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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Smart Notes - December 14, 2008

1. Tom Osborne: Enough Spread, Let's See Some Option

Tom Osborne recently opined on the state of football offenses. And keep in mind that, not only did the guy win multiple championships at Nebraska, his offenses also scored points. Indeed, while much has deservedly been made of Oklahoma's terrific multiple pro-style up-tempo offense, in 1995 it was Nebraska who averaged over 52 points a game en route to a title. Including OU this year, only five teams have averaged over fifty points a game for a season since 1945. So Osborne has a unique perspective on football offenses, the spread, and what could be next.

“You know, people are really obsessed right now with spread offense,” Osborne said. “And I think there are a lot of real great features about it. But I think you’re going to see a team jump up and do really well at something that’s different. For a long time, Oklahoma had a real advantage because the only time you saw the wishbone was the week you played Oklahoma. It was so different from what you were doing.

“Now, although those spread offenses are giving people trouble, you still see it week after week after week. So, as time goes by, defenses are going to get a little better at playing it. I don’t know that anybody will ever shut it down, but they’ll play it better. And then you’re going to see something like what (former Navy coach) Paul Johnson is doing down there at Georgia Tech.” [Flexbone Triple Option]

“That’s something that’s so much different than what anybody’s seeing,” Osborne said. “He’s going to make some waves. He’s taking what they’ve been doing at the service academies for years. And now he’s got bigger linemen. And more speed. Now he can recruit kids he probably wasn’t getting at Navy.

“I’m not saying it’s going to be that type of offense. But there’s going to be somebody who’s going to start doing some things that people just aren’t seeing all the time. And that’ll maybe start another wave of innovation and some different things happening.”

A few points. First, Osborne's description of the spread belies some of the ambiguity behind the term -- he likely has not read my most recent piece on it -- and it's obviously a truism that you can no longer get the advantage of being different if you're doing what everyone else is. Second, Osborne is absolutely right that there are huge advantages to be had by running something that your opponents only see once a year. At one time, this was the spread. Now of course, that's no longer the case.

That point can't be overemphasized though. Every offensive scheme must be able to do a few things: must have ways to get the ball to your playmakers; must be able to get the ball to different guys when the defense wants to take your best players away; must have schemes and counters that attack the defenses you will see, both in terms of fronts and coverages; and it must be able to do all those things without overwhelming your players with information. Easier said than done. It's an added, but not necessary perk if your opponents are not used to seeing it.

And Johnson, at Georgia Tech, has a special perk with his flexbone: normally, if you do something your opponents are not used to seeing, then you too are not overly familiar with it. That is how it was with the early spread teams. Johnson, by contrast, has used his offense for decades and knows all the adjustments and changes. When Georgia Tech ran all over Miami and Georgia, a lot of it came in the second half. Often, it seemed like the defense had two guys defending, say, the pitch guy, or the quarterback, and none on the guy who wound up running for a forty-yard run. The reason for that was because Johnson knows how to vary his blocking and assignments to take away the guy responsible for those players. So when announcers like to say that you play "assignment" football to stop the option that is only partially true. If you do, Johnson figures out who is "assigned" to his guys and blocks them, and then lets the reads take care of themselves. So this is where execution and soundness of an offense meet uniqueness.

But my last point is that I'm not sure if Osborne's narrative is exactly right. It's true that, to some extent, football is cyclical. But it's not exactly cyclical. Defenses do not completely forget; with the internet, they absolutely cannot forget: the answers are all out there. The single-wing stuff is back, but it's also different. In the old-old days, the centers who did the shotgun snaps did not really know how to snap the ball with their heads up, so they were ineffective blockers. So now, with the wildcat and other single-wing variants, the center is now an equally effective blocker.

But the meta-narrative here is passing. Again, this point can be overstated, as passing was not invented in the last two decades (Joe Namath had a 4,000 yard season with the Jets), but there's clearly been a synthesis. I think that it will be unlikely that teams will be completely unable to throw -- or run -- with consistent success. Now, that does not mean the type of "balance" usually spewed on TV (equal carries, equal yards, etc) as I have well documented that the better approach to balance is a somewhat game-theoretic one. But both Florida's and OU's offenses are examples of ones where they use advanced and time-tested concepts -- spread, play-action, quicks, multiple-formations, etc -- to put maximum pressure on the defense. As a football pragmatist, I think that these types of offenses will continue to set the standard. Unlike Osborne, I think using what once was, alone, will not work, without the added ability to pass or evolve.

