Smart Football has moved!

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Norm Chow - Reads and Concepts

This is from Norm Chow in 2002 (@ NC State when he had Phillip Rivers at QB): You can see that on SOME of these - he mixes 2 or even 3 concepts within 1 pass.

To better understand this post check out the BYU plays/numbers here, and compare these routes. He used these same routes at USC and NC State and still does in the NFL.

1. "QUICK GAME CONCEPT" = entire 3 step drop series ("50 SERIES") except for "4 Verticals".

2. "QUICK VERTICALS CONCEPT" = 3 step game with 4 verticals.

NOTE: "60 SERIES" = 5 step drop (SOME but very little 7).

----A) 61 Y Choice
----B) 66
----C) 64

----A) 62 = MESH ROUTES

----A) 67

----A) 68 = SMASH )

----A) 63

----A) 65

----A) 69

These passes (the "50 Series", and "61 thru 69") were the same he used at BYU

He was also experimenting with things he called:


THESE (ABOVE) were used on some "TAGS" that aren't in the base passes listed above (WHICH CAN BE FOUND IN JUST ABOUT ANY OF HIS BYU BOOKS).

The QB READS on the "60 Series" (his "bread & butter") were:


“61 Y OPTION” – 5 step drop. Eye T.E. and throw it to him unless taken away from the outside by S/S (then hit Z), OR inside by ILB (then hit FB). Don’t throw option route vs. man until receiver makes eye contact with you. Vs. zone – can put it in seam. Vs. zone – no hitch step. Vs. man – MAY need hitch step.

“62” - MESH – 5 step drop. Take a peek at F/S – if he’s up hit Z on post. Otherwise watch X-Y mesh occur – somebody will pop open – let him have ball. Vs. zone – throw to Fullback.

“63” - DOUBLE-IN (split end post, Y-10 yard in, Z-15-18yd dig) – 5 step drop and hitch (7 steps permissible). Read F/S: X = #1; Z = #2; Y OR HB = #3.

“64” – SPEED OUTS - 5 step drop. Key best located Safety on 1st step. Vs. 3 deep look at F/S – if he goes weak – go strong (Z = #1 to FB = #2 off S/S); if he goes straight back or strong – go weak (X = #1 to HB = #2 off Will LB). Vs. 5 under man – Y is your only choice. Vs. 5 under zone – X & Z will fade.

“65” – Y-SAIL/STRONG FLOOD - 5 step drop and hitch. Read the S/S. Peek at Z #1; Y = #2; FB = #3. As you eyeball #2 & see color (F/S flash to Y) go to post to X. Vs. 2 deep zone go to Z = #1 to Y = #2 off S/S.

“66” – ALL-CURL- 5 step drop and hitch. On your first step read Mike LB (MLB or first LB inside Will in 3-4). If Mike goes straight back or strong – go weak (X = #1; HB = #2). If Mike goes weak – go strong (Y = #1; Z = #2; FB = #3). This is an inside-out progression. NOT GOOD vs. 2 deep 5 under.

“67” – 3-VERTICAL/DOUBLE CORNERS- 5 step drop and hitch. Read receiver (WR) rather than defender (Corner). Vs. 2 deep go from Y = #1 to Z = #2. Vs. 3 deep read same as “64” pass (Will LB) for X = #1 or HB = #2. Equally good vs Cover 2 regardless if man OR zone under.

“68 SMASH” – SMASH - 5 step drop and hitch. Vs. 2 deep look HB = #1; FB = #2 (shoot); Z = #3. Vs. 3 deep – stretch long to short to either side. Vs. man – go to WR’s on “returns”.

“69 HB OPTION” – Y-SAIL - 5 step drop - hitch up only if you need to. Eye HB: HB = #1; Y = #2. QB & receiver MUST make eye contact vs. man. Vs. zone – receiver finds seam (takes it a little wider vs. 5 under). Only time you go to Y is if Will LB and Mike LB squeeze HB. If Will comes & F/S moves over on HB – HB is “HOT” and will turn flat quick and run away from F/S. Otherwise HB runs at his man to reinforce his position before making his break.

