Back in February, following the worst football season (5-7) under head coach Jeff Tedford (nine seasons), Cal’s offensive coordinator the past two seasons, Andy Ludwig, left for the same post at San Diego State.
Why would he do this?
Last I checked San Diego State plays in the inferior WCC. But assistant coaches change jobs a lot at this level; it is quite common for coaches to move from job to job (for no apparent reason it seems). However, it is usually aimed at advancing up the coaching ranks, increased their salary or national recognition, or family concerns.
It’s plausible that Tedford politely told Ludwig after the season to start looking for work elsewhere ’cause this just ‘aint workin’, especially after a porous and lackluster season offensively (and at the quarterback position, which Ludwig was responsible for as well).
It’s kind of spooky, but Ludwig has, in a way, stalked Tedford for much of his coaching career. Ludwig replaced Tedford as OC in Oregon in 2002, and also replaced him at Fresno State when Tedford bolted for Oregon.
Assessing offensive coordinators is quite difficult and often futile when observing from the outside. Even being embedded with the team doesn’t offer enough. Even beat writers, who do not sit in with coaches on game day or in their offices during the week, are hard pressed to gauge the (in)effectiveness of an offensive coordinator.
With that in mind, let’s start with what we do know. Ludwig, unlike any of his predecessors at Cal under Tedford, had full control over the offense—game planning and play calling. After 2007 Tedford declared he was stepping back from the offense for some apparent reason that didn’t seem so apparently reasonable to me at the time.
Isn’t that why Tedford was hired at Cal? Isn’t that why Cal had so much success once Tedford arrived? Moreover, if you are a football head coach and you are not calling plays on one side of the ball, what, really, are you doing? Pumping up your players? Deciding on whether to go for it on 4th-and-1? How does this conflict with play calling duties?
As I catch myself before going into a full-blown rant about how many useless but revered head coaches there are in college football (ehmm…Joe Paterno), Ludwig presided over a Cal offense that threw down against cupcakes like UC Davis (52 pts), Colorado (52 pts), Maryland (52 pts), and Eastern Washington (59 pts), only to curl into the fetal position against good-to-mediocre defenses like Oregon (2009: 3 pts, 2010: 13 pts), Arizona (9 pts), Oregons State (7 pts), and Washington (13 pts).
Is this enough to indict Ludwig for Cal’s observable, Tom Holmoe-like lack of competency on offense. Probably not. Ludwig has too much of a track record to be a complete moron. (Or does he?) He’s enjoyed success working with David Carr at Fresno State, along with current NFL players Kellen Clemens and Billy Volek. It could possibly be that Ludwig was not a good fit at Cal, or Tedford, or the team’s players.
More after the jump.
It can’t possibly be all on the players, however. At times watching Cal the past two years—particularly last year—I couldn’t tell if it was 2010 or I was had gotten lost in a time capsule and made it back to 1999 when Nick Harris was Cal’s best offensive weapon. Though Harris was an All-American, he was a PUNTER! Those offensive teams, marked by the unpleasant and inescapable stench of Tom Holmoe’s mediocrity, was unbearable due to the fact that any fan with a pulse knew Cal’s players weren’t that bad. They weren’t good, but they weren’t that bad. Their problems were foundational, not circumstantial. It was rooted in a lack of intellect, acumen and innovativeness that, fast forward to now, would seem foreign to anything remotely Tedford. But last year’s offense brought back memories of this trauma.
What we also know is that, unlike MLB managers or NBA head coaches, offensive (and defensive) coordinators have a profound impact on the fate of their units and the fate of their teams. I’m not going to get into a debate about whether game planning or play calling is more important—they both are extremely important—but the importance of play calling cannot be understated. Neither can game planning.
