Football Fundamentals: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Implementing Tempo into Your Offense

All coaches will admit that differentiating and controlling tempo are benefits of any modern offense. But then why are not all offenses running it in this day and age? In the modern B1G, you see some teams that utlize it heavily, others marginally, and others not at all. Why such a difference if it's known as an advantage for any offense using it. In this piece, we will discuss just that.

Chris Howell - Herald-Times [Indiana is known as being one of the fastest teams
 in college football and have had a very successful offense in recent years.
Some would say their struggles on defense are an effect of
practicing with up-tempo offense, though]

Advantages of Tempo
There are certainly advantages to tempo, I don't think anyone, even the slowest of plodding defensive coaches, deny that. The thing is that implementing tempo takes away from implementing or working on other things, so there is a necessary tradeoff that must occur, which I'll get to momentarily.

1.      Fast tempo forces the defense to maintain its personnel grouping. In the case of the PSU vs Michigan picture below, if Michigan was able to use the personnel grouping they had on the field in a way that they felt exploited PSU for having 4 DTs on the field, then they could potentially run a quick tempo and force them to stay in that personnel grouping.
2.      Fast tempo can force defenses to limit their playbook because the communication is such that they can’t always allow for more complex calls (more complex calls typically have a variety of checks and adjustments that are made to cover up for the complexity of the defense, making those checks and calls while calling a play simultaneously can prove difficult).
3.      Fast tempo at times causes problems with defensive communication because they are making a call and checks simultaneously; the biggest affect here is by far in the defensive backfield, as they are forced to make more checks based on the formation of those split out wide.
4.      Differentiating tempo allows you to control the pace of the game and how you want to play it: if you’re defense is tired, you can slow down; if their defense is tired, you can speed it up.
5.      Getting to the line of scrimmage faster allows you to assess the defense and make appropriate checks based on that assessment; the drawback, if the ball isn’t snapped immediately, it allows the defense to do the same, potentially leading to more confusion for the offense.

This jet tempo (the ball was snapped with less than 10 seconds coming off the play clock) caused confusion on the back end with the coverage. This was due to poor communication from the sideline and check between the safety and CB. Tempo forces the defense to be top-notch in their communication game.

Disadvantages of Tempo
In a vacuum, there are no real disadvantages to implementing tempo. As I said, all coaches will admit that tempo in and of itself has benefits. This disadvantage comes from the fact the implementing tempo takes away from other aspects of your team.

1.      There is a difference on practicing with tempo and practicing tempo. Michigan, under Nussmeier, is practicing with tempo. My guess is they are also practicing tempo to some limited degree, which I can get to later, but for the most part that are practicing with tempo. But it takes actual practice on tempo to be like Indiana, Oregon, or Chip Kelly’s Eagles. That’s because there are requirements of it that force other concessions (more about in a second) to line up correctly and quickly, to transition from one play to the next, to adequately get play calls into the team, etc. This is actually harder at the college level than at the NFL level, as communication must mostly be done non-verbally (no earphone in the QB’s helmet).
2.      Other concessions are made to work on tempo, usually requiring simplification in other aspects of the game. For WRs, often times that means a more limited route structure, and also often times means playing only one single receiver position. Gallon could play X, Y, Z, W in Michigan’s offense. In Meyer’s offense you are an X, or you are a Z, or you are an H, and that is it. In Meyer’s offense it’s simplified route structures, concepts, and reads, in other offenses it isn’t. With the benefit of tempo you get the drawbacks in other areas, with the benefit for other areas, you are forced to drawback in other places, perhaps tempo is one of those things.
3.      It limits face-to-face interaction with players when they make mistakes, both in practice and in games (communication in the huddle as well as on the sideline). This can be mitigated by good depth (you can rotate guys out without losing a lot), but becomes harder without it. You make up for it by talking about it later, often in film room, which often doesn’t then connect as quickly with players and takes away from another aspect (some of time spend with the self-scouting aspects).

