Introducing the Coordinators: Al Borges

Somebody should probably tell SB Nation to add some Gorgeous Al pictures to the photo database. Regardless, this is the guy that everything hinges on. If the above isn't more successful than it was last season, we could be in for another season of up and down offensive performances against the best teams on the schedule.

As we inch closer and closer to September 1st, the football has crescendoed to the point of distinct audibility. Translation: we can HEAR FOOTBALL WOOO. In light of this fact, it's time to start thinking about real football things, like carry distribution, Denard's progression as a passer, and, yes, play calling. You will probably agree that the time for discussing realignment, the playoff of the future, and how Dave Brandon is an evil corporate mastermind hellbent on destroying our traditions PAWL had its day in the sun. With less than three weeks away from the Alabama game, it's just about time to turn our eye away from these aforementioned things, the recruiting trail, and other miscellaneous offseason happenings and toward what will happen on the field this fall. This is fixing to be another exciting season for Michigan and Team 133, and what better place to begin our discussion than the offense.

We already have a pretty good feel for the things that Greg Mattison wants to do on defense. Although that unit's progression is far from complete, the expectations there are a little more clear and neatly defined than they are for the offense. This is where the esteemed Al Borges comes into the mix. In Chris Brown's "The Essential Smart Football", he starts off his 12-page chapter on Al Borges's offense thusly (p. 109):

The word that comes to mind when I think of Al Borges, the Michigan offensive coordinator under new coach Brady Hoke, is solid. Solid isn't inspirational, but, in Borges's it's been enough to to win football games and put up points.

I have a slightly more positive opinion of Borges's career than Brown expresses here, but the general sentiment holds true. Borges knows offense, period. With that said, the 2011 season was one featuring somewhat mixed results on the offensive side of the ball, so let's rap about Al Borges for a little bit and what we can expect from the man sitting up there in the booth with a large Diet Coke every fall Saturday.

The Story

First, a brief prologue (protip: it probably won't be brief). You are probably fairly familiar with Borges's resume by now, but a brief synopsis to set the stage for the rest of this discussion would be useful for context and the potential identification of certain trends and developments.

Looking at Al Borges's resume offers one instantly undeniable observation: Al Borges is without a doubt one of the most accomplished and experienced offensive coordinators in the college game today. As a lifelong offensive coordinator, Borges has coached all over the country. At 31, Al Borges began his college coaching career at Portland State, where he called the plays from 1986 until 1992. In that time, he coached a trio of All-American quarterbacks, albeit at the Division II level. From the very beginning, Borges built up a solid reputation as a molder of QBs and a definitively net positive presence as a play caller. After his stint at Portland State, Borges moved up to Boise State, who then participated at the I-AA level. In 1994, Boise State went to the AA championship game.

Borges then spent the rest of the 1990s in the Pac 10, first with a one-year stint at Oregon, where Oregon QB Tony Graziani led the conference in total offense and passing. Borges's next stop was UCLA, which marks the beginning of the part of his career that most Michigan fans are familiar with at any level of detail. Under HC Bob Toldeo (recently fired from his job at Tulane), Borges engineered yet another potent offense, most famously with quarterback Cade McNown, the example par excellence of Borges's ability as an offensive mind and a developer of quarterbacks. As a Bears fan, the name Cade McNown inspires more negative feelings than positive ones, but, at the college level, McNown was simply dominant, in large part due to Borges's coaching. During three years under Borges's wing, McNown led UCLA to a 10-2 season in 1997 (including a Cotton Bowl victory over TAMU) and a Rose Bowl appearance the next year against the Ron Dayne-led Badgers. In those two seasons, the Bruins 40.7 and 40.5 ppg respectively, eventually leading to McNown becoming the 12th overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft (sigh).

Unfortunately, things fall apart in Achebe-esque fashion, with UCLA going 4-7 in 1999 and 6-6 in 2000. On the bright side, Cal offered Borges the same position plus a pay raise, and for one season he called the plays in Berkley. His stint there was short, as the entire staff was dismissed after the 2001 season, leading to the beginning of the Jeff Tedford era at Cal. Borges then made his first foray into Big Ten country, taking the OC position at Indiana, where he unfortunately just missed having Antwaan Randle-El at his disposal. After two seasons in Bloomington during which IU won a combined 5 games, Borges was the offered the OC position at Auburn, then coached by Tommy Tuberville.

