In spite of turning the program around and winning as many games in his three years as Florida State won in the prior four, Jimbo Fisher has unfortunately (and unfairly) gained a reputation for losing games he shouldn't. The amount of criticism Fisher has received this offseason is surely unusual for a coach who has just tied the school record for wins in a season and won the conference and a BCS game.
Some of that discontent stems from the perception that he has been in charge at Florida State longer than three years (due to his time as an assistant). Another contributing factor is surely a low regard for the ACC, with any loss to a conference foe (other than perhaps Clemson) seen as inexcusable.
Offensive struggles against a team like Virginia Tech were seen as evidence of poor coaching, though Alabama's even greater offensive struggles against essentially the same Hokie defense in this year's opener should be eye opening to those critics.
Nevertheless, there are a few things Fisher can and should improve upon in his fourth year as a head coach. Unfortunately, many of the areas criticized by fans (and some media) are either misconceptions or exactly the opposite of the things that actually need to be improved. We'll address misconceptions in this piece and identify areas for improvement in the next.
Many have called (some loudly) for Fisher to give up control of the offense, pointing to offensive inconsistency (especially on the road) in 2012, arguing that another playcaller would improve upon Fisher's results. This ignores several important factors.
First, every offense in the country goes through dry spells over the course of the season, from Oregon to Alabama. Florida State's offense was by no means uniquely inconsistent. In fact, the offense was remarkably efficient given its inability (especially after the loss of Chris Thompson) to create big plays, a factor of E.J. Manuel struggling to throw downfield (a completion percentage below 50% on throws beyond 10 yards) and a lack of offensive playmakers with breakaway speed.
Regardless of opponent, it is difficult for any offense to execute ten and twelve play drives every time. One penalty, one dropped pass, one mistake can stall a drive. You've got to have splash plays, and Florida State did not have many in 2012. That was not a function of playcalling but personnel and execution. The overall performance of the 2012 offense was terrific, given four new starters on the offensive line, including two offensive tackles who had never taken an FBS snap at the position.
Many critics have pointed to the NC State game in particular as an example of poor playcalling, but I have watched that game repeatedly and not found examples of poor calls. In fact, several calls were perfectly timed to produce put-away scores, but Manuel overthrew sure touchdowns on a post pattern and screen pass (an inexplicable miss) and struggled overall in the second half. Even the three run plays on the last drive would surely have proven the right move had a punt not been blocked immediately following.
Fisher fielded a top 10 offense (using F/+ efficiency metrics) in 2009 and a top 12 offense in 2010. There is no question his system works.
The other thing often overlooked is the benefit of continuity that comes when a head coach oversees his own offense. Top offensive coordinators are the first coaches to get hired away by other programs, and transitioning to a new offensive coordinator and a new system is far more difficult than transitioning to a new defensive coordinator. (Just look at what happened when Mark Richt left FSU after the 2000 season.) When the head coach oversees the offense, players have the security of never having to learn a new system, and that continuity makes a big difference in program consistency over time.
Fisher's Offense is Not Overly Complex
Alongside this criticism is the common sentiment that Fisher's offense is unusually complex, that if he would simply dumb it down, it would be more effective. This is untrue.
There is little doubt that Fisher puts a lot of responsibility on his quarterback (something we'll cover in a forthcoming piece), but those responsibilities should not be beyond the capacity of any FBS starter. Fisher's 2012 offense was remarkably simple, running around 10–15 different plays over the course of the game. In fact, Fisher called the same pass play nine times in the second half against Clemson. This was not obvious to most fans because the ball was thrown to four different options, depending on how Clemson covered it.
FSU limited itself to very few pass concepts (e.g. Houston, Smash, Switch, Curl/Flat, Slants, Bootleg, Waggle), while the run game was built solidly on the outside zone play, which accounted for somewhere around 35% of all plays called in 2012.
Contrary to another common criticism, Florida State's offense indeed had a clear identity (outside zone, quick game, action off outside zone) in 2012 and limited itself to simple, quick concepts that were repeatedly repped in practice.
The Offense Does Not Rotate Too Many Players
Many others have complained that Florida State's offensive rotation—in particular at the wide receiver position—causes a loss of rhythm and continuity. These complaints typically point to Rashad Greene's statistics from 2012, arguing that a receiver of his caliber should have better numbers and that he should be on the field more.
Again, the perception does not accord with reality. Greene in fact played the vast majority of meaningful offensive snaps last year. For example, by my count, Greene was on the field for 24 of 30 offensive plays in the first half of the 2012 ACC Championship Game. Of the six plays he was not on the field, four were in jumbo/goalline packages, while the other two were the last two plays of the half.
In other words, Greene was on the field for pretty much the entire first half. The receiver rotation has little to do with why Greene was not targeted enough. Instead, the fact that his targets always dramatically increased every time Clint Trickett stepped onto the field illustrates why his numbers were lower: Manuel simply chose to throw elsewhere.
Florida State runs a multiple spread offense that often has three and four receivers on the field. It is absolutely necessary to have at least six—preferably eight—receivers available for rotation in that kind of offense, as receivers are essentially running a track meet all game. Overall performance increases substantially—and speed through routes stays more consistent—if receivers can spell one another over the course of the game.
This does not mean you take your best receiver off the field for no reason (FSU clearly didn't take Greene off the field very often), but it does mean you never want a tired player on the field.
Those are a few misconceptions about Fisher's performance so far. In the next piece, we'll discuss areas Fisher can and should improve upon in 2013.