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Is There A "Bill Snyder Offense"?

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Bill Snyder was an innovator as Iowa's offensive coordinator before taking over as K-State's head coach. But he doesn't have a rigid system. The genius is in being able to do anything.

Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

"He coaches like water. He flows to what works with no friction or effort. There is no Snyder system on either side of the ball. Yet, he's actually perceived as a system guy." - Scipio Tex, Barking Carnival

Hayden Fry took over as Iowa's head coach in 1979. The Hawkeyes hadn't won a Big 10 championship since 1960. In 1981, Iowa went 8-4 and won the Big 10. Four years later, the 1985 Hawkeyes won another Big 10 title.

A lot went right in turning Iowa from a Big 10 doormat to a Rose Bowl participant. But one of the most important was an offensive coordinator hired away from North Texas. His name was Bill Snyder.

Big 10 football in the 1970s and 1980s was all about power. Snyder knew this and unleashed a complicated passing attack on defenses with linebackers and safeties built to take on hulking linemen and punishing running backs, not cover receivers in space.

If you're a national pundit and you're reading this (you're not), then it's possible you're confused. Bill Snyder is a rushing game guy! His teams run the option! Darren Sproles was awesome!

You got one of the three right. Well, not really. Darren Sproles is a little more than awesome. But we're feeling generous on the grading today, so we'll give you that one.

We'll also grant you that Snyder's offenses in 2002 and 2003 may have been his best units. And good old fashioned option football was a staple of those offenses. But those are among the last years the triple option and speed option were features in K-State's offense.

Want to win some money off a national pundit? Or maybe one of your friends? Ask them which offensive stat is best correlated with overall success in wins and losses for K-State: average yards per rush attempt, or average yards per pass attempt?

Answer: Average yards per pass attempt. And it's not even close.

Under Snyder, K-State is 104-26 in its 10 best seasons by average yards per pass attempt. In its 10 best seasons by average yards per rush attempt, the Wildcats are 82-34.

Yards per Pass Attempt by Season
Yards per Rush by Season

Interesting. So what is K-State's offense? Let's turn to my interview with Collin Klein two years ago:

"You look at the handful of concepts that are used in those different systems (spread passing offenses), and we have them all," Klein said. "And we use them all. We just use them differently.

Good football is good football. You go to any good program in the country, and there's going to be a lot of overlap as far as the type of plays, the type of schemes, run and pass that they use," he continued. "How they're applied, timing and all that stuff, is individualized. It's just a different philosophy and a different way of doing things. But you're doing a lot of the same stuff. It's not as different as people think."

Exactly. What's available at any coaches disposal is only limited by their own imagination and their ability to teach their players the concepts. But how it's deployed is what separates coaches into bad, average, good and great.

Most coaches are married to certain aspects of offensive philosophy. They're Air Raid guys. They're spread-to-run guys. They're West Coast passing guys. They're triple option guys. They're power football guys. It's their identity and they recruit players to fit their preferred scheme.

Snyder is different in that he's willing to employ any portion of the available playbook to fit his personnel. It's part of the strategy that makes a coach successful at a place like K-State. Access to local talent is limited by population, and access to talent in other states is limited by recruiting relationships and players who are willing to move to Manhattan to play college football.

In other words, it's an unreliable talent pool. K-State can't rely on recruiting a top-notch quarterback who knows how to run one system, whatever it is, at a high level. It can't guarantee a certain type of running back, or receiver, or offensive lineman. Does that mean there's no focus on program fits?

Of course not. But it's a different focus. Think 16 Goals, not a rigid offensive philosophy. Let's take a look at a few specific examples.

1996 to 1997

In 1996, K-State went 9-3, one of its five best seasons historically at that point. The Wildcats were relatively balanced, with a 58%/42% run/pass split. Brian Kavanaugh wasn't flashy, but he was efficient and his 20:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio showed he could be trusted with Snyder's passing game.