Let me preface this by saying that I was in high school, living in Alabama at the time that Borges was Auburn's offensive coordinator. As such, I'm probably a little more familiar with Borges's time at AU--and Auburn football in general--than your average Michigan fan. The common refrain about Borges's modus operandi--a refrain that finds its origin during his time at Auburn--is that "if you give him talent, he'll produce good offense." Now, I don't know about you, but this has always seemed like a silly thing to say. Wouldn't this apply to a significant majority of FBS coordinators? I think so, although there are obviously exceptions to the rule (i.e. guys that do less with more).

With that said, I had the pleasure of attending a few games during that time, most notably the 2004 Auburn-Georgia game at Jordan-Hare Stadium during Auburn's 14-0 season. Watching Auburn play football that season reminded me of Michigan's 1997 team: a face-meltingly destructive defense paired with a strong running game (albeit Auburn's was obviously much stronger in that respect) and a QB capable of making plays off of play action and more than mobile enough to makes plays with his feet. There was almost no hope at all of attempting to stop both Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, and against UGA that day, the Bulldogs certainly stopped neither, as Auburn cruised to a 24-6 victory.

Yes, things were not nearly as good after that. Auburn was still very good throughout the rest of Borges's time on the Plains, but the Auburn offense was never again the lethal unit that it was in 2004. Auburn won 9, 11, and 9 games from 2005 to 2007, respectively, and the offense featured very good runners--albeit a cut or two below both Williams and Brown--in Kenny Irons, Brad Lester, and Ben Tate. QB Brandon Cox would most appropriately be deemed a "game manager", however, despite starting for 3 seasons and leading Auburn to a number of big wins. Sure, Cox was nowhere near as talented as guys like Graziani, McNown, or Jason Campbell, but Borges's reputation to that point would have led one to hope for a little...more, I guess? During Cox's senior year in 2007, he passed for a mere 2,080 yards, a 59.5% completion percentage, and a horrible TD: INT ratio of 9:13. The Tigers won 9 games, but after several years of steady decline, Borges resigned in December of 2007, leading Tuberville to tap Troy OC Tony Franklin to fill the position a month before the Chick-fil-A bowl. Auburn won that game, leading fans to marvel at the fact that Franklin was able to install his spread schemes in such a short time.

Many cite this as the first real failure of Borges's career, but I would like to point out that coaching under a guy like Tuberville, in my opinion, does not offer an offensive coordinator a lot of autonomy. That's not to say that Borges did not deserve any flak for the offense's decline, but I got the feeling that maybe he couldn't have done all of the things that he might have wanted to do with the personnel he was given and the directions coming from the top (i.e. Tuberville). The fact that Tony Franklin was fired only six games into the 2008 season is evidence of the fact that Tuberville was a man fairly set in his beliefs about offensive football, which sort of makes his apparent embrace of the pass-first spread at Texas Tech even more mind-boggling than it already is.

Anyway, moving on. Borges then took a year off in 2008, thereafter taking the OC job at San Diego State under Coach Brady Hoke. Borges seemingly got his QB coaching groove back, as Ryan Lindley passed for over 3,000 yards in 2009 (23 TDs, 16 INTs) and 3,830 yards in 2010 (28 TDs, 14 INTs). For the Michigan fans that got their first glimpse of Lindley last September in the Big House, Lindley was much better under Borges's tutelage the year before. In fact, Lindley's 2011 season as a whole was somewhat of a disappointment. He threw 6 less interceptions in 2011 than he did in 2010, but he threw approximately 700 fewer yards and his yards per attempt decreased by 2. Needless to say, Borges's departure for Ann Arbor had a perceptibly negative effect on Lindley's game. After 2010, I figured Lindley to be possibly a 3rd-5th round pick; he ended up being taken in the 6th round of the 2012 draft.

Finally, we get to the here and now. For those that are interested, I went did an impoverished man's version of the MGoBlog UFR last offseason for the 2010 San Diego State-TCU game. Most of the observations therein are probably not relevant to a offense centered around Denard Robinson, but I figured that this is probably the most germane post in which to reference it. For the tl'dr synopsis: Borges called a great game, giving the eventual Rose Bowl-winning Horned Frogs a bit of a scare in Fort Worth. If anything, it's something to keep in mind as Michigan eventually moves back toward the safe, comforting embrace of the pro-style offense.

Borges's debut season in Ann Arbor was one of decidedly mixed results at every turn. Early on, it was obvious that Borges was out of his comfort zone, as he had never had to coach a unique talent like Denard at the QB position. In fact, Borges explicitly and repeatedly said as much throughout the 2011 season.

Borges had an elite talent in Denard in the ground game, but his passing, from his technique/mechanics to his ability to read a defense, was still extremely underdeveloped. After running RR's spread option, an offense featuring fairly simplistic passing schemes, Borges had the unenviable task of teaching Denard to play the position in a more traditional fashion. In this respect, Borges was basically attempting to build up a guy whose skill set as a tradition QB was about as refined as your average college freshman's would be. In a sense, Denard was essentially "starting over", and it definitely showed.

