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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Paul Johnson Describes His Flexbone Offense: It Derived From the Run and Shoot, and Then the Option Came Rolling In

I've been writing a lot about Paul Johnson's offense recently. But sometimes, it's best to get it from the horse's mouth. (Note: It's not the wing-t, and it's not just the triple option. And, although close to the wishbone, it has evolved from it. That's why it is called the flexbone: the run & shoot doubleslot formation with some 'shoot passing concepts, and lots of option, though with plenty of other wrinkles sprinkled in too.)

UPDATE: Looks like LSU's coaches saw this video and have been reading my site. They fared far better than Georgia and the ACC.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Rhythm Nation: Auburn Hires Gus Malzahn

Auburn, AL. Well-respected, staunch, defensive minded head coach hires "innovative" "spread guru" as offensive coordinator. Good news?

Crap. Here we go again.

Or maybe not?

There are a few differences here between what Franklin and Tuberville tried to do (or said they were trying to do). The biggest, I'd say, is that Malzahn's spread is not exactly like other spreads, whether pass-first ones like the Airraid or run-heavy spreads like Urban Meyer's or Rich Rodriguez's. That's because the schemes are simple - very, very simple - and the core of the offense is not even about schemes: it's about tempo.

Mike Leach runs a type of spread no-huddle, but his offense moseys to the line with the confidence and deliberate swagger of an old cowboy (or pirate?). They line-up and get a handle on what the defense is doing, call a play, and go. Franklin used the no-huddle (at least until he got to Auburn!), and even had a form of it called "NASCAR" which was intended to be an up-tempo light-speed level no-huddle, with the ball snapped quickly after the previous play.

But nobody does what Malzahn does. If some no-huddle teams, like Franklin's, are light-speed, then Malzahn's spends the entire game in something akin to "ludicrous speed."

The key to his offense is to get the play in with via hand signal, wristband (rarely), or a board on the sideline, and have the ball snapped within four to five seconds of it being set. He even has a speed designed to snap the ball as soon as the whistle blows. It requires endurance and discipline.

And his practices go at this same ludicrous pace. There is almost no lolly-gagging around and each play in practice must be snapped within twenty-five seconds of the last one for maximum reps. (As an added point of interest, because his offense often inspires bizarre and novel reactions from defenses - i.e. things they hadn't done before playing him - he has his teams practice against almost all fronts and coverages every single week just to be ready for whatever they throw at him.)

Is Chizik Trying to Copy Oklahoma?

So, you can see why this might be appealing to Auburn, even with a defensive minded head coach. As Dr Saturday recently pointed out, "only Oklahoma's 1,036 total plays bested the Hurricane's 1,007 this year, though TU led the nation in yards per play." I think this is no coincidence.

Oklahoma too has a fairly basic system as far as schemes go. They don't do anything that a lot of teams don't. Their passing game is kind of a derivative of what they did under Mike Leach and Mark Mangino, but they have gotten away from the pure faith of the Airraid and now use a lot of rather traditional (meaning, common) concepts. Labeling them spread, pro, multiple, or whatever is a bit futile. (When asked what offense Oklahoma runs, Bob Stoops said simply: "The Oklahoma offense."). They use both the "I" and other traditional sets, though are probably still more "spread" than anything else. But before people jump down my throat, I note that I think Wittgenstein was accurate when he said most arguments boil down to people's different uses of labels and language, in this case what spread or pro means to one person versus another.

Kevin Wilson, OU's offensive coordinator, is not known as a passing guru, and few would confuse him with one. But he knows one thing extraordinarily well: the no-huddle up-tempo offense. He ran it at Northwestern with Randy Walker, and that's how OU killed people this year. They have all these great athletes, they have solid schemes, and they go so fast they mow you down. I have to think Chizik envisions this kind of result.

Chizik spent the last few years getting his lunch stolen on a weekly basis in the Big 12, and he got destroyed by nouveau spread teams like Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Missouri, though he kept it close versus OU. I have to imagine that Chizik, like Stoops when he arrived at OU, wants to take some of those tough offenses he faced with him. And what better model to follow than Stoops? Both he and Pete Carroll have had national success as defensive coaches-to-head coaches by installing aggressive offenses.

Will it work?

The other side of Malzahn's attack, apart from the no-huddle aspect (I can't emphasize enough how unique it is to base your offensive philosophy around a tempo rather than simply schemes), is that Malzahn wants to formation you to death. The infamous "wildcat" or "wildhog" offense was developed while Malzahn was at Arkansas, though definitely with input from Houston Nutt and then-QB coach David Lee (now with the Miami Dolphins). See below for an ESPN video about the Wildcat with a brief interview with Malzahn.

But Malzahn is less spread and formation to run than he is infatuated with angles and geometry: he passes to set up the run, he uses a lot of shotgun, multiple receivers, and he does a lot of innovative things with wing-backs, tight-ends, fullbacks, and with guys in motion to get any advantage he can.

In this way his offense has advantages over what Franklin was doing at Auburn. If done correctly, the tempo and formations really are what eats the defense up. The schemes themselves are simple. Franklin had trouble getting his offense going because he did not have a solid trigger-man who could make his reads and likely lacked the coaching support to get one ready. Malzahn - at least for a time - should be able to mask some of those deficiencies while his players get up to speed through his tempo and formationing, and then from there just give them simple assignments. Now they will still have to learn all the signals and motions and the like, but this is (usually) easier because that just requires a kid to learn what he has to do rather than constantly react to the defense.

Thus Malzahn's offense is kind of the anti-run-and-shoot, which uses only a few formations but many reads after the snap.

The downside of the offense tends to be turnovers and defense. In Malzahn's first year at Tulsa, they led the nation in yards per game and were in the bottom eight or so in total defense. This year, Tulsa was second in the country in total yards (to Houston) and scoring (to Oklahoma) but ranked in the 80s in total defense. Now, you can make the fair point that if not for the Malzahn-experience, their defense would be just as bad but the offense would be on par as well; neither the conference, talent, nor team would make you expect Tulsa to have a good defense.

