An excerpt from the 2014 Longhorn Football Prospectus: Thinking Texas Football.
The Misunderstood Shawn Watson
When Charlie Strong was named head coach of the Texas Longhorns, Texas fans placed a mental check mark on their football grocery list next to ‘Find Better Defense’ and turned immediately to speculating about the offense. Which bright young coaching star would be handed a blank check to coach a Longhorn offense that would combine the best aspects of Briles’ spread, Royal’s wishbone and Vince Young making up his own plays in the huddle?
When Shawn Watson was announced as Strong’s man, the dying toot of the Price is Right trombone could be heard around the internet, the final sound of a party balloon emitting its last flatulent wheeze as it whizzed across the surface of the party punch like a latex sea eagle, swooping down to rest atop the giant turd Strong had placed there.
Shawn Watson wasn’t on the primary list of offensive coordinators Longhorn fans coveted. He wasn’t on the secondary list either. He wasn’t on the doodle pad under that list that included names like The Greg Davis Sequel: Now Horizontal in 3-D!, Goldie Hawn from Wildcats and a Playstation running on Basic Level. If Longhorn fans knew Watson at all, they remembered him from his mundane Colorado offenses or as the offensive coordinator fired from Nebraska by Bo Pelini, whose 2009 Husker offense was so bad it kept Texas in the Big 12 championship game despite the Husker front four rag-dolling Colt McCoy like a plush toy thrown into a terrier kennel.
Watson is a coaching journeyman with a long resume that boasts some great, some bad and a nice dollop of mediocre. Eventually, all long-time coordinators get some dirt on their resume. That’s part of the appeal of the bright young thing: no track record. Project that three year trend line upwards to infinity and beyond if you like, no matter what reality and Nassim Taleb suggest will eventually happen.
Texas fans forgot that most conservative football coaches (to say nothing of Charlie Strong, the most footballing-est of football coaches) build their staffs around comfort, ease of collaboration, loyalty and proven performance working with that coach. Rolling the dice on the bright new thing can elevate a staff, but it can also get a coach fired, lead to a palace coup, or turn into a quick realization that the young genius was actually a brief statistical aberration who profited from a run of luck, early adoption of some scheme, or veteran players that masked his real deficiencies.
The coordinator hire was always elementary, Watson. Except that technically the offensive coordinator is Joe Wickline. Hmm? Shawn Watson is listed as the...Assistant Head Coach for Offense?
Whatever. Watson can wear a nightgown and tiara in the coach’s box and call himself Sweet Aunt Matilda, but he’s going to be calling the plays, coaching at minimum the passing game and doing the lion’s share of game-planning. That’s an offensive coordinator. If Charlie Strong titles his garbage man Esteemed Grand Viceroy of Materiale Relocation we’re still pretty clear on what the guy’s job entails, right? Still, a Texas fan base traumatized by the last years of Greg Davis and the ham-handed handling of Bryan Harsin, Darrell Wyatt and Major Applewhite are left wondering if head football coaches are genetically incapable of looking out for their own best interests in their coordinator hires. Perhaps head coaches are just former PE majors with a little charisma, not organizational geniuses who should grace the cover of Forbes.
The question was never who. Who was obvious, if you were paying attention. The more interesting question is WHY.
Why Watson? Why retain an offensive coordinator only four years out from an unceremonious dumping in Lincoln who coordinated Colorado offenses so boring that they were approved by the FDA as a non-pharmacological sedative?
That answer is also rather elementary: Shawn Watson was absolutely instrumental in landing Charlie Strong the best job in college football. Really.
Let’s Go Back to 2011...
After Watson was run from Lincoln by Bo Pelini (we’ll get to that), he was hired to coach quarterbacks at Louisville. He held no play-calling duties. It was a bitter pill to swallow and a clear step backward in the long-time coordinator’s career. For Charlie Strong it was a chance to secure a well-regarded quarterback coach and keep some powder dry in case his current coordinator hire couldn’t fire the 2011 artillery. He couldn’t. Louisville struggled out of the gate with a 2-4 start, largely because Louisville OC Mike Sanford’s offense stank.
Strong was in the middle of his second year and had a losing overall coaching record. Not quite the I-told-you-so Strong wanted to deliver to the dozen or so programs that had passed on him.
Time for Plan B. Time for Watson.
Strong transferred the play-calling duties to Watson, Louisville won 4 of their last 6 games (those two losses by a touchdown each) and on the advice of his new offensive coordinator, went all-in on a promising young freshman QB named Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater went on to earn Big East Freshman of the Year honors and forged a deep relationship with the coordinator who championed him.
