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Monday, August 17, 2009

Smart Football has moved to

You read that right: I have moved the site to -- tell your friends. Don't panic, don't fear, everything is staying just the same except for the new, fancier digs.

So check it out, and continue to show up, as there won't be anymore new content here on Blogspot (though all the archives will remain).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Deconstructing the Illinois run game

Over at Dr Saturday. As always, thanks to the Doc for the invite, and check out the full thing here.

How to beat press man coverage

... and get off the jam, via Ron Jenkins.

A few minor coaching points:

  • All receivers must master -- and I mean master -- at least two of these release moves. At the NFL level, you need three if not more. But all receivers, college and high school, need to be masters of two and competent at three or four. Don't forget to use hands.

  • The best release move in the world is useless if you don't get back on top of the defender. The receiver wants to run his route literally behind and through the DB -- as a result he wants the DB to move his feet, so that the receiver, although making moves, more or less runs in a straight line. If the receiver has to run in or out to get into his route he's losing.

  • If you can stop, you can get open. All receivers must learn to stop immediately while in full speed. If you can stop in two short steps, you can always be open. On deeper routes, it might take three, but stopping -- slamming on the breaks -- is the key to cutting, breaking either direction, and just getting open generally.

  • Ron Jenkins doesn't really discuss it, but one imperative technique is to learn to "lean into" the defense back at the top of the routes. If you're running an out against press man, once you hit about 10-12 yards you should be "leaning into" the defensive back before you break and separate away. Somewhat counterintuitively, on some of these routes you do want to be near the defender before breaking away at the last minute, and never too early. But this lean will get the defender's center of gravity and momentum going in the wrong direction. Mike Leach is famous for this coaching point.

  • Some routes (and route concepts) call for sharp breaks, others for more rounded but quicker "speed cuts," which aren't quite as precise but the receiver doesn't slow down as much. Know the difference, and always know which is appropriate.

Smart Notes and Links 8/13/2009

1. Advanced NFL Stats weighs in on the evaluating running backs/running games discussion, which I addressed (with assistance from some wonderful comments) here and here. Do read the whole thing, but Brian has, as always, a very interesting take. Drawing on earlier discussion about risky and conservative strategies for underdogs and favorites (see my discussion of the topic here and Brian's here), he asserts:

I want to address an age-old water cooler question that Chris discussed in his post at Smart Football. Consider two RBs, both with identical YPC averages. One however, is a boom and bust guy, like Barry Sanders, and the other is a steady plodder like Jerome Bettis. Which kind of RB would you rather have on your team?

The answer is it depends. Essentially, we have a choice between a high-variance RB and a low-variance RB. When a team is an underdog team, it wants high-variance intermediate outcomes to maximize its chances of winning. And when a team is a favorite, it wants low-variance outcomes. Whether those outcomes occur through play selection, through 4th down doctrine, or through RB style, isn't important. If you're an otherwise below-average team, you'd want the boom and bust style RB. If you're an otherwise above-average team, you'd want the steady plodder. . . .

Further, even if the high-variance RB has a lower average YPC, we'd still want him carrying the ball when we're losing. This is due to the math involved in competing probability distributions.

That's just one aspect of it. He uses a handy chart for the distribution of runs for the various backs...

...and notes how curious it is that Tomlinson's distribution looks so much like that of the rest of the NFL. (This same thing ends up holding true for most backs.) What conclusions does Burke draw? With the usual caveats,

[w]hat amazes me is how similar they all are to each other and to the league average. . . . Usually, a RB needs 4 to 5 yards to just break even in terms of his team's probability of converting a first down. What we'd want to see on a RB's distribution is as much probability mass as possible to the right of 4 yards.