But the other problem can be turnovers. They don't necessarily turn it over more, but with more possessions and more plays you do create the risk of more turnovers, which tend to kill a team. This is the key point for Chizik: will he be able to tolerate that? Or will he eventually turn around and do a Buddy Ryan after a bad sack or fumble. (Ryan, then defensive coordinator for the Houston Oilers, slugged then offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride during a game after Gilbride's run-and-shoot incurred a bad play. Keep in mind that the Oilers won eleven games that season and the offense was one of the best in the league; Ryan simply did not "respect" Gilbride's run-and-shoot offense (he still uses some run-and-shoot principles with the Giants); Ryan liked to call it the "chuck and duck.")

So, you always have to fear the familiar story: defensive coaches often just do not like the high-risk-high-return offenses, and sometimes mere variance can be confused with incompetence or an actual problem (as it was with Gilbride's 'shoot and Ryan). But it's also true that offensive guys can be a bit narrow minded at times, losing sight of the bigger picture in an effort to score points and rack up yards. Remember the lessons of Hal Mumme.

Malzahn's Schemes

Not too much to say here. In many ways Malzahn's run game resembles Urban Meyer's: Malzahn's is based on four-run plays - the inside zone, the outside zone, the counter, and power - with reverses, fakes, QB runs, and jet sweeps and play-action all built off those four plays. He also throws in some quick traps and draws for good measure. Again, nothing revolutionary. He will play with formations, shifts, and motions. He likes wing-backs. He will line up with the quarterback in the shotgun and put both runners next to him as a sort of offset I-formation. He will use receivers in the running game. And his quarterbacks don't run like Tebow but he runs some option and they are always a threat on the reads and counters.

The passing game is equally simple. Unlike the Airraid, which is based off of a lot of horizontal type routes (crossing routes, quick flats and the like), most of Malzahn's routes are "vertical" stems. Think of a passing tree: the receiver bursts off the line upfield to get the defensive guys moving, and from there can go deep, break inside, outside, curl or hitch up, or do a variety of things. He likes deep square-in routes, seam routes, and of course, he runs plenty of smash.

The rumor is that Malzahn got his passing game from Evangel Christian, which is similarly based on simple vertical stems to the routes and quick break-offs by the receivers.

But, in the end, it is the tempo that defines Malzahn's ludicrous-speed-Space-Balls offense. Time will tell both if he gets to run it (Franklin never got to install his up-tempo NASCAR, and Arkansas did not focus on up-tempo no-huddle while Malzahn was there under Houston Nutt), and, if he does install it, if it works.

Random highlight vid pulled from youtube (if anyone has any good online video of a Malzahn O (particularly Tulsa) please let me know; I'd love to post it):

Note: I am much indebted to the always great Coach Huey football coaching site as I did extra research on this article, as with Malzahn's various resources and of course his no-huddle book.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

No Such Thing As Platonic Ideal Football

I originally wrote this as part of my lengthy (lengthy!) piece on the A-11 offense, but I think it probably got buried. This is something that I depart from many football coaches and purists about. Despite the fact that I have beef with the A-11 offense, one of those contentions is unequivocally not that it is not real football. That's a bogus reason. I have stated many times that football is just a game, and all its rules are arbitrary. I call those who believe otherwise the Platonic Idealists. Below is a reprint of what I previously stated about the offense.

The Platonic-Idealists

[There exists the argument that some offenses are not "real" or "true" football and therefore is bad.] Yet, haven’t we heard this charge before? Yes we have: The spread isn’t real or true football and therefore it is bad. And the run and shoot isn’t real or true football and therefore it is bad. And the West Coast Offense isn’t real or true football and therefore it is bad. And the wishbone isn’t real or true football and therefore it is bad. At one time the argument was that the entire T formation with a quarterback behind the center wasn’t real or true football and therefore it was bad!

[I]s there some pure, true, Platonic-ideal football? If not, then why? The answer is [no] because football is a game; all the rules - except ones designed around safety - are arbitrary. They might have in mind competitive balance, but this doesn’t make it “true” or “real” in any meaningful sense. What are the most fundamental, “true,” important, or essential rules in football that you can think of? For me, short of the shape of the ball used, my tops would probably be the 100-yard football field, the limit on both sides to eleven players on the field, and the limit on offenses to four downs to score or get a first down. Certainly, all would rank higher than the number of players who might possibly be eligible to receive a forward pass pre-snap, which logically must also rank lower than the number of actually eligible receivers.

Yet, setting aside eight-man football, flag-football, and Arena football, look at Canadian football: the field is 110 yards long, each side has twelve players with six – aside from the quarterback – who are eligible to receive forward passes, and the offense has only three downs to work with.

Now, if the line of scrimmage was abolished and instead of scoring touchdowns by carrying an oblong ball into the end zone teams were instead required to either kick a round ball into a net or by to throw a round ball through a hoop aligned ten feet above the ground then the game could no longer be called football simply because we wouldn’t be able to recognize it as such. But obviously the ability to recognize the sport as football is something far looser than what the “true football” ideologues advocate as eight-man football and Arena Football, to say nothing of the spread, the wishbone, the West Coast Offense, or even, yes, the A-11 offense, are clearly recognizable as football.

So, again, there simply is no such thing as “real” or “true” Platonic football. The next time someone next to you says, upon seeing someone successfully employ a double-reverse pass or some next-wave offensive system, that what you just saw was not “real” football (this group includes many football coaches) you can safely think to yourself that this person has no idea what they are talking about, and you can decide for yourself whether to let them know it (if it’s your Boss or Father-in-Law, I suggest agreeing or simply staying mute). Football is a game designed for fun and its rules are designed for no other reason than to promote fun and safety for players and spectators.

This view is buttressed by the fact that the primary reason for a sport’s rules is tradition, and nowadays most sports, including football, have ruling bodies that establish the law of the land and continually adjust those rules. If there was Platonic-Ideal "true” football, then the believer would have to view these rulemaking bodies as either improperly tampering with the immortal or, somewhat more likely, that they were continuously tinkering with football in its current form to achieve in this world something more closely resembling true, idyllic football through a process that would have to be described less as rule making and instead as divination. Both are, of course, ridiculous, just as the base claim that there is such a thing as Platonic “true” football is ridiculous. I certainly don’t imagine that this is what such rule makers actually see themselves as doing, but if you accept the “true football” argument, those are your inescapable conclusions.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Paul Johnson's Flexbone Meets the Run and Shoot: Delightful

In a pre-bowl game interview, Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson said:

"We don't have our whole system in yet," Johnson said Monday at the Chick-fil-A coaches luncheon. "We'll use the extra practices to work on some of our run-and-shoot stuff.

