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Maryland's sum is worth more than its parts

October 22, 2002|by BOB PARASILITIbobp@herald-mail.com

Chicken. Egg.

Egg. Chicken.

It's the age-old philosophy discussion bent on figuring out which one came first.

Does it matter? That's hard to say. But here's a sporting variation to consider.

Which is more important in football - talented players or the coach's system?

On one hand, the players complete and catch passes, run for yardage, block and tackle, score touchdowns and kick for all the other points.

On the other, if you take a group of players and stick them out on the field, just how successful would they be if it weren't for the designed game plans of coaches? Drawing plays in the dirt doesn't always cut it.

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Would Joe Montana, Steve Young, Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk be great players if they hadn't met guys like Bill Walsh and Mike Martz with the offensive innovations they devised?

Again, that's hard to say, but that, in itself, is a chicken-egg argument all of its own.

Let's bring it a little closer to home. Why has the University of Maryland football team been so successful over the last 1 1/2 seasons - players or coach Ralph Friedgen's system?

This is a vote of the system making the players as opposed to the players making the system.

Last year, Friedgen was successful with a reclamation project, making Maryland believe they were winners after 15 mediocre seasons.

Friedgen first found a way to instill confidence and belief into a sagging program and then used his diverse system to mold quarterback Shaun Hill, discover tailback Bruce Perry and redefine linebacker E.J. Henderson into bonafide stars in a 10-2 season and an ACC title.

To his credit, Friedgen shelved the arrogance of most football coaches and realized he couldn't do it alone. He hired two proven head coaches - Charlie Taaffe and Gary Blackney - to help break down the system and convey it to the players.

And while last season seemed to be success accomplished through smoke and mirrors, this year may be an even better job.

Using the same system - and in some cases the same baby steps in implementing it - Maryland may well again challenge for the ACC title.

Friedgen accomplished Maryland's turnaround in an age when most new coaches demand a five-year contract, just so they can build the program from the foundation with the hopes of being good by the final year of the pact. Meanwhile, Friedgen broke the mold, winning this year with 45 players who were recruited by Ron Vanderlinden and his power-running, Big Ten-style of play.

This year, they are doing it with Scott McBrien, a transfer quarterback who was barely battle-tested, let alone system-tested. Then there are two running back discoveries in senior Chris Downs and true freshman Josh Allen.

Downs did his best to make everyone forget the injured Perry with 212 yards last week against Georgia Tech. In fact, he went from a forgotten player to the highlight back while matching some of the marks Perry put in last year's books.

And Allen is a running back that Friedgen didn't think he had room to carry but offered him a scholarship just so Maryland didn't have to face him someday.

It's not like Friedgen isn't proven. He's been around the football block a few times, but as an offensive assistant in the past.

Still, in the 90s, he was the offensive architect of some pretty potent Georgia Tech teams and spent a four-year stint with the San Diego Chargers, coordinating their effort to the Super Bowl.

Remember, Stan Humphries was considered a journeyman until he started running Ralph Friedgen's system.

The key is Friedgen's system seems to be sometimes unpredictable. The Terps run backs out of power sets, then will go with one running back and four wide receivers and follow it with some option-styled plays with the quarterback running and pitching.

When it comes down to it, football on the three major levels - high school, college and professional - is so programmed.

Coaches and players spend the week looking at reports and films trying to find the keys to beat the other team. Then a game plan is devised, using the plays that are considered best from the system. And practices are used to perfect those chosen plays against those discovered keys and tendencies.

Those that program the best win. But how many times have you seen a game when the backup quarterback or running back comes in and runs wild to change the complexion of a game?

Maryland seems to have eliminated any consistent keys for the opponents to grasp on. The only thing Friedgen asks is that the quarterback execute and running backs run hard into the holes provided by the offensive line.

The point is the systems implemented by the Bill Walshes, the Norv Turners (as an offensive coordinator) and now the Ralph Friedgens always seem to be successful no matter where they go and no matter what quarterback and personnel is running them.

The system stays the same while the parts are interchangeable.

And that makes opponents chicken to egg them on.

Bob Parasiliti is a staff writer for The Morning Herald. His column appears every other Tuesday. He can be reached at 301-733-5131 ext. 2310, or by e-mail at bobp@herald-mail.com.

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