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  • Ben Grant

Searching for an Offensive Identity

Photo: Courtesy Toronto Argonauts (Nelson Campana)

As I was waiting for my delayed flight back from BC, I started to make some notes on my phone about the issues I’d seen with the Argos offense through their first two games. Because I can’t stay on task for five minutes, those notes turned into a DM venting session with CFL News Hub’s Mike Mitchell. We ranted back and forth about Toronto’s various problems, and as I looked at those text bubbles, the central issue became clear.

The Argos offense doesn’t have an identity.

This sounds like a “football” thing to say that doesn’t actually matter, and I agree there are plenty of those out there, but this isn’t one of them. To be an effective offense you need to know who you are, and the Argos don’t know who they are.

The NFL’s Michael Lombardi once compared the concept of a team’s identity to a restaurant menu, which I thought was quite effective. If you’re an Italian restaurant, then you know what you are and what you do. Your menu is all Italian food. You probably have an Italian chef. You probably do it very well because it’s all you do. If you’re a steakhouse and all you do is steak, then there’s a good chance it’s excellent, and it can be one of the best restaurants in the world with only four things on the menu because it’s that good. If there are 80 pages in your menu, you’re the Cheesecake Factory and your food is probably poor because you simply can’t make 1000 things well.

In football, I think people generally accept this principal when it comes to college offenses like the triple-option flexbone you see from Army, Navy, or Georgia Tech from a few years ago, but it really applies to all offensive systems at all levels. We accept it with Army’s offense because it’s so visibly clear how precise the timing needs to be in order to run this style of offense effectively, but it’s about a lot more than just that. The system any team runs needs to take into account personnel and coaching expertise as well as the more obvious elements of timing and execution.

Going back to our Army example, the reason they run the triple-option is because that’s the offense to which their players are best suited. They don’t and won’t have the quarterbacks or receivers to run an air raid style or the 350lb offensive linemen to be a power run team. They have tough, disciplined players of largely the same build. Triple option.

It’s a little bit different in professional football because free agency and the draft replaces recruiting. So, what kind of players do the Argos have? What kind of system should they be running? Well, this is where the problems begin. They have a talented group of possession receivers who run precise routes. They have a star RB best suited to a smashmouth style of football. They have a FB who is great at motioned kickouts and downfield blocking from the slot. And their offensive line is a mixture of guys, some of whom are great run blockers, and some of whom are far better in pass protection.

And what are they running? Well, it’s hard to say because there seems to be a little bit of everything, like the Cheesecake Factory. They’re certainly doing a lot more power running than suits their personnel. They’re definitely running a lot more tight end sets than suits their personnel as well. Now, maybe some of the issues have come from losing two of their best blocking receivers in Juwan Brescacin and Eric Rogers, because right now they’ve got Markeith Ambles trying to block defensive ends. But the number of tight end sets is very confusing because they don’t have the personnel for that even when healthy.

Declan Cross is a great blocking slotback. At McMaster, he was the best in the country at cleaning guys out on the backside of zone runs and opening up cutback lanes. But he’s not a traditional tight end, and right now he’s the only one they have on their active roster. Isaiah Wright was playing tight end the other day, which makes even less sense to me. This is what has led to the offense being predictable, another criticism Coach Dinwiddie has endured so far this season. Out of TE sets, chances are good a Harris run is coming, which is fine if you’ve got a dominant run-blocking line and a TE to match. But if it’s not what you do best and everyone knows you’re going to do it, the chances of success are slim, even with Andrew Harris in the backfield.

So, what about the coaching? You need a staff who are EXPERTS in the system you’re running. You can’t just decide you’re going to be an air raid team and start coaching it the next day. I’m not sure how well understood this principle is. I’ve been an offensive coordinator for almost 20 years. I adjust my playbook constantly, but I’ve never completely changed my system because it would be a disservice to my team. For example, I understand the principals of triple option, but I can’t just turn around and coach it effectively. I’d be a fool to think that could suddenly be my team’s identity regardless of the players around me.

For most coaches, their system and their offense’s identity come from the roots of the coaching tree from which they grew combined with the system they played in. So, why doesn’t what Coach Dinwiddie is trying to run this year look exactly like Coach Dickenson’s system in Calgary? I think there are certainly elements that do, and the verbiage is largely the same. Calgary used quite a few TE sets in 2019 and even had some double tight looks, but this was with 250lb Charlie Power and 235lb Ante Milanovic-Litre, plus it was more of a mismatch passing game strategy. So where did Coach Dinwiddie’s TE-based plays come from? Remember that Dinwiddie’s coaching career started back in 2013 in Montreal under Dan Hawkins, who was Dinwiddie’s head coach and defacto OC when he played quarterback for Boise State. I think that’s where his desire to use a traditional tight end comes from. In Dinwiddie’s most successful season as a quarterback, he was running primarily with 21 and 11 personnel. When he threw for 532 yards against Louisiana Tech, he had a tight end on the field with him for every snap. His tight ends were hugely important to his success, so when you combine this with his experience in Calgary, it's no wonder he’s drawn to using them in the first system he’s truly been able to design. There’s no question he has the expertise to run it.

And he’s not wrong in his assessment either in terms of how best to attack opposing teams. I asked him after the Montreal game why he used more tight end sets than he had all of last season, despite the fact he only had one tight end on the roster compared to three or sometimes four last year. He acknowledged it was in part a reaction to seeing a defensive vulnerability on film.

That would be fine if he had players around him to support this identity, but he doesn’t. Coach Dinwiddie clearly knows this because he hasn’t fully committed to it. What we see on gameday is some of Coach Dinwiddie’s new system, some of Coach Dickenson’s system, and a few plays that Winnipeg ran last season. And none of it’s working because you can’t build an offensive system like that.

So, what are his options? It comes down to personnel because that’s the most difficult thing to change midseason. He can’t run the offense he wants to run, he can’t run Calgary’s offense, and he can’t run the Winnipeg offense we see flashes of, they just don’t have the right guys for those systems. He needs to go back to what he was doing early last season when Bethel-Thompson threw for 354 yards and two touchdowns in the opener against Calgary: a five-wide, three-step system featuring a VERY quick passing attack full of receiver screens and RPOs that attack the middle of the field. That should be their identity.

There’s so much they can build off in this base system that suits the personnel they have. They could and should make more use of rub-routes, motion X and Z as the ball is being snapped, have receivers cross stems on their pre-snap waggles, and run traditional draw plays.

Until Coach Dinwiddie embraces a change like this, we’re going to continue seeing sporadic ball movement and a team of increasingly frustrated players who don’t know who they are.

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