Michael Bishop won two junior college national championships at Blinn. Nobody denied his talent, but his decision making was inconsistent. It showed in K-State's play calling. The run/pass split moved to 72%/28%, which is the second-heaviest rushing season in Snyder's tenure. First place on that list? It's 2002. Notice a pattern here?

How many coaches would change their play calling that significantly in a single season?

Run/Pass Percentages by Season

1989

Stan "Air" Parrish was an impressively bad football coach, even by K-State's standards. A 2-30-1 record and 27-game winless streak will do that. Given the dearth of talent, one might expect the next coach to run the ball, bleed the clock, and hope to shorten games as much as possible. Especially when that coach was Bill Snyder.

Nope. K-State wasn't good at anything in 1989, but relative to its ability to run the ball, the Wildcats were positively Leachian throwing the ball. So throw it they did, to the tune of 403 pass attempts. That's the second-highest number of passing attempts in a season during Snyder's tenure. It only resulted in one win, but that was one win more than they'd managed in their previous two-and-a-half seasons.

Rushing that season? A woeful 349 carries for 657 yards, good for 1.9 yards per attempt. Woof.

The Bishop/Beasley to Roberson Transition

Once Bishop got the hang of things in 1998, he was given more freedom to chuck the ball around (316 pass attempts in 1998). Jonathan Beasley was a trusted upperclassman in 1999 and 2000, and the Wildcats threw the ball 356 and 337 times those years.

Ell Roberson was immensely talented and had a cannon for an arm. But in the beginning it was more of a smooth-bore musket than a grooved rifle, and Roberson struggled with reads the way Bishop did in 1997. Consequently, passing attempts dropped to 249 in 2001 and 223 in 2002.

And maybe there was another difference in 2002 and 2003. The difference was three offensive linemen named Nick Leckey, Ryan Lilja and Jeromey Clary, all of whom would earn NFL pensions and then some. The other was Darren Sproles, who to this day is one of the most dynamic threats in the NFL. Throwing the ball would have been a waste of those talents.

The common thread tying it together

Let's go back to the yards per pass attempt stat I mentioned earlier. Here are the quarterbacks who led K-State in the those 10 years:

  • Michael Bishop (22-3)
  • Jonathan Beasley (22-4)
  • Collin Klein (11-2)
  • Matt Miller (10-2)
  • Ell Roberson (22-6)
  • Jake Waters (17-9)

I listed the quarterbacks in order based on winning percentage. But you'll notice the line also represents a rough translation of each player's threat as a runner, with Miller and Roberson probably flipped. In one form or another, K-State's best offenses are based on an effective running game that sets up big plays off play-action.

Innovation and Evolution

Many credit Rich Rodriguez with inventing the zone read. Maybe that's true. But Urban Meyer credits Bill Snyder. Regardless whether he invented it, Snyder perfected the use of the quarterback-centered run game, with concepts other than the triple option and speed option, in 1997 and 1998 with Bishop. And it almost won him a national title.

At Kansas State University.

Ponder that for a second.

Go back and watch the 1998 game against Nebraska. Fast forward past Nebraska's opening drive to K-State's first offensive play. It's in the shotgun, with twin receivers and a tight end to the left, a single wide receiver to the right. Eric Hickson is aligned to Bishop's right. At the snap, Bishop fakes the handoff to Hickson moving left. Nebraska's defensive end to Bishop's right crashes hard left, reading the action to that side. Bishop keeps and runs off tackle to the right for five yards.

The zone read, ladies and gentlemen.

How about evolution? Watch the Nebraska game from 2002. K-State takes most of its snaps under center, in I-formation, with a tight end and linemen in two-point stances. Eleven years later, with the same head coach, Jake Waters took the vast majority of the snaps from shotgun, often with three or four wide receivers in spread formation, linemen in two-point stances, and threw the ball 415 times for 9.0 yards per attempt.

