Smart Football has moved!

Please check out the new site, All future updates will be made there.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Assorted Links

1. Video of Notre Dame coach Frank Verducci coaching up the line. (H/t Blue Gray Sky)

2. Blue Gray Sky then explores the "sprint" or "stretch" run play.

3. Pro Football Reference blog compares AFL and NFL drafts.

4. New Detroit Lions' coach Jim Schwartz refuses to read books written by women. I recommend Margaret Atwood.

5. Creative types flocking to the internet, where fame can be instant but fleeting.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What is old is new again

Look like the bunch formation to anyone else? That's from Percy Duncan Haughton's 1922 book, Football and How to Watch It.

H/t CoachHuey.

Breaking down the Oklahoma State offense

...over at Dr Saturday. Check it out here, and feel free to ask questions either here or over there. (I am more likely to see it here, though.)

Smart Links 7/30/09

1. T. Kyle King has an interesting response to my incoherent musings on business and life in college football.

2. Dan Shanoff really doesn't believe Brett Favre.

3. Blutarsky is bringing the Mummepoll back. Get ready.

4. Steve Kragthorpe is determined to purge the University of Louisville of all things Brohm.

5. Captain Leach doesn't twitter, and reiterates his support for a 64-team college football playoff. I will say this: there would be some wild football, with every game a do-or-die. Some frantic, last minute wildness, every week. It might be infeasible, but the more I hear this idea the more I think it does sound fun.

6. Best thing you'll see in awhile.

7. USC's use of coaching consultants is questioned.

8. Finally, I'll be traveling today, but check out Dr Saturday as I should have a post up there later this afternoon, fitting in with the Doc's Big 12 week.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Assorted links

1. Above is Joe Paterno's diagram and coffee. Read all about it. (Ht Black Shoe Diaries.)

2. Why do players hold out of training camp? And what agency is doing all this holding out?

3. And the cat came back, thought he was a goner.

4. “No one should feel sorry for Bob,” said Kansas Coach Mark Mangino, a former assistant at Oklahoma under Stoops, “because he doesn’t feel sorry for himself.”

5. "These camps run by schools and their coaching staffs have become critical components in the recruiting process, allowing coaches to measure heights and weights, get 40-yard dash times and meet players up-close before deciding whether to offer a scholarship."

The quarterback

Some things never change.

The quarter[back] is, under the captain, the director of the game. With the exception of one or two uncommon and rare plays, there is not one of any kind, his side having the ball, in which it does not pass through his hands. The importance of his work it is therefore impossible to overstate. He must be, above all the qualifications of brains and agility usually attributed to that position, of a hopeful or sanguine disposition. He must have confidence in his centre himself, and, most of all, in the man to whom he passes the ball. He should always believe that the play will be a success.

That is Walter Camp, in his 1893 book, American Football.

Saban on Tebow, the Gators' O

[Excerpts from Nick Saban's transcript at the SEC media days. Thanks to deaux of CoachHuey for the pointer.]

On Tim Tebow at the next level . . .

Q. As somebody who has coached in the NFL, I was wondering what your take is on Tebow’s NFL prospects? Do you think he’s talented enough to warrant a top 10 pick?

COACH SABAN: Well, you know, I don’t think it’s fair for me to judge that because I can’t really judge who the other guys in the top 10 are. Being involved in the draft before, if you’re not involved in the total body of work, it’s very difficult to make those kind of predictions.

But I will say this: I think Tim Tebow is an outstanding quarterback, an outstanding leader. I have no questions about his ability to throw the ball. He made some outstanding throws in good coverage in critical times in our game last year in the SEC championship game. So I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a quarterback, as a leader, as an athlete, in every regard. I think he is a winner. I think he will be a winner in the NFL.

But I think everybody needs to understand that the NFL struggles to evaluate people who don’t do in college what they look for guys to do in the pros. And I don’t think they should be criticized for that. It’s a difficult evaluation when you play a little different kind of offense. I think Florida has a great offense. I think it’s very difficult to defend. I think they do a great job of executing it and coaching it. So I’m not being critical.

But it is different. And that makes it more difficult. You know, a general manager sent me a letter saying, How are you learning all the spread quarterbacks, how the dynamics of the critical factors of the quarterback position have changed because this offense has changed, what are you doing differently to evaluate quarterbacks, because we’re having a more difficult time evaluating players that play in that offense?

It affects everyone. The quarterback, as well as the left tackle. If somebody told me we don’t know how to evaluate this guy because he’s never played in a three point stance because he always plays in a two point stance because they’re no huddle, and they’re always in a spread. So it’s every position that is different from what they would like to see because they have a defined prototype they would like to evaluate toward. When you play in a different type of offense, it makes it more difficult to evaluate.

I don’t think anybody is disrespecting him, I guess is what I’m trying to say. I think it’s just a little more difficult to try to evaluate.

On the "Spread" offense . . .

Q. Talk about the impact of the spread offense on defenses in college football.

COACH SABAN: Well, I just think that it’s very difficult to defend. I think when the quarterback’s a runner, you create another blocker, or a receiver that you have to cover. So that kind of creates another gap on defense. And I think that that’s very difficult to defend.

But I think it’s like anything else: the multiples of what you have to defend are what make it more difficult to defensive players. Just like in the old days when they used to run the wishbone. When you had to play against the wishbone, that was really different. So it was difficult to get the picture and look of what you needed to do to get your team prepared to be able to play against it.

I think to some degree the spread offense is the same way. A no huddle offense is the same way. How do you get a scout team in practice to be a no huddle team to get any kind of execution so that the defensive players start to develop the mentality they need to be able to change their routine and play without a huddle?

So I think the concept of the spread offense is outstanding because it makes the quarterback an 11th gap on defense, I always say. If you only had to defend that all the time, I think we could all get a little better at it. It’s the multiple of the different things you see throughout the season that make it more difficult.

On the disruption of an inexperienced QB . . .

Q. From a defensive point of view, when you’re facing a quarterback that doesn’t have much experience, how do you try to take advantage of that? At the same time with an inexperienced quarterback this year, how do you try to guide him through games until he gets that experience?

COACH SABAN: Well, you know, I think that everyone develops at a little different pace and rate, depending on their ability to learn the knowledge and experience, how they learn from their lessons. And I think specifically in our case Greg McElroy learns very quickly and has had some experience. But I also understand that until he makes plays in the game, he’s not gonna fully have, you know, the trust and respect of all of his teammates, even though they really, really like him and they really like him as a leader.

I think the biggest mistake you can make in development of any new player, young player, inexperienced player, is give him too many things to do, and increase the multiples of the kind of mental errors that they can make.

I think that it depends, from a defensive perspective, who the guy is that you’re trying to defend. If he’s a smart guy, if you try to pressure him, you may enhance his chances of making plays because he understands it, he sees it, and his reads actually become a little easier.

If you try to play all coverage against him and don’t pressure him and he’s a good runner, he may hurt you with his feet.

So I think to really answer that question effectively, you’d have to know the specifics of who you were trying to defend.

On the Bluegrass Miracle, I missed out on the relevance of this question . . . (Video below)

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the 2001 game between you and Kentucky and talk about the last play specifically.

COACH SABAN: Well, what I remember, most people don’t remember the little things and the details of why things happen sometimes, but there was about a 30 mile an hour wind that day, and we were fortunate to be able to game manage to get the wind in the fourth quarter by the way the coin toss went and all that stuff. We practice these two plays every Thursday at the end of practice. I forget the exact seconds, but we ran the first play because we could stop the clock and gained about 15 or 20 yards. Hit Michael Clayton on an in route, then had to go up top.

