Fat Camp: The Erhardt-Perkins Offense, Part 1

As we shift from the player-evaluation mode of the preseason to games that count, I thought this would be a good time to turn our focus to just what type of offense we can expect to see from the Broncos. Exhibition games offer only a hint of what's to come, as teams are reluctant to telegraph their intentions for the regular season and are concentrating more on roster construction.

Denver is employing their own variation on the Erhardt-Perkins offense, which was very much what Josh McDaniels used both in New England and in Denver. The new version Denver will utilize will emphasize the run more, where McDaniels preferred to use the short pass more as a sort of ball-control passing game - in a certain respect, not dissimilar to the Bill Walsh theory of the game.  However, most of the passing from Denver is likely to be vertical, and of the Air Coryell variety.

A few simple things should be covered before we get into much detail on the offensive system, and we'll start today by revisiting the history of the Erhardt-Perkins Offense; we'll get more into the nitty-gritty on Saturday.

What’s the Erhardt-Perkins Offense?

First - In one real sense, there’s no one thing called the Erhardt-Perkins (EP) offense. Got your attention? There is a structure of principles, terminology and plays that have been called that, but what is meant by the term has varied greatly from run-heavy schemes to the offense that currently holds the NFL scoring record - the 2007 Patriots and their 589 regular-season points. What I’m saying by this is that there isn’t a single, monolithic tradition that was started by the coaches for whom the system is named, giving the sport an approach that’s etched in stone. Actually, the EP is a versatile approach that can be combined with others (West Coast Offense, Air Coryell, etc.) to achieve whatever goals for a specific offense that the coaches might want to set.

In Denver’s case, it started with legendary coach Sid Gillman making a simple but deeply insightful observation: "A football field is 53.33 yards wide by 100. We felt that we should take advantage of the fact that the field was that wide and that long. So, our formations reflected the fact that we were going to put our outside ends wide enough that we could take advantage of the whole width of the field. And then we were going to throw the ball far enough so that we forced people to cover the width and the length." Some of his adherents chose a horizontal approach to the game, others chose a vertical approach. Gillman used them both. The vertical aspect shows up the most in Denver’s scheme and is combined with principles from the EP.

The Erhardt-Perkins system isn’t new: It was developed by Ray Perkins and Ron Erhardt under head coach Chuck Fairbanks back in the 1970s while all three were coaching the Patriots. It’s survived, in part, because it takes Gillman’s statement into consideration: it’s highly versatile. It can cover the entire field. It’s considered a smash-mouth system and a power-running system, but it has also been played well by non-smash-mouth teams - the degree of emphasis on the power running game varies with the OC applying it.  It can also be used in emphasizing the pass, being essentially a fairly balanced system, and when it does, it usually (though not always) features the vertical passing of the Air Coryell school.

Generally, the early EP running attack used very few RB receptions, which will be altered a great deal under Broncos OC Mike McCoy and head coach John Fox. Erhardt was fond of the aphorism ‘Pass to score, run to win’. He’s not the only coach to have used it frequently, and I can’t identify the first source of the quote (actually, I’ve heard three original sources, so I favor no one), but that’s going to be one part - if only one - of the new offense.

The EP is particularly known for using a lot of trapping and pulling by the offensive line. A dedication to running the ball was a traditional part of the system, so the emphasis on running by Fox is neither new nor unusual. Josh McDaniels didn’t emphasize the use of a TE, but Fox and McCoy have shown that they intend to. In fact, one of Denver’s base offensive packages is a max-protect formation with two TEs and two RBs - not something that you saw a lot of in the past couple of years. The EP also tends to make a lot of use of play-action, which suits QB Kyle Orton and the Broncos well.

OCs and Adaptation

The EP is not a stagnant system, set in stone at some point and kept inviolate - it is dynamic and constantly changing. The reason at the heart of that growth is that despite the tendency of all fans to pigeonhole both teams and systems, every offense changes each year. Sid Gillman did it, Bill Walsh did it, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels still do, and so will Mike McCoy.

If you're an NFL offensive coordinator, you'll adapt the system each year for three key reasons:

  1. So that the rest of the league can’t make assumptions on what you’ll do in a given situation as relates to time remaining and down and distance;  to keep some element of surprise.
  2. Because each year you have different players (in degree) and you will therefore want to make changes to maximize the advantages they might give you, or to minimize the problems from them - or both. You want to use the most effective weapons in your arsenal, and that can mean either running or passing dominating in degree with the E-P.
  3. Because you want to continue to grow as a coordinator/coach and explore your profession: part of that is trying new things. Working with some changes of ideas to see if they work is normal and potentially beneficial.