So if [Jerome] Bettis' distribution looks so much like Tomlinson's, how does Bettis have a 3.9 career YPC and Tomlinson have a 4.4 career YPC? As others have noted previously, the difference among RB YPC numbers primarily come from big runs. It's the open field breakaway ability that separates the guys with big YPC stats from the other RBs. Of Tomlinson's runs, 1.5% were for 30 yards or more. Bettis' 30+ yd gains comprised only 0.46% of his carries. The other RBs and the league average are as follows:

- NFL 0.91%
- [Jamal] Lewis 0.88%
- [Brian] Westbrook 0.93%
- [Adrian] Peterson 2.20%

Adrian Peterson's 2.2% figure is exceptional. It's interesting because it really suggests that what separates Peterson as a great runner is based on only 2% or so of his runs. Otherwise, he's practically average.

2. Courtesy of Brophy, I have added video of Mike Leach's "settle & noose" drill, which, it will be recalled, is both a great warm-up drill and works on teaching receivers to find holes in the zone and quarterbacks how to deliver the ball to them.

3. Tom Brady muses on life with Bill Belichick. As he tells Details:

"You'll practice on a Wednesday, and you'll come in Thursday morning and he'll have the film up there from practice," Brady says. "Sometimes, during practice, you throw a bad ball—that's the way it goes. But the video comes up and he says, 'Brady, you can't complete a g--damn hitch.' And I'll be sitting there thinking, I'm a [expletive] nine-year veteran, I've won three ---damn Super Bowls — he can kiss my... That's what you're thinking on the inside. But on the outside I'm thinking, You know what? I'm glad he's saying that. I'm glad that's what he's expecting, you know? Because that's what I should be expecting. That's what his style is."

(Ht Shutdown Corner).

4. Bruce Feldman chats with Norm Chow, who materializes into matter from various spectral rays to participate.

5. The NY Times's The Quad Blog chats with Dan Shanoff about, what else, his Tim Teblow blog.

6. Spencer Hall/Orson Swindle to SB Nation. When you get $7 million from Comcast, you better find ways to spend it, and I can't think of a better way than for SBNation (whose official name is "Sportsblogs, Inc.") to lure Every Day Should Be Saturday's Spencer Hall over, including away from the Sporting News. I like everyone else think this is a wise move for both sides, but one underrated aspect is that Mr. Hall/Swindle (Mr. Hall-Swindle? I kind of like that) will be able to focus on just one blog (and probably a book too), which should really let him flourish.

7. Holly over at Dr Saturday remembers Northwestern's magical 1995 season, which is still the only 10 win season in school history. This was a sort of epoch-changing season for NW -- though that is a very relative statement -- in that the Wildcats' history since has been considerably better. Indeed, two years later I saw them play in the Citrus Bowl against Tennessee (this was back in the "You can't spell Citrus without UT" days). Though, most of that game was spent marveling at the show Peyton Manning put on (408 yards, 4 touchdowns, no interceptions) as I sat there telling everyone around me what Peyton Manning's audibles would be (for some reason Northwestern thought it could play man coverage against Tennessee's receivers, so he kept checking to fades and slants). In any event, it is hard to overstate how strange but wonderful that 1995 season was for Northwestern. In football, sometimes the gods are with you.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Are tight-ends an endangered species?

At the NFL level, where nearly every player has already won the DNA lottery, there are plenty of candidates to be effective tight-ends who can both run block like guards and get downfield like receivers -- or at least there are enough to be a force in the league and make every other team salivate (I'm looking at you Antonio Gates). At the lower levels though, finding one of these perfect specimens isn't so easy. And, with the rise of the spread, it is no surprise that tight-ends don't take the field quite as often as they used to. But reports of the demise of the position are overstated.

As an example, one coach recently asked, "Realistically, how much of a problem does a TE as a pass blocker pose in modern football?" He went on to say, "I say this because now that everyone's trying to go to some type of spread and put as many small, quick guys on the field as possible, TEs are becoming an almost endangered species on teams who want to throw." There were other observations about the ongoing usefulness of the tight-end position. Although I agree that just holding up a freak like Antonio Gates doesn't get you far (good luck finding those), I do not think the position is so useless or impractical as some have implied. (Beware, this post is kind of wonky and technical.)