"There are a lot of the areas of the offense that we are still not very adept at," he added. "We've got to improve in the passing game. We've got some work to do in all areas there and this will give us that opportunity."

That's enough to make every offensive minded guy salivate. Johnson's vaunted flexbone plus the run and shoot? Like pizza and beer, these two things sound perfect together. But of course things aren't always so rosy. Both the flexbone-triple option and the run and shoot are practice intensive offenses, and I don't think we should expect Georgia Tech to open up and throw for 400 yards when they play LSU. But this isn't a bolt out of the blue; Johnson's been around the 'shoot for a long time and its principles have long been a part of his offense.

Indeed, back in the day Johnson was offensive coordinator for a Navy team that upset Cal in a bowl game by racking up 646 yards, including 395 from the air (and they even used a three-receiver stack formation while doing it). And if you go back and study Johnson's offenses you'll see some of the major run and shoot concepts. As I said though, don't expect Georgia Tech to turn all chuck 'n duck. But what can we expect?

I expect to see two trusty run and shoot concepts in particular to make a fairly prominent appearance: the Switch and the Go.

I have described the "Switch" previously, though there's always different flavors in how you do it.

The concept is, at core, a two man concept. Two receivers release and "switch": The outside guys angle inside for 5-6 yards before pushing vertical, while the inside guy runs a "wheel route" under the outside guy, rubs right off of his hip, and then turns up the sideline. That's when they play gets interesting.

In the original R&S, each receiver had [several] delineated options depending on what coverage he saw. They could break it quick on slants, run vertical routes, post routes, curls or in-cuts. When it worked it was beautiful. But sometimes, to borrow Yeats's phrase, "things fall apart." Or simply it took immense practice time for receivers to get good at running the play.

In my previous post I discussed how some modern teams have adapted and simplified the reads. Expect something along those lines in Johnson's aproach, though he still gives his receivers freedom to find the open spots. Remember, option football is a mentality, and it applies to passing as well as running.

The other play, the "Go," is another classic. It is a "trips" route where the outside guy runs a go route or take-off vertical, the middle receiver (usually the guy in motion) runs a "middle-read" or "seam-read" that divides the middle of the field, and the inside guy in trips runs a little flat route after jabbing inside. The play works on a few levels: first, you often get the flat route guy open on a rub off the seam-read receiver's hip; and second the go, backside go, and seam-read often divide up the deep middle coverage to create open spaces for big plays. The thought process is to keep throwing that flat route until they come up for it and then hit them with a big play, either down the sideline or in the seams.

But, if you want someone to explain how the "Go" works, then why not ask June Jones?

Two notes. First, observe that Davie in the video says that the two toughest offenses to depend are the 'shoot and the wishbone, and further note that the flexbone is merely a form of the wishbone. Johnson knows what he's doing.

Also I just want to point out that the only real differences between what Johnson would do with the "Go" and what June Jones would do would be: (a) the slots would be tight-slots rather than slot-receivers; (b) the quarterback would be under center rather than in shotgun (thus actually making the quarterback more of a running-threat when he looks at the flat route as with the original shoot); and (c) the reads for the slot-receiver may - or may not be - somewhat simplified. That really depends on the slot receiver and quarterback. Johnson is not beyond giving them full-freedom, though he can't emphasize it every day in practice like pass-happy June Jones does and still be able to execute his option attack. Like everything else in football, it's a balance.

Update: I want to note that I made a correction to the above: it was actually Navy that upset Cal in that bowl game (which happened to take place in Hawai'i). Though Johnson was OC at Hawai'i at one time as well.

Smart Notes - Dec. 22, 2008

1. Not a good time to be a Ref

Two rather dramatic referee videos emerging from this weekend. In the first, some kid in a high school game targeted the Ref (watch the left free-safety):

In the second, from the Rams-Seakaws game, the Refs get a little revenge:

2. Why Oh Why Can't We Get a Better [Football] Press Corps?

I stole this line from economist Brad DeLong, and I plan on doing a few more of these sections to point out some of the more egregious errors sportswriters and pseudo-journalists make. This isn't the worst example, but I was watching ESPN's infamous NFL Countdown show with Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, and the revolving array of NFL cast-offs. They did a piece about injuries, which was fine and all: the moral was that NFL players all play fairly banged up throughout the season. Not a surprise. But throughout the 10 minute or so segment, they never bothered to get into the nuances (unsurprising). But one thing they were interested in was comparing some guys who were tough versus others who were not. (Keyshawn Johnson flat out said that Julius Jones spent all his time in the training room.)

In Bill Walsh's amazing book, Finding the Winning Edge, he had some really insightful points about injuries. Namely, that different positions can handle injuries different. Walsh observed that offensive and defensive linemen tend to be able to play through certain injuries with greater ease, than, say, a defensive back.

For instance, imagine if two players have a gimpy or somewhat sprained ankle. The offensive guard, though it is by no means easy, can play through it. But would you really want your press-man cornerback to play with a sprained ankle? One bad step or slow recovery and it's a touchdown. The injury is far more debilitating. Walsh made the same point regarding receivers: they have difficulty playing through injuries for the same reason that a track sprinter would. Quarterbacks provide a good example, in that they can play through a lot of injuries but certain injuries -- to the shoulder, hand, etc -- are debilitating and can often render a QB inoperable.

Runningbacks are a unique case. It often depends on the type of runner and the type of injury. An injury affecting explosiveness is significant no matter what; other bruises and various other problems might not have as much of an affect. Even hand injuries can depend on the type of running back -- is he a prominent receiver out of the backfield?

But, alas, not a mention of this. Just "this guy is tough" and "that guy spends a lot of time in the tub."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Smart Notes - December 14, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Malcolm Gladwell's "Quarterback Problem"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATES: 3. Florida Cut-Ups

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

4. Pete Carroll - 60 Minutes

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Smart Notes - Nov. 25, 2008

1. Woody and Bo: War as They Knew It

The New York Times this weekend had a review of a new book about Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. The review and I gather the book place the two men in the socio-political climate that they operated in, with the book's main thesis being the interesting dynamic of having these authoritarian, almost statist football coaches and programs located on campuses that had begun bustling with counter-culture and anti-war movements. There are a couple good anecdotes from the review:

The defensive lineman Pete Newell skipped the momentous 1969 antiwar rally in Washington to make a road game in Iowa. After­ward, Schembechler praised him before the players for being “out there in Iowa City with the rest of the team, and not in Washington with the damn hippies where he really wanted to be.”

