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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.


Anonymous said...

Based on what I saw, I would agree that OU certainly looked more talented on the field, but that Harell's play was less than stellar. He seemed to hold onto the ball much longer than he needed to - he often looked like his 1, 2 and even 3 receivers were covered and he couldn't decide what to do. Yet, when ABC showed full-field views, it was clear that receivers were getting open. I think one play on their scoring drive summed up the problems for Tech - Harell overlooked a wide open tailback sitting over the middle in favor of a covered receiver streaking into the end zone. He didn't take what was given to him, and I think that captures much of the reason Tech's offense looked impotent at times.

Thanks for all the great posts!

Anonymous said...

#6: Tech must have had a series of unlucky, non-executing coin flips.

Chris said...


I must not have explained my argument in those articles well if I've gotten this much pushback.

Anonymous said...

Chris, i think you are spot on with your view. As a Michigan fan, this is what i was worried about with Rodriquez's spread option. It relies so much on the QB. Look no further than the times that Pat White was out (Rutgers,and clearly not healthy against Pitt)The offense sputtered and was virtually useless. Not getting T.Pryor was huge for him as it would have been good for a few more wins at the least.

Lastly, thank you for your blog, priceless information!

Unknown said...

My take on the game falls in between several of these versions and includes a couple of other factors:

- OU's (i.e. Stoops and Venables) intimate familiarity with LEACH -- and his offense.

- Superior personnel though, as you mentioned, not by an order of magnitude.

- The intense atmosphere in that stadium was radiating out of my television. I can't imagine what it must have been like live. The crowd and the Sooners team all seemed to sense . . .

- . . . That this was an opportunity to turn around OU's recent 'big-game struggles'. I think Stoops does a good job preparing his teams. This night they seemed more prepared and intense than ever. A classic 'Statement Game'. When I was an officer in the military I was taught that a commander can always get that 'ONE THING' out of his unit during the course of his command -- no matter what it is -- if he commits to it 100% ('100%' being an overused phrase of course but in this case really meaning as close to 100% as you can get). I think this was Stoops' ONE THING for this season that he, the staff and the players were emotionally invested in.

- Lou Holtz always says a team needs to do 3 things before they are ready to win a championship: Learn to play, learn to win, and learn how to handle success. TT was in unexplored territory for their program and once OU started taking it to them they didn't have the poise to rally and counter-punch (see video of Leach's half-time interview -- he was muttering to himself and looking all around like Russel Crowe in 'A Beautiful Mind').

I also agree that this game does not condemn the Air Raid system -- just like the Texas game in and of itself didn't validate it.

BTW: I really love this blog.

Anonymous said...

Either Rod put all his eggs in the Pryor basket or thought he could get it done with Feagin. Else i don't know how he could have gone in with Threet and a walk on (Sheridan) as the primary QBs.I am even now rankled by his decision regarding QBs.

Anonymous said...

While it is a little difficult to tell from having watched the game on tv (not getting a full field view all the times), I think it was a combination of a good OU scheme against facilitated by better athletes. It also seemed that Harrel and Leach didn't make great adjustments to what OU was doing or at least they couldn't make them fast enough given that they couldn't stop OU at all.

On D it seemed like OU was overcommitted to stopping a couple of aspects of the Tech offense (WR screen, middle of the field). For example, early in the first half, Harrel saw 2 defenders playing off to the trips side and (from what I can tell) audibled to the WR screen. OU seemed very prepared for this and sold out to stop it on the snap (linebacker flew out hard and the CB and safety came up on snap). I was waiting all game to see Tech come back up, fake that play and run the WRs by the defenders (or at least behind the LB).

Similarly, it looked like OU was in 2 deep alot with the safeties out wide and focused on the outside receivers. Towards the end of the second quarter they ran the slot up the seem a few times (with a middle linebacker chasing) and got wide open deep (the wide open tailback sitting in the middle I thought was a weird comment given that the deep middle was what OU was giving them and the elf guy had 3 steps). It seemed to take them quite a while to find this though.

Overall it seems that OU took away enough to make it difficult, and also they seemed to take away enough, gave up some slightly more lower probability and deeper throws, and tried to cover up via athleticism. While it seems like they could have made adjustments quicker, or maybe anticipated better what OU would try to do, it was a good strategy for OU. If you are going to be able to score at will, force Tech to take lower probability chances, or force things into the D a little and therefore maybe give up a few plays but cause more 4th downs.

Anonymous said...

1. OU's offensive line totally and completely dominated. The talent differential in that matchup was extraordinary. Bradford could have been only half as talented and his numbers would have been the same. He had all day to throw whenever they chose to throw.

2. OU's defensive line got tremendous pressure on pass plays and stuffed the run.

Given the wide disparity in talent in the two lines, Tx Tech needed a Peyton Manning performance from their QB or a bunch of turnovers from OU.

The idea that the system made the difference is a little silly. Football games are still won by blocking and tackling as much as anything else. When you get overwhelmed on that part of the fundamentals, you lose 90% of the time or more.

Tom said...

#6 - The Airrade, just like any offense based on an over use of any single aspect of the game, is highly succeptible to an "off day," much more so than a traditional, or at least a well balanced offense.

"If you're going to run a spread, you must have a great quarterback."

Yes, but that's not all. If you're going to run a spread, you must have a great quarterback, who even when he's just a little off can still somehow miraculously make plays and score points. Otherwise your offense grinds to a halt. It's not just the quarterback either, it's the receivers, the line, etc. If just one of these groups has a lapse in timing or execution, the whole thing falls on its face, and those lapses are much more likely to occur when you're so unbalanced.

Anonymous said...

How about this:

Tech's offense got jobbed by the refs in the first quarter and the game got out of hand in a hurry. Then it snowballed.