2. Malcolm Gladwell's "Quarterback Problem"

The famous (or infamous) Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, The Tipping Point, and now Outliers, has a very interesting new essay in the New Yorker. The point of the article is about how we could be better at selecting teachers, because we now know that being a good teacher is all about making a connection with kids (who are not always easy to read) and these are skills not easily taught, evaluated, or identified. To illustrate the problem of identifying good future teachers he uses the problem of identifying successful NFL quarterbacks, focusing on a scout's attempt to evaluate Mizzou's Chase Daniel.

But then Shonka [NFL talent scout] began to talk about when he was on the staff of the Philadelphia Eagles, in 1999. Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the college draft that year, and each looked as promising as Chase Daniel did now. But only one of them, Donovan McNabb, ended up fulfilling that promise. Of the rest, one descended into mediocrity after a decent start. Two were complete busts, and the last was so awful that after failing out of the N.F.L. he ended up failing out of the Canadian Football League as well.

The year before, the same thing happened with Ryan Leaf, who was the Chase Daniel of 1998. The San Diego Chargers made him the second player taken over all in the draft, and gave him an eleven-million-dollar signing bonus. Leaf turned out to be terrible. In 2002, it was Joey Harrington’s turn. Harrington was a golden boy out of the University of Oregon, and the third player taken in the draft. Shonka still can’t get over what happened to him.

“I tell you, I saw Joey live,” he said. “This guy threw lasers, he could throw under tight spots, he had the arm strength, he had the size, he had the intelligence.” Shonka got as misty as a two-hundred-and-eighty-pound ex-linebacker in a black tracksuit can get. “He’s a concert pianist, you know? I really—I mean, I really—liked Joey.” And yet Harrington’s career consisted of a failed stint with the Detroit Lions and a slide into obscurity. Shonka looked back at the screen, where the young man he felt might be the best quarterback in the country was marching his team up and down the field. “How will that ability translate to the National Football League?” He shook his head slowly. “Shoot.”

This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.

And, if we focus just on football for now, this is an amazing thing. No position is paid more highly in the NFL than quarterback, and no position is more integral to a team's success. And no position receives more scrutiny. And it's a total crapshoot. The studies have been done, and draft position -- the best marker of what the expectations levels are for a quarterback -- has absolutely no bearing on how successful a quarterback winds up. This is scary. It's scary enough for football -- all that money and time spent on what is basically a futile endeavor -- but, as Gladwell points out, it's scary for society that we have lots of jobs where we don't know how to pick how people will be successful.

Now Gladwell's explanation is likely imperfect (he clearly has not read my articles, particularly when he talks about the "spread" that Mizzou runs), though it hits at the general truth: the only way to evaluate how good a quarterback will be in the NFL is to see them play in the NFL. And even then sometimes the light just goes on for certain guys after a period of mediocrity. It's just so hard to say. With baseball, as Moneyball showed, you can model the game to at least tell you a great deal of what you need to know. It's a game largely about hitters and pitchers. We may not know everything, but it gets us far to the end. But football is too complex. Players can't be evaluated solely on statistics. And the traditional scouting method, some kind of gestalt impression where you say "ah he looks good" has been proven unreliable.

We know that Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were seen as the undoubted 1-2 picks. Many liked Leaf better. We know Leaf completely failed while Manning has had remarkable success. Do we even know why, exactly though? A fair but unscientific pop psychology hypothesis is that Leaf was too mentally unstable: he had all the physical tools but few of the emotional and mental ones. But isn't it obvious that NFL quarterback is only a partially physical game? I always thought of evaluating quarterbacks as a threshold approach: the guy has to be able to do certain things, to make certain throws, but after that, the physical qualities diminish. Whether a guy throws a deep out with "zip" or as a "laser" is irrelevant if he lacks knowledge, awareness, and a sense of timing.

