What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Lane Kiffin? Okay, it’s probably some of his off-field antics or Twitter trolling. But what’s the second thing you think of? It should be explosive offenses led by dynamic quarterbacks. Both of his offenses at Ole Miss have finished in the top 25 nationally, and Matt Corral developed into a Heisman candidate and likely first-round pick in the NFL draft. He’s the man who revolutionized the offense at Alabama, extending Saban’s stranglehold on the sport into another decade. If all this is true, then why can’t Ole Miss find a new quarterback? It’s been well-documented that the Rebels have missed out on a large number of transfer targets this offseason, and Luke Altmyer remains the only true high school prospect Lane has signed at the position, and even he has some question marks both after his recruiting process and his performance in the Sugar Bowl. The problem isn’t Ole Miss or Lane’s personality, it’s his system.
Kiffin runs the offense created by former Baylor coach and genuine monster Art Briles, usually referred to simply as the “Briles system.” It has three main tenets: tempo, space, and single reads. This means he wants to go as fast as possible, spread out the defense across the entire width of the field to create open space, and have the quarterback make a decision based on what one specific player on the defense does. The results speak for themselves. Baylor finished in the top 4 in scoring offense each of Briles’ last five seasons, Robert Griffin III won the Heisman, and the next group of QBs, Nick Florence, Seth Russell, and Bryce Petty, all put together All-American level seasons. After Art was fired, his former assistants imported the offense to new schools. Jeff Lebby took it to UCF, where McKenzie Milton and Dillon Gabriel were some of the most productive passers in the nation. Kendall Briles took it back to Houston and helped D’Eriq King score 50 touchdowns in one season. Dino Babers took it to Bowling Green State of all places, where Matt Quinn Johnson had a better season than some other guys you might have heard of. Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, and Baker Mayfield all fell short of the glory of MQJ. No matter where it is, the Briles system puts up numbers.
With that much college success, surely the NFL is full of quarterbacks that ran the Briles system, right? Considering that RG3, whose NFL career was cut down to just 42 starts due to injuries, still has more passing yards and touchdowns than every other Briles QB combined, I’d say not. Right now the second-best Briles product is Kevin Kolb. Need I say more? Bryce Petty at least started a handful of games. He was the worst QB in the league, but he started. That’s more than Seth Russell did. And what about Nick Florence, the guy who broke RG3’s records at Baylor? Well, he’s probably somewhere in Dallas managing Chip and Joanna’s retirement fund. He didn’t even try and play in the NFL after graduating. The almighty Matt Quinn Johnson couldn’t make a Canadian football roster, let alone an NFL one. I could go on, but you get the picture. Despite dominating at the college level year in and year out, no QB from that system has had lasting success in the pros.
That brings us to the million-dollar question: why? Why do all of these successful quarterbacks struggle so much at the next level? The root of the problem is one of the system’s three tenets: single reads. The quick explanation for this is that the offense lines up in a way that singles out one player on the defense. The quarterback then watches where that specific player goes and chooses what to do based on that. For example, if the defender stays where he is, the QB will hand the ball off and it turns into a run play. If the defender runs towards the running back, the QB will throw it to the receiver that defender would have been covering, turning it into a pass. Coaches use a lot of football mumbo jumbo to describe it, but the concept really is that simple. It’s basically a big game of Simon Says. Mix in a little tempo so that one defender only has a few seconds to get lined up and ready for the next play, and you’ve got a recipe for success. The only problem is this is designed to take advantage of weaknesses that are unique to college teams. Yes, the dude playing linebacker at Rice can’t defend that much space. But what happens when everyone you play is basically the Monstars? Plus, these Monstars have been watching film of what you do on offense for a week straight and probably know it better than you do. The Briles system is just too simplistic to work in the NFL for longer than a couple of games. Every NFL offense is incredibly complex, usually requiring the quarterback to make multiple reads on every play. On top of the giant learning curve of moving to a new city and learning how to be a professional athlete off the field, these quarterbacks are asked to do something they’ve never done before on the field.
Now obviously this doesn’t mean that a quarterback who runs the Briles system in college can’t have success in the NFL. Natural ability and a strong work ethic can take anyone to the top of the mountain. There’s a chance Matt Corral will go on to have a long, fruitful career as a professional football player. If he does, he’ll be the exception to the rule. College football players are taking control of their careers now more than ever, and many have made it clear that their number one priority is finding a place that will prepare them for the NFL. It’s not surprising they’ve noticed the history of the Briles system, and most are staying away. No matter how many points you score or games you win, if you aren’t cranking out future pro bowlers, you’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of finding the next big high school star. Speaking of hell: Art Briles.
(Photo Courtesy of On3)