Homer Smith discussed the role of the TE/H-back as a triple threat: he can block, release vertical (in a way that a back cannot), and can block for a few counts and release on a delayed pass, and therefore make two guys cover him. Here is what Homer Smith explained:

It takes a sixth frontal player (not counting the QB) to pull an identifiable pass defender into the front and to give the blockers something to work with to keep the center off the island. It takes the sixth, just as it takes him to deal with a blitz.

Which is a better sixth [blocker, a tight-end or a runningback]? A TE is more of a threat with the delayed pass that makes the pass defender on him stay at bay while the TE blocks the rusher. I think a TE is the better.

Anyway, this is not so black and white, RB versus TE. It's all shades: imagine lining up with a FB in the I. Now the FB cheats over; he lines up in a two-point stance, behind the guard at 4 yards. Now behind the tackle at 3 yards. Now he splits the tackle with his inside leg, at about 2 yards. What is he? A FB or an H-back? He can BOB the linebacker, no? He can still kick out for power, release into the flat, maybe even take a handoff if he comes inside enough. Now he steps over maybe another foot, etc. Now suddenly he's a tight-end/h-back all the way? And all those advantages are lost?

Also don't confuse personnel with position. You can put anyone you want there. I don't see why your RB is some invaluable pass blocker, despite the fact that he has to work on carrying the ball, catching the ball, and blocking in the run game, while the TE is just helpless?

Nothing wrong in HS in having a division of labor for these positions. On most teams I've been around, the TEs spend more time practicing with the OL than they do the receivers. If you want a glorified slot guy, then sub a receiver in and go from there. Or use a FB type (if you're got one).

Bottom line: it's an exceptionally useful thing, and don't be straitjacketed by black and white conceptions. The advantage of the four wide spread was a division of labor thing -- you could put four wides out there and get mismatches against the other team's base personnel, and often get them out of their base looks. You might not have a good TE or fb, so you didn't put one out there; you looked for advantages elsewhere. Nowadays with everyone being spread, is that really the case that just going four wide gives you all these mismatches? I'm not so sure; using a TE -- or alternating between TEs, FBs, and slot receivers -- seems to me the better move.

I consider my base offense to be 3 WR, 1 QB, 1 RB, and then a hybrid H-back position. That H-back position can be a true slot receiver (routes and jet sweeps), a FB, a true TE/H-back (either as a blocker or hybrid guy, though those are quite rare), or even just a 2nd RB. Depends on the guys you have, what you're trying to accomplish, and also your depth (can do a lot of great things if you have a couple of kids who fit the above descriptions and then just sub them in and out to give different looks).

But unquestionably, TE is maybe my favorite position. True, it's not always easy to find a good one, but it helps a lot. (And the two best formations in football might be trips closed and a TE/wing set, with a TE and a wing player to one side, and either a split end and flanker or a twins look).

Finally, one of the concerns was that a tight-end is in poor position to pass protect:

To me, a RB who starts out deeper in the backfield is in much better position to pick up blitzers, chip DEs, or even take a DE 1-on-1. . . . Now, compare that to a TE, who is always on the end of the line and is really only in position to pick up somebody coming off the edge. He also has far less time and room for error in diagnosing a blitz or stunt and getting his body where he needs to be.

I disagree; it is best not to overthink this. One, if you're having that many problems you can always back the TE up to be an H-back so he can see more. Second, you can make a very simple call ("solid") if the DE lines up on or outside the TE and the LB lines up inside. If both the DE and LB come (and don't twist) the tackle takes the LB and the TE takes the DE; if the LB doesn't rush then the TE passes the DE off to the tackle before releasing. You do get into the matchup issues, but it's not so ridiculous like he can't get there or will just whiff. It's just a simple area principle.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Past is prologue: Alabama running the flexbone?

Check out the highlights of the 1980 Sugar Bowl (between Bryant's Crimson Tide and Lou Holtz's Arkansas Razorbacks) for some great wishbone stuff, but, as reader Ben Smith points out, they show a decidedly "flexbone" look at the 3:16 mark.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Drew Brees is scary accurate

So when I started watching this, which is one of those hokey Sports Science comparisons between a pro athlete and some rather arbitrary metric, I thought there was no way that Drew Brees was more accurate than a world-class archer. Well, I was very, very wrong. Watch below. (Brees's throwing picks up at about the 4:10 mark.)