NOTE: BLITZ AUDIBLES IN “60 SERIES” when we want “Y” to enter in protection on widest rusher (S/S or OLB) his side: “MAX PRO”.

1. “67 Stay”
2. “63 Stay” – gives X on post if F/S lines up strong on Y.
3. “62 Stay” – gives Z on post if F/S aligns weak on HB.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Rock-Paper-Scissors, Edgar Allan Poe, and Play Selection

Despite the lofty title, this post focuses on the narrow topic of calling the right play in a football game. Coaches spend an enormous amount of time studying film, determining tendencies, creating gigantic scouting reports for each opponent, and then distributing them to their other coaches and to players who do not read them. Barely sleeping is a badge of honor, particularly at the highest levels, we are sure that more work equals more success.

This is surely true, but how is time best spent? And how should the entire idea of "play-calling" be thought of? Despite all the time spent on preparation, when asked most playcallers, such as Notre Dame's Charlie Weis, say that playcalling is "more art than science." If so much of it is gut feeling and chance during the game, then maybe the better strategy is to get some sleep during the week. I'm kidding, as I put a high premium on preparation, but can active playcalling do more harm than good? And what are the boundaries to knowledge and insight into what the other guy is going to do? Is it ever better to pick your call or choice randomly? Don't we already do that quite often?

Poe's Purloined Letter

In Edgar Allan Poe's the Purloined Letter, a character recounts a story of a young man who excels at game called "odds and evens," more popularly known as "matching pennies." The game is a two-strategy version of rock-paper-scissors: Each player secretly turns their coin to heads or tails and then both reveal their choices simultaneously; if the pennies match (both heads or both tails) then one player gets a dollar, if they do not match then the other player gets the dollar. As told in the story, the young man quickly sizes up his opponents, gains a psychological advantage, and amasses a fortune by outguessing his opponents.

I suppose all playcallers think themselves like the young man, but most are probably more similar to the suckers. But here's the rub: The suckers could nullify the young man's psychological advantage.


By choosing randomly. If the suckers put no thought into whether they chose heads or tails, they would do better than if they tried their best to outthink him. They would break even--a fantastic result against the world's greatest matching pennies player--an unnatural genius who, according to the story, would go through lengthy Sherlock Holmsian deductions to determine if his opponent was going to choose heads or tails.

This is a breath-taking result. But it is also scary--would I be better off picking my plays entirely randomly?

Rock-Paper-Scissors and the Bend-But-Don't-Break-Defense

Playcalling, at least oversimplified, is a lot like matching pennies, or--for a more common game--rock-paper-scissors. If I choose rock and you choose scissors, I get a first down. If I choose rock and you choose rock, I maybe gain a couple yards. If I choose rock and you choose paper--whoops, I just got sacked and maybe fumbled too.

A lot of football games come down to who has the bigger rocks and scissors (more talent), but tough, highly competitive games really do come down to whether you picked paper vs. his rock or vs. his scissors. But how many supposedly great calls were just luck? Probably a lot. We try to make educated guesses, but there's something to be said for going random.

Let me backtrack for a moment. John Wooden, the best basketball coach ever, talked a great deal about focusing on his team. Norm Chow, now offensive coordinator with Tennessee, mentioned how very often he really does not know what the other team is even running right then, and it would be hubris to act like he always knew. When a playcaller says that it is more art than science, he's really just saying that he's out there making (educated) guesses, but guesses nonetheless. Wooden's insight about focusing on his team is that time is best spent byfocusing on what you can control: developing your own talents and self-scouting--to avoid situations where you do become predictible.

The message? When you're scouting you're looking for sure things. Times when you know the other team is going to blitz, or is going to run that one screen pass they like or whatnot, and the best thing you can do to win games is make sure that you don't have any of these true "tendencies" that your opponent can act on. The fact that the other team knows you run it 37.4% of the time on 3rd and 4 1/2 on your own 43 is simply not useful information because it doesn't materially narrow their decision-making. If they know you only run it 3.74% of the time, that is material.