An amusing running joke in the book centers on his assistant coaches’ struggle to find the team Friday night pregame movies that didn’t subvert traditional values. (The years 1969-78 did not constitute a Hayes-friendly era in American film.) One assistant was relieved of this duty after picking “Easy Rider,” which he thought was about a motorcycle race. The mention of lesbianism in “Slap Shot” prompted Hayes to shout, “This is TRASH!,” berate the thea­ter manager and storm back to the hotel.

The line between coaching, and culture, between developing football players and developing men, has always been there. This site is dedicated to a lot of strategy and Xs and Os, but anyone who has ever played, well, anything, knows that coaches do not solely teach the sport that they coach, they teach themselves. Without diving into any of the tensions of that time, it is obviously true that coaching takes on odd and difficult dynamics when the kids they coach grow up in climates markedly different than their own, or for college coaches, the campus's climate.

For Hayes, it eventually caught up with him, in one of coaching's oldest storylines (though rarely played out so dramatically):

In Rosenberg’s most evocative passage, players from Hayes’s 1968 national championship squad return to campus for a 10th-­anniversary reunion, and are shocked at the lack of respect the current team shows the man they once feared. The decline of authority had finally brought down Woody Hayes, along with so many other institutions of the time. In this sense, he was ultimately prescient.

As a final note, the thing that most surprised me about the review was that it begins with the reviewer, Jonathan Chait, mentioning that he took a college course called "Theory, Strategy and Practice of Football," taught by Michigan's coaching staff. I have to say, unfortunately for me, they didn't offer that course where I went to school.

2. Oklahoma's clobbering of Texas Tech

So Oklahoma destroyed Texas Tech, 65-21. Not a total surprise that OU won, or even that they won decisively, but I can't say too many predicted that it would just be a beatdown for the ages. Lots of theories spun about why it was such a blowout. I've boiled down the possible explanations to five.

  1. #1. Oklahoma simply has far superior talent, and any other result would have been a surprise.

  2. #2. Oklahoma has figured out the Airraid offense for good, and they simply had Tech's number. The offense will not work against Texas Tech; return your Airraid DVDs to the store.

  3. #3. Texas Tech's defense was overmatched, and no offense could have kept up the pace with how OU ran over, through, and between Tech's hapless defenders.

  4. #4. Texas Tech's defense was overmatched, and to have kept pace with how OU ran over, through, and between Tech's hapless defenders, Tech's Airraid offense would have required an absolutely perfect game from Harrell, and he was not perfect, though not terrible.

  5. #5. Oklahoma simply prepared better than Texas Tech in the two weeks leading up to the game.

To Airraid aficionados (i.e. the coaches who put their stock behind the offense but not the team), the favorite answer seems to be #1: this way when Tech beat Texas and Okie St it was because of their great schemes, but when they lost to OU it was because they had inferior talent. I don't think it is so easy. Texas Tech has more playmakers and good skill guys than people give them credit for; recruiting rankings alone can't be the difference. That said, clearly Oklahoma, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines, had a decided advantage.

To traditionalists tired of hearing about Leach's offense and the high-flying Airraid with Crabtree, Harrell, et. al, #2 is appealing. To them, it was an example of a turning back of the clock with respect to all this offense-shotgun-nonsense, and instead OU got behind the center and handed the ball off in front of a nation enamored with the shotgun-spread. Further, the storyline is that Stoops, Venables, and others basically have Leach's number, they've figured the offense out, and don't expect all that stuff to work against them. Stoops even reinforced this storyline after the game, by noting that most games between Tech and OU haven't been close. But this too is overblown. The game wasn't a referendum on the offense, it was a battle between two teams. OU clearly has a talent advantage of some kind, and although the offense didn't do nearly enough to even approach winning, it was only a few bad drives before the game was 21-0 and was basically out of reach.

That said, there's a kernal of truth to Stoops' theory about knowing that offense. As I've pointed out before, Leach ran his offense at OU exactly how he wanted. If OU does "get" Leach's offense, he doesn't get it in a way that another team could just pop in the tape and pick up. The Airraid, as much as it is certain schemes -- and no doubt OU's defense sat in zone a lot of the night working on their ability to pattern read the traditional Airraid concepts -- but the Airraid is an approach to football as much as it is an offense. If the OU guys have this heightened familiarity, it's not just schemes, it's knowing how Leach runs a practice, how they practice screens, indeed, how he approaches the game. Again, I don't think OU has the offense or Leach figured out once and for all (I mean, Tech did beat OU the year before and scored over thirty on them), but I can't completely discount this.

Regarding #5, I can't really say. I think Tech came out flat and got overwhelmed. I think OU used its time well, but it's hard to say that Tech just didn't prepare correctly.

#3 and #4 are interesting. This was a team loss by Tech; it can neither be laid at the feet totally of the defense or offense. Guys who love the offense try to blame the defense; guys who hate the offense (or at least hate the hype) try to lay it on the O. The defense was essentially not there, but the offense also turned it over leading directly to scores. I honestly think #4 is onto something, but not necessarily anything that revolutionary.

I haven't been able to break the tape down exactly for this game, but it did seem like there were open receivers and the protection was not horrible. Harrell, Tech's quarterback, was certainly not awful, but I don't think he was all that great. And the fact is that in this offense, against superior talent, the quarterback must be flawless. To score a touchdown on any drive Harrell was required to identify and squeeze in seven yard pass after seven yard pass. It's not easy to do that flawless over and over again. On the other hand, Bradford for OU was required to manage the game, hand it off, and run some play action and take some downfield shots. He missed a little bit, but hit more than enough. His receivers were often wide open, usually because the defense could not contain both the run and the pass.