But the ball sailed and almost went 70 yards in the air because we had a big wind. The Kentucky players actually misjudged the ball. That’s what created the tip. Devery Henderson was the key running guy that’s supposed to play the tip. And it just worked out that way.

But what I remember the most from it was not that play. I’ve always been told by mentors, that the worst thing your team can do is play poorly and win. And we played poorly that day and won. And we got our rear ends kicked in the worst defeat in all the time I was at LSU the next week because of that. That’s what I remember the most.

So you didn’t expect that answer, did you (smiling)?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Blitz-master Jim Johnson dies

Jim Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator extraordinaire, has passed away due to cancer. Johnson coached some great defenses, and of course his legacy will be carried on by guys like Steve Spagnuolo who learned under him.

Johnson was a 4-3 guy, and while his protégés took many lessons from him, he will be remember for his aggressive, blitzing defenses. Spagnuolo is more of a zone-blitz guy, but Johnson was always willing to play man defense and blitz safeties and linebackers from anywhere. Indeed, as I've mentioned before, Johnson essentially put the first nail in Steve Spurrier's coffin when his Eagles defense blitzed Spurrier's Redskins -- fresh off a thirty-point game in their opener -- into utter oblivion. From then on, every coach in the league had that tape to put in. Johnson figured out exactly what protections Spurrier was using, and dialed up the right blitzes. But Spurrier was hardly alone in being schooled by Johnson.

He will be missed.

UPDATE: Brophy passes along some great game film (below), and Rock M Nation tips me off to this.

Responses to responses about David and Goliath Strategies

Tomahawk Nation responds to my earlier post on David & Goliath Strategies. See parts one and two of TN's responses. (See also my post on conservative and risky strategies and kurtosis.) Both pieces are well worth the read (I am a supporter of anything that combines football and six sigma). But a couple basic thoughts:

First, I completely agree with the idea of reducing variation, particularly negative variation. That really is the genius of Bill Walsh's passing game: what he brought to the game was a reduction of risk related to passing. Passing had been the quintessential "underdog" or David strategy; he reduced risk so much it arguably stopped being a David strategy and became a dominant one.

But I'm not sure if I agree with this:

Think of UF. To me, the Urban Meyer offense at Utah is a prime example of a David strategy. As he moved to Florida, he helped a Goliath school with Goliath resources begin to think like a David. People said that his offense would never work in the SEC, the QB would get killed, defenses were too fast, etc. But Meyer knew that his approach took advantage of a weakness in defenses, and if executed properly wouldn't be nearly as risky as people thought. Think back to the Ole Miss game from 2 years ago (the game that might have won Tim Tebow the Heisman). When the basic structures of the Meyer offense failed to work against the Ole Miss defense (Goliath being unable to hit David with his sling), and Ole Miss still allowed UF to stay in the game (Goliath managing to fight to a draw with David in a slingshot battle), UF was able to run Tim Tebow left/Tim Tebow right to win the game (Goliath is able to fall back on his superior size and strength combination to win the battle). . . .

...Gladwell highlighted the press in basketball as an example of a David strategy. Why is this a David strategy? Because Goliath doesn't focus on beating the press as much as David focuses on executing it. Because it takes Goliath out of his comfort zone. And honestly, because frequently the top point guards in the country have a certain level of confidence/cockiness in themselves that makes them want to beat the press by themselves and not rely on their teammates. The goal of the press is also to force the ball into someone's hands who is not used to handling the ball-- an inefficiency in Goliath's approach. This is how a team can use the David strategy to capitalize on an advantage. It's a risk, but if executed correctly it's not just a risk for the sake of being risky.

But is that really a David, or underdog strategy? Or is it a dominant strategy? I.e. better no matter who you are? One of the reasons I wrote my post was that I thought Gladwell confuses this point too, and I also concede at the end of the post that one conceptual difficulty is that some strategies are better for favorites (Goliaths conservative, low variance strategies), some solely for underdogs (risky David strategies), but some strategies are simply better no matter who you are (dominant), or inferior (punting on first down).

The things Tomahawk Nation is focusing on are, to me at least, dominant: better matchups, an unusual strategy the favorite is not ready for, etc. Admittedly, Gladwell confuses these two concepts -- or at least doesn't tease them out -- but I do think it's important.

To better illustrate what I mean, Advanced NFL stats showed that David strategies are often beneficial for underdogs even when they are basically inferior overall. In other words, even if a strategy would result in fewer expected points, it still would benefit the underdog because it still could get lucky. As ANFL explains:

Here’s why underdogs should play aggressive and risky gameplans. Take an example where one team is a 7-point favorite over its underdog opponent. Say the favorite would average 24 points and the underdog would average 17 points. With a SD of 10 points for each team, the underdog upsets the favorite 31.5% of the time. The favorite’s scoring distribution is blue and the underdog’s is red.

But if the underdog plays a more aggressive high-variance strategy, increasing its SD to 15 points, it would upset the favorite 35.3% of the time.

Note that I haven’t increased the underdog’s average score in any way, just its variance. The increase in its chance of winning results due to more of its probability mass moving to the right of the favorite’s mean score of 24. In fact, the higher the variance, the wider the probability mass will be spread. Consequently, more mass will be to right side of the favorite’s average score. But more mass will also be to the left, meaning there is a higher risk of an embarrassing blowout.

Even if employing a high-variance strategy is non-optimum, it can still help an underdog. In other words, even if an aggressive gameplan results in an overall reduction in average points scored, it often still results in a better chance of winning.

Yet would there be any reason for a Goliath to use this strategy? No, not at all. All it would be doing is inviting variance that would result in a few more upsets, and in fact might make the team worse (though could give the illusion of success because, again, of its high variance, resulting in a few high-scoring output games).

This is the biggest problem with the example TN uses:

Goliath University believes in the old Big Ten philosophy, 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Let's say they've even perfected their approach to the point that they can get exactly 3.3333 yards every time without ever turning the ball over. There is no risk involved and they know exactly what they are going to get with every play. Per play, they expect to get around .23 points. In true Goliath fashion, however, they run a quick, no-huddle offense in order to maximize the number of trials on the field. Over the course of the game this translates (assuming about 100 plays per game) to about 23 points and let's say a little over 30 minutes T.O.P. They'd win most of their games, but they'd lose any game where their defense gave up 24 or more due to random variation in the amount of time their opponent held the ball.

Goliath State University instead takes a more wide open approach, similar to Tulsa's offense. They throw the ball a lot more often, and go downfield more frequently as well. There is a lot more uncertainty associated with this approach, as there are many possible outcomes to their plays. However, through the strength of their preparation, they have a 50% chance of completing any given pass. Each of their 5 options (4 receivers and a QB run) has a 10% chance of success.

* If the QB runs, there is a 70% chance he will gain 4 yards, a 25% chance he will gain 14, and a 5% chance he scores
* Receiver A is running our deep fly, and there is a 50% chance he gets a 40 yard completion and a 50% chance he scores
* Receiver B is running the post, and there is a 80% chance he will get a 14 yard completion and a 20% chance he scores
* Receiver C is running the out, there is a 95% chance he gets 7 yards and a 5% chance he scores
* Receiver D is running the drag, there is a 95% chance he gets 4 yards and a 5% chance he scores

The expected point value of this play is:

.5*.1*((.7*.23+.25*1+.05*7)+(.5*3+.5*7)+(.8*1+.2*7)+(.95*.5+.05*7)+(.95*.23+.05*7)) = .468 expected points per play

Again, this is simply a better strategy, which is different than being a David strategy. Risk does not automatically equal David, and very conservative does not equal Goliath. Sometimes there is still better or worse.