Assorted Links - 8/10/2009

1. Michigan cast off Justin Feagin was involved in some wild stuff. Mgoblog comments:

Freep FOIA findings:

Feagin told investigators that “when I first started going to (Burke’s) house he had three big jars of weed up in his room. … One day T.J. was talking to me about some illegal stuff. He was under a lot of pressure because of his financial problems.

“I told him that I knew someone who could get him some cocaine. A few days later he asked me if I had talked to the person yet. I called right then and set up a deal.”

Feagin arranged to send $600 to a friend in Florida, whom he identified only as “Tragic.” In exchange, “Tragic” would send an ounce of cocaine to Ann Arbor.

It goes on from there. No cocaine ever showed up, this Burke guy tried to scare/murder Feagin by filling a bottle with gasoline and setting it on fire outside his dorm room, etc, etc, etc. You know, typical college stuff. . . . TJ Burke does what he wants, which is apparently spend up to ten years in prison.

Feagin was a last-minute addition to Michigan's first class under Rodriguez when it became clear that Rodriguez wasn't likely to acquire a higher-rated quarterback recruit. He did not work out, obviously. The Freep article dryly notes that Feagin "struggled to learn the playbook" mere paragraphs after describing Feagin's extensive marijuana habit. . . .

But seriously: it's bad. It's also one guy that Michigan apparently didn't run as thorough of a background check on—or possibly any background check on—as they scrambled to reconfigure Rodriguez's first recruiting class. As long as the incident remains isolated, fine. . . .

2. Mark Sanchez might win the Jets' job, but is he crossing over from confident to arrogant?

3. The NY Times Fifth Down Blog remembers Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson (and includes your humble blogger in its roundup).

4. The pro-football reference blog with Part III of its quest to rank the greatest QBs of all time.

5. Steve Spurrier is very upset: "We've got a lot of guys, I don't even know if they like football." (Ht Blutarsky.)

6. Saurian Sagacity looks at statistical characteristics of BCS champions. This is good and fine, but as Dr Saturday pointed out, the BCS winner hasn't always been the "best" team over time, or even in a given year. This is not a BCS knock -- and on this score I don't think a playoff would reduce the randomness of who gets crowned champion -- but it's worth remembering.

6. The end of the postal service?

7. Callers, tossers, and the odds of the flip.

8. History of the Times New Roman typeface.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Run & Shoot Series Part 4 - The "Streak"

[This is Part 4 of a multi-part series on a "Simple Approach to the Run and Shoot." In one sense I mean "simplified," but the series is, more than anything else, intended to both diagnose and explicate some of the fundamental concepts behind the shoot as well as discuss how I might marry them with some passing modern ideas, all in an effort to just understand passing offense generally. You can see the full series here. Also check out Parts 1, 2, and 3.]

It's been a bit since my last installment, but I'm not quite done, as there are two concepts left in the fearsome foursome of the 'shoot. This foursome includes: go, choice, and now streak and switch.

These two plays really do not involve any new learning, and although considered separate plays, they really are two sides of the same coin: four verticals, which I analyzed recently with Dan Gonzalez. I begin with "streak." The switch will come in the next installment.


At core, streak is just what the run and shoot guys call "four verticals." And four-verticals is a very simple concept that is so powerful because well designed pass plays boil down to elementary math: geometry and arithmetic. Four receivers bolt down the field, and if they keep the proper spacing between them -- by staying on their "landmarks" -- the defense will be outnumbered and can't properly defend the play. Against Cover Two, well, the defense only has two deep (hence the name) while the offense has four receivers deep. With cover three, well the offense still has a man advantage. And, again, if the spacing is correct, the offense can even whittle it down so that they know who they are operating against, namely, the deep free safety.

But this doesn't mean that the defense is without options. They can disguise coverage, play different techniques, or quite simple play four deep -- four on four gives the advantage to the defense. (Contra Ron Jaworski, creating favorably one-on-one matchups lags far behind creating favorable numbers advantages, i.e. two on one defend.) In response, the run and shoot, as usual, gives them freedom. Hence, the "seam read" all over again.