But is this to say that the old-school, traditional offenses are better? Not necessarily. OU had more talent, good schemes, and good weapons. Tech's defenders couldn't stop anything, so every time they overcompensated OU made them pay. As I said, Tech's QB had to play flawlessly; he did not; the game got out of hand quickly. Yet look at the NFL: almost every game is very competitive between teams with largely even talent, and it seems like every game is decided either by quarterback play or the lines.

So again, nothing revolutionary. If you're going to run a spread, you must have a great quarterback. This is true if you are a running spread or passing spread. If Tim Tebow was knocked out for the season, how different would things be in the National Title picture? When Tech beat OU last year, Sam Bradford was knocked out. Similarly, though less black and white, quarterback play, in modern offenses, must be excellent-to-perfect to consistently win games. Tech has had that most of the year from Harrell, certainly so in the biggest games. They did not have it against OU. This is not to say that he put in a poor showing, but if your offense requires perfection, you can bank on not getting it every single week, though as I said, this is a problem not unique to the Airraid offense Leach runs.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Myron Rolle: Smart Guy

Considering the name of this site, I like to recognize good examples of "Smart Football" when I see them. Well, Myron Rolle pretty much is the walking personification of "Smart Football." Rolle is a finalist to be named a Rhodes Scholar.

The standards for the Rhodes Scholarship are:
  • literary and scholastic attainments;
  • energy to use one's talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports;
  • truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship;
  • moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow beings.

By all accounts, Rolle seems to qualify. Top student, and the guy is one of the top, top, top players in the country; this isn't some punter who happened to be bright. This guy is fast, strong, and can lay the wood when he hits you. I also want to give Bobby Bowden and FSU some credit -- though with some of the other stories out of there they may not have had much choice -- for letting Rolle off for a rather important game against Maryland. Sometimes, football comes second.

In any event, along with other famous Rhodes Scholars, like Bill Clinton, one of my favorites (for the nickname if nothing else) is Byron "Whizzer" White. The Whizzer earned the nickname as a running back at the University of Colorado.

Try this for a timeline: He is awarded the Rhodes Scholarship, but defers it to play football for the Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers, obviously). He leads the NFL in rushing as a rookie. As an encore, he goes off to Oxford to study for a year. Then he returns to the NFL, this time with the Detroit Lions, and leads the NFL in rushing again. His career is then cut short when he entered the Navy during World War II.

Then, after the war, he finds a pretty good second career after football: White graduated from Yale Law School, and, of course, became one of the longest sitting Supreme Court Justices, having been nominated by John F. Kennedy

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Football, Luck, and Noise

I received a surprising amount of pushback via email regarding my last post about Texas Tech and the Hot Hand Theory. At first I was confused, but then I realized that many readers do not share a rather fundamental assumption I hold about football: an incredible amount of the game is determined by "luck." Now, when I say luck, I do not mean fluke events, or the ol' bounce a da ball, or things like that. What I mean is that almost any and every outcome in football is not set in stone, but rather, there is some probability that the outcome will be X, another probability that the outcome will be Y, and maybe even a chance that it will be Z.

Theological questions aside, I really think this is a rule of life and not just football. But the point is that at no point in a football game, be it success of a play or even a determination of what the other side is actually doing, do you have fixed answers. Instead, you have probabilities, and even then your probabilities are merely estimates of the actual probabilities. So when I talk about "coolly flipping coins," I mean that everything is probabalistic. Just like when Michael Jordan went to the free-throw line, no matter what any sports writer tells you, he is never destined to make the shot, or destined to make the game-winner. Tiger Woods is never destined to hit the putt, and Tom Brady or Peyton Manning were neither destined to win the Super Bowl or hit any particular pass.

Instead, it was merely "highly likely" that each was going to do those things, because each is very good at what they do. But at no point is anything determinate.

Indeed, one of the criticisms of my post was that the probabilities dramatically increase regarding offensive success because you gain more information as time goes on. But that argument doesn't hold water. If Michael Jordan can only max-out his free-throw percentage to a point, then there is no way to max out offensive production in football when at all turns you have a human (or group of them) making choices on the other side in ways that shift your probabilities. That is a far too nebulous cloud to assume certitude.

And any playcaller will tell you the same thing. As Norm Chow says, you are never quite sure what coverage they are in, but instead you take pieces of the field or pieces of the defensive front and attack those, and therein lies success. Mike Leach does not even require his guys to memorize coverages in the sense of "Hey they are in Cover 4!" Instead, they group them into things they can recognize and they probe areas. But at every stage, things are probabalistic. I've even discussed the notion that a purely random approach to offensive and defensive calls might even be optimal.

When I made the point about the hot hand theory, part of it was about how you cannot always extrapolate how good an offense is versus a defense just because they scored on a drive, or even if they scored a lot in a half or game, because the standard deviation is too high. Some people argued that things would even out over the course of a game; I think that is sort-of true, but I still think the variance is higher than they account for. But that's an empirical question we can solve later.

But another (amazing) site, Advanced NFL Stats, made the point about the difficulty of extrapolating skill levels from even successful outcomes:

Consider a very simple example game. Assume both [Pittsburgh] and [Cleveland] each get 12 1st downs in a game against each other. PIT's 1st downs come as 6 separate bunches of 2 consecutive 1st downs followed by a punt. CLE's 1st downs come as 2 bunches of 6 consecutive 1st downs resulting in 2 TDs. CLE's remaining drives are all 3-and-outs followed by a solid punt. Each team performed equally well, but the random "bunching" of successful events gave CLE a 14-0 shutout.

The bunching effect doesn't have to be that extreme to make the difference in a game, but it illustrates my point. Natural and normal phenomena can conspire to overcome the difference between skill, talent, ability, strategy, and everything else that makes one team "better" than another.

And adding support for my argument about the high degree of variance, Advanced NFL Stats went on to try to nail down exactly how much in the way of outcomes can be attributed to skill versus luck in the NFL. You can read the details of the explanation there, and NFL teams obviously are closer in relative skill levels than most college teams, but the results are nevertheless striking:

...By comparing the two distributions, we can calculate that of the 160 season outcomes, only 78 of them differ from what we'd expect from a pure luck distribution. That's only 48%, which would suggest that in 52% of NFL games, luck is the deciding factor!

