Florida State Redshirt Freshman Jameis Winston is perhaps the story of the 2013 college football season. Ever since his blistering opening game performance against the Pitt Panthers, “Famous Jameis” has taken the college football world by storm, leading Florida State to an undefeated season in which the Seminoles have won every game by at least 14 points.
What is perhaps most impressive about Winston’s performance is his operation of the Florida State offense. Many young, talented quarterbacks today play in spread systems where they can use their legs to move the football while they are still in the developmental stage as pocket passers
Not so for Winston. That is not to say that Winston is not a good athlete or that the Seminole offense does not take advantage of his legs. Winston used his running ability to pick up several crucial first downs against Miami, and head coach Jimbo Fisher likes dialing up lead quarterback runs in the red zone.
The difference for Winston, however, is that the offense is not predicated upon the quarterback run threat. It is merely an added bonus. Fisher’s offense is instead pro-style in its orientation, with the Seminoles combining an inside and outside zone run game with a conceptual passing system.
A conceptual approach simply means organizing pass patterns as concepts to attack defensive coverages. A football field can be thought of as a two dimensional plane. You can run a passing concept that attacks a defense horizontally or vertically. The goal with a conceptual passing approach is to combine routes in such a way to give the offense a numerical advantage in a particular area through the use of a horizontal or vertical stretch. In other words, the offense’s objective is to obtain a two on one or three on two advantage with its receivers against the opposing team’s defensive backs.
The passing concepts that will create such a stretch vary based upon the coverage being used by the defense. For instance, an all curl route creates five on four horizontal stretch against cover 3 (three curl and two flat routes against the four underneath defenders). All curl does not create a stretch against cover 2, however, because the defense has five underneath defenders. Instead, an offense needs to use a pass concept such as smash, which is a quick hitch combined with a corner route. This creates a two on one vertical stretch against a cover 2 squat corner. In other words, particular pass plays are used to exploit the weakness of a defensive coverage.
The idea of a conceptual passing game is nothing new. It is the primary method for pro-style teams to organize their passing concepts since Sid Gillman. But it is one thing to draw it on paper and another to execute. There is a large variance in the ability of quarterbacks to read the defensive coverage and deliver the football to the proper person based upon how the defense reacts to the passing concepts.
What has been most impressive about Winston’s performance as a redshirt freshman is his ability to operate a conceptual passing game. Quarterbacks with his athleticism can regularly succeed in college football without being able to consistently go through five man progressions in the pocket. But this has not been Winston’s road to Heisman contender. Fisher’s offense uses the full panoply of passing concepts seen in the NFL and Winston handles them all.
For example, one of Florida State’s favorite concepts is snag, which is a triangle stretch. A horizontal or vertical stretch is ideal if an offense knows what coverage a defense is playing because it can be presented across the length and width of a field. Defenses increasingly mix and match coverage, however, and if an offensive play caller guesses wrong the play is still born.
Enter the triangle stretch. A triangle stretch responds to uncertainty with versatility, combining a horizontal stretch with a vertical stretch to one side of the field. The outside wide receiver runs a mini-curl route, the inside receiver a corner route, and the tight end or back a flat route. The offense thus has a horizontal stretch with the mini-curl and flat route against cover 3, and a vertical stretch with the corner and flat against cover 2.
Florida State is so good on this play both because they have numerous effective receivers and because Winston will read the coverage and deliver the ball to the proper target.
The Seminoles’ passing offense is even more effective because they make other pass patterns look alike off snag. For instance, Fisher will dial up a shallow cross, double out combo. Mapped on top of each other, the initial steps in the shallow crossing pattern look just like snag. But now the outside receiver will continue into a shallow crossing route, preventing defensive backs from pattern reading the routes.
The result is that the Seminoles have a multi-faceted passing offense. But they are only able to operate such a system because of Winston’s ability to handle such a versatile attack.
That is not to say that he is a finished product. The ball can sail on him, and there are times when he throws into coverage and he is bailed out by his wide receivers such as Kelvin Benjamin going up and make plays. Nevertheless, there is no question that Florida State’s offense is as effective as it is this season because of Winston’s ability to handle the intricacies of the drop back passing game.