So if it worries you that Josh McDaniels’ system is somehow going to still be run to a "T" this year - don’t sweat it. Every offense changes every year, and McCoy is going to be trying out his own approaches; several of those changes have been made known and I like a lot of them. This year, I’m looking forward to a number of them.

Background

The history of the system is somewhat complex, so bear with me. Ron Erhardt was the older of the two coaches. After finishing his college and a two-year stint in the military, he coached at the high school level from 1957 to 1962 with a final record of 45-9-2. It got him noticed enough to earn him a job as an assistant at North Dakota State, where decades later Tyrone Braxton - and later Joe Mays - would play. In 1966, Erhardt took over as head coach at NDS. He had an enviable record of 61-7-1 in his seven years as head coach there and also served for them as their athletic director, helping take the team to two national championships.

In 1973, Erhardt was hired as a backfield coach for the New England Patriots, and he worked his way up to offensive coordinator by working with both Ray Perkins (and to a lesser degree with Chuck Fairbanks) to develop this system, moving up to offensive coordinator four years later when Red Miller left for Denver. The Pats looked like they might make a SB run the following year (1974), but in December, Fairbanks announced that he was leaving for the U of Colorado where he had accepted a contract just before the last game of the regular season. The Pats promoted assistants Erhardt and Hank Bullough (of the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defense fame) to replace the suspended Fairbanks for their final game of the regular season; they lost the game and missed the playoffs. Erhardt moved up into the head coaching job with mixed results - the team missed the playoffs by a single game for two years running and then ran down to a 2-14 record, at which point he was released. Owner Billy Sullivan said that he was ‘too nice a guy’ for the job. It beats being called ‘too much of a jerk' for it, but not by much. 

The Giants and Bill Parcells picked him up as offensive coordinator under head coach Ray Perkins and together they took the pieces that each had accumulated along the way and molded them into a team that won two Super Bowls: XXI with QB Phil Simms against the Broncos and XXV with Jeff Hostetler filling in for the injured Simms versus Buffalo. The latter would be Parcells’ final game as the Giants' head coach - his replacement, Ray Handley, fired Erhardt, who would earn another title shot in SB XXX as OC with the Steelers - losing 27-17 to Dallas before differences over offensive philosophy with Bill Cowher led to him leaving after four years in Pittsburgh.

Ray Perkins attended the University of Alabama back in the 1960s, playing under Bear Bryant and as a teammate of Joe Namath. Perkins was an All-American, and the Tide won the National Championship in 1964 and 1965. Perkins went on to play wide receiver under Don Shula while he was with the Baltimore Colts, and Perkins caught a long TD pass from Johnny Unitas in their 1970 AFC Championship game victory over the Raiders to help the Colts reach SB V. He had a good grounding in the game, and an urge to go into coaching.

Perkins started as an assistant for the Patriots in the mid 1970s (74-76), and during that time helped to develop this system. He followed that with a year in San Diego that led to a four-year head coaching job with the Giants from 1979 to 1982. Perkins also hired future head coaches Parcells, Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel during that time and served as an influence to all three. Perkins moved around for a bit before returning to New England under Parcells from 1993 to 1996.

Parcells used the EP quite extensively when he was coaching, and as a result, Charlie Weis learned it from him too and passed it on to several assistants, including McDaniels and Chiefs HC Todd Haley. Current Vikings OL coach Jeff Davidson is another Weis protege and is said to by some have brought the system to the Carolina Panthers, where he was the OC for the past four years as a member of John Fox's staff.

Terminology

A lot of folks don’t know this, but the terminology of the West Coast Offense is frequently expressed in colors, where the terms for the EP offense are generally expressed in numbers. It’s a matter of preference - a lot of things are the same between the two, some are different.

For example, and to give props to an example that my old friend Steve O’Reilly has used on his fine site Skinny Post, a play that could be used in an EP system would call out "Zero Ride Thirty Six." You want to describe the formation, protection (if appropriate) and where the play goes with your signal calling - Zero is the formation, Thirty is the RB and Six describes what hole the run is headed for.