There might yet be more to it than these calculations, but the point is that variance is high in outcomes in football games. This is not to say that skill is unimportant, but the lesson is instead that you cannot merely look to actual statistics and actual outcomes to determine who is the best. Football games are tests of ranges of probabilities put up against one another:

Will all eleven players execute their assignments; will the quarterback make the right reads; will the coaches accurately assess the opponent's schemes; will the sun shine in the receiver's eye; will the ball become sweaty where the ballcarrier holds it; will there be an injury on the play; and if these factors randomly cut 50/50, will they work in our favor enough times in a row to get us in field goal or touchdown range.

In other words, lots of football fans, players, and even coaches suffer from a Fooled by Randomness problem when they analyze the game. Football is more quantum mechanics than it is Newtonian physics (though with a splash of game theory). Yet the belief in absolute determinism is natural: we intuitively want results to be indicative of objective truths, and it is much less complex to analyze easy to observe statistics and outcomes than it is to try to estimate the underlying probabilities. But football doesn't always give us large enough sample sizes to believe that results are as instructive as we'd like. So, if we want real answers, we have to admit that there's lots of luck around.

(And if you're a fan of the Michigan Wolverines, this gives you an (incredibly weak) excuse: "It's all the result of bad luck!")

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Texas Tech's Offense and the Hot Hand Theory

After Texas Tech's drubbing of Oklahoma St, and the much-quoted fact that they scored a touchdown on seven straight possessions, I heard yet another commentator say that their offense was "streaky." And you hear this about other offenses too, and you hear it constantly in other sports, particularly about shooters in basketball and hitters in baseball. As I've written about previously, I think the idea of "hot streaks" are overblown.

Try flipping a coin fifty times. If you chart out the results, I would wager that it does not look as even as you might expect. Just because it's an equal chance of heads or tails doesn't mean you neatly get heads-heads followed by tails-tails. Instead you get seemingly bizarre - seemingly streaky - patterns of, say, fourteen heads followed by a few back and forth then sixteen tails. The probabilities aren't all that different.

So it is with most offenses. There's an imaginary equilibrium of how much we'd expect a particular offense to score against a particular defense. This is the average score if, say, Alabama played LSU a thousand times. But there's variance; each game is different. And once you look at it like that, you see how silly it can be to get too wrapped up into comparing a couple of drives back to back.

The answer with a team like Texas Tech is that they have a hell of an offense, and we can just expect them to score a lot. How they get those points, in what order, all in the first half, all in the second, is largely a function of variance, or in other words, luck.

I am reminded of all this because the game that seemed a shining example of this was Texas Tech's 31 point comeback in their bowl game against Minnesota a couple of years back. Tech was down 31 in the second half, and, after a barrage of passes from then-sophomore quarterback Graham Harrell, Tech won, and Glen Mason lost his job. As I stated:

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. . . .

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?

I did note an exception to this, though. Not all football teams or quarterbacks act like coins; sometimes they can get rattled, and the probabilities can change on the basis of perceived adversity. The "human coin" would be someone like Michael Jordan. He's shot millions of free-throws, and he was not going to be rattled. If he missed five free-throws in a row, it wasn't because he was rattled, it was because that's how the coin flip turned out (though it was a stacked coin, with 90% heads and 10% tails).

But with young players, they might let it get to them. I noted this with Harrell in that game: he was but a sophomore then, but he had a full-season under his belt. Had he not, I do not think he would have had the confidence to keep the probabilities the same. Flash forward to now. Last second drives against Texas, falling behind early against Oklahoma State. Not an issue. Harrell's just out there coolly flipping his coins. I will end with what I said about the end of that comeback game, which has renewed relevance now.

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, 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 was the realization that, for young kids in a hyperbolic football world, sometimes it's brave and valiant simply to do your job.

* As a final note, sorry for all being all Texas Tech all-the-time recently, but (a) I've been acutely familiar with Leach (once had a long conversation with him about applying the pythagorean theorem to calculate how long a QB's throw was) and that offense for over a decade, so it's nice for me to see their success, and (b) their past two prime-time games have really been the only football I've been able to see recently. In any event, there might be a bit of a delay before my next post, because I'm working on some more detailed substantive posts - or as Orson Swindle likes to call them, my "coach porn" articles - about Florida's offense along with a couple of passing concepts in vogue right now. So stay tuned for those.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Guns Up

Texas Tech 39 - Texas 33

From purely a fan's perspective, that was maybe the best football game I've seen in a long while. Wild, erratic, well-played, well-coached, hard fought, with everything on the line between two unbeatens. The game was of course won on a magnificent pass from Graham Harrell to Michael Crabtree, who -- twisting, turning, ripping -- not only caught the ball but scored a touchdown. Below are a few more specific observations regarding the game.

Clock Management

First, clock management. Immediately after the game, a reporter asked Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, when he saw that he was down with only a minute twenty-nine remaining, what he was thinking:

HARRELL: We're gonna win the game. . . . They left us too much time.

The successful offense Tech runs was of course the predicate for having any success on a drive like that (gotta throw and catch), but you have to give yourself a chance. Tech did it exactly right: They did not stupidly try to spike the ball, instead calling all the plays at the line (and without an excessive amount of communication); they did not overdo it with downfield passes nor all dump-offs to the running back (you generally just need to throw most passes past the first down marker); and although they didn't end up needing it, they preserved their time out.

It was a great drive, and it was well-orchestrated. I saw a commentator say something along the lines of "they had failed to use all their time outs" and further that "had Crabtree been tackled on the final play, they would have lost." Not only were both statements wrong (or at least carried the wrong sentiment) they also didn't flow together.

Tech intelligently kept their final timeout; had it been anyone else besides Michael Crabtree (assuming he caught it) he would have been tackled, and the time out would have allowed them to get their field goal unit on the field. And the rest -- the no spikes, the efficient communication -- was an application of the trappings of good clock management teams that I have previously described.

Texas's 91 yard stop-and-go

Second, I may draw this up in more detail later, but Texas's ninety-one yard TD was well designed and it was a good call. Throughout the game, the Longhorns had run the traditional curl/flat combination: the outside receiver would run a twelve-yard curl back to the quarterback, while a slot or running back would run to the flat. The play is designed to pull the flat defender to the sideline and to be completed in front of retreating defensive backs.

The base play had seen only marginal success: McCoy had completed a few of these, but this was also the combination that he had tried to throw on the pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown (the flat defender had drifted to the flat but had stayed in position to come back under the throw to the curl).

