Monday, March 26, 2007

Contra Costa Times: Tedford king of offensive chess

BERKELEY - To Cal coach Jeff Tedford, calling plays in football is a lot like playing chess. You think multiple moves ahead. You choose plays not only for immediate gratification, but also as part of a grand plan for a bigger payoff later in the game. Step by step, you set the stage to hopefully spring the perfect offensive play against the perfectly vulnerable defense. "And then bang, it happens," Tedford said Thursday, sitting in his office, just hours before another spring practice. "It's exciting. It's invigorating. "There's a great feeling of excitement when you can kind of set things up through the field and call something right when (it) matches up. Because you've studied it and you saw it and then, bam! Your team is able to do it." The play-calling thrill will be back for Tedford this coming season, which begins for Cal with a Sept. 1 rematch against Tennessee, this time at Memorial Stadium. He delegated most of that job last season to then first-year Cal offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar.

Dunbar, a devout believer in the spread offense, went one-and-done at Cal. He left after the 2006 season to become offensive coordinator at Minnesota, where he'll be free to rely solely on the spread attack. Longtime offensive line coach Jim Michalczik will double as Cal's offensive coordinator, but his extra duties will be "more organizational," Tedford said last month after promoting Michalczik. Tedford, predictably, downplayed the importance of his return as Cal's primary play caller. He said play calling is a group effort, as is creating each week's game plan. He said Dunbar did a "nice job" of calling plays last season. Maybe so. But if I'm a Cal fan, I want Tedford calling my team's plays, and I'm celebrating his return to that role.  Yes, Cal's offense now includes the shotgun formation and elements of the spread, thanks to Dunbar. But this is still basically the same attack -- plus a few wrinkles -- that Tedford installed when he came to Cal in 2002 from Oregon, where he was the Ducks' offensive coordinator for four years.

Tedford isn't one of these coaches who has torn rotator cuffs from patting himself on the back. So you'd expect him to downplay the importance of this change. But the truth is no one knows Cal's offense better than Tedford. No one plays a bigger role each week when Cal creates its offensive game plan. No one is better suited to call Cal's offensive plays. It simply makes sense for Tedford to do this job, just as it made sense for Bill Walsh to call the plays at Stanford and with the 49ers. Tedford said he hired Dunbar to incorporate parts of the spread attack into his more traditional scheme, not to go all-spread, all the time. With Dunbar calling most of the plays, Cal led the Pac-10 in scoring and total offense. It's hard to complain about those rankings. On the other hand, the Bears offense struggled down the stretch in the regular-season, scoring a combined three touchdowns against Arizona, USC and Stanford. Cal lost to the Wildcats and Trojans and beat the Cardinal by just nine points.

"I don't think that had anything to do with play calling," Tedford said of the slump. "I really don't. I thought Mike did a nice job of calling plays. ... I agree with Mike's philosophy of play calling." That's all well and good. But it's only logical that there were some kinks in Cal's offense last year. Because Dunbar, who made a name for himself at Northwestern as a spread offense guru, was helping to design game plans and was calling plays for an offense that was still primarily Tedford's. How couldn't there be a disconnect of sorts? "We're not going to be 100 percent spread," Tedford said. "We're going to mix and match and try to balance certain concepts and schemes, depending on who we're playing. That's the goal. Mike really likes to be completely spread." Tedford said his expanded role will make him adjust his game-day approach this season. Last season Tedford was able to pay closer attention to all aspects of the game as it unfolded. This year he'll need to lean more toward play-calling tunnel vision. "I heard something the other day on TV. Bill Walsh was talking about how he had to remove himself from the game when he was a play caller," Tedford said.  "So all the other things would be external, so he could just focus on down-and-distance and play calling. It takes a lot of concentration to set things up and to do that."  For Cal, that's a tradeoff worth making if it means Tedford's free to concentrate on making the right moves in his gridiron chess match.


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