MGoBlog's "al borges denard fusion cuisine" tag is probably the most apt descriptor of what Michigan attempted to do on offense last year. Much like RR attempted to do with his offense in 2008, Borges had to at least try to install his own offensive principles, which can somewhat casually be described as a West Coast, QB-centric offensive approach.

So, let's look at the basic numbers first. In 2011, Michigan finished (via the NCAA stats page):

  • 42nd in total offense (405 yards per game)
  • Tied for 26th in scoring (33.3 ppg)
  • Tied for 57th in lost turnovers (22)
  • 13th in rushing (222 ypg)
  • 93rd in passing (183 ypg)
  • 40th in passing efficiency (sandwiched between Texas Tech and Oklahoma in the rankings)
  • 45th in red zone offense (84% overall, 64% in touchdowns alone)
  • 16th in third down conversion (47%)

So, as expected, the numbers pretty much confirm what we saw with out eyes on the field: the offense, by no means terrible, was still an inconsistent hodgepodge featuring divergent levels of performance. It's difficult to get a feel for how good Michigan's offense really was because the schedule was not all that difficult last year, so it's more useful to look at the unit's performance against the better teams. In this respect, Michigan was similarly inconsistent. For instance, the Notre Dame game was, uh...something. Michigan plugged away for three quarters in the under center ground game, mainly with Stephen Hopkins (5 carries, 10 yards), before ditching it in favor of the Night Game Chaos offense (sponsored by the Dadaist movement).

The rest of the non-conference slate was fairly mediocre for Denard. Despite relatively light competition (WMU, EMU, SDSU), Denard threw 2 TDs to three INTs and a combined 50% completion percentage. Even more worrisome was the fact that Denard had to carry the ball a combined 47 times against Eastern Michigan and San Diego State in back-to-back weeks. This was not a good omen, and many started to feel that the offense would basically be a poor man's version of the 2010 one.

The Minnesota game was a classic old school Michigan drubbing of an overwhelmed cellar dwelling foe (Minnesota); Denard completed 79% of his passes and only had to carry it 6 times. After a rough first half at Northwestern, Michigan pushed through to score 28 in the second half en route to an easy W. Denard had nondescript performances against Purdue and especially at Illinois.

The MSU-Iowa-Nebraska-OSU quartet of games served as perhaps a perfect microcosm of Denard's progression and the upward trajectory of Borges's efficacy as a play caller. First of all, the most obvious point is that Denard and the Michigan offense as a whole seemed to wilt when playing on the road. Obviously, playing an elite defense like MSU's and a fundamentally sound one like Iowa's played a significant role, but it can't explain Michigan's extremely divergent home-road splits.

At home, Denard completed 60% of his passes. He was significantly worse on the road, completing only 49%, at 7.31 YPA attempt (compared to 9.36 YPA at home). The ground game was also downright bad on the road, averaging 3.2 YPC compared to the exceptional 6.5 YPC mark at home. It is expected that an offense will not perform as well on the road as it does at home, but last year's differentials were somewhat strange, inspiring many on the Michigan Internets to sarcastically wonder if Borges would magically forget how to call plays when Michigan leaves Ann Arbor.

Michigan was extremely run heavy, running the ball 67% of the time. For a few points of reference, Michigan ran it: 59% of the time in 2010, 60% in 2009, 57% in 2008, and 56% in 2007. Even if you go back to 2006, when Michigan's Hart left and Hart right zone game under Mike DeBord was putting opposing defenses to sleep (albeit very effectively), Michigan ran it "only" 62% of the time. ESPN's stats only go back to 2004, but I'd be willing to bet that Michigan ran the ball more frequently in 2011 than they did in any season throughout the post-Bo era.

This was a fairly predictable outcome. Given the improvement of the defense, Borges was mostly content with running Denard and Fitz and allowing the defense to do its bend-but-not-break/turnover forcing thing. Plus, Denard threw an interception in 10 of 13 games last season (!), including a total of six during the ND-EMU-SDSU triumvirate of games. Denard's picks against Purdue and Iowa (the latter coming at the end of the first half in the red zone, sending Michigan into the half down 17-6 instead of 17-13 or 17-9), were particularly facepalm-worthy. It was clear well into the season that we had what we had with Denard, and any serious improvement in the passing game would only begin in earnest during the coming offseason.