To be fair, there is some indication in the TN pieces that this comes through. It repeatedly discusses the need to reduce the riskiness of these strategies "through film study, personnel decisions, and practice." Again though, I would argue that (a) these extra resources are themselves often a Goliath strategy (this becomes evident at high school for sure, but also in college with big differentials in resources, film equipment, practice materials, etc), and (b) practice and preparation is the quintessential dominant strategy -- it neither favors the underdog nor favorite, it's just a good idea!

The upshot is that these are two very good pieces, and well worth the read. I just want to emphasize my earlier point that I am using David and Goliath strategies in a very specific way, and one that differs slightly from Gladwell (it may not even be correct, it's just how I am using it). A true "David strategy" is one that, by definition, would not be good for a Goliath, because it is riskier. I used the example of extra fake punts, onside kicks, going for it on fourth, trick plays, etc. Relatedly, some Goliath strategies are low variance but that doesn't mean they have to be literally three-yards and a cloud of dust.

But the important point that TN clearly does get is that, Goliaths may nevertheless act suboptimally, and it is the underdogs and Davids that might discover the better, dominant strategies. The dominant ones will be adopted by those Goliaths (think of the spread of the spread, with its ability to push boundaries while keeping risk low), and others, though derided mightily as "gimmicks," simply might be appropriate for an underdog. It's not always easy to tell the difference, but this is an idea definitely worth continued exploration.

Smart Notes and Links 7/28/09

1. Brett Favre is not happy about this and will unretire to prove it. A commemorative decoration (ht Maize 'n Brew, via

2. How science can save you from choking. This new bit from Jonah Lehrer is a nice complement to my earlier post on football decision making and the brain.

Kenny Perry could taste history. He had a two-shot lead with two holes to go at the 2009 Masters - all he had to do was not make any big mistakes and he would become, at 48, the oldest Masters champion in history. For three days at Augusta, he had played the best golf of his life: on the first 70 holes, he made only four bogeys. But then, at the 71st hole, everything started to fall apart. . . .

We call such failures "choking", if only because a person frayed by pressure might as well not have oxygen. What makes choking so morbidly fascinating is that the performers are incapacitated by their own thoughts. Perry, for example, was so worried about not making a mistake on the 17th that he played a disastrous chip. His mind sabotaged itself.

Scientists have begun to uncover the causes of choking, diagnosing the particular mental differences that allow some people to succeed while others wither in the spotlight. Although it might seem like an amorphous category of failure, their work has revealed that choking is triggered by a specific mental mistake: thinking too much.

The sequence of events typically goes like this: when people get nervous about performing, they become self-conscious. They start to fixate on themselves, trying to make sure that they don't make any mistakes. This can be lethal for a performer. The bowler concentrates too much on his action and loses control of the ball. The footballer misses the penalty by a mile. In each instance, the natural fluidity of performance is lost; the grace of talent disappears.

Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has helped illuminate the anatomy of choking. She uses golf as her experimental paradigm. When people are learning how to putt, it can seem daunting. There are just so many things to think about. Golfers need to assess the lay of the green, calculate the line of the ball, and get a feel for the grain of the turf. Then they have to monitor their putting motion and make sure that they hit the ball with a smooth, straight stroke. For an inexperienced player, a golf putt can seem unbearably hard, like a life-sized trigonometry problem.

But the mental exertion pays off, at least at first. Beilock has shown that novices hit better putts when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time they spend thinking about the putt, the more likely they are to hole the ball. By concentrating on their game, by paying attention to the mechanics of their stroke, they can avoid beginner's mistakes.

A little experience, however, changes everything.

3. "SEC offers great drama, even football." The Big 10 media day, however, does not live up to its frat-guy, party school reputation. (And this gets a link solely because of the Dr. Octagon reference.)

4. Can NCAA athletes be denied access to agents? I don't have a ready answer to this question, though read up about it here. (Ht Dr Saturday.)

5. Monte Kiffin would like to remind you again that he will outwork you. You know, just in case you forgot.

6. An inviting summary:

With the ESPN cameras gone and prize money drying up, the glory years of the Lumberjack world championships appear to be long over.

7. Back when I wrote this, I got a fair bit of heat and disagreement:

Hello! Plaxico Burress is going to jail. . . . [T]he NFL community -- and not just fans -- seem rather blind to the reality that Plaxico faces gun charges with a mandatory minimum sentence and the prosecutors do not appear interested in granting him grace, and so he is going to serve some real jail time. Who he signs with is rather beside the point.

Well, it appears to finally be sinking in. The NY Times reports:

Manhattan's district attorney says he wants former Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress to serve time in prison, the New York Post reported. Robert Morgenthau told the newspaper that Burress, who shot himself with an unlicensed gun in November, was willing to agree to spend a year in jail, but prosecutors insisted on two.

''We've always taken the position that he's going to have to go to jail, whether by trial or by plea,'' Morgenthau told the Post for a story in Monday's edition.

Again, remember that this gun possession charge Burress was hit with has a two-years mandatory minimum. Sure, he can plead for less, but this doesn't seem a particularly difficult charge to prove: he brought the gun into the club and shot himself. That makes this next bit a bit strange to me.

Brafman [Plaxico's lawyer] had previously said he no longer thought the matter would be resolved through a plea agreement and that prosecutors would take the case to a grand jury. He also said Burress would plead not guilty if the case went to trial.

Again, not sure what a not guilty plea would get Plax.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Smart Links and Notes 7/27/09

1. ESPN's Bruce Feldman asks a panel "What makes a great college coach?" (Insider required.)

"He must be able to develop players. Good X's and O's can only put players in a position to succeed; they must also be taught the tools to actually do so. This requires that the coach be a great teacher of technique, drive, and desire (and if he is head coach he must be able to teach his players and his coaches those things as well), and to be a great teacher the players must also know that he cares before they will listen. Styles may differ -- compare Pete Carroll to Bear Bryant -- but the players must be willing to run through a wall for their coach."

That's my answer. Other contributors Feldman asked included former GA coach Jim Donnan, Rod Gilmore of ESPN, Jim Hofher Delaware's OC, and Phil Steele ("My No. 1 judge of a coach is how often they outperform my magazine's expectations."), among others.

2. Brophy chimes in with more on the "robber" coverage, as a jump-off from my recent bit on Va Tech's D for Dr Saturday. He includes some classic coaching tape of Virginia Tech vs. Syracuse in 1998 (McNabb was QB for the Orangemen).

3. The Blue-Gray Sky breaks down -- and is down on -- Notre Dame's use of the draw play. They do a nice job, but I'm confused why they are so down on the draw play. Michael points out that the play's average in 2008 was 4.9, which was down from a high of 5.3 yards per carry in 2005. That's true that it was down, but that's still a pretty good average for a team that averaged a paltry 3.27 yards per carry. (And if you take Jimmy Clausen's 54 "carries" for -74 yards out of the equation, ND still only averaged 3.92 YPC.)

Notre Dame's problems with the rush appear to be two-fold: one, they just need to get better at blocking up front, and maybe BGS is right that just committing to the inside zone or some other play will make them better; and second, the pass game is not as dangerous as it was, as in 2005 Brady Quinn averaged an impressive 8.7 yards per pass attempt (unadjusted). If I were them I would focus on a simpler base of run plays: four or five at the max. Anyway, check out the original post.

4. I agree with the Senator: The Tebow-gate vote scandal was anti-climactic (Spurrier: Uh, I didn't care enough to do it myself and someone else either got cute or lazy and I never looked. In fact, I never look.) As I take the Senator's point to be, do we care if coaches don't really bother with these things? I sure don't. I always figured the "Coaches poll" -- in its various forms -- basically just stood for "someone over there at the coaches office and/or athletic department of that school," and that was good enough for me. It's more of an issue of who else you'd want to ask.