The touchdown was not only a stop-and-go, it was curl/flat and go. The slot ran the flat route and the outside receiver ran downfield and put his foot in the ground at about ten to twelve yards. This is a big reason why the cornerback bit so hard: he was not only reacting to a receiver but he was also reacting to what he thought was a route combination. It was a good call.

Mike Leach

Leach, for all his oddities, is a heck of a coach. Tech outplayed Texas the entire game, and it's a cliche, but there's only a handful of guys on Tech's roster who could have made Texas's. Also, Tech's defense played well, and much has been made about Tech's ability to run the ball better.

But this game's ending was fitting: A frantic last minute drive, all passes, and a touchdown pass on the sideline. And even further, the play itself was typical Leach: a basic play that Tech runs all the time (four verticals), but it was a play they had practiced so often that it was going to work.

Which gets back to the macro story about what Leach does. Leach and his offense are sui generis. As a result, a lot of coaches do not like Leach. Not on a personal level, but they are dismissive because he's so different. His success undermines their traditional approaches to the game. Too many football coaches are walking stereotypes right out of central casting; whereas sometimes the fact that Leach is head football coach for a major program seems like a Seinfeld plotline.

And that offense. As Michael Lewis described in his great New York Times Magazine piece on Leach (of somewhat renewed interest now), it's not an "offense" in the traditional sense: Leach's offense is "in effect, an argument for changing the geometry of the game."

It's funny that even fans who only casually watch the game immediately realize that Texas Tech is not the same "spread" that is so in vogue across football (in fact, it is Texas's offense that resembles that "spread"). It's his brainchild. It's a pass-first offense that is actually almost amazingly staid (Leach runs the same plays that he ran when he got there; the same plays he ran at OU; the same he ran at Kentucky; which all are mostly the same ones they got from BYU in the 1980s), but with lots of slight variants. New tags to move a guy here and there, to flip the play, and others. But always the freedom and variance with the offense has come by allowing the quarterback to find the right play and the receivers to get open.

In Leach's offense, the receivers do not really run "read-routes," but he does give them plenty of freedom to beat their men and settle in zone holes.

In the end, I'm not sure if you can really emulate Leach's offense per se. The current BYU staff has lots of ties to Leach and they are having great success and Sonny Dykes is the offensive coordinator at Arizona with mixed results. There are others. But Leach is just plain a "different" guy, so he could care less whether his offense looks like other offenses -- and in fact I'm sure he wants it to be different -- and this allows him to always push football's boundaries in ways other coaches cannot.

So the season is long, success in football is always ephemeral, but for now, in Leach's ongoing case against the football traditionalists (Leach has a law degree), his argument against the "geometry of the game" looks pretty persuasive.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Smart Notes - Oct. 24, 2008

1. "How To Make Friends and Influence People" - By Tony Franklin

So Auburn is still awful. And Tony Franklin's post-mortem interview the otherday revealed little about the situation, though it reaffirms a basic coaching truth: it's always going to be about more than Xs and Os. Yes there's the old Jimmies and Joes, but it's also whether or not your colleagues actively dislike you. That never helps.

2. Spread Worth Watching

Texas Tech and Kansas play this upcoming weekend. For all the talk about the rise of awful spread teams, these two squads still get it right. Interestingly both Mike Leach and Mark Mangino worked together at Oklahoma, and after Leach left to take the TTech job Mangino basically ran Leach's offense the year OU won the title. But now, don't get them confused. While Leach still runs his Airraid offense, Mangino's has evolved into something of a more traditional -- but still unique -- spread offense. (They run the absolute heck out of the smash package, and they run it better than just about anyone else.)

And although Rich Rod's Michigan tenure, along with failed spread experiments at Auburn, Virginia, and others may have sufficiently freaked out any head coaches, athletic directors, and boosters at major programs from making a switch, both Leach and Mangino should get serious consideration for top jobs at major programs.

3. Nick Saban, Football Historian

Nick Saban is a good coach, alright? And he's been around for longer than people realize. So it warms my heart in a special way to hear him making a point that I've made on many occasions: Football is a game of repeating cycles, with what went out one year coming back the next. In a recent interview, Saban got all fired up on the topic (prompted by a discussion of the Wildcat offense):

...Now the Crimson Tide coach really starts waxing poetically about the past. You mention a running attack... He went deep into the memory bank for this reference. Back to being a defensive assistant on a West Virginia team that lost 52-10 to Oklahoma in 1978.

"I've been coaching for a long time, aight?" Saban said. "Played Oklahoma when you couldn't even see the other sideline because the crown of the field was so heavy, when they tried running downhill, and they were moving. They had (David) Overstreet, (Billy) Sims, and guys that could run fast anyway, they didn't need any help. And so, I've been through that. And them horses that pull that wagon around every Oklahoma scored, [darn]-near died, because they had to do it so much the day we played them."

His final point was a good one: "All this stuff comes around," he said.

"One of these days," he warned, "when old the guys like me don't coach anymore, and the young bucks who grew up defending four-wides and everything, somebody's going to run the wishbone, and they may not know a thing about how to stop it."

Let's unpack this a bit. The main point is a simple one: good schemes ebb and flow, and knowledge bases change so, as he says, defensive coordinators who have done nothing but face spread teams may not have good and ready answers when a spread team comes around. There's not much new in football (contrary to the beliefs of some fanatics unlearned in football's history). Further, Saban is a great coach, but he knows what it is like to be unprepared. The worst I ever personally saw a Saban defense perform was back when he was at Michigan St. when they played Purdue, which was quarterbacked by Drew Brees at the time.

Purdue 52, Michigan State 28

Drew Brees had over 500 yards passing and five touchdowns. And oh-by-the-way, it was Michigan State's homecoming. Whoops. Saban's defense was simply unprepared for the precise, pass-first spread offense Purdue was using.

But the point about football knowledge is one illustrated by Saban himself. The next year Purdue was arguably better (they went on to the Rose Bowl and had beaten both Michigan and Ohio State), and Michigan State crushed them 30-10. So the point is that, while I agree with Saban that what goes around comes around in full force, I disagree that, in the future, coaches will have to start from scratch.