To carry the metaphor, you help yourself the most by preventing your opponent from ever knowing that if you lose twice in a row, you always shoot rock. You may still lose three in a row, but you've given him no advantage. Again, this is powerful. Even if you are playing the world's greatest playcaller or rock-paper-scissors champion, you can still break even, and then wait for those rare times when you know they are going to blitz, or come out with scissors, and hopefully carry the day.

So what's that about the bend-but-don't-break? Imagine: You are playing rock-paper-scissors. Whoever wins gets $1, if you shoot the same no one gets anything, but if rock wins over scissors, the winner get $10. What will this do to the game? Anyone with any sense is going to try to play rock more often than anything else and rarely, if ever, play scissors. If you shoot scissors you can win $1, break even, or lose $10. If you shoot rock you can lose $1, break even, or win $10.

This is the theory behind the bend-but-don't-break defense (and to some extent the more wide-open offenses). The idea is that if you play a gambling type defense, you may win more than you lose, but when you guess wrong, you give up a TD or a big play. The bend-but-don't break will concede by giving up many short passes and runs, and hope not to give up the big play. I am not saying this is a superior strategy, and in fact may be a long-run loser, but it's important to understand the theory. The person practicing that defense recognizes that they will probably be wrong more than they are right, but they think it will be worth it in the long-run--the risk is acceptable to them.


This "mixed strategy" thinking is not meant to supplant gameplanning. (Offensive Coordinator: "Sorry Coach, I'm not doing any work this week, Chris's website told me to just go out there and 'wing it.'" Head Coach: "You're fired.") Indeed, much of gameplanning should fit into your estimates of what will and won't be successful, and then you can engage in a bit of the decision to run or pass I detailed in this post.

What it does is it gives you a place to start. You should have a general equilibrium strategy based on your talent and what you emphasize going in week to week. You can hope to be a 50/50 run/pass on 1st and 10 team, with focuses on quick and intermediate passes and power runs. This is your so-called "identity" and your practices will focus there because it is what you do the most. Then you "kink-it," or skew your weekly plan to the things the defense is weakest against. Who do we run against? What coverages will we see the most? Do they blitz a lot?

Another important application is the "intelligent" mixed-strategy. For example, you face a team that runs the gamut of coverages: Cover 1, 2, 3 and 4 and man and zone and every kind of blitz and they also drop 8 guys into coverage sometimes. But you notice that if you line up in a "trips formation" they will only play Cover 1 or 3, then you have significantly improved your chances. You still don't know for sure if they will be in Cover 3 or 1, or if they will or won't blitz, but you r mixed strategy has been narrowed to a better range of possibilities.

Yet, most teams know their own weaknesses. Most defenses match their weakest defenders with their strongest, not content to let half their defense get run over every week. Further, you get into that neverending mental game: I want to throw quick routes because he likes to blitz. But he knows I know he likes to blitz, so maybe I will throw off deeper drops because his defenders will be looking for my quick passes. But then maybe he knows that I know that he knows that I know he likes to blitz, and thus will blitz anyway countering my counter. And so on. Do I have any special proficiency for this? What if the defensive coordinator is straight out of the Purloined Letter? Remember Norm Chow: if you are so certain of what the other team will do or you have a true read on the opposing coach, it's probably just you being arrogant.


Imagine you are a wing-T youth coach, and you have only three plays: the dive, the bucksweep, and the waggle (bootleg). You can win a lot of games simply by selecting those three plays practically at random; each perfectly counters the other. Then, every so often, you'll see that moment when you know that the waggle will be there. The corners are coming up for the run, the receiver has a mismatch, you know the QB will break contain, so you call it--TD.

Simplified, this is where gameplanning, play-calling, and deception all intersect. Although I've focused on play-calling from the sidelines, I recognize that in modern football playcalling differs from rock-paper-scissors in that it is not a static, simultaneous "now show it" game.