In 2012, the sophomore Bridgewater blossomed and the Louisville offense improved dramatically as the Cardinals went 11-2, won the conference title and were ranked #3 in the country in offensive FEI (an assessment of offensive efficiency and productivity during meaningful game play) and 36th in S+P (advanced metric of per play effectiveness). A stunning turnaround.
In 2013, Louisville went 12-1, won the conference title again, Bridgewater was an All-American and Watson’s offense finished ranked 25th in the country in offensive FEI and 18th in offensive S+P. If you prefer crude measures: Louisville went from averaging 22 points per game in 2011 to 31 points per game in 2012 to 35 points per game in 2013. They also turned the ball over sparingly (2012: 17th in FBS turnover margin; 2013: 2nd in FBS turnover margin) and consistently protected the defense with clock-milking drives and positive field position (in 2013 they were #2 in FBS in both time of possession and third down conversion rates) while racking up plenty of yardage and points. This was Charlie Strong’s dream offense - high productivity with minimal risk.
Without Watson calling the shots on offense, Strong had a .500 record at Louisville.
With Watson running the offense in the final two and a half years of his tenure, Strong’s Louisville teams went 27-5, won two conference titles, turned Bridgewater into a Heisman candidate, whipped Florida in a BCS bowl game and earned national respect that landed Strong on the national coaching search firm radar.
Strong used that surge of momentum to snag one of the most coveted jobs in sports. Yes, there was a larger context: Strong turned the Louisville defense into a force, he increased the program talent level with his recruiting and developmental acumen (though mostly on defense - the Louisville offense was unexceptional outside of the QB) and Louisville certainly played in a feeble league.
And that’s mostly irrelevant. Strong knew he’d turn around the defense and recruiting. That’s what he does. The conference was weak, but Louisville is a basketball commuter school. They didn’t have vast resource advantages over their conference peers. The Louisville offense was no guarantee to flourish and maximizing it was outside of Strong’s wheelhouse. Without Watson’s injection of productivity and his speeding of Bridgewater’s ascension, the Strong narrative is nowhere near as compelling. The wins don’t come as easily, as early, as often. His national appeal isn’t quite as broad. The Texas job doesn’t happen.
Why Watson? From Strong’s perspective, we’re absolutely insane for even asking the question. Look at their shared experience. Look how Watson rewarded Strong every time he trusted him - he salvaged his second season, transformed the offense from laughingstock to laudable and created a style of offense perfectly congruent with Strong’s requirements. Now that he has the big job, Strong is supposed to switch out a winning horse that carried him to Austin for the promise of some other better horse, sight unseen? That’s a Charlie Horse of a proposal - lame from the start. So now that we know who and why, let’s move to what. What is Texas getting? To understand what, the where also matters. Where has Watson been and what was his experience there?
A Lesson in Context and Quarterbacks
Reasonable people can debate Watson’s coordinator acumen - there are compelling arguments in the pro (Louisville, some Nebraska, some Colorado) and the con (late Nebraska, the rest of Colorado). What’s not particularly debatable is that Watson has a proven track record of maximizing quarterbacks in a variety of offenses. Further, despite frequent claims to the contrary, Watson’s philosophical flexibility is a strength - he has coached wide open passing offenses, traditional NFL West Coast, power running/play action teams, a midline option running offense and hybrids of many of the aforementioned. The notion that he is married to a single offensive approach doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. He has also been consistently bold in his personnel selections - demonstrating a willingness to seek long-term upside with young, raw quarterbacks even at the expense of seniority, convention and convenience. That’s a major positive - a trait that should be valued in any coach.
In our next segment, we'll explore his three major stops, going year-by-year exploring his success at Louisville, his early success, failure and possible fall guy status in Lincoln and his often boring Boulder stint serving underneath mentor Gary Barnett.
Let’s examine Watson's three major stops through the lens of the quarterbacks he coached, his larger talent constraints and his overall successes and failures. It's a fascinating tale of failure, redoubled effort and redemption.
Louisville - 2011-2013
Teddy Bridgewater (2011-2013)
Watson is largely responsible for Bridgewater getting the reins as a freshman and convincing Strong to bear the growing pains. He bet his career on that decision and it paid off. Bridgewater threw for over 9,800 yards in three years while completing 68% of his passes and amassing 72 TDs against only 24 interceptions.
The 2014 NFL Draft is a fascinating prism through which to view what Watson accomplished with a talented, coachable quarterback.
Bridgewater was initially coveted for his his accuracy as well as the rapidity and decisiveness of his reads. He wore the NFL-friendly Cardinal offense like a glove. "The most NFL-ready college quarterback" was the common refrain. Given a Louisville offensive supporting cast largely bereft of NFL talent, the reasoning was that Bridgewater had to be elite to be getting this sort of production in an offense with few gimmicks (i.e. not a Leach style system creation).