5. File this in the category of strange ideas: Zach Zaremba wants Southern Cal to switch to the spread offense.
The Trojans have the athletes to run this prolific offense, so will they get behind the eight ball, or follow suit as so many teams have already done and install the offense of the 21st century?

Powerhouses such as Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, Virginia Tech, Penn State, Florida and West Virginia have made the switch. When will the mighty Trojans?

Uh. There's more there, but the argument seems to be that USC isn't scoring as many points as, say, Oklahoma or Florida, and they haven't won a National Title in four years. But that doesn't make much sense: USC lost to Oregon State last year, in a single defensive breakdown, and Stanford the year before, in just a fluke game (many spread offenses have had similar breakdown games). Relatedly, this really can't be an issue of being wide open enough, as USC throws the ball plenty and does -- contrary to what the article says -- use four and five receiver sets (though not with the frequency of a team like Florida).

The other reason of course that USC hasn't won a title game over the last four seasons (aside from facing Vince Young), is that the Pac-10 has let USC down: Florida, which won two of the last three titles, had a loss each season, and LSU lost two games. It's a strength of schedule thing.

Anyway I'm getting off topic. The article is weird, and based on an equally weird premise: "The spread offense is the most popular offense in football today." That, to me, is a good reason not to run the spread. Look, the issue with pro-style offenses versus spread offenses is that spread offenses, where the quarterback is a dynamic runner, can get an arithmetic advantage. But that doesn't make dropback passing obsolete; if your guy is Peyton Manning or Tom Brady -- or the college equivalent, like Leinert or Carson Palmer were -- then you are more than dynamic enough. It's not easy to find guys with that kind of passing ability, but USC definitely can.

Friday, July 24, 2009

What makes a good running back? How do you evaluate how good a team's run game is?

The pro-football reference blog recently mentioned something I found fascinating:

What about rushing? . . . .In modern times, most RBs have a median carry length of three yards. I suspect that’s been the case for the majority of RBs for a long time. LenDale White and his 3.9 YPC last season? Median rush of 3 yards. Adrian Peterson and his 4.8 YPC? Median rush of 3 yards.

I think this has powerful implications. If most runningbacks tend to have the same median rush, then those who are more effective -- and hence have higher averages -- would be almost exclusively based on their big-play ability. (That big-play ability could still come in different forms, i.e. the guy who consistently can turn five yarders into 15 yarders, or the guy who can break every 10th or 15th rush into a 50 yarder.)

But this would imply that the powerback, or at least the powerback who is not considered so explosive, is overrated. (Earl Campbell could run you over and break off big gains.) The point is just that the premium would not be on the player's results on the average plays, but instead on the longer ones. Some of this too can be the surrounding cast. Indeed, as Homer Smith has said, a runningback who gets 130 yards on 20 carries plays in a better offense (either because of him or for whatever other reason) than a guy who gets 145 on 35 carries.

But this does all assume that average yards per carry is the most important stat. I'm not sure all would agree that it is. (In fact, I think the PFR Blog folks might not agree, as they ranked runningbacks and included their total carries and pure total yards as a key factor.) I'm not convinced that more carries means a better back or better running game, as that depends on the game situation (does the team get a lot of leads?) and also that the play-calling is optimal. I can also buy that on 3rd and 3, or third and goal, the point is to convert, not to help the average.

Yet then how else can we evaluate running backs, or even a running game more generally? A perusal of the best offenses and running games in college tends to show that the best all have high yards per carry; not too many BCS teams have averaged fewer than 4.5 yards per carry, and several have averaged well over five yards per rush attempt (including sacks, which count against the run game total in college).

So I'm opening the floor to better ideas. IF yards per attempt is the best metric (for either an individual back or a team's run game), and IF the median truly is right around 3 yards for great and average backs alike, then the difference between good and mediocre runningbacks and rushing teams would seem to be wholly in the explosiveness of the upper 50% of plays: a good team or player can rip off big gains, and turn big gains into touchdowns, while the average plays for both is about the same. (And maybe negative plays are overrated.)

But I'm interesting in everyone's thoughts on this question. How do you evaluate the running game?

What I'm reading

1. 2009 Coach of the Year Clinic Manual. Nothing revolutionary, but some good stuff. Chip Kelly of Oregon has a good article (which is actually available here), as does Monte Kiffin, now of Tennessee (about his famous "Tampa Two," of course). Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech has a good one too, which includes this gem:

We give teams that play that kind of front [i.e. try to read the A-back's block to give them cues on what kind of blocking scheme Georgia Tech is using to block the various defenders "assigned" to the different possible ballcarriers in the option] something a little funky. When they play the eight-man front on defense, they tie the safety and outside linebacker to the release of the playside slot. They tell the linebacker if the slot runs straight up the field, the strong safety takes the quarterback and the free safety runs for the pitch. If the slot arcs, the linebacker stays outside on the slot and the safety runs the alley for the quarterback. That is not a bad way to play and is probably smart. If we find them doing that, we automatic with a safety call. We run the slot on the inside release, but he passes the linebacker and blocks the safety. [In other words he basically fakes blocking one guy and blocks a different guy, though it is subtle and designed to defeat what the defenders were taught all week to look for as a blocking tendency.] The defense has two defenders on the quarterback and no one on the pitch. We did that a bunch against Georgia in our last regular season game.

Yup. The insight here is that it's not necessarily that Georgia didn't know the option, it's that they maybe overthought the whole thing, trying to guess and calculate what was coming when. Sometimes the answer is just to keep it simple, read and react, and play football.

2. Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, by David Foster Wallace. The guy could write.

3. Harper's Magazine. Just got a subscription.

4. The Most Of P.G. Wodehouse (Collection of P.G. Wodehouse stories). Another guy who could flat write. Many of these stories are ridiculous but that's often where their fun lies.

5. In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic, by David Wessel (the Wall Street Journal's economics editor). It's not out yet, but looks good, and I will be reading it. I've avoided most of the new books on the economic collapse, but it appears this is the one to read (at least so far). I've also always enjoyed Wessel's work.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Old school

Check out the videos on the University of Minnesota Libraries' tribute to the old Memorial stadium. Besides, who says the shotgun spread is new? Watch the highlights of any of the championship teams, including the 1940 one. You'll see lots of Notre Dame Box type sets, with lots of shotgun, faking, sprint out passing from the 'gun, etc. Looks pretty similar to what I see these days.

Smart Links - July 23, 2009

1. What am I missing? Everyone is obsessed with finding out who didn't vote for Tebow as first-team all-SEC. It's also a rule that you can't vote for your own guy. Then why isn't the answer that Urban Meyer voted for Jevan Snead? I mean he lost to him and is apparently barred from voting for his own guy. (I also don't know how the not-voting-for-your-own guy rule is compatible with having unanimous selections. If you think your guy is the best, do you just leave the spot blank rather than fill in someone else there?) Again, I must be missing something pretty fundamental here. [UPDATE: As several readers pointed out, "unanimous" equals everyone but your own coach, and Spurrier has admitted that he was the one who didn't. (Though he blames an assistant.)]

2. College Football Playoff Act of 2009, H.R. 390. University of Illinois law professor Christine Hurt (an alumna of Texas Tech and U. of Texas), writing on the legal blog the Conglomerate. Her post, reprinted in full:

In reading all the legislation during the 110th and 111th Congress that contain the word "windfall," (everybody needs a hobby) this definitely wins in the surprise category.