In football you call the play, then show a formation--thus narrowing the range of possibilities--then the play begins, and with good recognition both the offense and defense can react to what the defense is doing and put themselves in position to win. Many very good offenses try to "cheat" on good playcalling by calling everything from the line of scrimmage, and the run and shoot and the triple option try to "cheat" even further by putting a premium on "reading the defense" to make themselves right all the time. Many good defenses operate on similar principles. The important thing to remember for now is that deception and duplicity are your best weapons to prevent this kind of targeting, and once you've done that, you tilt the advantage back in your favor, and the "mixed strategy" reemerges as your best course. And again, if you can limit their strategies by formation or design, then you can improve your mixed strategy by being able to choose the things that defeat their known range of possibilities, rather than than having to be totally random.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

TTech's 31-point Comeback and the Hot Hand Theory

As most of you know, Texas Tech came back from 31 down with 7 minutes to go in the third quarter to beat Minnesota. What was amazing to me, as I watched the game, was that despite the short time frame, the entire thing happened almost sleepily. The "comeback" appeared like some odd mixture of luck and manifest destiny. Minnesota did not really lose the game like most teams who give up huge comebacks do. Indeed, Minnesota should be a team designed to control second half leads: they have an impressive running game and a methodical passing game to complement it. Minnesota did not turn the ball over in the second half, and got a number of first downs. Tech did not get particularly good field position, either. The most frantic moment of the entire game was Tech's 90+ yard drive to kick a 52-year field goal, and even that still seemed surprisingly serene.

So what was the deal? What does a 31 point comeback look like? Was Tech a better team that shot itself in the foot in the first half? Did Minnesota collapse? Did the players give up? Did the coaches get "conservative" as many commentators like to say? How does a team score 7 points in one half and 31 points in a quarter and a half, and then another TD in overtime?

Football Offense and the "Hot-Hand" Theory

The entirely "rational" me wants to say that the simple answer is statistical variance: What appears as "streakiness" or a "hot-streak" is no more than random events happening to occur in a bunched pattern rather than spread out--an entirely expected result. Flip a coin fifty times. The coin probably will not land on heads neatly two times followed by two tails followed by a heads, followed by a tails, followed by three heads, followed by another two tails and then two heads in a fairly even pattern. No, instead you'll see "oddities" like fifteen heads in a row followed by twelve tails.

There actually is an entire field of study dedicated to this idea regarding sports, investing, and other facets of life and it is called the "hot hand fallacy." (See also here, and here.) Surely we've all experienced and witnessed the "hot streak" or the "cold streak" in basketball where a shooter has a poor half and then literally can't miss in the second. We see the swing in momentum, the crowd cheering or silenced, the shooter's swagger, his confidence, his teammates feeding him the ball, and his confidence to shoot it from anywhere on the court with a hand in his face.

Except that is an illusion. At least according to researchers Gillovich, Vallone, and Tversky: If you're a 40% field goal shooter for the season, you're pretty much a 40% shooter all the time, even if in one game you shot 20-22 and another 1-15. It evens out over time. The difference is just chance.

This same logic applies to football, and to no offense in football more than Texas Tech's. Clearly, over the last several years Tech's offense has been one of the most productive in football. It's been well documented that Leach's offense often sputters for a quarter or two before exploding to score points at an almost ridiculous pace. So maybe the comeback wasn't such an aberration. 44 points is not so abnormal for them--what's the difference if they had scored those touchdowns on every other drive over the course of the entire game, rather than scoring them all in the second half?

This is an attractive answer to me (though probably repulsive to many) and I think sheds a lot of light on Tech's so-called "streaky" offense. This is an empowering thought, and in many ways the fact that the coaches and players believe that at core the offense will "come around" and "play like normal" helps them stay relaxed and able to excute. I think it is also a lesson to playcallers, coaches, and players to stay patient, understand the plan, and to think about the big picture. It also puts individual quarters, plays, and games in perspective. A very good QB can have a very bad half or quarter that is little more than "bad luck" in a very real and scientific sense. It exposes media and opposing coaches as nearsighted and uninformed when they watch Tech have a bad series or half and deride Leach's "gimmick" offense, ignoring the years of incredible productivity.