When professional teams brought him in for workouts and interviews, they saw a different picture. Bridgewater had average size (6-2, didn’t carry extra weight well), an average NFL arm, average athleticism (4.8 40, 30 inch vertical), didn’t exhibit a great grasp of new offensive concepts and struggled to throw unfamiliar routes. Where was Superman?
However, Bridgwater was incredibly well-versed in his college offense. In it, he was Superman. He was a well-drilled machine within his physical and mental comfort zone - adeptly performing the reads and throws suited and molded to his strengths. Bridgewater’s deficiencies had been disguised and hidden, his strengths highlighted. By design. By a designer. The NFL realized that Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t a spectacular talent. He had just been coached up. His fall in draft perception from consensus #1 pick to the last pick of the 1st round was the NFL coming to grips with the gap between great film and actual talent level. Watson’s work at Louisville is more or less unimpeachable.
Nebraska - 2006 (position coach), offensive coordinator 2007-2010
Watson’s reputation as an offensive coordinator took its biggest hit in Lincoln, but context is crucial. Unravel the story objectively and the tale is as equally telling about the insecurities of Bo Pelini and the agonies of a proud fan base incapable of accepting a once great program’s systemic decline as Shawn Watson’s inability to squeeze blood from a stone.
Sam Keller/Joe Ganz - 2007
In Watson’s first year as offensive coordinator, the conservative former Barnett disciple had the Huskers throw for a school record 3,886 yards running a spread/West Coast hybrid offense, ranked 9th in the country in total offense and had the three biggest passing days in Nebraska football history. NFL physical prototype Sam Keller had a nickel brain and a million dollar arm and Joe Ganz, who took over his job later in the season, was exactly the opposite. Watson demonstrated a progressive offensive philosophy that bore little resemblance to the paint-by-the-numbers offenses he led at Colorado. He was off to a nice start.
Joe Ganz - 2008
Perhaps Watson’s most impressive developmental feat, Joe Ganz was an incredibly competitive, smart, undersized quarterback with a weak arm and solid athleticism who was accurate between the hashes. Ganz would measure out at the NFL combine at an even 6-0, ran a 4.9 40 and had almost no ability to throw NFL big boy routes. Needless to say, he went undrafted. The Nebraska offense had a talented running back (Roy Helu) but only two other players that would be drafted over the next two years (both OL, both in late rounds). With this inglorious mix, the Huskers averaged 451 yards and 35 points per game with Ganz throwing for 3568 yards and 25 touchdowns (and ran for 5 more). The offense carried Nebraska to a nine win season and a bowl win even as the defense cratered. Watson’s second strong season in Lincoln. So far, so good.
Zac Lee - 2009
The Nebraska offense bottomed out (26 points per game) as they lost most of their starters, Joe Ganz was replaced by the subpar Zac Lee and Bo Pelini demanded a conservative approach from the offense to protect his much improved defense, disallowing Watson from much creativity. Resentment began to build on all sides. Watson’s offense had a disappointing year, but easy answers were in short supply. He had a talent problem, a struggling quarterback and a short leash. Nebraska’s offense showed some spark in a 33-0 bowl destruction of Arizona, but the maximization of talent from 2007 and 2008 was nowhere to be found. After the season, it was revealed that Lee had injured his arm early against Arkansas State and Nebraska withheld reporting the injury to limit opponent game-planning. Even with hindsight, the proper apportioning of blame between Watson, injuries, player talent and Pelini is difficult. Watson must shoulder at least some of it.
Taylor Martinez - 2010
Remember the bet Watson made on a freshman QB at Louisville in 2011? He did the same thing at Nebraska in 2010 with Taylor Martinez (a three star dual threat prospect recruited from California). The bet looked brilliant initially and demonstrated Watson’s willingness to revisit his offensive approach and feature his best talent. Watson benched Lee for the speedy freshman and moved to a spread option running attack that showcased his running ability. The results were spectacular.
Through their first nine games, the Huskers averaged 37 points per game and boasted a 8-1 record. The Huskers ran the ball at will and Martinez exhibited just enough passing ability to exploit defenses overplaying a dominating rushing attack.
Then the bottom fell out.
Martinez suffered a high ankle sprain and couldn’t run effectively. Limited to the pocket, he proved a terrible passer when he had to actually throw into windows and his offensive line couldn’t protect him. Nebraska struggled to a 2-3 season finish while averaging less than 20 points per contest. In Martinez’s first seven games, he ran 100 times for 871 yards. In his last five, he ran 62 times for 95 yards. A Washington team that Nebraska put 56 on early in the season held them to 7 in the disastrous bowl rematch. Watson was fired. Nebraska fans rejoiced.
