OWINGS MILLS — Fresh off of a relaxing, nine-day golf trip to Ireland, Paul Johnson took in a football practice Thursday for the first time as a retired ex-coach.
The longtime college football head coach was a spectator for the Baltimore Ravens’ final voluntary organized team activity. He planned to meet with the team’s offensive coaches afterward.
“It’ll be fun – sit and talk some football,” the former head coach at Navy and Georgia Tech said. “Really, it’s going to be for the first time since I retired after our bowl game. I’m looking forward to it. I got to watch some tape, sit in on some meetings – very interesting.”
Johnson retired last fall after 11 seasons as head coach at Georgia Tech. He led the Midshipmen the previous six years after five seasons at Georgia Southern.
Time and again since the end of last season, the Ravens have repeated that they are building a new offense “from the ground up.” Greg Roman was promoted to offensive coordinator following the season, and the process to tailor an offense to the unique skill set of second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson began immediately. Head coach John Harbaugh said a week ago that Roman and the offensive coaching staff spent 10 weeks on the project, overhauling every concept and each bit of terminology.
It makes sense they would want to pick Johnson’s brain. The modern mastermind of the triple-option offense, Johnson’s team was synonymous with the offense it ran.
“It’s always an opportunity to learn football,” Harbaugh said of having Johnson around for the day. “We’re sometimes teaching, always learning, right? We have a chance to learn, ask a lot of questions and expand what we’re doing, get a couple ideas maybe here and there, and a couple ways to say things here and there and all that. That’s what we’re doing.
“He’s a great football coach, obviously,” Harbaugh added. “He had amazing success over the years, both at Navy and Georgia Teach. Very unique offense. His offense was my dad’s offense at Western Kentucky, so his favorite play is my dad’s favorite play – the mid-line dive option, so we’ll probably talk about that a little bit this afternoon.”
The triple-option calls for the quarterback to make a read after the ball is snapped. He can hand it off, keep it to run himself or pitch it to the outside. The strength of the offense is that the quarterback must be accounted for as a runner on every snap, creating a true 11-on-11 play. In other offenses, once he hands off to a running back, the quarterback’s job is done and the offense goes against the defense 10-versus-11.
Since Johnson took over and implemented the triple-option offense at Georgia Tech in 2008, the Yellow Jackets averaged 301.9 rushing yards per game. Only Navy, which is coached by Johnson’s former assistant Ken Niumatalolo and still runs the triple-option, has averaged more (308) over that span.
The Ravens obviously won’t adopt a true triple-option. During Johnson’s reign, Georgia Tech averaged just 13 pass attempts per game. Last season, the Yellow Jackets threw the ball an average of 9.7 times per game, completing only 4.4 passes per contest. They ran the ball 57.3 times.
The strategy worked for Johnson, who had the fourth most wins of all active coaches prior to his retirement.
Baltimore must throw more than that to keep defenses honest, but the Ravens are a rarity in today’s NFL: A run-first offense. They rushed the ball on 64 percent of their plays after Jackson took over as starting quarterback more than halfway through the 2018 season.
Jackson is one of the game’s fastest players, not just quarterbacks. The Ravens emphasized adding speed around him, drafting quick wide receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, and blazing running back Justice Hill.
Johnson’s insight could lead to some creativity to utilize all the speed Baltimore could have on the field.
“We’re going to talk this afternoon,” he said. “They don’t need my help, they’ve got a lot of really good coaches. We’re going to sit around and visit some this afternoon and talk.”
Johnson said he tried to recruit Jackson to Georgia Tech, but lost the eventual Heisman Trophy winner to ACC foe Louisville.
“We tried, but I’m not sure he was interested in all that math,” he said. “He was in our league, so I know a lot about him. He’s a tremendous athlete. When you watch the tape from a year ago when he was playing, he can create so many big plays just out of nothing. He’s a dynamic athlete at that position and I’m sure he’s going to get better and better with more playing.”
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