And do we even know if that hypothesis was right? What about those five guys from 1999? How do you explain Akili Smith and Cade McNown who were apparently dead on arrival? Tim Couch seemed to just fumble through mediocrity into eventual oblivion, but those two guys were right there and had unbelievably short careers. Physical? Mental? Mental in what sense? Couldn't learn the playbook? Couldn't handle the pressure? No timing? No support from teammates? I haven't a clue. I don't know how you glean lessons from those evaluation failures.

A college quarterback joining the N.F.L., by contrast, has to learn to play an entirely new game. Shonka began to talk about Tim Couch, the quarterback taken first in that legendary draft of 1999. Couch set every record imaginable in his years at the University of Kentucky. “They used to put five garbage cans on the field,” Shonka recalled, shaking his head, “and Couch would stand there and throw and just drop the ball into every one.” But Couch was a flop in the pros. It wasn’t that professional quarterbacks didn’t need to be accurate. It was that the kind of accuracy required to do the job well could be measured only in a real N.F.L. game.

Similarly, all quarterbacks drafted into the pros are required to take an I.Q. test—the Wonderlic Personnel Test. The theory behind the test is that the pro game is so much more cognitively demanding than the college game that high intelligence should be a good predictor of success. But when the economists David Berri and Rob Simmons analyzed the scores—which are routinely leaked to the press—they found that Wonderlic scores are all but useless as predictors. Of the five quarterbacks taken in round one of the 1999 draft, Donovan McNabb, the only one of the five with a shot at the Hall of Fame, had the lowest Wonderlic score. And who else had I.Q. scores in the same range as McNabb? Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw, two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game.

We’re used to dealing with prediction problems by going back and looking for better predictors. We now realize that being a good doctor requires the ability to communicate, listen, and empathize—and so there is increasing pressure on medical schools to pay attention to interpersonal skills as well as to test scores. We can have better physicians if we’re just smarter about how we choose medical-school students. But no one is saying that Dan Shonka is somehow missing some key ingredient in his analysis; that if he were only more perceptive he could predict Chase Daniel’s career trajectory. The problem with picking quarterbacks is that Chase Daniel’s performance can’t be predicted. The job he’s being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won’t. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he played in the pros.

Indeed, as we have seen with guys like Brad Johnson or Matt Cassell, apparently playing in college is not even as important as some other, less tangible, factors. As Gladwell points out:

The entire time that Chase Daniel was on the field against Oklahoma State, his backup, Chase Patton, stood on the sidelines, watching. Patton didn’t play a single down. In his four years at Missouri, up to that point, he had thrown a total of twenty-six passes. And yet there were people in Shonka’s world who thought that Patton would end up as a better professional quarterback than Daniel. The week of the Oklahoma State game, the national sports magazine ESPN even put the two players on its cover, with the title “CHASE DANIEL MIGHT WIN THE HEISMAN”—referring to the trophy given to college football’s best player. “HIS BACKUP COULD WIN THE SUPER BOWL.” Why did everyone like Patton so much? It wasn’t clear. Maybe he looked good in practice. Maybe it was because this season in the N.F.L. a quarterback who had also never started in a single college game is playing superbly for the New England Patriots. It sounds absurd to put an athlete on the cover of a magazine for no particular reason. But perhaps that’s just the quarterback problem taken to an extreme. If college performance doesn’t tell us anything, why shouldn’t we value someone who hasn’t had the chance to play as highly as someone who plays as well as anyone in the land?
One answer is that ESPN the magazine is a hyperbolic and bizarre magazine, but there were actual scouts quoted in that article. The view seemed to be that while Chase Patton is not good enough to beat out Chase Daniel, he is instead good enough to be drafted ahead of him. In any event, this is a problem that affects all professions, and all stages of life. We know that what makes someone good in one level cannot be evaluated until you get to the next. Chase Daniel is an excellent college quarterback, and all the debate about the NFL around him is really unfair and beside the point so long as he in college, as it is with Tim Tebow. The answer is no one knows how good these kids will be. It's no referendum on them, nor their spread offenses or coaches, but just different circumstances.

Eventually, I suppose, scouting will finally more approximate a science. But right now, we know, that scouts and NFL teams literally do not know what they are doing when they throw money at guys. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco look excellent, but they just as likely could have been Ryan Leaf or Cade McNown. This year Green Bay drafted Brian Brohm from Louisville early in the draft and Matt Flynn from LSU in the seventh round. Right now, Matt Flynn is ahead of Brohm on the depth chart: he just beat him out in camp and pre-season. No one could have foreseen that until they all got there. Brohm will be fine, but the Packers both were hurt and helped by their own incompetence at evaluating quarterbacks: they seem to have overvalued Brohm and everyone else undervalued Flynn.