In retrospect, the firing is odd, as much a reflection of a desperate head coach seeking a fall guy for an injury to his freshman wunderkind quarterback and a fan base willing to accept a few lopped heads instead of confronting the larger marginalization of their program (which still continues today in a weaker league) as a referendum on Watson’s failings. When Watson had solid, healthy quarterbacks at Nebraska, he exhibited legitimate offensive resourcefulness and the Huskers put up numbers. When that talent bottomed along with his quarterbacking options, so too did the offense. That doesn’t excuse Watson, but those related facts aren’t coincidental. Beware of anyone who oversimplifies Watson’s time in Lincoln. He showed some desirable traits even as things went sour.
When we hear Watson described as a conservative West Coast offense disciple, much of that reputation was earned from his stint under Gary Barnett at Colorado where he combined opportunistic play-action passing with a two back running game that helped lead the Buffaloes to four North division titles in the six years he coordinated there. And one Big 12 title in 2001 that Longhorn fans may remember. That 2001 team was Watson’s best, most talented offense.
Watson had ordinary quarterbacks in Boulder that he transformed into effective game managers (Bobby Pesavento, Joel Klatt) but when his quarterbacks were truly awful (i.e. Robert Hodge, 2002) the Buffalo passing offense suffered and he leaned on a physical running game featuring players like Chris Brown and Bobby Purify. The Buffaloes certainly weren’t pushing the boundaries of early 2000s college offense, but Watson ran the offense his coaching mentor Gary Barnett demanded.
For that reason, digging into his time there isn’t particularly illuminating. He was exercising Barnett’s will executing a very specific type of traditional offense and game plan that Barnett believed best maximized his chances of winning with a mediocre roster. Nebraska and Louisville are more instructive demonstrations of what Watson does philosophically when given autonomy. His time at Colorado is interesting and we can find clear evidence of that formational experience in what he does now, but he clearly augmented and changed his approach substantially once he left his mentor’s side in Boulder.
What Does It All Mean?
So should we be happy that Watson is wearing a headset in Austin now? Cautiously optimistic? Confused? Disappointed? Are we any closer to understanding what he brings?
We know he can develop quarterbacks. He’s also far less offensively dogmatic than his critics pretend. He will go all-in on talented youth over an established senior. He’s not afraid to alter his offense to suit his talent. He does a lot better with good players than average ones. He has coached many more of the latter than the former. He’s not steeped in the cutting edge of offensive football. He coached under defensive-minded, risk-averse head coaches who viewed offense as part of a larger winning effort in complement to a defense. He hasn’t shown himself to be particularly adept at fast-following new developments or using pace or the hurry-up no-huddle to gain easy offensive advantages. Each of his offenses was well-attuned to the skills of his quarterback. He hasn’t show much destructive ego, suggesting that the collaborative process with his offensive assistants will be fruitful. Coaches may not be beating down the door for his offensive clinics, but they all take careful notes when he talks about developing a quarterback.
Consider that, save for a handful of coaches on the bleeding edge of innovation, most coaches are borrowers and duplicators, not creators, and their success is predicated as much on their context - their quarterback, their offensive line, their quality of athletes, the interferences and edicts of their head coach - as their preternatural ability to call brilliant plays and design ingenious offenses, bending the field to their will and challenging space/time like an architect from Inception. The best conventional coaches distinguish themselves in their ability to self-scout, self-criticize and refine their own techniques rather than sink into complacency. Watson has shown the ability to shake it up when needed, though that evidence is suggestive rather than conclusive. We’ve also seen him bottom out.
There are a fair number of competent offensive coaches out there. Watson is one of them. Given the right environment: a solid or better quarterback, a skill player or two who might actually play some downs in the NFL, some solid uglies in the trenches and a quality staff (translation: great offensive line coach) these sorts of coaches do well. With their best offenses (Colorado 2001; Nebraska 2007-2008, much of 2010; Louisville 2012, 2013) they’ll be praised for their mystical foresight and play-caller’s touch. However, give them a shoddy product and have them play ’05 or ’09 Texas and they’ll get their clocks thoroughly cleaned.
The general fan or sportswriter, who isn’t exactly brimming with an appreciation for context or talent inequalities, will pronounce that same coach a loser when a defense loaded with NFL players razes their pack of scrubs. Watson’s resume has holes, but that doesn’t mean stupid arguments against him guised as "just being real" should be tolerated any more than dumb, blind optimism.
So how do we define Shawn Watson? He’s the horse that got Charlie Strong exactly where he wanted to go.
Now can he run on the big track?