Leistikow: Detailed insight into Brian Ferentz's approach as Iowa's offensive coordinator

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — One simple question Friday afternoon turned into a fascinating answer from Brian Ferentz that not only revealed his philosophy as an offensive coordinator but his vision for Iowa football.

As reporters around the 36-year-old son of the Hawkeyes’ head coach scattered to interview emerging players at the team's annual media day, it was just me and Ferentz outside the doors of the Hansen Football Performance Center.

Understanding Ferentz’s history as an assistant coach with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots … and knowing that the 2019 Hawkeyes have an increasingly diverse set of wide receivers to go with a veteran quarterback … I wondered if this offense was getting closer to what he envisioned.

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More specifically: How much Patriots influence is there on this Iowa offense, particularly as it pertains to the short passing game?

Brian Ferentz, take it from here.

To begin what would become an eight-minute answer, his sharp mind flashed back to the Patriots’ dominating AFC playoff win in January against the San Diego Chargers. How did New England find itself with a commanding 31-point lead late in the third quarter against one of the best teams in the NFL?

“The Chargers play a lot of post-safety zones, where they’re matching vertical routes. And their whole defense is designed to take away some of those deep throws,” Ferentz explained, having had intimate knowledge of how Bill Belichick and Tom Brady operate. “They don’t want you sending the ball down the field.

“The weakest part of their defense is their underneath coverage. Not because it’s weak. But, by design, they don’t cover anybody underneath 5 yards.”

In that game, Brady completed 15 passes to James White, a backup running back, for 97 yards. To the Chargers, it must've felt like football death by a thousand paper cuts.

“It’s not because he’s trying to feature James White,” Ferentz said. “It’s because he understands how to take a profit and take what a defense gives you.”

Tom Brady changes a play at the line of scrimmage in a dominating AFC playoff win against the Chargers on Jan. 13. He completed 34 of 44 passes in that game.

Keep reading, and you’ll get how this relates to the Hawkeyes.

“They aren’t going to force balls. They aren’t going to make bad decisions that’ll result in a turnover," Ferentz said. "That’s what you’re striving for in an offensive system.

“I think when you get to the point of mastery or true health in that, now you see the ball getting distributed a little bit more.”

That, right there, is the ultimate destination for Iowa’s offense: to be able to to put a quarterback and five skill-position players on the field who can consistently adapt to whatever a defense throws at them during a game.

If the defense is giving up 5 free yards, take them.

If the defense is giving up the home-run shot, swing for it ... and don't miss.

But arriving to that perfect point is difficult. It's often too easy to rely on the big-name stars, as Iowa did at times with Akrum Wadley in 2017 and its NFL-bound tight ends in 2018.

“You look at the mistakes we’ve made, we’re trying to force the ball to certain people," Ferentz said. "It’s people we have great trust in. All of a sudden, we make a bad decision or a bad read — and it comes from a place of comfort."

In other words, when situations get tense, players — and coaches — tend to tighten up and play it safe. That’s an instinct Ferentz wants to avoid as an offensive coordinator. That’s where he aims to be different from the crowd. But he's not there yet, and neither is this Iowa offense.

“The thing that Brady is capable of doing … he can take that (emotion) out of the equation,” Ferentz said. “He can work from a purely analytical and surgical standpoint. That’s true mastery.”

That’s why Ferentz, in his first year as offensive coordinator in 2017, chose to call plays from the press box. He thought that'd help him detach emotion from his pursuits.

What happened instead?

“I created a bigger problem for myself," Ferentz said, "because the emotion overtakes me. Because it’s like being a caged animal. You can’t coach anybody. You can’t do anything. You’re just up there.”

So, starting with the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl, he moved down to the field during games.

Iowa has a 10-4 record since.


“If you can start removing emotion from decision-making, now you’ve got a chance to be good at something,” Ferentz said. “It’s hard. I see 65-year-old coaches that have been doing this 40 years that can’t take the emotion out of it. They make mistakes because of it.

Nate Stanley, of course, isn't Tom Brady. But offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz wants his quarterback (and himself) to be that emotions-detached trigger-man for the Hawkeyes.

“I’ve done it. And I’ll do it again. Hopefully I’ll do it less often. I think that’s the secret and the magic to Patriots."

Of course, you may be thinking: Yeah, the best quarterback of all-time can pull this off. But how can you expect a young college quarterback to perfect such a calculated approach?

That's a valid question.

Iowa likes its guy going into the 2019 season in cerebral senior Nate Stanley. He has almost become a test-case, to see if the Patriots' philosophy can be implemented on a smaller scale. Ferentz indicated he thinks Stanley — who already has 52 touchdown passes and a 17-9 record in two years as a starter — can make “exponential” growth entering his final season as a Hawkeye.

And Iowa definitely has more options in the short passing game, with talented freshmen Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. joining experienced juniors Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette and senior tight end Nate Wieting.

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To conclude his point, Ferentz offered a reference to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who took the NFL by storm in his first year as a starter — as if to affirm that it's not just veterans like Brady that can pick apart even the best defenses.

Sure, Mahomes will dazzle with left-handed or no-look passes. But beneath that flash, Ferentz sees in Mahomes the biggest thing he ultimately requires of his quarterback, his offense and himself.

“He operates from a place of detachment. He’s playing football,” Ferentz said. “He’s making decisions that are good for the football team.

“He’s not worried about fantasy football or nonsense like that. He’s trying to advance the ball down the field and take what the defense gives him. And when they give him those big plays, he’s got the ability to strike.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.