Defenses do not forget. Football might be cyclical, but its history is recorded. What worked once might work again, but the answers are also right there on the game film to be retrieved; there's no guesswork necessary. Saban might be right that the wishbone might come back -- it's an exceptionally well designed offense, and with the right talent, any offense can work -- but no one will succeed simply by resurrecting football's dinosaurs. Someone will have to put a new twist, or a new spin on it. So a restatement of the rule might be that football is cyclical, but it evolves at every step.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Linemen Splits

This doesn't always come up, but one of the most interesting games within the game in football are the splits between the offensive linemen. Some teams use a lot of wide splits, with as much as three to even six feet between linemen, while others keep it closer to roughly a foot, or even toe-to-toe. But like everything else in football, what kind of splits you take is informed both by what the defense does and what your philosophy is.

To understand why splits matter, you need to understand how defensive fronts align. Typically, most defenses are taught to align on the basis of where the offensive guys align, which makes sense because those defenders are trying to get through or around the blockers to get to the running back or quarterback. So defensive linemen and linebackers were told from the earliest days of football to align "on the inside eye of the guard," "heads up the center," or "on the outside eye of the tackle." The linebackers had similar instructions, though they aligned behind the offensive line. Over time, defenses got better at mixing up these alignments, even before the snap. We've all seen linemen shift from the outside eye of the guard to the gap between the guard and center, or simply align late. All this is designed to confuse blocking schemes.

So as offenses became more complex, it became necessary to give linemen rules that would allow the run play to be blocked no matter what games the defense played, and to do that you needed a nomenclature that could be communicated via playbook as well as on the sideline (or at the line) in the heat of a game. This system became known as the assignment of defensive "techniques" to each defensive player. The credit for it is typically given to Alabama's legendary coach Bear Bryant, though he gives much of the credit to Bum Phillips. Below is an example of the numbering system.

Note that this is not the same as "hole numbering," because it is about where the defender aligns not where the run is designed to go. Although it looks a bit confusing, this system is used at literally every level of football, from pee wee football to the NFL. Below is another diagram with slightly different nomenclature, though it also specifies the "gaps." (Hat tip to the USC Trojan Football Analysis site for the image.)

So now that we know that defenses align based on where the offense aligns, and we know that offenses identify defenses based on the alignment, we can discuss splits. It's a bit of an oversimplification, but the choice is basically between tight or wide splits. I begin with tight splits.

Tight Splits

Tight splits are the most common. In fact, most people probably don't think of them as tight, but merely notice when they see "wide splits." Below is an example of a typical alignment.

The advantage of tight splits are easy to see: Linemen are close to each other so you can get good teamwork between them; there are few or at least narrow gaps between them; and the line is constricted to keep defenders away from outside runs and quick outside throws.

The teamwork part cannot be underemphasized. One reason that tight splits are so common is because zone running and slide protection is so popular today. Zone running requires linemen to step in a direction, double-team guys in their area, and then one of them works up to block the linebacker. If the linemen are too far apart, you cannot get a good double-team, and the play won't go. For slide protection, linemen slide into a gap, and work together to create a fence for the QB. Any unblocked rushers must come from the outside, as the priority is to prevent a blitzer or linemen up the middle.

The point about gaps is similar. But the point about constricting the line for outside plays is underemphasized. Most teams, when they want to run an outside option play or a sweep of some kind, will have their line condense in by cutting their splits. That way a fast runner can get outside quickly.

Wide Splits

Wide splits are more interesting. Traditionally, the teams with the widest splits were option running teams. That might sound surprising, but the reason was is that they used a lot of man blocking rules (i.e. block your man, rather than zone an area). More importantly though, by splitting out, because the defense aligned on the basis of where the offensive linemen were, the guy the QB was reading was split out. So if on the triple option you wanted your QB to first read the defensive tackle ("T") and then the defensive end ("E"), you'd split your linemen out to give him more time to make each successive read. (Hat tip: Hugh Wyatt)

You also simply created wide running lanes inside by having your linemen split out so wide. If you watched the old Nebraska teams, while they didn't take enormous splits, they did have wide ones for both their inside option plays and inside man blocking runs.

But there's a new trend for wide splits, and that's with air-it-out passing teams like Texas Tech. Traditionally passing teams took very narrow splits to stop inside penetration, Texas Tech takes exceptionally large splits. Their rationale is a few-fold: (a) make the pass rushers come from farther away and enlarge the pocket, (b) open up throwing lanes for the quarterback, and (c) because they throw so much, all they need is a block or two to have an effective draw play -- the defensive ends aren't even really a factor. They can do this because they are almost exclusively a "man" pass protection team, just as the old Lavell Edwards BYU offenses were. (Indeed, Mike Leach's offense is a direct descendent from BYU's offense, he spent time there as an assistant, and many of his other coaches had experience at BYU as players or coaches when Edwards and Norm Chow were there.)

The obvious concerns are that if one guy gets beat in pass protection then there is no help, and also that there are wide gaps for linebackers to shoot through. For the latter, Tech feels like they can hurt that in other ways, through quick passes, screens, outside run plays, and traps. And they also feel that they can simply teach their linemen to be smart and reactive, and still stop that kind of penetration.

For the former problem though, the answer is simply that they have to have good blockers. They freely admit that they put their linemen one on one a great deal of the time, but their philosophy is that if someone gets to the quarterback, everyone knows who got beat. More and more teams have been adopting this strategy.

As a side note, I observe that Leach went to this trend after he got away from having a two-back formation as his primary one for passing downs. With a two-back offense you can stop a lot of overload passing threats to either side, but with a one-back formation -- Leach's current primary version -- the wide splits were necessary to take those extra rushers out of the play. For more on all this, see my old article here. And you can get a flavor for what Texas Tech does in the video below:


So in sum, the choice of what splits a team uses will vary by play. Some will rely on teamwork and overwhelming force to overpower the defense, others will play games with varying them to set up the play they have called, and others, like Texas Tech, build it into their philosophy. As a final thought, many of you might think: Hey, if you always go tight splits for outside runs and wide for inside runs, won't the defense catch on? The response is the same one Bill Walsh would give when he heard this concern: If you have built a tendency (like running inside whenever you go wide splits), you simply self-scout, figure that out, and then confuse the defense by breaking your own tendency. Some of his biggest plays came when he broke his own tendencies.