They shouldn't be surprised at this kind of result. Leach's offense is designed to take on the big-boys and win shootouts, not to protect leads. Even if your completion percentage is 65% and you average six yards per rush, it's not hard to string 6 or 9 poor or mediocre plays together. That's three series' and on some days that's an entire half of football.

But is this really the answer? After the game, Mike Leach was in tears. Glen Mason was fired. The players talked about heart, commitment, believing, etc. Which is it?

Performing Under Pressure

The answer is probably a bit of both. Some later studies have claimed that the hot-hand theory is real when you focus on less experienced athletes. Tiger Woods has shot so many golf balls in so many pressure and non-pressure situations that his chance of making a putt is the same whether it is a putt to par after shooting five poor shots to win the Masters or if it is the same putt for practice on the putting green--even if he himself thinks otherwise. But for Bill Woods, local insurance agent, the hot hand is probably real.

High School kids and college kids, including Tech's sophomore quarterback, are probably going to rise and fall and experience the psychological effects in a very real sense. They're too pronounced to ignore, and the young or inexperienced athletes don't have Tiger Woods's countless repetitions. I think few would argue that Tech's sophomore quarterback would have been able to recover to perform as he did in the second half had this game occured in the middle of the season, and this win will likely further his and the whole team's ability to just keep playing and treat it like any other situation.

One thing that is unique to Tech is something Dick Vermeil mentioned while announcing the game: If ever there was a team designed to come back from 31 down, it is Tech. They literally had to change nothing in their offense. They are always trying to score, get first downs, be patient and methodical, and put pressure on the defense. Were the tables turned, Minnesota is not designed to do the same. So this affects the percentages. Even if the percentages of throwing completions down 31 are the same as they are up 31, they are probably different for Minnesota because they would be facing entirely different defenses than they are used to and executing plays thay do not use or practice as much.

The upshot of all this is simply that, particularly from an offensive standpoint, you practice to remove emotion and to remove the hot hand effect. You want to be Michael Jordan looking at the game winning free throw like it is just the 156th free throw after a routine practice. I think what made Leach come to tears after the game is that everyone on the team--coaches, player, fans--went about their business as usual. Tech didn't come back by launching hail marys, running trick plays (not to take anything away from Boise--who outplayed and outcoached OU for the entire game), grabbing turnovers or even really getting lucky breaks. Everyone bought into the system and the program, did their job, played smart football, and performed.

I think what brought Leach to tears is the realization that, for young kids in the hyperbolic football world, sometimes it's brave and valiant simply to do your job.


This game was aired on the NFL Network, which most people do not get. The NFL has however put the entire game online in streaming real video here. I wish more networks would do this. (ESPN anyone? I have to download their video every time I go to their site whether I want to or not but I've never seen them put a game online in its entirety like this.)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Notes on Practicing and Developing the Quick Passing Game

Notes on Practicing and Developing the Quick Passing Game:

A QB must throw the ball within 1.3 seconds in the quick passing game. This is the most important factor. Studies have shown that sacks and incompletions sky-rocket not when protection is bad, but when the QB hangs onto the ball too long.

Pointers for Practicing Timing:

We start practice with a version of "Pat n Go"--QBs 40 yards apart facing each other, receivers in two groups on QBs' right or left. The receivers run a route, catch it, and give it to the QB on the opposite side of the field and then get in line facing the other way. A coach should stand in the middle of the field with a stopwatch:

(1) this coach should be timing the QBs' releases and he should be drilling the QB to get the ball out in under 1.3 seconds.

(2) The QBs should look at the coach in the middle of the field (and in 7 on 7 or real games the safeties) on his first step back from center.

Another coach should watch the QBs' drops to make sure they are making all three steps at least 4 1/2 yards back. It is best to be a full 5 yards back (remember the center gives them about a yard head start).

If in shotgun, the QB should reset his feet like a shortstop or take a 1 step drop. I prefer the one-step drop, but others successfuly use the shortstop approach. The important thing is that QB releases the ball within 1.3 seconds and is comfortable.

The shotgun puts an extra premium on pre-snap reads on where to go with the ball, since he cannot look at the defense on the first two steps of his drop. Note: I personally prefer throwing 3-step from under center. The BEST 3-step team of the past couple years has been USC, and they are almost exclusively under center. That said the best 3-step team of the last 7-8 years or so has been Purdue, and they use the shotgun quite a bit.