Bill "Old Man River" Snyder, everyone.

There's one constant, of course, and we've already mentioned it. K-State's best offenses operate with an effective quarterback running game that sets up a lethal passing game. Defensive backfields feared Michael Bishop keeping the ball and gashing them for big gains enough that they got caught giving up big pass plays to Aaron Lockett or Darnell McDonald. The quarterback run games puts stress on run support defenders and creates big plays in the passing game.

Awesome, let's do that all the time! Get a quarterback with a cannon and a 4.5 second 40 and go to town! Go find the dual-threat quarterback with those measureables that every coach in the country doesn't want or who will turn all of them down to play in Manhattan, Kansas. We'll be waiting.

Snyder's system can be tailored to the strengths of his quarterback, other skill position players, and his offensive line. But like everyone else, it's necessarily limited by the skill sets and experience of those players. Physics and the competition for recruits are harsh governors here. Maybe the most impressive stat about Bill Snyder is his record in years 11-20 on the yards-per-pass attempt list. It's 71-46-1. In years when Snyder doesn't have his fastball, he still wins 60 percent of his games.

What about the Waters years?

Jake Waters was arguably the most proficient passer in K-State history -- helped by having an otherworldly threat in Tyler Lockett and an underrated slot in Curry Sexton -- and he was a solid constraint on defenses in the quarterback run game. But he's no Bishop, and he played half the year with a separated shoulder. There's a clear demarcation last year for when K-State's rushing game deteriorated:

  • First six games (including Oklahoma): 241 carries, 1,105 yards, 4.6 yards per carry
  • Last seven games: 235 carries, 640 yards, 2.7 yard per carry

What does it mean for 2015?

Joe Hubener has a better arm than you'd expect from any walk-on, and his wide receiver background is evident in his running game. For better and worse. A healthy(ish) Hubener with at least one solid, healthy backup quarterback option could probably lead K-State to a serviceable offensive output this year.

But nobody intended for Hubener to start at K-State. This should have been the year for Daniel Sams to run the show and bridge the gap between the Waters years and the Alex Delton years. But Sams got impatient to play and transferred. That's the breaks.

Reality is setting in for this year's K-State offense after the Louisiana Tech game. With Jesse Ertz out for the year and Alex Delton out for a while, Hubener carried the ball only seven times (adjusted for sacks) and was wholly ineffective. The coaches are protecting him to avoid the possibility of Jonathan Banks playing meaningful snaps this year.

There are holes everywhere and no easy answers for this offense. A wide receiver like Lockett would help mask some of those troubles by providing big-play spark. Instead, we have a receiving corps that doesn't consistently catch the ball and lack proven big-play ability. Someone may yet step into that role, but we haven't seen it yet.

Hubener is poised in the pocket and throws a nice ball with impressive velocity. He's also maddeningly inconsistent on shorter throws that are the difference between sustaining and stalling a drive.

The offensive line is banged up and wouldn't be dominant even if healthy. Maybe Boston Stiverson can provide a boost when (if?) he returns, but given his injury history, I'm not holding my breath.

The running backs are a group that will get what the line blocks, may occasionally make a guy miss, and won't run over anyone. They're not a liability, but they also lack proven big-play ability.

Add it all up, and what do you have? A whole lot of average and a whole lot of inconsistency. They may put it together for stretches and make us wonder why they can't do that all the time. And maybe the coaches will find a marginal schematic advantage based on personnel. But good defenses will punish our many limitations, and the result will be a lot of low-scoring, frustrating games.

That we look at this unit and have any hope the coaching staff will find a way to even average output is a testament to Snyder's body of work.

Big thanks to BOTC'S jeffp171 for the graphs. The graphs below illustrate offensive output during Snyder's tenure, but didn't fit well above. Enjoy.

Rush, Pass, and Total Yardage by Season
Rush, Pass, and Total Yards per Game, by Season
Yards per Pass/Rush by Season