Georgia is 13-0 and heading towards another College Football Playoff appearance after winning the 2021 National Championship. After two straight undefeated seasons it is easy to forget that things weren’t always like this in Athens.
Flashback a few years and you will remember that there were many in the media and Bulldog fanbase who questioned Kirby Smart’s ability to turn Georgia into an elite offensive team. The defensive chops of UGA’s head man were never in question, but the 2019 team that was coordinated by James Coley was just 65th in the FBS in Total Offense, averaging 397.2 YDS a contest. That 2019 team was also 61st in Scoring Offense while putting up 28.3 points a game.
That Georgia team won an SEC East title, but when UGA faced eventual national title winners LSU in Atlanta it was clear the Dawgs didn’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with an elite counterpart like the Burrow led Tigers. Georgia fans were frustrated, and the fact that former Bulldog QB Justin Fields was leading Ohio State to the first of back-to-back CFP appearances only seemed to make things worse. Watching a former player lead a high-flying offensive attack at another program served as a constant reminder of UGA’s offensive struggles to many Bulldog fans.
The narrative was that Kirby Smart didn’t know how to manage quarterbacks. Pundits said that Smart couldn’t field an offensive unit that was good enough to win Georgia games on the rare occasions when the UGA defense struggled.
That offseason Smart made a change. Georgia’s head man hired Todd Monken from the Cleveland Browns to coordinate UGA’s offense. With no market for his services as a play caller, Coley packed his bags and left to be the Tight-End Coach at Texas A&M.
The Monken hire occurred shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the US and much of the World in March of 2020. For large stretches of time it seemed like a College Football season wouldn’t happen. When it finally did, I scrambled to figure out what the guy would be about.
I went through his time as Offensive Coordinator at Oklahoma State (2011-2012), his years as Head Coach at Southern Miss (2013-2015), and his work as the Offensive Coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2016-2018).
After watching 7 years of Monken I came to a somewhat stunning conclusion- Todd Monken doesn’t really have a system. When I say “system” I mean that Monken is not married to a super specific offense that he installs everywhere he goes. There are certain cornerstones or tenets of the Monken offense, but at each stop he tweaked his system to suit the personnel on his team. That’s stunningly rare in this era of football.
Coaches are celebrities. They are praised for being “gurus” with their own innovative “systems” that will offer the winning kryptonite to whichever franchise or university brings them on board. Offensive coaches at the NFL and Power Five level often get hired… And then we watch as they ask players to do things they aren’t good at doing.
What makes Monken so refreshing is how he adjusts his play-calling season to season based on the personnel he has. He never puts a square peg into a round hole, and he always makes his unit into a moving target that’s hard to peg down.
Most importantly, his only prerogative is winning. When his hiring became rumored at Georgia some outlets wrote headlines like, “Georgia Expected to Announce Air Raid Offensive Expert Todd Monken Joining Staff.” That headline is understandable because Monken’s name first became known as the OC at Oklahoma State in 2011. The Cowboys were second in the nation in offense and put up 48.7 points a game, but it wasn’t Monken’s system that they were running.
In fact, before arriving at Oklahoma State in 2011 he hadn’t called plays since being at Eastern Michigan in 1999. Oklahoma State had Brandon Weeden returning at QB and Justin Blackmon at WR and had been rolling on offense under Dana Holgorsen. In 2010 the Cowboys were 3rd in total offense and scoring offense. Monken, newly hired and with no interest in crashing a race car into the ditch, just kept running the same Air Raid system that Holgorsen had been successfully running the year prior.
In that moment Monken set a precedent that he has followed over the decade since. In a profession full of control freaks who are often egomaniacs, Monken just did what he knew would work. He also made sure to learn a little something along the way.
Monken said this on his time in the Air Raid during a press conference in Cleveland in 2019. “Really what I took away from it was being able to throw to win. That really to me was the Air Raid. You had a certain amount of run game, ran a lot of the same concepts, and you could throw to win. That was really it.”
