ATHENS – The main problem with Georgia’s offense last year, when boiled down to a pure play-calling perspective, was a philosophical clash between what Kirby Smart and Jim Chaney wanted to do and what they had.
They inherited an offensive line that was small, perhaps more suited to quicker plays and passes. But what the coaches had hoped to do was install what at heart was traditional Georgia football: Pass the ball, sure, but when it came down to it, you had to run the football. And even with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Georgia couldn’t do that.
Georgia is hoping to fix the personnel problem this year, going with bigger men on the line, especially at guard, where it would hopefully make it easier to run between the tackles. And maybe with a second-year quarterback this time, and what they hope is an improved receiving corps, the play calling will be that much easier overall.
This is assuming, of course, that “what Smart and Chaney wanted to do” was the same thing. Chaney, in a rare media appearance on Saturday, at one point said it was his job “to work within Kirby’s philosophy to score enough points to find victory.”
Chaney, the coordinator who came under much criticism his first year, was asked how much Smart affected the team’s offensive philosophy.
“Every bit of it! He writes the checks,” Chaney said, laughing.
But wait … Smart’s background is the other side of the ball. He was a defensive coordinator, a safety in his Georgia playing days. So how involved should he be?
“That’s a misnomer, because even though you grow up coaching on defense doesn’t mean you don’t develop a philosophy of offense,” Chaney said.
Which Smart has done, influenced by what he’s seen work against him, what he’s seen nationally, and what he still fundamentally believes. The short, one-word version: balance.
“I know you can say that’s coach speak. But if you cannot run the ball in critical situations in the game, you’re usually not going to win the game,” Smart said. “Does that mean you need to lead the SEC in rushing to win? No, not necessarily. But that means you have to be able to run it when you have to.”
Smart referred to it as “must-run, situational football.” Short yardage: fourth and inches, third and inches, goal line, in the red zone. (“If you can’t run the ball in the red area, then you’re going to get beat,” Smart said.) The ability to run out the clock when you’re leading is also vital, he added.
“Thirty-three percent of SEC games, we’re going to have to be able to run the ball,” Smart said. “So that toughness and that mentality has to be there.”
Then Smart pivoted.
“But we all know the spread element has taken over college football, and being able to make looser plays, and making it harder on defenses to defend is much better,” Smart said. “Between those two things you want to have balance. You want to get your football players the football. Who are the best guys with the ball in their hands. Who are the best blockers in space to get those guys the ball.”
Smart’s embrace of the spread may sound begrudging, but it’s an embrace nonetheless. It’s an embrace of reality. Much like his mentor Nick Saban, who has gone from overseeing a purely physical, pro-style offense at Alabama to one that also incorporates the spread and a dual-threat quarterback.
Chaney came to the same balance the opposite way. He started out at Purdue airing it out, and doing so successfully, from 1997 to 2003. But he also came to believe that you had to run the ball well to win. The same things Smart talked about. Situational football.
“I would never go anywhere and work if physicality wasn’t a cornerstone of your program,” Chaney said. “That’s what I personally believe in. At age 55, that’ll probably never change.”
So, ultimately, the coach and the offensive coordinator agree about their philosophy. They want to be versatile, perfectly comfortable to spread out and air it out, but ready to ram the ball down the middle when necessary.
“We have never debated,” Chaney said. “If I want to do something that’s a little crazy, I’ll go and ask him, but I’m too old to be fighting over little teeny things. Because we believe in the foundation of what we’re building here, and we’re collectively 100 percent behind that. Physicality, balance, get your good players involved, good situational offense, don’t turn the damn thing over. All those things are a cornerstone of who you are, and there’s never a debate on that.”
The first year of this union between veteran offensive coordinator and rookie head coach didn’t work as well as they wanted. There wasn’t necessarily any clash in styles or philosophy that was evident. Their stated shared philosophy just didn’t fit the personnel.
Now, as they think they inch their way toward more ideal personnel, Smart and Chaney hope they’ll see an offense that is freshened up, to use Chaney’s term.
“He’s been very versatile in his past,” Smart said. “He was not able to do that last year. We were not in a position to be that. That’s not who we were. We were in transition. It was tough.
“I think he’d be the first one to admit to you that we didn’t live up to the expectations we wanted last year. That’s not the standard we expect at Georgia. And he recognizes that. We acknowledge that. We had to do a good job of analyzing why was it that way and what are we going to do about it.”