Rumors have been swirling for weeks that Pittsburgh offensive coordinator would be joining the Rutgers staff after the Compass Bowl. As per usual with Rutgers athletics, no information came down through somewhat official channels until the deal was close to finalized, but it appears that some combination of an agreement being reached and word starting to leak out jarred loose the floodgates. After all, news of staff changes at other programs are going public across the country. It's just about time for this announcement after a month of uncertainty.
Yesterday Paul Zeise from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette named Frank Cignetti as an offensive coordinator candidate after weeks of internet speculation to that effect. Hours later Football Scoop announced that Cignetti had accepted the job, although I'm not convinced that they actually had direct confirmation given their past track record. Nevertheless, the cat was just about out of the bag at that point, which is why sites like Scarlet Nation and Scarlet Report saw fit to go public with the news. Implicit in that report is the expectation that Kirk Ciarrocca will not be the team's offensive play caller next year. Ciarrocca excelled at his previous stops, but unfortunately was a very poor fit with his expanded duties the past two years.
It's time to go back down to the well for a scheme proven to work under Schiano. Now Cignetti is set to take over an offense that has absolutely cratered since John McNulty's departure after the 2008 season, taking the entire team's fortunes down with it. With Greg Schiano strongly endorsing offensive line coach Kyle Flood after a season of abysmal play up front, the only possible conclusion is that Ciarrocca's increased reliance on Shotgun formation and multiple-receiver sets was a poor fit with Flood's zone-blocking schemes. Undoubtedly any issues were exacerbated by the offense's focus on throwing the ball downfield, as most variants of the spread use a lot of slants, screens, and the like. That's what has been so confounding over the past few years.
While any return to a pro style offense would almost certainly maintain a commitment to vertical passing, that approach is more of a natural fit with a power rushing attack and using more-traditional formations and personnel groupings. An effective running game would not only force opposing safeties to creep up in run support, but would open up the play action game that Mike Teel used to run so effectively. This move signifies a rejection of gimmickry; far less trick plays, and far less usage of the Wildcat formation, which became a depressing symptom last year of the offense's inability to run conventional plays. Forget the razzle-dazzle. From now on they're going for superior execution.
As for the man of the hour himself, Cignetti has a couple NFL stops on his resume, and apprenticing under Pat Hill at Fresno State is equally impressive considering Hill's keen eye for spotting talent. At Pittsburgh the past two years I liked how their offense tried to maintain balance and spread the ball around. They could beat you on the ground or in the air. This was a team really committed to a physical game plan, and their depth chart was sprinkled with top athletes too. He did an excellent job in coaxing Bill Stull into effectiveness last year. That underscores how this really looks like a hire for Tom Savage more than anybody.
2010 was more of a mixed bag, as the Panther offense fell somewhat in total yardage, and was far less efficient in scoring points. Convenient hypotheses are that Dave Wannstedt's overwhelming conservatism doomed the offense (plausible, considering his past track record), or that their mediocre interior line was to blame (gulp). Underclassman Tino Sunseri had far more physical gifts than Stull, but their offense really seemed out of sync all year, which culminated with Jonathan Baldwin throwing his quarterback and coordinator under the bus.
These comments give off a bit of a Teel/McNulty '08 vibe, in the sense that the coordinator clearly is skilled and competent, but perhaps too enamored with his quarterback's arm strength. Sometimes the threat of awesome force can be more effective than overusing it. Vertical passing is great when it works, but can also have the downside of stalling out drives when things get out of rhythm. Still, Rutgers fans would clearly trade the utter catastrophe of the past two years for a return to having at least an average offense in an instant.
Most fans should be more than pleased this morning. Frank Cignetti was among the most qualified available candidates. Greg Schiano and the athletic department stepped up and made a sorely needed change that was a prerequisite to winning in 2011. If, and this will at least remain the biggest question until spring practice, Rutgers can field a somewhat competent offensive line next year, then there is absolutely no reason why they cannot win the Big East in 2011.
Bringing in Cignetti moves Schiano's approval rating back into the stratosphere, but it also creates a great deal of pressure moving forward. They have to win with all of these advantages working in their favor. I think they will, but the naysayers will surely be out in full force until September rolls around and the games actually start to count. For now, just be elated that Rutgers football is back from its momentary bender, which shall henceforth be swept under the rug and never be spoken of again. Huzzah; Rutgers football is Rutgers football again, and it returned not a moment too soon.