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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Motivation, effort, efficiency, KC Joyner, and Mike Singletary

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.


Stan said...

I would love to know how someone can decide "point of attack" in a zone running scheme. I have a friend who played O-line in the NFL for a number of years who played with some great cutback runners in college and the pros. He said the linemen used to joke that the play calls were backwards. They knew that their block on the zone runs called to the other side would often be the one the back would run behind when he cut back.

In a system designed without a specific hole, how does he know the designated point of attack?

Chris said...


Exactly. That's what a lot of this post was driving at. An inside zone scheme can hit anywhere "tackle to tackle" or even tight-end to tight-end; the outside zone can hit to the sideline, the alley outside the tight end, or even all the way between the guard/tackle. Point of attack?

ManD said...

While i definitely appreciate that KC challenges conventional wisdom a lot of the time, he always misses some HUGE facet of whatever trollish and/or half-baked point he's trying to make, making those of us that like to analyze sports rationally looking even more like a gang of clueless nerds.

You do such a better job dude.

Jon said...

I happened to be thinking of something in Blindsided recently. I liked KC Joyner's taxonomy of coaches. For those that didn't read the book, he uses two axis: motivator --> schemer and hitter --> athlete. He used Bowden and Spurrier as exemplars of the motivator andf the schemer. Although there are exceptions, motivators usually prefer hitters or physical players and schemers prefer athletic types, but I digress.

Anyways, it seems like the Bowden approach works better for Goliath, while the Spurrier approach works better for David. Joyner even mentioned that Bowden tried trick plays like the Fumblerooskie when is team was still a relative dog.

Chris, you probably figured out that I'm a mere fan with no playing or coaching experience, but I do enjoy the site and find it thought provoking.

Tom said...

What I'm not sure Joyner fully understands, and this comes through in Blindsided, especially the first chapter about the importance of the left tackle, is football is a dynamic equilibrium. If every team has an exceptional blindside pass rusher, offenses will adapt-by shifting protection to that side, by rolling the pocket to the other side, or by running shorter patterns. You end up in a different equilibrium position than you would have before the particular change, but you still end up in an equilibrium position.

Stan said...

Amen Tom. Prisco had a column recently where he tried to rank teams on the basis of 4 positions -- the QB, LT, pass rusher and cover corner.

Even if one could argue convincingly that those four positions were far more important than any of the others, it would be foolhardy to rank NFL organizations on only four positions. And, other than QB, I don't buy into the "critical" description of his choices. As Tom said, it is all about equilibrium. In this case, it's value for dollars under the salary cap. Pass pro is about the whole offensive unit. Same for pass coverage. Even rushing the passer is a unit thing, although a single player can have an outsize contribution.

I really don't get the left tackle fixation. If I have a great pass rusher and you have a great pass protector, I don't have to align my rusher on your blocker. The stud blocker can only block the man on him.

[and that reminds me of an idea I had once for a hypothetical HS defense in a program without enough quality talent -- if you had a Reggie White type def lineman and a bunch of stiffs, move him around each week by lining him head up on the worst offensive lineman. Put your worst on their best to burrow and pile. Stunt your other linemen and LBs regularly to control gaps as necessary. Force the offense to always double your stud and free up a LB.]

Stan said...


OT, but a look at the Clarett case at a Sports labor relations blog