That is an interesting quote to look back on when you consider the 2022 UGA season. The offensive line is humming along nicely now, but it struggled at times in the run game earlier this year. It was filled with blue-chip talent, but it did not operate well enough to be able to run into stacked boxes all the time. The 2021 team was often able to run the ball as long as it did just enough to keep defenses respecting the threat of the pass. 2022 UGA was a pass-first offense that closed games out on the ground for much of the season. Monken saw the need to adjust and he did. That’s how Stetson Bennett went from averaging 20.2 pass attempts a game in 2021 to 30.3 in 2022.
Examples of Monken’s lack of rigidity can be found throughout his tenure in Athens. With its top two tight-ends healthy for a full season, Georgia has targeted Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington a combined 110 times in 2022. In 2020 the freshman Washington and John Fitzpatrick combined for 30 targets in 10 games. With AD Mitchell hurt in the second game of the season, Monken designed his 2022 offense to take advantage of the gifted TE’s and the personnel headaches their blocking and receiving skills can create for defensive coordinators. Bowers even has a 75-yard TD run on his list of accomplishments this year.
The 2021 Bulldogs were very efficient on offense, and while they finished 3rd in Football Outsiders’ FEI rankings, many overlooked the unit as Georgia’s historically dominant defense carried them to a national title. UGA is 4th in those same offensive efficiency rankings in 2022, but the raw numbers are a bit sexier this time around. Georgia is 6th in yards per game and 7th in points per game this season.
With Bennett heading to New York as a Heisman finalist and Monken coordinating the offense, it appears that Georgia may finally be rid of the narratives that led to rival programs negatively recruiting the Dawgs when competing for elite offensive skill players. The irony of Bennett going to NYC is that none of this was intentional. Many coaches in the FBS force-feed skill players. The result is gaudy stats to show recruits and the type of recognition and individual awards that get coaches raises and promotions.
Monken’s philosophy? A balanced attack makes you harder to stop. Normally when you hear offensive coaches talk about balance they’re referring to run/pass ratio, but that’s not what Monken means when he says it. Here he is from that same introductory press conference in Cleveland. “I think balance is multiple skill players touching the football. To me it’s not always just run/pass. It’s do you have enough skill players to touch the football? Last year in Tampa we almost had six guys, if OJ (Howard) doesn’t get hurt, with 700+ yards from line of scrimmage. Well to me that’s balance. You have a number of guys that can hurt you. From a matchup standpoint, is running the football important? Sure, because in order to win you’ve gotta be explosive and not turning the ball over. How do you become explosive? Space players and throwing it over their head or throwing it into intermediate pockets, and running the football adds to that.”
Georgia has three RB’s with 500+ rushing yards this season. It has five players with 300+ receiving yards and two of them have more than 675 yards. They have done that despite being without AD Mitchell for most of the season. Ten Bulldogs had receptions in Georgia’s SEC Championship win against LSU. Six players had rushing attempts in their win over then #1 ranked Tennessee in November. The Monken philosophy means that anyone can strike at any time, and that is a whole lot harder to defend than an offense that flows through a couple of main threats. Selling superstar recruits on a system where touches are widely distributed could be hard in the modern era, but the results speak for themselves. Everyone loves winning.
You can’t accuse Monken of hypocrisy. Georgia’s egoless offensive coordinator practices the same philosophy with his assistants that he asks of his players. Monken was one of the five finalists for the 2022 Broyles Award, which is given annually to college football’s best assistant coach. Each of the five finalists were asked to speak during the award ceremony. During his speech Monken talked about how he views an offensive staff as a rock band and took time out to credit two UGA assistants for the plays that created Georgia’s first three touchdowns against LSU.
“I wanna thank our staff… You know, when we played the other day, I always believe this, that I see an offensive staff like a rock band or a group that you need every piece of it. That you take the collective strength of the staff and give them pieces of it and then you just coordinate it as best you can. Because it takes everybody. It takes songwriters, it takes the musicians, and they’re the ones that make it come to life. The first two touchdown passes we threw the other day, those were Mike Bobo’s ideas, those weren’t mine. The third touchdown pass was Ryan Williams, an analyst. It wasn’t my idea, it was some else’s idea. We just fought like hell during the week to see if we could make it right.”
