Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Case Against Cain

Despite seven years at the helm, Ted Cain's offense ranks 116th of 119 in the country. Photo by VU Commodores.
Vanderbilt has the worst offense in the Southeastern Conference. Averaging 266 yards per game before playing Tennessee (against whom they gained 213 yards), the Dores are 12th of 12. Auburn, who fired their offense coordinator after five games, gains 50 more yards per game.

In fact, among the 119 teams in Division I-A only three – 0-11 Washington, 2-10 Washington State, and 4-7 Central Florida – average fewer yards per game. We are 116th and behind everyone else: Temple, Florida International, MTSU, San Diego State, you name it. All of them.

The offense is bad and someone is to blame. And I blame our offensive coordinator Ted Cain. Others may choose to pile on Bobby J, and while he does bear ultimate responsibility, Bobby's background is on the defensive side. The defense has been great - it's the clear strength of this team and the reason we are heading to a bowl.

No, I think it’s Cain. While his experience increases, his unit’s production decreases. In fact, this marks the third year in a row that Vandy’s point production has regressed.

Jay Cutler Era
2002: 18.4 points per game
2003: 19.6 points per game
2004: 19.3 points per game
2005: 27.2 points per game

Chris Nickson Era
2006: 22.0 points per game
2007: 21.7 points per game
2008: 20.3 points per game

I thought Dave Neal had a telling comment during the Tennessee game when he remarked that Nickson looked far more uncomfortable than a fifth year senior should behind center. And that’s how I feel about the whole offense. We are worse than we should be. Under Jay there was poor production but some improvement – since Jay there seems to have been steady decline. Overall we are a stronger program with more NFL-caliber players, so why are we getting worse? Why was sophomore Nickson better than senior Nickson?

My answer to that question, and the reason I dislike Cain, is that our offense is unimaginative. We’re followers. It’s a difficult argument to express and an impossible one to quantify, but our offense just doesn’t seem sophisticated. It seems predictable. The true innovators and rebels – guys like Steve Spurrier, Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Urban Meyer, Jeff Tedford, Gus Malzahn – are the ones creating formations and play and trends. We add the zone reads and jet sweeps after those plays have become common. For a bright school, we don’t play a particularly bright offense.

And the reason is that we lack a creative, young, hungry offensive coordinator. Ted Cain has been an OC since before many of our players were born. With 18 years experience coordinating offenses – separate from his disastrous 1-20 record as the VMI head coach – Cain is the most experienced OC in the SEC. And his offense generates the fewest yards. In order of total offense, with years as OC followed in parenthesis by years at current school.

Georgia - Mike Bobo - 2 (2)
Florida - Dan Mullen - 4 (4)
LSU - Gary Crowton - 14 (2); 2 more years in NFL
Ole Miss - Kent Austin - 1 (1); 4 more years in CFL
Alabama - Jim McElwain - 6 (1)
Arkansas - Paul Petrino - 6 (1)
Carolina - Stever Spurrier* - 17 (4); 2 more years in NFL
Auburn - Vacant (Tony Franklin fired)
Kentucky - Joker Phillips - 4 (4)
Miss State - Woody McCorbey - 4 (3)
Tennessee - Dave Clawson - 6 (1)
Vanderbilt - Ted Cain - 18 (7)

* South Carolina does not have a coach with the title ‘Offensive Coordinator’

Vanderbilt's offense was held to 25 yards in the first half against Tennessee. Photo by Tennessean.
Excluding Spurrier, the only coach close to Cain in experience is Gary Crowton from LSU. And Crowton spent two years as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, 7 years as the head coach at LA Tech and BYU, and won a national championship last year. Cain? 11 years at NC State, in which his best year by PPG was his first in 1986 (27.3). Then two years at VMI as head coach, going 1-20 and averaging 8 PPG in ’97 and 14 PPG in ’98.

Also, if you look at the table above, Cain is the longest tenured OC in the conference! To me, that’s where any excuses run out. He’s had three more years than anyone else to get his guys to run his system. But our best offense playmaker is actually a defensive player in DJ Moore. Our second or third best receiver, Jamie Graham, is another player taken from the defensive side. Despite seven years to build – which is a long tenure in modern college football – we fall below the level of mediocre on offense.

The offense is bad and I don’t see the solution coming from Cain. If the solution were to come from the inside, I would vote for Jimmy Kiser. First, the guy is Jay Cutler’s mentor. Anytime Jay discusses what he learned at Vandy and how he developed, the only coach he mentions is Kiser. There’s something to be said for that. Second, after Cain left NC State in 1996, Kiser took over as OC and the offense improved! Dramatically!

Ted Cain
1995: 23.6 points per game
1996: 24.4 points per game

Jimmy Kiser
1997: 29.5 points per game
1998: 28.6 points per game

Now, Cain had All-American Tory Holt as a freshman and sophomore while Kiser had him as a junior and senior. That surely explains some of the difference. But it’s hard to look at that and not think Kiser could be at least as good as Cain. Maybe better.

Vandy’s offense is a mess. We have won six, but we’ve lost three games (Miss. State, Duke, Tennessee) where even a mediocre offensive performance would have been the difference. Despite heading to a bowl game, it’s our worst offense in years and I think is being shepherded by an offensive coordinator whose best days and best ideas are behind him.

Bobby J has rebuilt Vandy and brought a winning spirit to West End. But in my opinion, taking the next step will involve an offense that can match the production and growth of the defense. And I have a hard time seeing that coming from Ted Cain.


Anonymous said...

"Overall we are a stronger program with more NFL-caliber players". Um, who are the NFL-caliber players that you see on our offense?

Diezba said...

Great piece, Mark. And I agree totally with you. It will be tough for Bobby, but we've got to do something.

Andy said...

I believe in Bobby Johnson, and love him. Let's cut the fat.

evenmoreanonymous said...

Alternatively, we could give the guy some credit for getting us to a bowl a year or two ahead of schedule.