NFL Growing Bullish on the Offensive Genius of Lincoln Riley


Those who follow the stock market – and especially those who are making it rain thanks to investments – understand that Wall Street is paved with gold. It’s a bull market on a stampede.

Lincoln Riley isn’t a stock being traded on the New York Stock Exchange. But as far as the NFL is concerned, the second-year Oklahoma coach is a blue-chip investment commodity. ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit is bullish on the 34-year-old coach.

“If he were a stock, you’d be buying Lincoln Riley,” he said last spring. “He’s as hot as he can be, as not just as a head coach with what he did his first year but also as a play caller.”

Riley has been in charge of offensive schemes since 2010 when he was at East Carolina. During this decade, his acumen for designing innovative plays and knowing when to call them has made him one of college football’s offensive savants. And this off-season, the NFL brain pickers were beating a path to Norman.

“You do see the difference in the interest, a dramatic difference,” Riley told Albert Breer of Monday Morning Quarterback. “I’d say in all the years at Texas Tech, all the years at East Carolina and the first couple years here, I had a true football discussion with maybe one NFL team.”

After coaching a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 draft pick and getting the Sooners into the College Football Playoff, nearly every team in The League wanted to find out what was in the secret sauce.

“That thing got blown out of proportion a little bit,” Riley said at Big 12 media days. “Some of the (conversations) were just, you know, hey, a few minutes here or there or a guy at pro day or these guys coming in to work out a guy and they sit there and talk to you. we’re never going to sit there and talk to somebody that we don’t feel like we can’t get something from. There has got to be something in it for us. All these guys that we got a chance to talk to it is very helpful for us.”

While downplaying the off-season brain storming, Lincoln Riley also makes the point that it’s a two-way street. Oklahoma gets another chip to play in the recruiting game by mentioning how NFL coaches like to visit and Riley’s staff gets to hear the pro perspective.

But everyone can watch the games and observe how a Run-Pass Option play can befuddle a defense or how slick ball handling and accurate throws by Baker Mayfield can lead to chunk plays. Imitation is the sincerest form of building a playbook. Why not just watch the film and diagram the plays?

“Offensive schematics are all similar,” FOX college football analyst Joel Klatt told The Open Man. “It’s like language but to learn a different language you have to immerse yourself. To me, the play call ‘200 Jet Y Stick’ is a similar concept to a play called ‘Scat Right Zero 95 F Post.’ These NFL guys aren’t trying to copy an offense, they’re trying to get the nuances.”

One NFL coach told Breer that he likes Oklahoma’s offensive system “a lot” and another is impressed with how Riley “mixes tempo and attacks people – love it.”

So, again, why not just copy/paste?

“Within offensive football, what makes a great offense is the nuances of coaching details, coaching points,” Klatt said. “What exactly are you telling the quarterback where to read? Where do his eyes go first? A tight end on an out route – high schools run that play. You can see that on film and draw it up. But the reason the tight end is open is that the guy running the flat route who gets the ball two percent of the time, he’s the first guy the quarterback looks to.

“You go to learn the nuances of how a coaching staff teaches its offense. It’s not the stuff you learn from watching film. A post route against Cover Four – was that the concept called, was that a check at the line?

“You’ve got to sit with Lincoln Riley – you can draw up a play that you copied from OU film. That’s only half the battle. For that play, he has to explain if how that play fit into that game plan and then if that play evolved during the game and there was an adjustment to the route.”

A key victory that helped the Sooners reach the CFP last season came in Week Three when Oklahoma went to Ohio State and won, 31-16. Several of the big-yardage plays came thanks to plays designed to take advantage of Mayfield’s play fakes and passing accuracy.

“Ohio State linebackers were literally guessing whether the Sooners would run or pass,” Herbstreit said. “If you can keep a defense guessing, you’re in complete control of game.”

Skill players in Riley’s offense are constantly amazed and excited when each week’s game plan is implemented. Mark Andrews, last year’s Mackey Award winner as the nation’s best tight end, says that Lincoln Riley is an “offensive genius.” Andrews echoes Herbstreit’s praise in complimenting Riley’s ability to call a “zig” play when the offense expects a “zag.”

And even the Big Uglies on the offensive line get jazzed before the snap.

“I love thinking that we’re going to score on a play even before we get lined up,” Oklahoma senior offensive lineman Ben Powers said last month. “You can ask (last year’s starting left tackle Orlando Brown) there was at least four times last year I told him, ‘We’re scoring on this.’ I think maybe even the D-line heard me. The mindset is that if all 11 players do their job, there’s not a play that won’t work.”

Starting with Saturday’s opener against Florida Atlantic – which promises to be a tougher-than-normal challenge – Oklahoma’s offense will debut a new quarterback. After three season’s of Mayfield’s prolific passing, redshirt junior Kyler Murray takes over. His strongest skill set is mobility and track-star speed. The offense features running back Rodney Anderson (1,442 yards, 18 touchdowns last season) plus receivers Marquise Brown (57 receptions, 1,095 yards and Ceedee Lamb (46 receptions, 807 yards).

How Riley schemes to take advantage of Murray’s talents and mesh them with the other skill players will be fascinating to watch and will likely determine if OU will return to the CFP.

“I’ve never been in an offense that was as much fun as last year’s,” Anderson said. “After three years with him, personally, as a player, I’ve just scratched the surface. I’m excited to see what he’s gonna come up with this season.”

Lincoln Riley by the numbers

In eight seasons (seven as a play caller, one as a head coach who still called the shots), Lincoln Riley’s offenses have posted impressive numbers at East Carolina and now at Oklahoma.

Year Scoring/rank Total off./rank Passing off./rank
2010* 36.7/16th 437 ypg/25th 318 ypg/8th
2011* 26.2/66th 395 ypg/50th 286 ypg/20th
2012* 31.4/47th 408 ypg/56th 273 ypg/36th
2013* 40.2/8th 468 ypg/25th 328 ypg/11th
2014* 35.8/23rd 533 ypg/5th 371 ypg/3rd
2015 43.5/4th 530 ypg/7th 306 ypg/17th
2016 43.9/4th 554 ypg/2nd 318 ypg/12th
2017 45.1/3rd 579 ypg/1st 361 ypg/3rd
*- East Carolina; last three seasons Oklahoma.