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Up tempo offense: how fast is fast?

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Rhett Lashlee and tempo are synonymous, but how fast is fast?

Miami v Florida International Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

As we all know, Rhett Lashlee loves to go fast. His name is synonymous with “up tempo offense.” He’s about as much of a Gus Malzahn disciple as one can be. Coach Malzahn and Coach Lashlee both love to line up and run it again. Against UAB, Miami ran 79 offensive snaps (I did the math, let’s hope it’s right). The ‘Canes tallied up 495 total yards, 337 on the ground, and held the football for 30:56.

There are ineffective offenses, ie. Dan Enos’ offense at Miami in 2019, that go slow and are plodding and can’t convert a 3rd down. Then again there’s the Army West Point offense that takes nearly a half hour of real life time to score on a 99-yard touchdown drive. Either way the goal is to score more points than your opponent, right? How you skin the cat doesn’t matter, the end result is winning the game.

Science is cool

The science is there and the data is in. Football is played in the phosphagen energy system. That means the typical football play lasts between 5-10 seconds (4-6 A to B according to Urban Meyer), and the work to rest ratio should be no less than 1:5 or 1:6 (25-30 seconds should be the least amount of rest). Teams that run up tempo offenses may think they need to run 300-yard shuttles, 110-yard “sprints” or the dreaded gassers (50-yards there and 50-yards back). However, that just isn’t true.

The longer the sprint, the more likely to be sub-maximal and that means you’re not going to get faster. The fastest 400M runners typically train like hell to run a really fast 100M. As a football coach you want those first 20-30 yards to be blazing fast. Watch Cam Harris’ 66-yard TD against UAB... that’s fast! And most of his explosive speed comes in the middle, or a “10 yard fly in,” as the track coaches obsess about.

But you also need rest. Break a long run, come off and take a rest and let a fresh running back in the game. Tempo teams also typically rotate wide receivers, too. Deep fades and posts wear guys out and they will need to be replaced in order to get another 100% effort sprint.

Depth

But the question you have to ask is if your roster has the depth to rotate WR’s and not see a significant drop off in talent. Lashlee managed to keep Reggie Roberson and James Proche on the field a lot when healthy. Some of that is by switching tempo, and allowing those burners to walk back and reset to catch their CNS back to normal.

Above you can see that when Lashlee went his fastest, Miami scored 17 points. That was one hell of a 3rd quarter and it was at warp speed and had the Blazers completely gassed and unprepared. What else killed UAB’s defense were four and three play drives that both resulted in punts and only took 2:52 seconds of game time off the clock. Then you turn around and Lashlee is going up tempo and completely drained Bill Clark’s defense.

Slow down or hurry up?

What slows down a drive? Typically a few things: penalties, timeouts, injuries, and reviews. Penalties against the offense are drive killers. It’s extremely rare for a drive with two or more offensive penalties to score any points. And one offensive penalty often results in a field goal or less. Staying “on schedule” is really important. Overcoming “and long” is a difficult feat unless you plan on going for it on 4th down.

So what happened on Miami’s 3 fastest drives? A punt and two touchdowns. What happened on Miami’s 3 slowest drives? A punt, a touchdown, and the halftime scramble from D’Eriq King.

I went back and watched the kings of speed, the 2010 Oregon Ducks under Chip Kelly. Not only did they run less plays per drive with a longer rest than Miami vs. UAB, but they obviously scored less points (I’m aware Auburn in the 2011 BCS game and UAB in 2020’s opener ain’t the same defense).

Oregon’s three fastest drives resulted in a punt, interception and field goal. Their three slowest drives resulted in two touchdowns (including the game typing two point conversion) and a surrendered safety on 1st and 10.

Virginia Tech v Miami Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Meet me in the middle

Maybe the key is to really keep things in the middle. Don’t be plodding but don’t sprint yourself into mistakes. Remember my piece on tempo vs. polish? Fans want creativity, and it can happen from week to week, but it’s hard to run with that much tempo and be creative from play to play and even drive to drive. As an offense, you sacrifice creativity and polish for tempo.

And I don’t mean in the middle of the time continuum per se, I mean use tempo drives after the other offense goes 3-and-out, or after they turn the ball over. And slow back down after your defense was just on the field for a long drive. Be kind to your defense while also taking advantage of their bad offense.