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Slauson & The Husker Playbook Slim Down

Callahan_playbook_thmb_mediumOn of the most telling symbols of the Bill Callahan Clusterfool was this snapshot of Will  Henry's playbook, weighing in somewhere around the size of the Chicago phone book.  It symbolized the complexity of Callahan's offense.  Which sounds good, until you realize the futility of trying to master it.

The good news... it's gone on a diet.

Under Callahan, Slauson said, Nebraska routinely drilled hundreds of plays that never saw the light of Saturday.

"I don't know why," Slauson said. "They were good plays, they just didn't get used. But that's why he gets paid the big bucks and I don't."

A lighter Slauson is one of many Huskers auditioning for Slim-Fast commercials these days. Thin to win. But the most important trim-down of 2008 may be the Husker offense.

Less is more, according to coach Bo Pelini.

"(Watson) understands very much what I believe in defensively," Pelini said. "The best ideas are things the players can execute. They've had a lot of offense."

Pelini, cautious that his statement might be interpreted as critical, restated his point this way: "We still have a lot of offense," he said. "We have a lot of things we can do to attack defenses, but I just think (Watson)'s trying to do things to make sure the players are comfortable, confident . . .

"It's not like we're going to be out there and we're going to go into a game with four or five plays."

Callahan wanted the ability to call 250 different plays during a game, said quarterback Joe Ganz. The more options, the more likely a coach can find an edge in the strategic chess match.

In his previous stint at Nebraska, Pelini stressed effort over scheme...and we know the results.  A mediocre defense gained confidence and became a top-15 group.

The Huskers were coming off a disastrous 2002 in which they crumbled under Blackshirt expectations, resulting in coordinator Craig Bohl's dismissal.

During the first scrimmage of spring practice, Pelini ordered his defense into one very basic scheme for the entirety of practice. Won't the offense catch on and expose us, Husker defenders asked. Doesn't matter, Pelini said. Success starts with effort, not scheme.

"We went out and just dominated the scrimmage," [Pat] Ricketts said. "Right then and there, everybody bought into the system."

We all saw the effects of Bill Callahan's complex offense.  Highly regarded recruits would arrive on campus to much fanfare, only to find themselves relegated to the bench as they struggled to grasp the Callahan scheme.  Football is supposed to be an instinctive game, and the 2003-07 offense beat the instincts out of players.  You saw it in Joe Dailey, like on that infamous end of game scramble against Southern Miss where his instinct to run for the touchdown conflicted with his coaching to throw the ball or run out bounds.  You saw it in Sam Keller, who would stare down receivers.

Once you got over the learning curve, you could prosper in this offense.  Look at the numbers Joe Ganz put up after practicing the offense for three-plus years.  Look at the numbers Zac Taylor put up his senior year.  But in college, when you only have four years of eligibility and limits on your practice time, there simply isn't time to put in a Callahan offense.  The scary thing is that Callahan felt he had streamlined the offense down to the college level... and it still overwhelmed his players.

The scary thing, is that Callahan realized this back when he coached the Raiders.  But he thought it only applied to defense back in 2003, as he told Dan Pompei of the Sporting News:

Even Callahan, who is espousing defensive simplicity, says "The more the merrier on offense." And his philosophy of coming up with new ways to get matchup advantages obviously has worked for him and others.

Callahan has the luxury of working with highly experienced players, including a quarterback in Rich Gannon who prepares as well as any in the league. The Rams have an ideal situation in which the coach, Mike Martz, is an offensive visionary, and the quarterback, Kurt Warner, can handle a heavy mental load. But many NFL coaches do their offense a disservice by expecting their players to retain as much as Callahan's and Martz's.

"You can only do what your players can handle," Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders says. "If the quarterback can't handle it, you can't do it. Trent Green became much better last year because he was able to handle so much more than the previous year.

It blew up in Oakland when Rich Gannon went down to an injury.  And it failed at Nebraska with new quarterbacks in 2004, most of 2005, and in 2007.

In 2008, what does this streamlined offense mean?  Well, first of all, we'll see if some of the young talent that's been sitting on the sidelines (Menelik Holt, Chris Brooks, Niles Paul) will grasp this new streamlined offense and be able to make an impact on the field.  We'll see if linemen like Lydon Murtha finally "get it".  And we'll see if players end up on the same page, working in sync for the first time in many years.