When you look at 2022 Georgia and how they have played throughout the season it’s fascinating to see how Smart, Monken and the rest of the staff have treated their slate of games to this point. When writing my weekly 12 Takeaways feature for DawgsCentral subscribers I have often talked about “The Long Con” in reference to Monken. Without getting too far into the weeds, the theory is this- Georgia doesn’t just save its big plays for big games, but it often saves some of its bad plays for lesser opponents. When I use the word “bad” it is important to remember that any football play is really only as good as the players who are running it. A “good” play call for the 2021 UGA team might look like a bad one when signaled into the huddle during a game in 2022. The team changes and the strengths and weaknesses of the personnel do as well.
When you look at how Georgia’s season has transpired it becomes clear to me that Todd Monken knew exactly what the strengths and weaknesses of his team was coming into the 2022 opener against Oregon. He knew he had a versatile RB in McIntosh that was a skilled receiver. He knew his TE’s were monsters who could block the run and catch the ball. He knew that Bennett was better than everyone thought he was. He knew his wideouts were excellent downfield blockers. He also knew his offensive line was a very good pass blocking unit but not there yet as run blockers. He took advantage of his offense’s strengths in big September games against Oregon and South Carolina, but he made his team do things it wasn’t comfortable with against Samford and Kent State. That pattern continued throughout the year depending on the opponent and the score.
Could Monken and UGA got Brock Bowers to 1,000 yards receiving this year? Absolutely. Could they have got Bennett more yards against many of the teams the Bulldogs played? Of course. Instead, they got better. When UGA went to Mississippi State in November they struggled to run the ball with their backs. Georgia RB’s averaged just 2.24 yards a carry before a long Kendall Milton TD run in garbage time. Monken knows that balance is key, and a balanced team has to be a threat on the ground and through the air. Against Kentucky and Georgia Tech the Bulldogs came out with clear intentions to work on the run game. The results were mostly positive, but sometimes mixed. They certainly could have put bigger scores on the board if they ran some different things, but that wasn’t the point. Jump ahead to UGA’s SEC Championship game against LSU and Georgia had 255 yards on the ground in a game where they hit 50 points early in the fourth quarter. The offensive line that was a question mark in run blocking early in the season was devastatingly efficient with its execution and force.
That will matter a lot when Georgia faces Ohio State in the College Football Playoff, and that is why the Bulldogs are blessed to have Monken. Unlike so many offensive coaches at the highest levels of football his focus is fully dedicated to making sure his team can give a defense as many problems as possible. There seems to be no interest in becoming famous for a system with his name on it. There isn’t any focus on padding stats so he can put a player’s individual award on his resume. The goal is to win football games, Specifically, national championships.
Monken’s style and personality might not lead to commentators calling him a guru or a genius. However, that’s exactly what he is. Kirby Smart built the foundation of the Georgia program on physicality, elite recruiting, dominant defense, and hard work. It took Monken’s ability to perfect on the fly to bring Georgia to its current form, but he would never admit that. He was effusive in his praise for Smart and UGA’s players during his Broyles Award speech.
“I’m just a byproduct of our players, Kirby Smart and our culture, and our coaching staff… I’ve been doing this a long time and been around a lot of great coaches and my whole family is in coaching, and there’s nobody I trust more than Kirby Smart in terms of we’re gonna win, we’re gonna work, and we’re gonna recruit.”
As the Bulldogs prepare for the playoff, Monken and his staff will be hard at work on Ohio State. Somewhere in Georgia’s football offices a clip of Ohio State’s defense will play across a screen. A weakness will catch an assistant’s eye and they will speak up. It could be a route combination to attack a corner’s leverage mistake or a fake that will fool a certain linebacker’s eyes. Todd Monken will listen. If it will help Georgia win he will adjust his game plan.
That willingness to take in suggestions and remain unmarried to one way of attacking a defense makes him one of the most dangerous play-callers in all of football. How much longer he will be in Athens is impossible to say. Monken knows he has it good, but if the right job comes he could leave at any time. Whether it’s for two more games or two more years, Georgia fans should appreciate him while they can.