The College Football Playoff Act of 2009 was introduced by Joe Barton (TX), and it has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce. Now, before you start to wonder where Congress gets the power to redesign NCAA football, note how the legislation works. "A bill to prohibit, as an unfair and deceptive act or practice, the promotion, marketing, and advertising of any post-season NCAA Division I Football game as a national championship game unless such game is the culmination of a fair and equitable playoff system."

Hmmm. Next we have the MLB change the name of the World Series unless they actually invite other countries to participate.

So, where does windfall fit in here? In the findings, of course:

Congress finds that. . . the colleges and universities whose teams participate in the post-season football bowls experience significant financial windfall including increased applications for enrollment, recruiting advantages, increased alumni donations, and increased corporate sponsorship that provides s competitive advantage over universities whose teams are ineligible or statistically at a disadvantage from the BCS bowl competitions because of their conference affiliation.

Well, I'll let you quibble with this silliness, but this legislation, even if it passed (which it won't), wouldn't make the NCAA create a playoff. The BCS championship bowl would just have a different name. And it doesn't matter because Texas Tech isn't ever going to make it to the bowl no matter what the name is. You could call it "Bob" or even the "Texas Tech Red Raider Champions of the World Bowl," and Texas Tech would still never make it all the way. OK, that was an aside.

3. SEC media day. Just follow @edsbs on twitter. Thank me later.

4. ESPN will now let its reporters talk about the Ben Roethlisberger case.

5. Michael Vick, underrated? Brian Burke on the NY Times Fifth Down Blog.

6. The Senator asks: How far can the spread, spread? Good stuff, well worth it.

7. More from the NY Times on the O'Bannon vs. NCAA infringment case:

O’Bannon left U.C.L.A. in 1995. Does the N.C.A.A. have the right to continue to make money off O’Bannon and his teammates without compensation?

“Is that part of what an athlete’s grant-in-aid is about?” asked Richard M. Southall, the director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of North Carolina. “You’ve left the plantation and now 15 years later you have a wife and children and the plantation still owns you, no matter what.”

College merchandise licensing is a $4-billion-a-year industry, and the N.C.A.A. has cornered the market. An N.C.A.A. business partner, Thought Equity Motion, has called the N.C.A.A.’s video content archive “one of the most unique and valuable content collections in the world.” . . .

The N.C.A.A. has had a sweetheart deal for years — using players’ likenesses, selling jerseys with popular players’ numbers and using athletes as uncompensated on-campus entertainment. Of course, athletes and their parents have had their own sweetheart deal, choosing colleges for sports and not for an academic fit.

There is not a lot of sympathy these days for athletes’ woes — at any level. The perception is that scholarship athletes and their families receive a pretty good deal. Yes, the hours are long and daily practices make this a rigorous part-time job.

“The general thinking among the public is that, ‘It could be a heck of a lot worse — you should be just be thankful for what the school has given you,’ ” Southall said. If that means eternal rights to your image, then so be it.

And the public does not care.

Just wait. Come September, college football stadiums from Harvard to Southern California will be filled with fans. Fans do not worry about steroids or licensing issues; they just want to be entertained.

O’Bannon’s case and the others raise an old but still unanswered question: Who protects the college athlete? In the N.F.L., a players association protects players against owners. In major league baseball and the N.B.A., unions look after the players’ interests.

Not so in college.

The N.C.A.A. describes itself as “the organization through which colleges and universities of the nation speak on athletics at the national level.” The N.C.A.A. tries to act as mother, father and paternalistic overseer who supposedly knows what’s best for the young athlete.

But don’t count on it.

Every year, beginning in their freshman season, scholarship athletes are compelled to sign mountains of forms.

How many athletes or parents or guardians read the forms? How many challenge the athletic department? College administrators and coaches pay lip service to “educating the kids,” but how many insist that their new recruits know exactly what they are signing?

More to the point, how many recruits — and parents of recruits — have the nerve to tell Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski or Tennessee’s Pat Summit that, based on a lawyer’s advice, they are not signing anything granting a release of their image.

All involved usually are too filled with gratitude and ego to consider reading between the lines.

“Until someone says something, stuff can go on,” Southall said. “Nobody wants to be the athlete who’s blackballed. Nobody wants to be the test case that’s thrown out.”

Ed O’Bannon wishes he had raised the question and resisted 15 years ago. Perhaps as a result of his suit, future athletes won’t have to.

Again, I think even if the NCAA loses they will just get the players to sign a waiver of their rights as a condition of getting the scholarship.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Is the NCAA infringing the rights of its current and former players?

The plot thickens: Former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon has now sued the NCAA over what he asserts is the NCAA's infringing use of his likeness in its various materials, including NCAA basketball video games. This case, unlike maybe Sam Keller's, is the real deal: Boies, Schiller & Flexner and Hausfield LLC are serious law firms, and the suit is a class-action suit, meaning that they are looking to join as many other former athletes as possible. And one twist does make this case more sympathetic, in that O'Bannon is a former player, no longer on scholarship, who continues to have his likeness used in subsequent editions of the video game through the "All-time" team features. He's not just suing about the use of his likeness when he was in college under scholarship.

Not that I'm convinced that makes any difference. The bottom line is that everyone owns their own name and likeness, and any use of that name or likeness without permission that is infringing -- particularly for commercial use -- is impermissible. Now the question is what is infringing, and the NCAA simply maintains it hasn't infringed on anyone's rights. It hasn't yet had to explain why, though frequent arguments are that the kids are already compensated with scholarships or that the likenesses in the games aren't infringing enough -- you know, that Florida QB #15 that runs like a rhino and throws 50-yard bombs could be anybody. Neither is persuasive.

The first looks just about foreclosed. Recently a federal appeals court decided that NFL Films infringed on John Facenda's distinctive voice when it used clips in advertisements for EA's Madden football. Facenda of course had that booming voice, and he had signed a contract with NFL Films. But in signing a contract didn't mean he waived all his rights for all time. Instead, as the Court said, "Facenda consented to participation in films documenting NFL games, not an advertisement for a football video game." The same might be said of the NCAA's scholarship athletes.

And the second is not how it works. You can infringe on someone's publicity rights without saying them by name; the question is basically whether the whole thing passes the smell test. For example, successful plaintiffs in publicity rights cases have included Muhammad Ali (who sued Playgirl magazine after it published a drawing of a naked guy resembling him with "The Greatest" written under it), Vanna White (an advertisement by Samsung showing a robotic blonde woman turning over a Wheel of Fortune display), George Wendt and John Ratzenberger, who played Cliff and Norm on Cheers (animatronic likenesses of Cliff and Norm were placed in airport bars). On the other hand, the unsuccessful have been Joe Montana, who sued regarding the use of his image after having won the Superbowl, as that was merely the recording of an historic fact, and baseball (again!), which sued a company that made cartoonish, spoof baseball cards. The court there ruled that the baseball cards were sufficiently a parody of the players such that a suit wasn't permissible. (No word on whether that defense would remain for players who receive absurdly low ability ratings in EA's NCAA Football.)

One irony here is that the sports leagues -- usually always on the same side -- are now put on opposing sides with the simultaneous rise of these fantasy baseball challenges. In these cases, Major League Baseball and its players union have sued proprietors of fantasy baseball leagues, arguing that a player's name followed by his historical stats constitutes an infringing of publicity rights. These suits have not fared well, but they provide a nice contrast with the NCAA's position, which is that recreating the image and likeness of current and former athletes is not infringing.

So what would happen if the courts ruled against the NCAA? I'm not sure how damages might work, but I would guess the NCAA would try to get its future players -- i.e. 17 year old kids -- to sign waivers of their publicity rights, forever. (Kind of like Facebook does for any photos you upload there.) But you also might get antitrust issues with, say, forcing all the various Universities to take on this policy, or then enforcement issues when, say, some WAC school offers its recruits the opportunity to play for them without having to sign away their publicity rights. It's an interesting mess.