Midway through the fourth quarter of the Oklahoma State–Missouri game, the Tigers were in trouble. For the first time all year, they were behind late in the game. They needed to score, or they’d lose any chance of a national championship. Daniel took the snap from his center, and planted his feet to pass. His receivers were covered. He began to run. The Oklahoma State defenders closed in on him. He was under pressure, something that rarely happened to him in the spread. Desperate, he heaved the ball downfield, right into the arms of a Cowboy defender.

Shonka jumped up. “That’s not like him!” he cried out. “He doesn’t throw stuff up like that.”

Next to Shonka, a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs looked crestfallen. “Chase never throws something up for grabs!”

It was tempting to see Daniel’s mistake as definitive. The spread had broken down. He was finally under pressure. This was what it would be like to be an N.F.L. quarterback, wasn’t it? But there is nothing like being an N.F.L. quarterback except being an N.F.L. quarterback. A prediction, in a field where prediction is not possible, is no more than a prejudice. Maybe that interception means that Daniel won’t be a good professional quarterback, or maybe he made a mistake that he’ll learn from. “In a great big piece of pie,” Shonka said, “that was just a little slice.”

UPDATES: 3. Florida Cut-Ups

Someone passed along some Florida TV cut-ups, broken down by concept. (Again, no blame for music selection.)

4. Pete Carroll - 60 Minutes

Not much to say about this, except that it is inspiring to a nearly unbelievable degree. Do yourself a favor and watch it.


Tom said...

I've been saying for a long time that the triple option is going to make a huge comeback and even more specifically that as soon as Paul Johnson goes to a D1A team that team is going to dominate their conference. Georgia Tech is well on their way.

The triple option is the perfect play, and when executed correctly is impossible to stop. It is especially effective against read-and-react defensive types with lots of speed (what everybody recruits these days.) That's why you saw the GT Fullback breaking off 40 yard runs when the game was on the line.

Also, proponents of the spread often say that an option offense includes no passing, and that is its ultimate downfall. Where does this idea come from? Nebraska in the 90s used to pass the ball plenty. Once Johnson gets some decent football players at Tech, they'll be able to pass just fine. Personally, I don't think you "must" pass the ball to be successful, but that's beside the point: Johnson is perfectly comfortable throwing the ball.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how the predictions of other positions fare? For instance, I would assume that a kicker's college performance DOES predict his performance in the pros, but is that a correct assumption? I'd like to see a position-by-position breakdown of stats comparing draft positions with success in the NFL. Or is it ALL just a crap shoot? In which case, it's crazy to give draftees such huge salaries and signing bonuses.

Anonymous said...

I always get made when people say the option cant pass. The Flexbone passes. The whole reason the flexbone was invented was to open up the passing game. We ran it in college and we threw the crap out of the ball. Thats the whole point of the flexbone. You put your tailbacks at the wings so you can to spread the defense out and open up the passing game. That way teams cant run the mirror defense or okie dog pinch against you. Both of which kill the wishbone.

Anonymous said...

According to an AJC article today, Paul Johnson is working on the dormant "run and shoot" part of his offense.

This seems to have interesting possibilities. In particular, it seems impossible to run the zone-blitz against a flexbone offense, so this may be the perfect setting for run and shoot concepts.

But I don't know anything. This could make for an interesting post next year, if we are seeing this on the field.

Anonymous said...

I was going to leave the exact same comment as GA Buckeye.

As a GT fan, I would like to see someone attempt to zone blitz against us. Would be an interesting form of suicide.

Anonymous said...

great article, Chris! Hey, readers, if you want to take a look at another football blog go to

Anonymous said...

Where do you coach at or where have you coached at? Just wondering, because you have a lot of knowledge with schemes and tactics.

Anonymous said...

Pete Carroll's piece on 60 Minutes was far from inspiring, it was a fluff piece designed to soften the blow when the NCAA hammers USC for Reggie Bush. 60 Minutes is an investigative news show, yet they never mention the NCAA investigation...shame on 60 Minutes.