Relating to the possibility of not being a good fit at Cal, a not so ringing endorsement of Ludwig was posted in 2005 on this blog about the Utah Utes:
"New Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig looks to have done it again: Destroy an effective offensive system. Utah struggled to get in the end zone in the first half. The Utes looked out of sync and confused in Ludwig’s offense. It was not until he started to run the “old” spread that the Utes started to move the ball and score some points…"
Sound familiar? “Out of sync,” “no rhythm,” and “uninspired” would be terms I’d use to describe the offense and quarterback play under Ludwig.
"[Utah QB Brian] Johnson has learned his second offense in as many years. Utah’s spread offense of a year ago was shotgun based, and rarely did the QB take a snap under center. Johnson looked great in shotgun formation and the spread, an offensive scheme he was born to play. Ludwig brought in a pro-style offense with some option and shotgun formation, but it mainly requires the QB to take snaps from center. Johnson struggled under center, committing many mistakes…"
It didn’t seem to matter whether Riley was in shotgun or under center; he lacked pocket awareness generally, in my view (though part of that could be attributable to less than stellar game planning), which led to poor execution, making it hard to sustain drives. I don’t think Riley got much better since bursting onto the scene in 2007 against Oregon State (his ill advised scramble withstanding; that was partly Tedford’s fault for not highlighting that no-no during the timeout leading up to that regrettable play), despite his numbers showing marginal improvements each year. I think his skills developed, but his production with in the context of the offense did not. The Riley we saw in 2007 looked like it was going to be better than Nate Longshore at his best—but that Riley never came to be.
"Ludwig rode the tails of David Carr to his job at Oregon. His base offense destroyed Oregon’s existing masterpiece offense built by Tedford. Ludwig was replaced this year by the Ducks with former BYU coach Gary Crowton, to run the spread offense. Get the picture, Andy?"
I could watch each play of all the game film the past two years and still not really be comfortable telling you how much, or how little, Ludwig’s role in this offense adversely affected the Bears’ fortunes. And it may be true that most college quarterbacks are more comfortable in the shotgun—I don’t know why a pocket passer would prefer getting under center to begin with—and is thus more effective in a spread, shotgun-type offense.
But, then again, what does the word “spread” mean? What does it imply other than the obvious? What does pro-style mean? These are words that have lost their meaning like “West-Coast offense,” “liberal” and “epic,” in that they are overused and never clarified. I’ve always viewed “pro-style” as having the QB under center (mostly), using complicated but somewhat simple schemes; while the “spread” often utilizes 3/4/5 wide receiver formations, giving the QB a myriad of, but simple, options: handoffs, screens, option runs, etc. And remember, Aaron Rodgers was pretty much strictly an under-center QB at Cal (in a “pro-style” offense run by Tedford), but has become an almost exclusively shotgun QB in Green Bay. He’s succeeded tremendously in both. Then again, A Rod is not your average QB.
New OC Jim Michalczik back at Cal
Michalczik was the offensive line coach at Cal from 2002-2008 before taking the same position with the Oakland Raiders.
The good news: he is a low-profile OC, meaning he doesn’t have the clout or pay grade to be disgruntled over Tedford taking over much of the reigns of the offense again. And surely he and Tedford have a mutual understanding about how their roles will mesh together. Regardless of how small his role is, Michalczik can use this experience, if the Cal offense has success, to move onto a premier program or back to the NFL as an OC.
It’s also good news that Michalczik was present during the good ol’ days. He knows what Cal was or wasn’t doing to create an efficient offense and a rising program. And the hire makes it all the more likely that Tedford will be the primary play caller, considering Michalczik has never done so.
But let’s face it, much of Cal’s success on offense this year depends on how good Zach Maynard is—not Jim Michalczik—and how well his skill set fits with the offensive scheme Tedford and Michalczik create for him.
The general feeling about Tedford’s overhauled coaching staff is well received, if only for the fact that Cal struggled mightily last year, a new (but old) unwelcome dilemma. Cal fans seemed ready for changes for the sake of change itself.
What do you think Cal fans? Discuss below.