Finding the Balance
The key to this whole thing is defining what you are and the proper balance of what you want to work on. West Viriginia’s Dana Holgorsen, one of the first and biggest proponents of fast tempo, said recently something along the lines of “when you have a bad offense that plays really quickly, then what you have for an offense is just really bad really quickly.” Meaning, fast tempo in itself does not make you good. Fast tempo and changing tempo is an aspect of an offense, an aspect of an identity, but it isn’t an offense or an identity. In Holgorson’s case, he believes that tempo adds a certain amount to his offense and takes away other parts of his offense to compensate, but if it comes down to learning to block someone and getting to the LOS quickly, he’ll spend time learning to block someone.

Borges, in fact, liked tempo. He utilized it at SDSU. He utilized it the first drive against South Carolina I believe. He installed it for the first drive against CMU in 2013. He wanted it to be a part of the offense. The difference is, that he put more emphasis on other things, and when Michigan saw other things breaking down, they believed those things were more important to address than tempo. It’s the difference between desiring having tempo be a part of your offense, and having tempo as a part of your offense. Again, you make concessions one way or another, and there isn’t necessarily a better approach. Obviously, ability to control tempo is an advantage, the difference in approach is if it’s an advantage significant enough to sacrifice other parts of your offense.

Benefits of Tempo Enhanced by Adaptable Personnel
In this article, the author points to the difference tempo makes for a particular offensive concept (tackle over).

His main point of emphasis is differentiating what Chip Kelly's Eagles did with their up-tempo offense, discussed in some depth by Grantland's Chris Brown:

With this unfortunate scenario for Michigan that shows PSU putting 4 DTs and a SDE on the field in a quasi 5-2 look (essentially a heavy 4-3 Under):

The difference between the Eagle’s thing and Michigan’s thing doesn’t have to do with tempo. Case and point, Minnesota lined up incorrectly against tackle over several times as well. Why? Because, while Michigan was slow to break the huddle, they were relatively quick (similar to up-tempo teams) from the point they got to the LOS and snapped the ball. That was their way of not allowing defenses to make pre-snap adjustments after they lined up.

In Michigan’s case, if the defense aligned incorrectly, the DC still couldn’t get the defense aligned correctly. He doesn’t have the means of communicating that into the players, particularly the interior DL. The most he can do is call a TO. That’s inflated in the college game, again, where there is no one on the defense with an earphone to hear from the DC. It is the MIKE’s job to get the DL lined up correctly; the Redskin’s MIKE blew it in the Eagle’s game, the Minnesota MIKE blew it in that game.

So the mis-alignment to the tackle over formation had little to nothing to do with tempo from one snap to the other. It did have something to do with the tempo between aligning and snapping the football. The significant difference between how the Eagles utilized the tackle over formation was that they were able to use it with their typical spread personnel. PSU did not put 4 DTs on the field because they knew tackle over was coming. They didn’t know if it was tackle over pre-Michigan-aligning or not, they didn’t care. They put 4 DTs in the game based on Michigan subbing in heavy personnel. And PSU’s reaction, to that heavy personnel (21 or 22 personnel) in this down and distance (1st and 10) was to put 4 DTs on the field rather than put 8 men in the box. It was essentially their way of addressing heavy personnel, so that their LBs and secondary didn’t have to change how they typically played the formation. They said: we don’t believe you can pass on us 3x2 on the outside, and if we put 5 DL in the game and maintain our LBs, we don’t believe you can run on us either.

One of the things that Ferrigno stated recently was that they didn’t feel like that had TEs on the roster that weren’t “flags” for the defense until they had Butt. Meaning, they knew defenses were keying a bit on their TEs. That’s likely what PSU was doing. Borges could have mitigated that a bit by going against tendency more, but the reason you have a tendency is because that’s the strength in that case. So it’s a balance between playing your strength and breaking tendency, a balance that we can argue Borges didn’t find. I tend to think he was fairly close in-game, and that the major issues from Borges perspective was some of the lack-of play preparation pre-game. Essentially, he didn’t rep some of the important plays/counter type things enough to use them in the game, and that left him caught in-game.

