The Marty Mornhinweg system: How the new Jets coordinator runs his offense
Conor Orr/The Star-Ledger
Published: Jan 23, 2013, 4:28 AM
On his first day as Marty Mornhinweg’s quarterbacks coach, Kevin Higgins learned that some of his most rooted beliefs about the game would no longer apply.
For example, the path a receiver takes during a passing play is not, and should never be called, a pattern. In the NFL, you call it a route.
And that drill nearly every quarterback in football does to warm up before practice — the one where he’s holding the ball and opening his hips to the left and right? That’s completely useless.
The QB doesn’t move like that during a game, does he?
"He said, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ " Higgins said. "Everything you did had to carry over to the game."
Higgins, the current head coach at The Citadel who worked under Mornhinweg during his two years as a head coach for the Detroit Lions, has as good an understanding of Mornhinweg’s offense as anyone.
He helped Mornhinweg sculpt game plans, made adjustments and, after being removed for more than a decade, has the perspective to compare it against other West Coast-style schemes.
As the Jets prepare for their first season with Mornhinweg as the new offensive coordinator, Higgins gave The Star-Ledger a look at some of the main principles in the coordinator’s system.
Like Mornhinweg himself, the offense is meticulous and dependent on precise details. Quarterbacks alone have a menu of 30 different drills to chose from during the week, consistent with the Bill Walsh coaching philosophy Mornhinweg learned from, Higgins said.
Like Mornhinweg’s numbers show — eight top-10 scoring offenses as a head coach or coordinator, as well as nine top-10 passing offenses, and six top-10 rushing offenses — it can pay off.
"It’s versatile, there’s a lot of things you can do," Higgins said. "Typically you’re playing with two backs in the backfield, so you’re going to have the opportunity to run power, run gap schemes and run inside and outside zones.
"From a pass game standpoint, it’s all about timing and it’s all about rhythm."
IT'S ABOUT TIMING
"It was never on a clock. It’s all about the quarterback’s footwork."
From slants to skinny posts, every route in Mornhinweg’s playbook is based on a timing system with a direct correlation to the type of drop-back a quarterback takes. The drops include:
Three step, plant and throw.
Three step, hesitate and throw.
Five step, plant and throw.
Five step, hitch and throw.
Seven step, hitch and throw.
The goal is to create a quarterback-receiver relationship based more on feel and rhythm. In the past, for example, Mark Sanchez was put on a countdown clock and buzzer in order to get plays off in a certain time. This system would ensure the wideout is working off of a different, more natural indicator to run the route.
"The series of quarterback-related drills (he does with footwork), I think, are outstanding," Higgins said. "That’s the first thing I did when I arrived in Detroit. Marty pulled me in a room and we went through them all meticulously. Every drill had a name and a goal."
"There’s going to be a lot of slants, a lot of out routes and a lot of skinny posts."
Because of the timed routes, Higgins said the offense thrives on completion percentage, despite Mornhinweg working with quarterbacks not known for hitting on a high percentage of their passes. From 2010-2012, under Mornhinweg, Eagles QB Michael Vick had a completion rate of 60.2 percent after having a career 53.8 percentage in Atlanta.
Sanchez has a 55.1 rate for his career.
Higgins said the quarterbacks they worked with in Detroit loved the system, not only because of the simplicity and high success rate of the routes, but because of the security blanket installed with each play. No matter what, every play has a designed check-down option.
"On every route that’s devised, there’s always going to be a check-down," Higgins said. "We used to say, ‘as long as you can count to three you can be successful.’ If one isn’t there, look to two. If two isn’t there, reset your feet and make sure you find No. 3. There’s always going to be a nice check-down for you."
"We didn’t have a lot of talent, that was before some of the high draft choices like Roy Williams and guys like Az-Zahir Hakim came. … But just the various ways he could get the backs the football, I thought, was very, very good."
During Mornhinweg’s first season as Lions head coach in 2001, the team was first in the league in passing attempts and sixth in yards, despite a slew of injuries and a roster depleted of top-level talent.
One of his top weapons ended up being 6-foot, 247-pound fullback Cory Schlesinger, who understood leverage and could mismatch himself on linebackers. Schlesinger had 60 receptions for 466 yards, the second-most receptions on the team next to wideout Johnnie Morton.
During the Jets’ 2012 season, the fullbacks and running backs combined had just 42 catches — a correlation that’s easy to make with a rapid regression in Sanchez’s game, including the second-worst completion percentage of his career.
"What made Marty different from all the other West Coast guys was he took a lot of shots downfield."
Between 2010 and 2011, Mornhinweg’s Eagles were in the top 10 in passing plays of 20 yards or more. On passing plays of 40 yards or more they were No. 1 in 2010 and No. 12 in 2011.
Higgins remembers this philosophy going back to offensive meetings where Mornhinweg would look at the game plan and jokingly scold his coaches in Detroit for being too reliant on the safe dinks and dunks that define his system.
"We’ve only got three or four shots downfield," Higgins remembered Mornhinweg saying. "I want to see six or seven that can give us an honest chance at a home run that are realistic plays, like deep crossing routes with seven or eight man protection."
He wanted detail and regiment, but he also wanted the chance to surprise on any given play. In essence, what Rex Ryan has said he now wants in an offense.
"The Jets are going to enjoy playing for him," Higgins said.