When Coach Al Groh was asked by a reporter why he had accepted the defensive coaching assignment at Tech instead of pursuing a head coaching position elsewhere he said, "Coach Paul Johnson is creating something special at Georgia Tech and I want to be part of it." I did not assume at the time that he was referring exclusively to Johnson's unique offensive formula. But now with hindsight, I do not doubt for a moment that this was part of the equation in Groh's decision to come to Tech.
Al Groh was not the first defensive genius to speak with reverence about Johnson's triple option. Legendary University of Georgia Coach Irk Russell, who made Johnson his offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern, said that the triple option was the one offense he never could figure out how to defend against. Bear with me and after the jump I will tell you exactly why I think Tech's offensive philosophy is very, very special.
First let's qualify what we are not saying. We are not saying this offense is unstoppable. We are not even saying that it is superior to other offensive schemes. Coach Johnson is decidedly self effacing when describing his own offense. He will say things like, "I don't know, any system will work if you execute," and also things like, "If your guys are not performing better than their guys then the system doesn't matter; it's as simple as that." When pressed further about the X's and O's he will describe spread offenses, run-and-guns and other approaches, implying that he likes them too. When it comes to his unique flex-bone approach however he is quite to the point. "I just prefer to have my backs closer to the line," implying that there is less chance of a big loss as well as a better chance of hitting a quick-opening hole before it closes. I will not rehash the intricacies of the system. Even if I thought I was smart enough to do that, which I am not (I went to Emory, not Tech), that subject has been well covered on this site by several postings in the past.
My point is more poetic than that. What makes this offense very special is that players who buy into it seem to compete at the upper end of their performance levels. Here is a simple observation that is one of many we could make to highlight this point. Let's say a Tech running back averages 6, 7, or even 9 yards a carry through the course of a season. If that running back were doing the same thing at a school that ran a pro style attack they would be under instant consideration for a Heisman trophy. But you know what happens. The pundits say something like, "Oh well, after all, he is in that funny offense that Tech runs; no wonder he has such a good average." This year we could say the same thing about pass efficiency and passing yards. Even we Tech fans are quick to offer a disclaimer as to why our passing numbers are not to be compared to "regular offenses."
But regardless of how one compares this offense to any other offense this is the point that thrills me to the bone. Listen to Tevin Washington say things like, "We feel like even if it is third and very long we can make a first down if everyone does what they are supposed to do." That my friends is buying into the system. Players believe they will perform at optimum levels if they do what they are supposed to do in this offense. How is that different from any other system? According to Coach Johnson there is no difference. To him a running back who averages 9 yards a carry in his system is just as good as a running back who averages 9 yards a carry in a pro system. It's just that from a fan standpoint the numbers don't ever seem to be quite as consistently gaudy in other systems as they do in the Tech system.
So if you are a Tech fan you notice something else that is practically imperceptible, so nuanced that one almost can't put a finger on why it appears to be so. This is what you notice. Whereas a running back at Southern Cal may think that his good yards per carry average is due to just being a great athlete, a running back under Paul Johnson thinks his good yards per carry average is due to doing what he is supposed to do within the system. He may very well believe he is a great athlete but what gives him the most confidence is that he knows he is in a system that will not let him fail if he does what coach taught him to do. That belief is a powerful weapon to take onto the field.
And this leads to the second thing that makes Tech's offense very special. Opposing defenses pure "T" hate it. They all know the rules. "Bend, don't break." "Don't give up the big play." "Play position football." "Try to make the offense have a long drive and wait for them to make a mistake." They learn it and they may even believe it. And then the game starts. There is no doubt in my mind opposing defenses hate this offense because they know Tech will not be deterred from the notion that at any moment, if they all do their jobs right, they are going to score. They hate it because they know it will be four quarters of excruciating pressure trying to keep your head on straight, not give up the big play and not getting your brains knocked out. They hate it because they know Tech is going to keep at it because Tech believes the other team will give up before they do. Did I say they hate it? They hate it because they know that even if they win the game Tech is going to usually put up fairly decent offensive numbers. Even if Tech does not play well by Tech's standards, it will by ordinary standards be a decent enough offensive performance that will make normally good defenders look bad and will leave them just happy to get off the field and happy not to have to play anyone else the rest of the season who plays quite like that. And then they will talk trash about the system when they are safely away from it. That's how much they hate playing against it.
Who knows if this season is the year or not when things start to come together to create that "something special" of which Al Groh spoke. But if there is one thing that gives Tech fans a lot of hope it is that players are once again buying into the system. And when they do that they can beat anybody they play on a given day.