That's a good trade

The NY Times's Fifth Down Blog has swapped out KC Joyner for Advanced NFL Stats' Brian Burke, who will be guest-posting there this week. I'll take that bargain any day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Q&As with spread gurus and those entrusted with stopping them

ESPN is doing some kind of spread week, and they have posted a bunch of Q&As with coaches from around the country chiming in on the spread, what they do, and how to stop it. There's some chaff but also some good stuff, so I thought I'd provide the excerpted highlights (with links):

How similar is what you do to what Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriquez do?

PJ: I think it's very similar. . . .

Why do you think then, that most college football fans, when they think of your offense, probably don't automatically think of what Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriquez do?

PJ: Because one is under the gun and the other is under the center.

That's it?

PJ: Yeah, and most fans, quite honestly, couldn't tell you what plays they ran out of the gun. It's like anything else -- if you're successful and you have big plays, then it's great. If you're not moving the ball and you're not scoring then it's no good. If you look at last year with what Rich did at Michigan, it's the same offense they ran at West Virginia, but it was a learning process, different personnel and they didn't have near the success. In fact they had very little success. But nobody was questioning whether it would work or not. As soon as we have one game where we don't score 30 points, boy it's like, I told you this wouldn't work, everybody figured it out. That's what drives you nuts.

How about with receivers? Does the spread require different things out of them than if you were lining up in a pro-style set?

SD: Yeah, definitely. The quarterback and receivers have to spend a lot of time getting on the same page. If you run the ball, guys are going to try to sneak more guys in the box. When they do that, you need to find a way to get the ball on the perimeter, whether it's throwing the [bubble screens] or whatever, to try to get the ball away from the guys packing the box. When you're doing that, it looks like an easy throw, but it's something that requires quite a bit of timing and work between quarterbacks and wide receivers. If you're going to spread it out and do that, your quarterback and receivers have to spend a lot of time developing a feel for each other. . . .

One way guys recruit against spread teams is they tell recruits that if they play in a spread offense they are not going to get the respect from the NFL in the draft. What do you say to that?

SD: It's weird. Remember [the University of] Miami was one of the first teams running the one-back and running a spread offense with three receivers on the field? They were doing it with guys like Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde and all of those guys were getting drafted. Back then, Miami was using it as a real advantage -- hey, we're spreading the field and throwing the ball. That's how you get into the NFL. What's happened is the spread has changed and there are a lot of different kinds of spreads. You've got what Penn State was doing last year which is more traditional type stuff. And then you've got the stuff that is way out there, the run-and-shoot stuff, what Tech's done. I think anytime a quarterback can drop back and throw the football, that's important. All that does is make him better, whether he does it under center or out of the shotgun. I don't see how a quarterback can be faulted when he takes a snap, avoids a rush, shuffles in the pocket, goes through reads, finds a receiver, throws an accurate ball and does all the things you have to do to drop back and throw. I don't see how he becomes a better quarterback by being under center and handing it to a running back. There's been a little bit of a knock, but I think that's just because of the personnel. If you're Texas Tech, you don't have to recruit 6-foot-6 quarterbacks who can stand in the pocket and throw the ball. And those are the guys the NFL is always going to like. Now, some of those guys don't work out and guys like Tom Brady do, who's not very big and doesn't have a particularly strong arm. They're just good players. Whether it's college or pro, the important thing for a quarterback is just finding a good fit.
How hard is it for a receiver to learn a spread offense with so many different options going on?

HH: I think it's a lot simpler because what you're trying to do is you're trying to create one-on-ones. And I know that you're trying to do that in about every offense, create one-on-ones. But in the spread, because you have people spread out so much, it's a numbers game ... So, in most spread offenses, the beauty of it is that it creates a lot of one-on-one opportunities for wide receivers. That's all a guy really asks for.

What type of player are you looking for at the skill positions?
Dan Mullen: The first thing we look for is a guy who's multi-talented, a guy that can play a crossover position or hybrid position. You want a receiver who can also line up at tailback or a tailback who can flex into the slot or move up to the fullback position. Guys who have multiple skills make it hard for defenses to match up on you. . . .

When you have several of these hybrid players, why does it make it so difficult for the defense?

Dan Mullen: One thing we're hoping to get to here at Mississippi State is where you don't have to change personnel groupings very often. Everybody has the same skill set, which makes it harder for the defense to pick up on what you're doing. You don't have to substitute to run different things.

How much has the talent you guys have accumulated over recent years provided you the opportunity to make your offense different from one season to the next?

David Yost: Coach [Gary] Pinkel is a very direct guy and he thinks things through and doesn't fly by the seat of the pants. And that's the beauty of this offense.

When we had [former Missouri quarterback] Brad [Smith] we ran him more. Then we got Chase Daniel in here who could run the football, but also could also lead us to more passing because of his talents. That helped us transform our offense into more of a passing philosophy.

At one time when we had [tight ends] Chase [Coffman] and Martin Rucker, we were running a lot of two-tight end offenses. Then we had a set of receivers, but not necessarily ones that would be as suited to running the spread. Then, we started recruiting guys like Jeremy Maclin and stopping using as much two-tight end sets.

Now, after losing Coffman and Maclin, we'll be a little thinner at wide receiver this season. Because of that, we're kind of adjusting what we're doing. We'll be using three wideouts and our tailback more as a rusher and a receiver.

We feel our offense gives us a chance to get our best 11 players on the field. And we can do things differently depending on the personnel we have on hand.

Defending the spread

How do you prepare for it and what's your philosophy in going against it?

Al Groh: . . . .One of the things we have observed is that defensive teams have to be willing to take some risks in order to take the initiative back. When you're so spread out, and one of the features of the spread, and the spread offense is just a formation. Having been in conversations with people, the two things I noticed is, last year Missouri finished fourth in the country in passing and Oregon finished fourth in running. Both are called spread offenses. The word spread is no longer associated with specific plays. It's simply a formation that spreads the defense from sideline to sideline and in doing so creates some natural spaces in the defense. It's harder to go from far away to attack the offense and you leave yourself vulnerable to certain things. By the same token, what we're observing is defense are afraid to take any risks. They just stand there and they're a standing target.

What we do like about being in the 3-4 defense is the flexibility it provides because defense, so much these days, that fourth linebacker as opposed to a fourth defensive lineman in the 4-3, gives us significantly more options. What defensive coaching is now, no matter what the system, you have to find some ways to adapt to what the other team is doing. We think this gives us the ability to adapt and react. You'd like to be on the attack defensively and set the tone, but to a degree the offensive will always control that. You have to be able to adjust and adapt.

How different is what Georgia Tech does? It's the spread option. How does that make it a little more difficult to prepare for, or does it?

AG: They are in their own way, yes, they fall under that umbrella because while the plays are different, it's out of sync with what teams face on a repetitive basis. That's the only time that most teams see that offense every year. There's no accumulated familiarity by the coaches or players going against it. That's a big part of the difficulty of playing against that or any offense that isn't common to what the defenses generally see. There's different plays, but it accomplishes similar things.

You guys beat them last year. As a coach, you get it. But how do you get your players prepared for it in what, five days, when they never see it?