Routes, Receivers, and Receiver Steps

For a good reference regarding the number of steps for most routes I recommend the Purdue playbook and the St. Louis Rams playbook, which can both be found on the Coach Huey site. Both go into detail about routes and steps.

In general, receivers should start with their outside foot back, attack the middle or outside hip of the defender over them, and then make their breaks.

The hitch route is a 5-step route but it consists of 3-big and 2-short (throttle) steps, and then the receiver simply turns back to the QB.

Note: We do not "bring him down the stem" and back to the QB (Like 6 back to 5 or 7 back to 5) because we have found that the QB has a harder time targeting where he will be and, if thrown on time, there is no reason for the receiver to lose ground and momentum coming back to the quarterback.

For us the hitch is a big yards after the catch play and turning it into a curl or mini-hook takes his momentum away and hurts this run after the catch ability. On the hitch the receiver is looking for for a six (6) yard depth, but the last two steps do not really add depth--they are to let him stop from a full-speed run in two steps or less. We work hard on these throttle steps. We say if you can run full speed and stop in two (or sometimes three for longer routes) steps, then you can get open against anyone (Got that from Florida St.).

Types of QB throws

The QB should be aware of the "type of throw." I saw a coach who said that they numbered the velocity and arc of throws. I think 1 was a bullet or frozen rope, 4 was a lob, with 2 and 3 being inbetween. You don't have to be that specific but different routes do call for different types of throws. Typically out routes need to be frozen ropes, whereas slants are really about timing and taking a little bit off the ball. You'll see even NFL QBs struggle with the slant because they put too much velocity on the ball (See Michael Vick).

The BEST slant throwing team of all time was the 49ers with both Montana and Steve Young. Both threw a very soft slant pass and did not lead the receivers much. Instead they put the ball right on their numbers.

Bottom line: The slant is tricky to both throw and catch; when you increase a football's velocity you make it harder to catch, because the increased velocity reduces the margin for error too much to make the pass effective.

Ball Placement When Throwing Quick Routes

When QBs' throw to each other they should not just "throw it to the other guy," and instead pick specific targets on the other guy's body: We say throw it at the guy's nostril, his ear, or the corner of his numbers for practice. The better the QB is at this the better he can be as a quarterback. Bill Walsh used to scream and rip Joe Montana when he failed to throw the ball to the correct corner of the receiver's jersey. That's being specific and being accurate.

Each route needs to be placed in a different spot on the receiver's body:

Hitch: The upper outside corner of the receiver's jersey so he can catch it and turn to the outside.

Slant: The upper inside corner ("in the body") of his jersey vs cover 2. Vs. cover 3 we say "one-foot in front of the numbers."

Out Routes, whether quick outs by outside receivers or quick outs to the slot (fade/out combo) or 12 yard speed outs from 5-step:

On outs we say we want the QB to throw it through the receiver's earhole. Here's why:

(1) The receiver is running away from the QB. To throw the ball through the earhole requires less precision regarding how far to lead a receiver.

(2) The earhole is a natural place for the receiver to catch it and turn upfield, whereas other placements require receivers to twist and turn, making it hard to get their head and hands around.

(3) The ball should be in the air before the receiver breaks, and a ball thrown at eye-level is easier to locate.

(4) The trajectory on the pass is a bit higher which has helped us avoid some of the underneath defenders

(5) Along with 4, sometimes to avoid underneath defenders and in an effort to put the ball in a catchable area, (usually trying to throw it "in front of" a receiver who is running away from them) the QB will throw it back towards the LOS and the receiver will lose too much ground; turning a 6 yard route into a 2 yard reception.

(6) Throwing through the earhole also avoids the old HS QB habit of turning an out route into some kind of corner route or horizontal go route, i.e throwing it over their shoulder and over the receiver's head, which tends to be thrown out of bounds and impossible to catch anyway. Part of this is arm strength and the ability to throw a pass with some velocity.