USC Football: Play-Calling Isn’t Kiffin’s Problem


Nov 17, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin during the game against the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s going to be okay, Trojan Family. Lane Kiffin announced on Pac-12 Media Day that he will not give up play-calling duties in 2013, but it’s going to be okay.

At the very least, it’s not the end of the world.

If there’s anything fans of a struggling football team love, it’s the back-up quarterback. Since USC has no back up QB at the moment, we turn our attention to the next best thing – the guy calling the plays.

There’s no getting around it. Kiffin’s play-calling was downright ugly at times last season. I can’t be the only person who still has nightmares about the goal line sequence against Notre Dame.

To be fair, I also have nightmares about the gaping hole that blocked UCLA’s Anthony Barr on his way to ending Matt Barkley’s season early. And that wasn’t on Kiffin’s play sheet.

For that matter, I doubt Kiffin’s play sheet included his offensive line being unable to get a single yard of push on two QB sneaks and a Curtis McNeal run at the goal line against the Irish.

No one questioned Kiffin’s ability to call plays after the successful 2011 season, which wasn’t all that statistically different from 2012. The 2011 offense averaged just 12 more rushing yards, 12 more passing yards and three more points than the 2012 offense. That’s not a devastating drop off. The devastating drop off in production between ’11 and ’12 was actually in turnovers. In 2011 USC lost 18 turnovers. In 2012 they lost a mind-blowing 34; only three teams in the country could claim a greater number. The play-calling wasn’t the problem there. Lane Kiffin didn’t draw up interceptions or fumbles.

That’s not to excuse Kiffin from his coaching deficiencies in 2012. In fact, it would be easier if the failures of this past season could all be linked to Kiffin’s skill as a play caller. Unfortunately, the problem stemmed more from leadership. The off-the-field circus surrounding the team set the wrong tone from the beginning. In a season that turned into a case-study on making mountains out of molehills, Kiffin and USC walked into every trap. Poor relations with the local media led to needless outrage over meaningless “scandals,” from Kiffin’s coaches’ poll ballot to injury reports to deflated footballs. More concerning, the level of team preparation on the field never quite hit the mark. Blocking was poor, tackling was poor, mental fortitude was lacking. Ultimately, the team quit on Kiffin in the Sun Bowl. But they didn’t quit because he called the wrong plays. They quit because they weren’t prepared well enough to execute the plays he called.

Change was absolutely necessary this off season. Here’s the bright side. It has come.

Mar 5, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Lane Kiffin reacts at spring practice at Howard Jones Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For better or for worse, Kiffin has overhauled the coaching staff around him. Gone is Monte Kiffin, an NFL genius who never really found his footing in the college game. In comes Clancy Pendergast with a welcome swagger and new aggressive defensive scheme designed to get the most out of USC’s defensive personnel.

Arguably the biggest weak link of 2012 was the offensive line, which Kiffin has also addressed. Mike Summers, the new offensive line coach, was brought in to fix that problem and with a reputation for quick turnarounds and an emphasis on toughness his guidance on the o-line could be the key to success in 2013. Two other well-respected assistants have also joined the team; Tommie Robinson takes over as running backs coach and Mike Ekler will lead the linebackers.

Many fans wanted additional change, hoping that newly-promoted offensive coordinator Clay Helton would be given the play-calling duties. Much like the back-up quarterback though, calls for Helton are more about change for change’s sake rather than a clear examination of what truly benefits the team. Helton has limited experience as a play caller and his offenses at Memphis left plenty to be desired. Facing mostly Conference USA opponents, Helton’s teams never averaged more than 30 points per game. On the other hand, in his five total years as USC’s play caller, Kiffin has never had an offense average less than 30 points per game. While it might be an interesting experiment to see what Helton can do, Kiffin would still be on the hook for the offense’s production. On the surface, giving up play-calling could free up Kiffin’s time for other responsibilities, but Kiffin is an offensive-minded coach and he would never truly remove himself from the play-calling process.

The simple fact is this: It’s Kiffin’s ship and he’s going to sink or swim on his own terms.

Pat Haden can reaffirm the head coach’s job security all he wants, but everyone knows Kiffin can’t survive another season like the last. He’s added new pieces to the staff, the rest is on him. By keeping control of the offense, he’s taking responsibility for his own future. Giving up play calling wouldn’t solve the big problem, which is leadership. Based on past results, Kiffin is very capable of balancing his offensive duties with his head coaching responsibilities and getting his team to play their best. As last season taught us, he’s also capable of burying his head in the play sheet and losing them.

In 2011, Kiffin was a legitimate candidate for Pac-12 Coach of the Year and his play-calling was praised. In 2012, he was arguably one of the worst coaches in the conference and his play-calling was suspect.  The question isn’t whether Kiffin is the right man to call plays in 2013, it’s whether Lane Kiffin, the head coach, is more 2011 than 2012.

If he’s the latter, then it’s unlikely we’ll have to worry about him calling plays in 2014.