AG: You're exactly right. One of the things we thought that was very important in the presentation of it was to demystify it for the players. In some cases, players can get frustrated. For example, this Wildcat formation that's gaining some notoriety. Really, in a lot of ways, it's a reduced down spread. It's spread out, but a lot of times it's with a player back there getting the direct snap who's a real good runner, but is not a passer. Actually, in talking with the Patriots last year, and all of a sudden it got sprung on them by Miami. In doing so, the unfamiliarity of it really threw them off during the course of the game and they could never quite get it back and in talking with the coaches there, they had issues during the game with getting the players settled down because there was still a mystique to what they were up against. From that point on, they had a detailed plan, and the next time they played against it from other teams as well as the second time they played Miami, they fared much better. You've got to demystify these unique offenses for the defensive players.

How much has it helped you as a defensive coach to understand it and scheme for it because [new offensive coordinator] Gregg [Brandon] is on your staff now and that's the way he's thinking?

AG: Very much so. It's helped us to establish a significant period of experimentation. We put some things out there and run them, and we really haven't tried to defend our team so much as let's just run our stuff and see what we like and what we don't like. It has certainly been helpful to us in that degree. . . .

Do you think there's any benefit to preparing the guys for the NFL to run one particular offensive scheme or another?

AG: Not really. I think that if the players are well-trained fundamentally, those are the things that carry over from league to league. The fundamental skills of how to execute their job, how to defeat the player across from them. It's highly unlikely that most players are going to go - with only 32 teams in the NFL - it's highly unlikely they're going to go to a system that's exactly like the one they came from. They're going to have to make some adjustments system-wise. The big thing is they have the fundamental background that can translate to any system. If you can block guys in one system, you can block them in another. If you can beat blocks in the 3-4, you can beat blocks in the 4-3. If you get blocked in the 3-4, you're going to get blocked in the 4-3.

Makes sense. Why do you think more ACC teams haven't caught onto this?

AG: It gets trendy within leagues. What you have to go against, whether it's offense or defense, you have to prepare for those things. You kind of become influenced and spend more time looking at those things and become influenced by those things. And of course a lot of it has to do with the philosophical backgrounds and beliefs that coaches bring with them. And really your background, too. At a point, sometimes what you know how to teach best, what you know how to utilize during the course of a game is the best for a particular team as opposed to something that is intriguing, but when certain things happen during a game maybe you just don't have the wherewithal to make those in-game decisions because you don't have enough familiarity with the system. Therefore, a team would be better off with something they're really fluent in.

Do you think your players will be more comfortable playing Georgia Tech the second time around?

AG: They should have a certain element of confidence. Their circumstances should be a lot more positive than if we would have given up 40 points. Then you have to come back the next year and convince the players we can really do this. 'Well wait a second, last year we were completely bamboozled by it and we haven't played against it since.' Yeah, I think we don't have to overcome that type of situation to start with, but no matter what, they run those plays every day. Their opponents, and this is the value of being a little bit out of the norm, whether it's with your offense or defense, their opponents only practice against those plays for a week.

I remember in high school preparing for wishbone teams: It was pure assignment football. Is it like that preparing for a spread-option vs. a typical pro-style, multiple offense?

BG: Yeah, it definitely is. In the old days, you had three backs in the backfield and everybody was doing option defensive assignments and concerns. It's the same kind of deal. The quarterback can carry the ball. He can hand off. He can motion a guy around to be the pitch guy. It really is the same idea. You've really got to make sure you stop all those elements. And then they throw in the no-huddle with it, which most of them have, and that can slow you down a little bit more. So we talk about that with our guys -- it's assignment football. You can't be quite as reckless, unless it's third-and-long and then you can get into your normal blitz stuff.

More than a few defensive coordinators have said that when you have a running quarterback, it stresses a defense and makes it difficult to match up. Is the spread not effective when the quarterback is not a good runner?

BG: I don't think it is as effective. I think when you've got a guy like [Jeremiah] Masoli at Oregon -- or a Dennis Dixon -- man, that makes it even harder. If a quarterback is not a great runner, you don't have to worry about him keeping it. And even if he does keep it, he's not going to gain a lot of yards. You can kind of load up in the one aspect, whether it's defending the ball inside or the pitch guy coming around, you don't have to worry about the quarterback. But if the guy can run, it adds a whole different dimension to it and makes it more difficult. . . .

How about blocking assignments: is that an adjustment also?

BG: Yeah, because so much of it is lateral. You really don't see the downhill, power running game that you see with most two-back teams -- power with pulling [linemen], lead plays, that kind of thing. So much of it is lateral, with guys moving in one direction and the back has the ability to really cut back and wind it back. You've really got to be conscious of not running so far out with the offensive line -- the term we use is "getting washed." Sometimes you see a back cutting all the way back and part of that is a defensive line over-pursuing and getting washed past the holes and the gaps up front so a back can stick it back. It's tough stuff and it is different. A good offensive line, like Oregon, that is big and strong and moves well, can really work guys past that initial point of attack and a good back can just break it back against the pursuit of the defense.
First of all, what is the challenge like when you're going up against a spread offense?

Phil Bennett: I played for a guy at Texas A&M, Emory Bellard, who invented the wishbone. With option football, everybody says it's an equalizer. I think if you have that quarterback, then the spread can be an equalizer.

I think it equalizes the field. I know as a defensive coach, it can take the aggressiveness out of you, because you have to be so concerned with assignments, just like the option. I was nervous last year when we played South Florida and Matt Grothe, and then obviously West Virginia. Our ends are big get-off, speed guys, and it really makes your ends go into a different mode. I don't think with the spread, in the run game, that you ever just really have to mash a guy. If you've got a body on body, then it becomes assignment football. But then you work on it so much that it can take a little bit of aggressiveness out of you.

How do you go about avoiding that?

PB: One of the things I try to do is, I try to treat it like the option in the run game. I want obviously a guy on the outside end and an inside-out guy on the quarterback. In the passing game, the thing I think is the toughest is the play-pass, because you're geared up to stop the run. I watched West Virginia against North Carolina, and they were so geared up to stop the run that Pat (White) threw for 330 yards, and it was off of play-pass.

I go back to our disaster game last year against Rutgers, where I had our guys so steered in on the run the week before against Navy. That's the thing the spread does to you. Your front guys have to still be aggressive, and the secondary still has to play pass. I was very pleased in our last home game against West Virginia, because our secondary, instead of getting so caught up in the run (played the pass). And we let our front go. And that's the thing I think you've got to do.

And of course the other thing is down and distance. Just like against the wishbone, if you get a down and distance on a spread team where the play-pass is taken away, then you've got a great advantage. The other thing people don't talk about in college is hash marks. You look at every spread team and watch them, and they have tremendous tendencies when they're in the middle of the field and then tremendous tendencies when they're on the boundary. . . .

Do you think that, in general, defenses are catching up to the spread?

PB: You know, as soon as you say that, somebody will tear you up. Now, with the original spread teams, people are starting to say, hey we've seen this. I think we played (against) regular personnel, out of 880 snaps last year, I think we played 90 snaps. And the rest was one back and either one tight, three wides or even four wides. Everybody is so multiple and they're doing variations of the spread. Iowa came out against us, and they had two tights, two flankers, and lo and behold guess what they did? They flexed them out and ran the spread out of it.

I think the more you can focus on something, week after week, people will get better answers. The other thing is, there's a premium on skill players on offense. The thing the spread does is, it creates matchups. And if you got a 4.4 (40-yard dash) wide receiver against a 4.8 linebacker, that's a great matchup. You've got to be able to swarm the ball, and you can't have too many of those matchups.

There are so many versions of the spread offense. What do you think when you hear that somebody is running the spread?

Ellis Johnson: Everybody just refers to it in general as the spread, but it all starts with the quarterback and whether he's a good runner. If they run the quarterback, it's a whole different animal.

What makes it a different animal?

