Tim Tebow and the Minimum Viable Offense

The idea of a minimum viable product doesn’t apply just to startups.
BY Taylor Davidson | November 30th, 2011

From Quarterbacking Made Simple, a story about how the San Francisco 49ers simplified the playbook for quarterback Alex Smith not by removing options from the playbook, but by eliminating the “sight adjustments” and little deviations that made on-the-fly decision-making tough:

… coaches often say they are “simplifying the playbook,” but [49’ers head coach] Harbaugh has been able to do it coherently and in a way that actually aids his quarterback’s ability to succeed rather than simply removes options.

One reason for this is that many NFL plays simply duplicate each other; you only need so many ways to throw the same pass to the flat or run off tackle. You might as well perfect the plays you have rather than keep adding new ones every week.

What did they do? They eliminated “sight adjustments”, a system of modifications to receiver route running that require the quarterback and the receivers to all know how to read the defense and make the same adjustments on the fly, without communicating to each other. There are sound reasons for this strategy, of course, and many teams are able to succeed with complex systems of slight adjustments, but not all.

This may seem like a small tweak, and maybe even a step backward, but I assure you it is not. As defenses get more complex, the answer isn’t always to get more complex on offense; sometimes, it’s the opposite.

Taken to the extreme, the Denver Broncos drastically simplified their offense this year for Tim Tebow, by essentially replacing their entire offense and play calling strategy with a high school offense to fit Tebow’s unique talents:

The zone-read option Denver used for much of the game against the Chargers was straight out of “Friday Night Lights,” or at least, what’s been trendy under Friday night lights in recent seasons.

In both cases each team created their own minimal viable offense. And in both cases, it’s working. 1


  1. Will it keep working? Depends on how much they apply the lean startup methodology. Each week, an opportunity to iterate and innovate their approaches to respond to the inevitable adjustments by their opponents defenses. Each week, a chance to improve their product.