2011 Michigan Offense vs. Purdue Every Snap (via noonkick)

To Al's credit, he was both flexible and innovative throughout the season. Although I still have to scratch my head at the inability to adjust to the double A-gap blitz against MSU or the strange decision to plug away under center during the first half of the Iowa game, Denard's regular season ended on a very high note. Against Nebraska and Ohio State at home, Denard completed a combined 71% of his passes, throwing for 347 yards, 5 touchdowns, and only 1 INT. He also pitched in 253 yards and four touchdowns on the ground at 5.2 YPC. Neither Nebraska nor Ohio State were as good as they typically have been on defense in 2011, but they were still very solid and Denard simply eviscerated them.

As bad as the MSU and Iowa games were, Borges deserves an equal amount of credit for the Nebraska and OSU games. It was obvious that Borges made a concerted effort to play to Denard's strengths (although, to be fair, Denard and the offense as a whole simply executing more crisply had more than a little bit to do with those tremendous performances).

A lethal mix of the inverted veer, standard zone reads, Denard power, end around fakes, triple option (with the receiver on the wide side of the field coming around to serve as the pitch man), Denard jet sweeps in the dual-QB set, and a bevy of other wrinkles opened things up just enough for Denard to have the ultra-efficient outings through the air that he ended up having against Nebraska and OSU.

Michigan Offense vs. Ohio State Every Snap (via mgodisney)

Most importantly, Denard's play oozed confidence. With Borges's comments about "being out of his comfort zone" vis-a-vis Denard in mind, it logically follows that Borges had finally begun to figure things out by the end of the season.

The Outlook
So, about 2012. What can we look for and/or expect from Al Borges this season? Of course, these expectations are inextricably linked to our expectations for Denard. With all of the points of concern and criticism that Borges's 2011 season produced, let's not forget that he took a quintessential spread QB, used him in an amorphous spread-pro style-ish offensive philosophy, and produced an offense that was quite honestly not much worse than RR's 2010 offense. Quite frankly, last year's offense was probably even better, especially considering Michigan's performance against Nebraska and OSU.

All in all, the 2011 season was a success. Denard improved perceptibly from September until the final two games of the season. Although we won't get to truly see the platonic ideal of the Al Borges offense until Shane Morris takes the reins, 2011 gave us many reasons to be optimistic about his abilities as a play caller. Most encouragingly, Borges showed a willingness to be flexible, something which can't be said about RR at all, his spread offense genius notwithstanding. Although the power run game popped up here and there later on in the season (e.g. the Iowa game), it became obvious that Borges correctly saw fit to shelf it after it failed miserably earlier in the season. Putting Denard under center is not unlike driving a Lamborghini in stop and go traffic.

To quote Johnny of RBUAS, who Tweeted this during the Iowa game: "Denard in this offense is like when "Goodfellas" is on AMC and they bleep the swears." As always, Johnny has a way with words.

One would have to assume that Denard will be a much better passer this season. Naturally, all reports out of spring and fall practice have been exceedingly positive re: Denard. This being his second season in the system, Denard should be a better passer from both a technical and a mental perspective. Hopefully, basic hot read miscues like this one won't happen this season:

2011 Michigan Offense vs. MSU Every Snap (via noonkick)

Michigan will likely see the double A-gap blitz from MSU again this season; if Borges and Denard don't have an answer for it then I find it very unlikely that Michigan will have much very success through the air against the Spartans. If Borges/Denard can't find a way to adjust to and beat a fairly simplistic blitz, one that leaves almost the entire middle of the field open, the same problems that occurred last season will happen once again. Teams will continue to crowd the box, essentially baiting Denard into throwing downfield.

Brian's common refrain over at MGoBlog last season was that Borges's offense was a Boise State-esque "collection ofindividual plays" rather than an offense with with base plays and constraint wrinkles playing off of those bread-and-butter plays. For the most part, it did seem that way, although I think it's pretty obvious that that's not what Borges really wants to do. Borges's grab bag of plays approach last season was simply a product of: a) having a talent at QB that he had never worked with before and b) that QB lacking the most basic of traditional quarterbacking skills (accuracy, reading of defenses, knowing when to step up and "fight" the rush (as Borges has termed it), etc. As Denard improves and starts to complete certain passes with regularity during games, we will begin to see the offense developing a sort of foundational backbone, thus wholly differentiating it from the gelatinous invertebrate blob that was the 2011 offense.

I expect Borges to continue to tinker with the run game. As much as RR was lauded for his spread option genius, the 2010 offense was essentially Denard running either straight power or the zone read...minus the read/intent to give the ball to the tailback. It was a not a very extensive playbook from the layman's perspective, although it should be noted that many times, two plays that looked the same were blocked differently and thus were actually very different.

