Singletary is sometimes inspiring and always entertaining. But, over at the NY Times's Fifth Down blog, KC Joyner discusses whether Singletary's motivational tactics are effective. What motivational tactics? Well, one involves mooning your own team, and the other, well, here:
Joyner quotes Vince Lombardi -- to paraphrase, that the key to being a good motivator is to know which players need a kick in the tail and which need a pat on the back and then giving them what they need -- and then reasons that Singletary might be good with the former but not so much the latter. His evidence is that Vernon Davis, the tight-end who drew Singletary's public ire, saw his blocking efficiency numbers go up slightly after Singletary took over, while the efficiency of the offensive line went down, a result especially salient since Singletary fired the offensive line coach after taking over for not being "physical enough."
A couple thoughts. First, I respect Singletary, but I am not convinced that you can win NFL football games by simply increasing the "physicality" factor of the your O-Line. The incentives, the structure, the lifting coaches, the salaries, job security, and all the rest already point to the idea that for the most part the line is doing about as well as it can with the players it has and the schemes being employed. I'm not saying you can't increase it at all, but I am doubtful as to whether it can be increased enough to have an effect on winning and losing football games. In high school, where the player variance is so high, sure, that's a big deal. But in the NFL?
But, even assuming, arguendo (and dubitante), that it is possible to increase the physicality and all that, I am not sure that Joyner's critique is the right one. Now, I will admit that I don't have all the methodology for how Joyner computes his "point of attack" efficiency. (I do know that, broadly at least, he watches the film, decides whether a play is being run in that lineman's area, and determines whether he deems that block a success or not. Maybe my lack of further knowledge dooms my response but it is hard to critique without watching all those plays myself.)
Joyner's argument seems to be that the line just plain got worse; they responded poorly to Singletary's high-energy style. But does that make sense? A line's ability to block well often hinges on what kind of front they are going against and how likely the other team is to expect the run. In college, Texas Tech routinely averages over six yards a carry because running for them is at times about the equivalent of a trick play. After Singletary took over, he made no secret of his desire to run the ball more and he did in fact do so. A rational defensive response to this would be for opponents to focus more on run defense, thus making the line's job harder.
And there is evidence for this in the stats. While the 49ers actually averaged fewer rushing yards per game after Singletary took over, the team averaged more total yards. The differences are small, and can therefore be attributed to several things, but one viable answer is that the defense began focusing more on the run allowing the 49ers to actually pass their way to more victories. A surprising result.
Surprising, but more plausible than the fact that the offensive line just started quitting on Singletary, which is apparently Joyner's conclusion. It is unremarkable to observe that lineman will more consistently make their blocks -- and thus have higher efficiency numbers -- if the front they are going against is easier to run against. Indeed, Joyner himself observed those statistics, even if he didn't quite see the result, when he discussed the fact that the Arizona Cardinals' offensive line was surprisingly efficient.
The upshot is that point of attack efficiency numbers aren't all that helpful in the context of constantly evolving fronts with a splash of game theory in that the defense adjusts to not only actual strengths by the offense, but perceived ones, like a new coach's commitment to running the ball. Again, maybe I'm being unfair to Joyner, but it is hard to evaluate his stats without seeing all those individual plays. (I am not sure what he defines "point of attack loss" or "defeated blocks" as. Does that take into account extra defenders? Where a successful double-team did not turn into a combo block to a linebacker? Line play is not always about one-on-one battles.
I'm not saying I agree with Singletary either, but I'm not sure it's a failure of motivation or the wrong kind of motivation being applied, but instead that aspect being dwarfed by other factors, particularly the defense's extra scrutiny of the run game. "Getting physical" is sometimes a euphemism for stubborn playcalling, and a runningback who averages five yards per carry for 120 yards a game plays in a better offense than one who averages 130 on 32 carries. Singletary may recognize this, but time will tell. Even for lineman, the game is about putting your players in positions where they can have success. It's not productive to put them in a difficult position and then say they aren't motivated enough, or conversely that the wrong kinds of motivational tactics are being used. This is the NFL we're talking about.