Ellis Johnson: If the quarterback doesn't run much and it's never more than the quarterback and the running back in the backfield at the same time, it doesn't present as many problems unless they've just got so many great athletes that you can't match up. But you've got problems with any offense that has that many great athletes. The quarterback being able to run presents that extra challenge back there that almost makes it seem like you're trying to defend a 12th man.

How have your triple-option roots at The Citadel helped you in defending the spread?

Ellis Johnson: One of the things that helps me when I'm drawing it up on the chalkboard is that everybody was running the option and the veer back in the 70s when I was coming up through coaching. I understand the loaded option with the extra blocker back there. A lot of younger coaches don't understand it, and obviously a lot of players don't. It's very difficult to get taught and understood how these things work.

How does your strategy change when you're going against a spread offense?Ellis Johnson: The thing we try to do is mix up our fronts as much as possible and keep the perimeter reasonably simple. If you blitz too much, it can be disruptive. But it's not going to be sound against option assignments. And reading linemen becomes extremely important. When they get in the shotgun and the quarterback's back there beside the running back, as the ball is traveling back to the quarterback, you really don't get any flow in the backfield, so you need to be heavily keying on the linemen.

How has the spread offense changed the way you put together your game plans?

Mike Hankwitz: It has changed things because in the past, you wanted to feel like you could be more proactive and try to dictate. You could stack up against the run and force teams to throw, or you could stack your coverage and dare 'em to run. The spread does literally what it says: It spreads the field, forces you to spread your defense out more and especially with the quarterbacks that can run and throw. There's all different types of blocking schemes in the spread, aside from just the zone read.

So how do you counteract all of that?

MH: We try to see what the strength of their attack is. Is it the running game? How good is the quarterback in the run game? Is he a better runner than passer? If he is, then we'll commit more to the run and try to make him beat us throwing the ball. Or if they're a better passing team, then we will play more coverages and try to make them beating us running the ball. The third element when they spread you out is the unscripted, the improvised plays with the quarterback scramble. You're spread out and you're trying to rush the passer and play coverage and all of a sudden, the quarterback that can take off and scramble, it's not easy to plan for that all the time.

How much more time do you devote to the quarterback run now versus 15 years ago?

MH: Teams ran the triple option, and you had to be sound in your schemes and then you had to have the players who had discipline to take their assignment and not let somebody run free. The passing attack off that was minimal, but now, with the spread, you have that option aspect where you have to defend the different components of the run game: the read zone with the running back, the quarterback keeping it off the read zone and then bringing a running back in the backfield and bringing him out on a pitch. The bubble is another variation of it. [The receiver] becomes the pitch man. And then you have the jail-break screens, you have draws, running back draws, quarterback draws. It's more difficult to defend all that stuff.

You mention how dictating on defense was easier before. Has the spread allowed offenses to dictate more often?

MH: It makes it a lot harder on a defense to dictate or take away certain things, just because they've spread the field and they are doing more things. The offenses are trying to keep the defense from dictating to them. And then the other big part of the spread is the audible aspect of it, the coaches changing the plays. They're going no-huddle, they have more clock to work with and then they'll go up and show a formation and go through a cadence and try to get the defense to tip its hand. Then, they'll go back and change the play and try to get in a better play from what they've seen. You used to get some of that against passing teams. They would keep you from trying to substitute, but that was still relatively one-dimensional. You had some good one-back teams that could run and pass, but you didn't have to worry about the quarterback and the option.

When you arrived in Lubbock in 2000, Leach was the only coach in the conference running the spread. Now, seven of the teams run the offense as a base set. Did you ever expect it to be this widespread?

RM: I've definitely seen things evolve. The yards per game and points all have increased. I think it's because we've seen a development in the training of quarterbacks and offensive players through seven-on-seven camps and the like -- particularly here in Texas. Now, everybody is trying to get their wide receivers and running backs into space. And we're trying to do what we can to stop them.

Because of the way scoring has mushroomed in the Big 12, are you changing the way you judge the success of your defense?

RM: You've seen things evolve. Obviously, yards per game and points have increased. It's not three yards and a cloud of dust like it was when I was playing. We all realize these quarterbacks are pretty good and these offenses can move the ball. What we have to do is be patient and innovative with how we try to counteract their schemes. Points will increase, but maybe now we need to look at stats like third-down conversions and turnovers to determine how effective a defense has really been.

How much of a philosophical change has it been after the mushrooming of these spread offenses since you started your coaching career?

RM: When I started back at East Carolina with Pat Dye, I grew up facing the wishbone all spring and all fall. That was the offense that everybody was using and that caused problems. You saw more of a power game. Then, you saw people start using the West Coast offense to try to throw the football.

I miss those days, but I know the spread defense is here to stay for a while because of the development of the athletes to fit those offenses. I know everybody in our state (high school players) is out throwing the football, so the passing quarterback is out there. The receivers are out there, too. The guys that used to play basketball are all becoming wide receivers. I think the spread will be here for awhile, so both sides will have to keep developing.

Smart Links - July 21, 2009

1. Ben Cahoon gets all Tyrone Prothro on things. Great catch from the Montreal Alouettes' Ben Cahoon. Love the CFL's motion and super spread with the 12 men -- nothing like four wide while still two-backs in the shotgun. (Ht Shutdown Corner.)

2. "Out of the Blue." A documentary about the Boise State team that wound up upsetting Oklahoma. Quite good.

3. Three plays that shocked the world. Always worth a repeat view.

4. Brian Cook wants to pull his eyes out. ESPN's Lester Munson gets all hysterical and apocalyptic about the Supreme Court's upcoming decision in the American Needle case. The question involves whether the NFL -- composed of 32 different franchises under one umbrella -- should be treated as a "single-entity" for purposes of some of the anti-trust laws. If the NFL the Court deems the NFL a "single-entity" rather than a joint venture (as the lower courts did), it will be immune from some of this anti-trust liability. Munson thinks the world is ending; Cook takes a slightly more reasoned and calm approach, noting that the Supreme Court's ultimate decision is far from knowable (likely at this point even by the Justices). I'm with Brian, and for more insight check out SCOTUSBlog's explanation of the legal issues involved.

5. "A Beautiful Mind." Profile piece by Rob Moseley about Oregon's Chip Kelly. A good, thoughtful piece. Kind of buys into the "coach as genius" meme -- football is pretty simple, and players can always make you look smart -- but a good read.

6. Dutch Meyer on the spread:

In an interview Sammy Baugh gave to the Washington Post, years after he’d gone on to a Hall of Fame NFL career with the Redskins, one can even see a little of Dutch Meyer’s influence on today’s West Coast Offense:

“Dutch Meyer taught us. All the coaches I had in the pros, I didn’t learn a damn thing from any of `em compared with what Dutch Meyer taught me. He taught the short pass. The first day we go into a room and he has three S’s up on a blackboard; nobody knew what that meant. Then he gives us a little talk and he says, `This is our passing game.’ He goes up to the blackboard and he writes three words that complete the S’s: `Short, Sure and Safe.’ That was his philosophy — the short pass. “Everybody loved to throw the long pass. But the point Dutch Meyer made was, `Look at what the short pass can do for you.’ You could throw it for seven yards on first down, then run a play or two for a first down, do it all over again and control the ball. That way you could beat a better team.”

Courtesy of Richard, one of the blog readers, and I believe the write-up is by the inimical coach Hugh Wyatt.

7. Dan Shanoff on the inevitability of ESPN's taking over local sports coverage. Also check out the front-page NY Times article he addresses.

8. Why are we so fat? Elizabeth Kolbert weighs in (zing!) in the New Yorker, and Jonah Lehrer tells us that our brains are biologically wired to prefer more calories over fewer, even when the taste is the same. (P.S. That's not a good thing.)