated the Broncos’ defense. Pariani appears to have little practical experience running an offense, especially considering that most of his experience at Denver has come under Gary Kubiak and Mike Shanahan, who are both widely recognized as the designers of the Broncos’ offense. Robinson better hope some of their genius has rubbed off on his friend. Another telling hire was the luring of former NFL offensive line coach Bob Wylie. While this name may be unfamiliar to some, I think the addition of an experienced NFL line coach suggests that Robinson wants an offense capable of pounding the football and controlling the clock. What's been said in the media is that Syracuse is installing a West Coast offense, but what does that mean these days, anyway? Often, that's simply a college football buzzword.

"The offense that Pariani and offensive line coach Bob Wylie have brought with them from the NFL is a hodgepodge of setups. Pariani spent the past ten seasons as tight ends coach for the Denver Broncos, and Syracuse's new attack borrows concepts from the Broncos."

Because of the hirings of Wylie and Pariani, I’m led to believe that Robinson wants to put his stamp on the offense. Defensive-minded head coaches are often stereotyped -- for good reason -- with desiring a conservative offense that protects their defense. Keeping that in mind, check out these comments:

"Offensively, we’re going to be a balanced offense. We know that we have to run the football. We have to have the ability to run the football, but we’re going to throw the football and throw it well, with precision…but, I know what I’m looking for, as far as having that balance on offense and having that aggressive style of defense."

Hasn’t every former defensive coordinator-turned head coach said this, or something similar, in his opening remarks? Or, at least, haven’t the average and worse head coaches said it? On the other hand, Bob Stoops adopted an aggressive, spread offense, and he has already won a national championship. Pete Carroll went out and hired Norm Chow, and he now possesses two national championships. I’m left believing that “balanced” really means “conservative” and that calling it a West Coast offense is meaningless. Mark my words, this is going to be the vanilla offense of a defensive-minded head coach. Robinson simply doesn’t want his offense turning the ball over deep in his own territory, which could make his defense look bad if they give up points.

Bob Davie perfected the art of forsaking an offense to protect his defense, and Syracuse RBs coach Desmond Robinson can probably reveal to his new boss a few of Davie’s tricks of the trade. Perhaps he already has; in the 2005 spring game, the defense beat the offense 34-30 after an ingenious scoring system was devised that enabled the defense to accumulate points based on sacks, third down stops and other stats. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Overall, if I were a 'Cuse fan, I’d be concerned about the offense. An inexperienced coordinator, a brilliant but equally inexperienced coach responsible for mentoring the most important offensive position on the field and a defensive coordinator who wants to keep his fingers in the cookie jar…this is a recipe for disaster.

Defensive philosophy: Robinson and Pete Carroll are tight – personally and philosophically. Both like aggressive 4-3 defenses that look to create turnovers, scores and scoring opportunities. Further, after playing together at Pacific, Robinson worked as an assistant under Carroll with the Jets before assuming the defensive coordinator duties when Carroll became head coach. Primarily from his experiences working with Carroll and Monte Kiffin, Robinson developed his own “read and react defense based primarily on cover 2 or cover 3 protections with a variety of zone blitzes and coverage packages” with the Broncos, and he eventually took it to Kansas City after he was fired.

It’s very similar to what Carroll runs at USC, and what Ed Donatell ran with the Packers for three years (before he was fired) and now with the Falcons defense (all three were on the Jets’ defensive staff together). Another important element of these defenses is that, like Kiffin, one of the safeties is almost always in the box for run support. I'm led to believe that Robinson prefers the two-gap, 4-3 defense often associated with"read and react" defenses, whereas Kiffin, Carroll and Donatell prefer one-gap, 4-3 defenses. Unfortunately, I don't have confirmation of this...

Robinson was fired from the Chiefs because according to this writer, “Robinson’s scheme relied heavily on the correct defensive call being made to correspond to whatever the offense was showing or doing. Wrong calls or slow reads could easily open the door to a big offensive play.” As a result, Robinson took a lot of heat and even found himself on the NFL’s Most Overpaid List. The importance of calls and reads ties into one of Robinson’s central focuses in his coaching philosophy of the 2 Es and 2 Is that he described at his press conference – intelligence. Furthermore, this disgruntled KC fan provides some interesting analysis of the scheme’s need for intelligent players:

“Gifted, intelligent players seem to thrive in Robinson’s schemes. Less gifted and less intelligent players get overwhelmed and overloaded and fail. So Robinson’s schemes were good, but overly complicated for Denver’s deteriorating secondary and for KC’s entire stock of defensive personnel. Robinson lacked the ability or the willingness to scale things back for these less-able players.”