As the diagram above shows, the four receivers all release vertically. But the coaching points are critical:

  • The outside receivers will release on go routes. The "frontside" one (in the diagram, the one on the offense's right) has a mandatory outside release: he will keep pushing to the defender's outside hip. That said, he still wants to keep five yards between him and the sideline, to give the quarterback a place to drop the ball into.

  • The slot receivers release up the seams. But they must be more precise than that: in college, they must be two yards outside the hashes; in highschool (where the hashmarks are wider), they must be on them. This spacing is the most critical element of the entire play: it is what makes it geometrically difficult for the deep secondary to cover.

  • The runningback might be in the protection, but if he releases he will run either a drag across the field or a little option route underneath. He looks for an open spot in the zones as an outlet if the undercoverage releases for all the receivers, and against man he will cut in or out. He should be working against a linebacker and can't let that guy cover him.

  • The outside receivers, if they can't get deep, will break the route down and "come down the stem" -- retrace their steps -- to get open later. The QB, if the initial reads are not there, will hitch up and throw them the ball on the outside.

    But the key to this play, as it has been for all four of these "core" run and shoot plays, is the seam read. I previously described this route in detail, but in sum: against a defense with the deep middle of the field "open" (cover two), the receiver will split the two safeties on a post route; against middle of the field closed (cover 3, cover 1), with a single deep middle safety, the receiver will stay away from him and continue up the seam. In that sense the route is a lot like the divide route I've discussed before. But the route is more dynamic: if the safeties stay very deep, or any defender crosses the receiver's face, he will cut inside or underneath those defenders to get open.

    Below are a few clips courtesy of Michael Drake again. In this first video the quarterback, though a bit slow, hits the seam read.

    On this second video, the defense is in a blitz look. (Sort of Cover 1 with a "rat" or floater, though no deep safety.) The receiver probably should have crossed the defender's face, but they are able to complete it.

    And below is a clip of four-verticals where it gets dumped off to the runningback.

    Finally, below is video of Texas Tech running the play (courtesy of Trojan Football Analysis). I end with this both because Tech of course is not exactly a run & shoot team, but also because some of the variants shown on the video -- particularly the shallow cross -- are things a lot of R&S coaches have gone to, including June Jones.

    Tuesday, August 04, 2009

    How Mike Leach keeps producing prolific passers

    Dr Saturday recently observed that

    [o]f the five starters Leach has trotted out in nine years, every one has topped 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in a season; even in terms of efficiency as opposed to straight cumulative totals, they've been remarkably consistent from year to year.

    He also notes that it's unlikely that Texas Tech will quite reach the heights they did last year, and that "[u]nless the stars align for the new kids in some unforeseen, improbably way, even 4,200 yards and 35 touchdowns could feel like the first hints of stagnation in the success story." Quite likely. But how has Leach continued to produce such wildly successful (in terms of stats, at least) quarterback?

    One answer is "the system," but let's get more specific. The Captain has frequently noted that his system is all stuff that's been done before. Indeed, what is remarkable is that guys can seem to leap off the bench and do nothing but throw completions. He had one of the great three-year runs, where, defying the common spread/passing offense wisdom of playing your younger guy so they can get some experience, he rode three fifth-year senior quarterbacks to great heights (and, again, stats).

    My explanation, and I think Leach would agree with me, is how the Red Raiders practice. One, they obviously do not run the ball much so all the focus is on throwing and catching, every day. Leach also does not believe in traditional stretching; rather he begins practices with medium speed drills that work on techniques like settling in the windows between zones and dropping back and throwing. Everything is focused on throwing the ball. Bob Davie visited Texas Tech a few years ago, and was blown away by what he saw:

    Last year, Tech averaged 60 passes a game so it is obviously not a balanced attack, but this actually works in their favor. In practice, they spend virtually all their time focusing on fundamentals related to the passing game. From the time they hit the practice field until they leave, the ball is in the air and the emphasis in on throwing, catching and protecting the quarterback.