Nearly every OC will pay lip service to this, but Michigan needs to take significant steps toward the 50-50 run-pass split line if the offense is going to get any better and Denard is--KNOCK ON WOOD--not going to get dinged up. Assuming that Toussaint will be available by the time the conference schedule rolls around, I have to believe that Borges does not want Denard carrying the ball 221 times again.

It's clear that no matter how Denard's 2012 season goes, he is not the ideal Borges QB. No matter how much Borges he might want it to be so, this is by no means a pass-first team; however, a run-pass split hovering around 60-40 (as opposed to last year's 67-33) would be more than acceptable. At SDSU in 2010, the Aztecs had nearly perfect balance with an offense featuring a 6'5'' pocket passer in Lindley and an excellent tailback in Ronnie Hillman; that year, the Aztecs ran the ball 52% of the time. Michigan assuredly won't have that balanced of an offense, but the aforementioned 60-40 is probably a solid goal to aim for.

Michigan will need to be more effective passing the ball on first down and at the beginning of drives, too. In 2011, Denard was 38/80 (47.5%) when passing in between Michigan's own 20-39 yard lines. Even more notably, Denard's YPA in this specific patch of 20 yards was a horrible 6.74. He also threw 5 INTs when operating there, the 2nd highest total of any other part of the field (fewer only than his 6 INTs between the 40s). Obviously, this indicates that Michigan's drives had a hard time getting going without first grinding out a first down or two on the ground, kind of like the Road Runner, who kicks up a lot of dust and spins his feet in an amusing circular motion before truly getting moving . Passing to start out drives--as we can assume that most drives started somewhere between Michigan's 20 and 40 yard line--was a bit of an adventure, and not in a good way.

Denard's completion percentages and YPAs by down were essentially constant, which is weird. Not that weird, however, when you look at QB rating: his 133.1 rating on first down passing was easily his worst (2nd down-147, 3rd down-144.6). Here's where ye olde "Borges needs to give Denard 'easy' throws" line makes its appearance. Until Denard really hits his stride, Borges will need to call a lot of quick rollout passes (e.g. Denard's completion to Roundtree during his single Spring Game drive), that patented PA throwback screen, etc.

Going back to Chris Brown's discussion of Borges in his new book, reading his breakdown of a QB's progressions during a play called "22 Z In"--a favorite of former 49ers coach Bill Walsh--is somewhat dizzying when juxtaposed with the fact that, in RR's offense, the reads for most things were essentially predetermined for Denard. Think about how drastic of a shift from RR's offense to Borges's was for Denard; it was truly the football equivalent of attempting to read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in Mandarin Chinese.
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In truth, this post could be much, much longer, but this is probably enough for today. Others more schematically-inclined than I could probably break down the Borges offense better than I can, but, as a general concluding note, the following must be repeated: this offense quarterbacked by Denard and called by Borges is the very definition of a feedback loop. Borges calls the plays...if Denard shows that he can complete passes on non-passing downs or throw an accurate deep ball with even semi-regularity, more pages of the playbook become available and thus Borges looks good. If Denard cannot complete basic throws and avoid the mistakes that a sophomore or junior QB (let alone a senior) learn to avoid, then Borges has to resort to the awkward "fusion cuisine" that was the 2011 offense, as Brian often called it.

Overall, I am very excited to see the progression of this offense under Al Borges. I just realized that I went through this entire post without mentioning the dual-QB offense that Borges took for a test drive last season with mixed results. Devin Gardner is still the #2 QB according to Brady "Tightlips" Hoke, but Gardner's apparently imminent contribution as a wide receiver complicates things re: the dual-QB set. Will Borges continue to use it, or will Denard improve enough as a passer/will Devin prove himself to be too valuable at receiver that deploying this exciting albeit gimmicky formation would become a waste of time? The dual-QB formation could probably form the basis for a lengthy post in and of itself, but, in short, it will be cool to see what Borges does with it in 2012 (if anything).

Al Borges won't ever be as big of a name as some other offensive giants in the college game, but he has proven himself to be an above average offensive coordinator over the span of almost three decades. Whereas Borges was "out of his comfort zone" last season in a bad way, I think that that discomfort could actually become a positive agent of innovation this season. Of course, innovation doesn't matter if the Jimmys and Joes don't execute. As important as Denard is, guys like Roundtree, Gallon, Barnum, and many others will need to come up big this season if the Michigan offense is going to take the next step and shed its current popular reputation as a unit lacking a distinct ideological raison d'etre, functioning almost entirely on Denard to do ridiculous things with the ball in his hands.
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