That quote may or may not contain the answer for why Robinson earned accolades in leading the Longhorns’ defense last year. After wrestling with lots of conflicting info that I’ve encountered, I’m not so sure it was deserved. I think two things occurred here.

  • Mack Brown had very likely stocked far more talent than every other team on the Longhorns’ schedule. The Longhorns’ defensive roster (Derrick Johnson, Rod Wright, Larry Dibbles, Aaron Harris, just to name a few) was a coordinator’s dream.

  • Not only did Brown hire Robinson last year, but he also brought on Dick Tomey, the architect of Arizona’s “swarm defense” of the early 1990s, to coach the defensive line. The combination of Tomey and Robinson is certainly intriguing; how influential was Tomey’s hiring in the overall success of the defense?

Robinson did scale back the defense a bit earlier in the year and later started introducing various blitzes as the season progressed. Nonetheless,as the season went on, an argument could be made that their defensive performance was less dominating.

  • Robinson was entirely befuddled by Les Miles’ game plan as Oklahoma State raced out to a 35-7 halftime lead.

  • Against arguably the most talented front seven in the country, Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson ran for 220+ yards.

  • Who would you pick between an NFL coordinator with 2 Super Bowl rings and a boatload of talent versus conservative Lloyd Carr, a freshman QB and a freshman RB? Yet, Michigan had little trouble moving the ball as they scored 30+ in the Rose Bowl.

When Texas faced teams with above-average talent, or when they faced teams with capable running games, just how successful was Robinson’s defense? As Robinson introduced more blitzes into the Texas defense over the course of the season, did that improve them or make them more vulnerable? Would offenses have figured out his system and predictable play-calling even more so in 2005, had he not taken the Syracuse job, just like they did when he coached the Broncos and Chiefs?

As far as the defense he inherits at Syracuse, there’s no question the talent level is nowhere near what he enjoyed at Texas. Little news has trickled out of spring football practices but the emphasis appears to be on simplifying the system. “The new staff is focusing on fewer schemes and just two options - one for a pass and one for a run. "They just let you play. You don't have to be out there thinking about a thousand things." How many times have I heard that before? Generally, I have found it to be the case that people find things easier to pick up or learn when they are engaged and interested in what’s being taught, and I think that’s what Robinson has done at Syracuse – he has infected the team with a new attitude, which it has sorely needed. Additionally, just as he did with Texas, I’d expect Robinson to gradually build more of his schemes into the defense. Syracuse gave up 180+ yards on the ground rushing per game last year, and I’m not certain they have the front seven, especially the interior linemen, to do what Robinson wants.

Prediction for Coach Robinson: Syracuse fans may think they have the second coming of Pete Carroll, but there are three enormous differences between the two head coaches. Carroll’s defenses never got lit up as often as Robinson’s defenses have been. Additionally, Carroll hired a proven offensive coordinator in Norm Chow upon taking over USC. Finally, the Trojans had the talent on-board to turn things around more quickly, which they did. It’s hard for me to buy into the belief that Robinson will turn around the Orange; I’m not sure that his philosophy and background suggests he’s the best fit.

If it is going to happen, though, I see two keys. The first is the offense; what kind of coordinator can Pariani become, and how much flexibility will Robinson allow him? After that, it’s all about recruiting. Robinson has the personality for it, but will the product on the field attract recruits? Looking at Syracuse’s schedule next year, which includes Louisville, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Virginia and Florida State, it’s hard for me to believe he can do it.

Weis-Factor: As coordinators, Weis owns a 3-1 lifetime record against Robinson in the NFL. In all four games, Robinson’s defenses have done a very good job of stopping the run and Weis was forced to air it out more often than not:

  • 2002: Patriots 41, Broncos 38
  • 2000: Patriots 30, Broncos 24
  • 1999: Jets 21, Broncos 13
  • 1998: Broncos 23, Jets 10 (AFC Championship game)