    It takes great confidence in your scheme to be able to take this approach, but the players appreciate it because they can focus on execution.

    Practice -- What's Different

    When you watch Texas Tech practice, it doesn't seem as structured as most college practices. They do not stretch as a team and unlike most practices, there is not a horn blowing every five minutes to change drills. The bottom line is that the cosmetic appearance of practice is not as important to Leach as it is to some coaches.

    Although not as structured, it is impressive to watch Texas Tech practice and you quickly see why it is so successful. The ball is always in the air and what the Red Raiders practice is what you see them do in a game. They work on every phase of their package every day and in most passing drills, there are four quarterbacks throwing and every eligible receiver catching on each snap.

    There is great detail given to fundamentals in all phases of the passing game. Wide receivers, for example, work every day on releases versus different coverages, ball security, scrambling drills, blocking and routes versus specific coverages.

    Davie is referencing some of the specific "Airraid" passing drills -- the real secret to the scheme's success. The main drills are:

    • Settle-noose: This is basically a warm-up drill. The receivers begin out quarter speed and shuffle between two cones, "settling" nearer to one than the other, as if they were two zone defenders. The quarterback takes a drop -- again, reduced speed -- and throws the ball, aiming for the receiver but away from the nearer "defender." The receiver uses good catching form and bursts upfield after making the catch. You can see how this simple drill sets up the entire theory of their offense, which relies on finding seams in the zones and quarterbacks throwing between defenders. Check out the video below, courtesy of Brophy:

    • Pat-n-go: This is another simple drill. Most teams use a form of "route lines," or quarterbacks dropping and receivers running routes on "air" -- i.e. with no defenders. The one clever insight here is that one group of QBs and receivers lines up on opposite from another. This way they can complete a pass, have the receiver burst as if scoring, and simply get in line on the opposite side of the field, rather than have to run back through. Just another way they get more repetitions.
    • Routes on air: Probably their best drill. The coaches line up garbage cans or bags or whathaveyou where defenders would drop for a zone. Then all five receivers and/or runningbacks line up, and they call a play. Five quarterbacks (or four and a manager, etc) each drop back and throw the ball to a receiver. Here's the deal: if you're the QB who should throw it to the first read, you drop back and throw it to him. If you are assigned to the third read, well you drop back, look at #1, then #2, then #3 and throw it to him. Same goes for #2, #4, and even #5. Moreover, every receiver who runs the route catches a ball and practices scoring. Then the quarterbacks rotate over -- i.e. if you threw it to #2 now you throw it to #3, etc -- and a new group of receivers steps in. This way quarterbacks absolutely learn all their reads and practice it every day (how many reps like this does the third or fourth string guy at another school get?), and they also practice throwing it to all their receivers. Each time they do this
    • 7-on-7 and man-to-man: These are what they sound like, and most do these drills. One-on-one or man-to-man involves the receivers going against press man in practice, while 7-on-7 is like a real scrimmage, minus the linemen.
    Good drills, no? As the Airraid practice plan shows, they do these drills almost every day. As Davie summed up:
    Tech gets an amazing amount of repetitions in practice and most importantly, it doesn't waste reps practicing things they don't do in a game.
    Indeed, if you're third-string quarterback at Texas Tech, I can't imagine a program whose third-stringer gets more reps than you. Same goes for second-string, third-string, etc. Now, games are certainly different -- Tech's defense has never been confused with Texas's or Oklahoma's -- but these drills, coupled with their total commitment to throwing the ball, is a big factor in Leach's ability to churn out successful quarterbacks.

    Sunday, August 02, 2009

    More on evaluating the run game

    The discussion surrounding evaluating the run game was great. I will have more to add, but I wanted to highlight some of the best commentary. First, I did want to say that my focus was generally on two aspects, and I don't think I made that clear.

