COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — On college football’s opening weekend, an old-school offensive system was on display yet again.
Georgia Tech brought 25th-ranked Tennessee to two overtimes and lost 42-41 only when they failed to make a game-winning two-point conversion. The Yellow Jackets became the fifth team since 2000 to lose a game despite gaining 500 yards rushing.
In an age of pass-first offenses, Georgia Tech is the only Power Five program to run the flexbone triple option offense. The system has been favored for decades by head coach Paul Johnson, who brought the philosophy to Atlanta from Navy — the Annapolis program which has been the winningest Division I team to run the fast-paced, run-heavy system.
Johnson drew doubt across the country when Tech hired him in 2008, but in short order the flexbone was up and running at the Atlantic Coast Conference program.
“It’s just something we’ve done for a long time and believe in and have had a lot of success doing at different schools,” Johnson said this week. “I used to wonder why more people didn’t do it, because it’s certainly a great equalizer and gives you a chance to be competitive, but to each their own.”
Only seven Football Bowl Subdivision programs employ some version of the flexbone triple option: Georgia Tech, Navy, Army, Air Force, Georgia Southern, New Mexico and Tulane. Army beat Fordham 64-6 last Friday without completing a single pass. At New Mexico, after head coach Bob Davie arrived in 2012 and installed his version of the offense, the team snapped a seven-year bowl drought and appeared in bowl games in 2015 and 2016. But the winningest flexbone team of this generation is Navy, where Johnson had his first Division I FBS head coaching job from 2002 to 2007.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has been in charge since Johnson’s move to Tech. He believes credit for the Midshipmen’s success should go to the personnel and coaching as much as the system.
“I think it’s a combination of everything. It all stems from the players, but it’s an offense that works,” Niumatalolo said this week.
“I’d rather just win”
The flexbone employs three running backs: a fullback behind the quarterback and two slotbacks called the “A-back” and “B-back” on either side of them. The quarterback can give the fullback a handoff up the middle (option one), he can carry the ball himself (option two) or he can pitch it to one of the slotbacks (option three). Flexbone offenses rely mainly on these choices and rarely throw the ball.
It goes by several names — Johnson refers to his system as the “spread” offense — but the term “flexbone” was coined by longtime Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry when he said he wanted his team to be more flexible in the wishbone formation, as Steve Gunther tells the story. Gunther has self-published several instructional books about coaching the flexbone and learned under Emory Bellard, who coached the system at Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
“Emory always used to say, ‘These teams that throw for touchdowns all the time… for some reason those touchdowns, in the minds of the fans, count for more points,’” Gunther said. “‘The last time I looked, it still counts six points (to run for a touchdown).’”
Niumatalolo agreed, saying that the lack of passing didn’t make the flexbone a “gimmick” offense.
“I think everybody wants to see the ball in the air,” Niumatalolo said. “I think sometimes athletic directors would rather see somebody throw the ball 50 times, and maybe feel like the fans want to see the ball thrown and not run, but I’d rather just win.”
And teams like Navy certainly win. The seven FBS flexbone programs combined to go 54-36 in 2016, a .600 winning percentage, with five of the seven making bowl games. Johnson made the case for the advantage teams receive when they try something different.
“If you’re in the conference with Ohio State and Michigan and some of those schools, you’re not gonna out-recruit those schools,” Johnson said. “So you better not be doing the same thing they’re doing. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Tim Stowers, an offensive assistant under Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern in 1985 and 1986 and the author of “Coaching Football’s Spread Offense,” put it another way.
“When you don’t have superior talent, it allows you to move the ball against superior personnel,” he said.
This fits the bill for service academies, which are at a disadvantage recruiting against other programs because of the post-graduation military service requirement. Also, because cadets and midshipmen must make a certain weight to pass physical readiness tests for graduation, the academies rarely have 300-pound linemen like most schools do. The flexbone prioritizes mobility over size on the offensive line because linemen must keep blocking for their runners as the play moves down the field. in the second layers of defenses.
Niumatalolo clarified that his offense doesn’t require “small” linemen, saying Navy’s are bigger now than they have ever been.
“You have to be nimble, but to play anything in football nowadays on the [offensive line], we’re looking for guys that can move,” he said.
Navy’s starting offensive linemen for opening weekend averaged 287 pounds a man; in contrast, at the University of Maryland, which does not run the option, the average starter on the line opening weekend was 312 pounds. Johnson’s recruits at Georgia Tech don’t have to worry about making graduation weight the way Navy’s do, yet the coach still uses slightly lighter offensive linemen: His opening day starters averaged out to 287 pounds, the same as Navy’s.
The height of the flexbone’s popularity came in the 1970s, both Gunther and Stowers said, when Oklahoma and Alabama won national titles running it. In the 21st century, Navy has been the preeminent flexbone team.
In 2016, the Midshipmen scored 37.9 points per game, the highest total of all seven teams that run the flexbone, and they led the country with a whopping 61 rushing touchdowns compared to just nine passing touchdowns. Runs accounted for 87 percent of their offensive touchdowns, the widest discrepancy in FBS football.
That doesn’t mean Navy ran the ball the most often — Air Force led the country in rushing attempts in 2016 (810, when stats are adjusted so sacks aren’t counted as rushing attempts). With that same adjustment, Army had the widest ratio of rushes to pass attempts — 780 to 123 — meaning they called a run play 85.4 percent of the time. Navy was third in both categories.
Still, Navy has won games with the flexbone the most consistently. Since 2008 — Johnson’s first season at Georgia Tech and Niumatalolo’s first year as head coach of Navy — the Midshipmen have been far and away the winningest service academy, finishing worse than 8-5 only once in nine seasons. With a winning percentage of .653, they edge out Georgia Tech’s .611 over the same span.
During that time period, Navy’s competition only became tougher; the academy shifted from an independent to a football-only member of the American Athletic Conference in 2015, and they’ve won four of eight bowl games they’ve appeared in, including games against Power Five opponents Missouri and Pittsburgh.
“It gives us the opportunity to win against people that, really, we have no business beating,” Niumatalolo said.
This Saturday Navy faces conference foe Tulane. Niumatalolo said Tulane coach Willie Fritz’s flexbone is slightly different than Navy’s, as it operates from a zone-blocking scheme with receivers spread wide. The Midshipmen’s coach, meanwhile, believes his team benefits from running hard up the middle.
“Where people are zone-blocking, going east and west, we’re going north and south,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re getting up the field, we’re attacking people. So yes, schematically what we do is sound, but I feel like the physicality in how we do things also separates us.”
Stowers believes some coaches “are scared of being labeled as an option coach” for its stigma as a gimmick. A decade into Niumatalolo’s tenure in Annapolis and Georgia Tech’s flexbone journey with Johnson, it’s clear some option coaches just plan to stick with what works for them.