The Broncos' Version

There are some things that will be the same this year and a lot that will be different from the McDaniels version of the EP. The EP has often been linked with the Air Coryell offense to combine the aggression of a powerful running game with the constant threat to the defense of a deep pass. It’s a system that’s based in an aggressive, hostile take-no-prisoners approach to the game, something that the Broncos could use.

Denver will be using more of the smashmouth running game approach than they did under McDaniels, but they will also pass to RBs (which he did) and have a strong role for TEs (which he didn’t) as well as passing in the middle to deep routes. The ‘throw to score’ part will be taken up mostly by the vertical passing game - Denver isn’t going to get rid of the timing patterns that WR Brandon Lloyd and Orton have gotten good at together, but they aren’t going to be as interested in the short passing game - in theory. I still expect them to use an outlet receiver, just as all NFL teams do, and there’s always a place in the playbook for the TE or slot receiver over the middle. I wouldn’t expect to see a lack of short passes just because it’s a vertical variation on the EP - Denver will work with whatever their players do best and whatever they need done. But they will look for the longer passes.

It’s not cut and dried in terms of exactly what aspects of the offense will be kept, even now - preseason gives you time to see certain things, and time for certain members of the coaching or FO staff to try some things and certain players. Sometimes, a particular play from the WCO - such as the timing pattern that Orton threw to Lloyd in the Seattle game, where the announcers were surprised to find via replay that the throw was actually made before Lloyd had made his cut - will fit well. If it works, it works. In fact, there are quite a few WCO plays that will fit Denver well this year and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few of them adapted to the blocking scheme and run commonly.

The Offensive Line

The line play will certainly be different this year, in degree. Part of that will simply be due to the change in personnel with the addition of RT Orlando Franklin and the additional experience that LG Zane Beadles and C J.D. ‘Trash Can’ Walton (as DC Dennis Allen calls him - henceforth to be known as Trashy for short), developed last year. Despite some of the comments that come out of camp about the OL (Cecil Lammey, for example, has strong feelings that both Beadles and Walton have failed to improve, as I’ve noted before, and there’s reason to doubt him, as I’ve also noted), that hasn’t really shown up in preseason, although the normal preseason sloppiness is certainly there in degree: so far Walton looked particularly improved against Buffalo’s Kyle Williams, who’s a very good player (both players won some downs, but Walton had his share). Beadles has struggled on some plays, although doing well overall, but there’s no real depth behind him. Chris Kuper is a top guard who helped with and sometimes also took on Williams as well with good results (although he’s struggling with a turf toe injury, which can cost a player a whole season if it’s aggravated or severe) and Ryan Clady is, well, Iron Clady. Franklin is still learning the NFL game, and that will continue for a while;  his run blocking is excellent and his pass blocking is improving, but he needs to work more on his technique. His tenacity is very good, though.

While there was some misunderstanding about the use of the zone blocking scheme last year (the ZB was used in the running game - just not all the time), Denver has dedicated themselves to it to a somewhat greater degree. They expect to use a simpler version than the Alex Gibbs/Rick Dennison version, for example. There will be less one-cut running, which RB Knowshon Moreno has never been totally comfortable with (although he’s developed a lot). They’re doing it with a couple of 320+lb bookend tackles, with Franklin at about 22 lb heavier than former RT Ryan Harris, a 20 lb bigger center in Walton than they had with Casey Wiegmann, and Beadles is a lot (almost 20 lb) bigger than Ben Hamilton was. Kuper was and is just fine as he is. You don’t have to be small to run the ZB - you just need good feet and to move efficiently as a group. Size is great, if you have that option. This offense pulls and traps a lot too, and it’s best of all to have size and good feet for that. Denver looks like it does, although the OL lacks depth.

As Dave Mazagu pointed out, the short version is this:

We run some zone schemes, we run some gap schemes, we run some man schemes and some draws; Most places we’ve been it's been a combination of all those things. You can’t do just one thing.

Changes for the Broncos

Brian Xanders made an interesting comment (emphasis mine):

We’re building consistency on defense, with the same schemes and coordinator. And on offense, we want to attack with explosive plays, running and pounding the ball with John Fox’s scheme of two backs, three backs with explosive play-action passes off of it.

The three-back approach will be interesting to watch, should it be unveiled.

In addition to the challenges with the OL, the move to a more running-intensive offense and away from Josh McDaniels' pass-first offense is a big change, and the common use of the max-protect formation with two TEs and two RBs (221 or 22), QB in shotgun, in a pro set with the QB is very different as well, just to get that out of the way. The other base formation is the 212 or 21 - two RBs, one TE and two WRs, as opposed to McDaniels’ preferred three-wide shotgun base formation.