That's not to say, again, that tempo isn't a benefit. If Michigan was in a similar personnel grouping the play before, PSU couldn't have put in 4 DTs. If PSU reacts to this personnel grouping in this down and distance with certain blitzes or stunts, up-tempo would limit some of that. That's some of the stress that up-tempo adds that Brown mentions, and Brian points to. But the misalignment isn't about tempo between snaps as much as it is tempo between alignment and snap, and a lack of recognition from the defenders.

What this Means Going Forward for Michigan

Not wanting to leave this on Borges, but rather focus ahead as we should be wont to do, how does this affect Nuss’s offense at Michigan. Well, we know Nuss practices with tempo. It is my understanding that he also practices tempo a bit. For the most part, I believe he’ll agree with Holgorsen. He's on record as pointing out that some of the best and some of the worst teams in the country are up-tempo offenses. He knows his offense isn’t ready yet, particularly on the line, and he doesn’t want to be a bad offense that just gives the ball back really fast. So he’ll tend to play slower, because he wants to help the defense and he wants to make sure everyone is on the same page. He’ll limit practice reps on tempo in favor of more reps focusing on other things. You may see it a couple times a game, to switch it up, most likely after the first first downs when the offense has some momentum (some successful drives under their belt). It will become more likely as the season goes on, and more likely in future seasons if everyone is still around. But to start this season, don’t expect it much if at all. And it’s because the balance that I addressed early.


  1. Once again, great article.

    I'll admit to not perfectly understanding everything, but it helps.

    One thing I've never quite understood is the Zealotry that schemes can create sometime. There are some that think of the spread as 'modern' and everything else as 'antiquated' and doomed to failure or mediocrity.

    I'm *not* an offensive coordinator. But my own opinion is that it seems die hard adherence to a scheme never works out as well as people might think. I'd much rather a coach spend time on using a 'basic' scheme of some sort (be it a pro or a spread) and then tweak it to his teams abilities. Then concentrate like heck on execution. Sometimes it might work, and sometimes it might not, but I think its the best bet.

    But if Michigan was, for example, to go right back to RR's run spread last year, I don't think it would have improved their offensive performance greatly. They would have been a bad offense running more quickly.

    On another note, again, just by my observation, I wonder if schemes tend to move like fads. When I was in college I remember Houston running the Run & Shoot; and Brett Musberger saying in ominous tones that Michigan hadn't seen that kind of offence before. Some pro teams did it. Then time went on and the Run and Shoot morphed into a more conventional offence with R&S sets in it.I wonder if the spread might be headed the same way.

    1. Agree. I think every scheme has its strengths and its weaknesses. Each and every OC has their own scheme, and that's fine, the important thing is that you understand your scheme and believe in your scheme. Once you implement your base scheme (be that from a spread, a pro, whatever), then you start tweaking and adjusting to fit your personnel, and then you scout for opponents.

      I agree with you last year that Rich Rod's spread wouldn't have made Michigan significant better. I'd argue it would have been little different. There is no way to mitigate poor OL play (case and point: 2008). But Rich Rod's offense is a good offense, there is no denying that. It just has its own strengths and its own weaknesses.

      I do believe schemes run like fads. Parts of it will stick, some of it will change. The ways rules are now, spread as a general concept won't go away any time soon. But I have a post on this site that relates OSU's modern offense with Michigan's single wing from the 1940s. Auburn's offense was heavily based around the Veer offense, first seen in college football in the mid-60s. Wildcat = single wing. The use of H-back in current football = right out of the 80s.

      So old becomes new and old again. Tweaks are made to adjust to new concepts and ideas, multiple things are molded together. Every once in a blue moon something actually innovative comes around, but not nearly as often as something people claim is truly innovative. And here we are, with teams like Stanford and Alabama dominating defenses that are designed now to stop spread offenses, because these pro-style offenses can over-power their opponents.

      So yeah, spread will run its course in some ways and will effect the next big thing in other ways. In some ways the recent iteration of spread (which has continued to morph throughout the last decade into several relatively distinct versions of spread offenses) will go away, not to come back for several decades or whatever, and in someways it will carry on.


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