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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.