Denver has sought RBs that can block as well as catch and run with the ball, which isn’t new - McDaniels did the same and Mike Shanahan usually wanted those as well (that’s normal in the Walsh WCO). All of those things should help improve the QB protection. Running Backs coach and former interim head coach Eric Studesville has also made it clear that getting a fullback in hand, trained and fully a part of the new version of the offense is a priority - for the first time, Spencer Larsen has no LB designation. That group of changes also means better protection for the QB, all of which are helpful to one of Denver’s greatest recent weaknesses.

The RBs in the EP Offense

Denver is all about aggression and ferocity this season, and that carries over into the offense as well. The system was originally developed in the Northeast, in a climate that gives rise to cold, blowing air later every season, and the development of the EP system’s beginnings dates back in the 1960s and 70s, so domes were rare and toughness required. Teams go with the kind of players that suit that kind of climate, as well as the system that also fits there, which tends to mean smashmouth football.

The OL is usually a little bigger in the EP - Denver is fine, in terms of that. Not everyone does, but the Fox system tends prefer somewhat bigger RBs, too - having a Willis McGahee-type around is pretty normal for his offense, and while Moreno is a little small he’s got several advantages that balance that out, including his skilled receiving ability. In a two-back set like the max protect, the RBs are usually arranged - right now, at least - in a ‘pro set’ with one RB about equally spread to both sides of and often level to or just slightly in back of the QB. If there’s only one back, he’s usually out to the side of the QB in the shotgun.

The original version of the EP system emphasized the power run more than most modern forms. Denver will run more this year, but will also use the RBs as receivers. They won’t use the one-cut as much - at least, that’s what they’re saying right now. They’re going to stay with a more vertical passing attack than some forms of the EP has used, and this year they intend to keep some things simple but to have enough options that they don’t expect other teams to be able to predict their next move very often. You can’t discount the importance of two aspects of this system in terms of how they suit the Broncos specifically. The first, as mentioned before, is aggression. Denver wants to take the game to the other team and force them to react to Denver’s approaches.

Secondly, one area that Denver has struggled with over the past few years has been finishing out games and seasons. There’s an advantage there to the running game if it’s done well - teams commonly run out the clock when they’re ahead, mostly due to the rules on clock movement, hence the ‘run to win’ aspect of the philosophy. But it’s also true that running at the defense, time after time, wears them down physically and mentally. It’s true over a season, and it’s true in the context of a lot of games. Having the size and attitude to block - run or pass - is necessary. Offensive linemen also comment on how much easier it is on them to run block than to pass block, which is a benefit of a run-heavy scheme if your linemen are wearing down on you.

On the other side of the ball, smaller lines sometimes find themselves also wearing down late in the season, although factors of scheme and skill levels are also essential. The OL, if they are winning, often smell blood when run-blocking and become even more aggressive late in games. That doesn’t hurt either. Denver’s making an effort to change their old pattern and I’m glad to finally see that coming.

One thing that may help Denver with their problems is that while New England had one version of the EP, and because of that Josh McDaniels didn’t use a TE or a FB very much (although both are traditionally a part of the EP), Fox/McCoy’s version is clearly more RB- and FB-heavy. This is purely a matter of personal preference, but I like this kind of approach. In terms of football, I’m by nature prone to using large groups of players hitting small areas within a second or two - I find that outnumbering an opponent in a small area opens it to longer gains in yardage. This is not a new principle, to put it mildly. Alexander used it, among others, to defeat the Persians. It still works in the NFL.

Conclusion

First, it’s my feeling that Denver has chosen an option that will let veterans on the team know the basics of their role in the offensive system, but that will also contain several changes that will slow or stop the ability of opposing DCs to spot patterns from McDaniels’ version of the EP to that of Mike McCoy. Specific changes include more TE use, a running-back-by-committee approach, and possibly an emphasis on the longer pass (yes, Orton was already near the top there last year, but the EP tends to more mid-range passes rather than the shorter passes of, say, the WCO), but there are others.

On Saturday, I’ll talk a little more about the Air Coryell system and the role of the OL and QB in this offense. I’ll also add some things to fill out your familiarity with the system and how it can be used and adapted to a variety of situations. See you there!

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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