    One, I really am more interested in running games, or a team's ability to run, than I am in one runningback versus another. I definitely play fantasy football myself, but it's not the reason I get interested in football stats. Instead I want to know how good an offense is, and then secondarily how good a particular play is; whether Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith is better is usually not a discussion I get into. As a result I don't mind so much that it's hard to disassociate how good a runningback is from how good the line is, or the faking, etc. From an evaluation perspective, if you can analyze one play being better than another, then you can pretty easily ask if it is scheme or execution, and thus concepts or players.

    Second, I do prefer to focus on easily observable stats. Some of this is maybe my laziness, but that's one big appeal of yards per carry: I know it has little application on third down. (One yard could be a success if it converts for a first down, and eight yards could be a failure if it was third and ten -- but then what if the draw was a good call rather than an interception or a sack? I digress.) That is just mainly aimed at seemingly interesting stats that would be a practical nightmare, based on every play and then a subjective interpretation of how many guys he bounced off of or his vision and cutback versus contact, etc -- you get the idea.

    Anyway, Bill Connelly of Football Outsiders (and RockMNation) had actually discussed this fairly recently:

    Regular Varsity Numbers readers have probably become familiar with some of the basic VN concepts, namely PPP (Points Per Play) and the "+". PPP is a measure of explosiveness--the amount of Equivalent Points (EqPts) averaged per play. The "+" number compares an offense's output to the output expected against a given defense, and vice versa. With the "+" number, 100 is average, anything above 100 is good, and anything below 100 is bad.

    Points Over Expected

    Is there any way to use these concepts to come up with a good rushing measure? Of course! Meet POE (Points Over Expected), the collegiate stepchild of DYAR. Whereas a rusher's PPP+ would compare his EqPts output to what would be expected, and is therefore great for measuring an offense's overall effectiveness, POE is cumulative. It is a comparison of a rusher's total EqPts to the Expected EqPt total, subtracting the latter from the former.

    POE = EqPts - Expected EqPts. . . .

    Most Varsity Numbers measures, in one way or another, bounce output versus expected output. POE, a brother to PPP and cousin to S&P and S&P+, does just that. POE, which intends to both evaluate both per-play and cumulative success, could also be used to evaluate receivers and tight ends, but that will be hard without good "pass intended for _____" data (some college play-by-plays record detailed information in this regard, others do not). Right now, it is an RB-only figure, but it is a pretty good one.

    Not sure I entirely buy this as the best method (requires getting into the nitty gritty of FO's methods), but overall this is a good starting spot. It tends to reward the explosive players.

    Moving to the comments, a few highlights, though all were excellent. Brad said:

    I don't think getting long runs is the only way a back can improve his average. He can also do so by getting less short gains.

    Think of a back that gets 3 yds minimum on slightly over half of his carries and gets 6 yds on the rest. Then compare him to a back that gets loses a yard on a third of his carries gets 3 yards on a third of his carries and gains 10 yards on a third of his carries.

    Both backs have a median rush of 3 yds, but the first back averages around 5 yds per carry while the second one averages only 4. However the second back clearly has more "Big play potential" because he gains 10 yards on 1/3 of his runs.

    My point is that a back can improve his average vs median both by getting more long gains OR by having less short runs. Which of these two things that great backs do is a question for the data.

    I should have conceptualized this better in the first place, because this helps explain why Reggie Bush has been such a mediocre rusher in the NFL. It's not his explosiveness (though he hasn't broken many very long runs), but his routine bad plays. It also is why Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders are so hard to compare: Barry's stat line was full of negative plays and small gains, but checkered with the spectacular long runs. Emmitt Smith, the opposite. (And I don't think with Barry it was all just jump and bad blocking; it was also just his running style. Do you think he would have fit in well with the Denver Broncos "one-cut-and-go" philosophy? People say "oh, if he had played for them he would have had 3,000 yards but I'm not so sure.)

    Tom points me to another good bit from Football Outsiders, this time by Mike Tanier, quoted at length:

    The 4.0-4.1 yard average is an arithmetic mean: add up all the yards, divide by the attempts. The arithmetic mean is easily skewed by extremes in data. A 75-yard run can increase a starting running back's rushing average by several tenths of a point by the end of a season. This skewing always increases rushing averages: there are several 50+ yard rushes every year, but no 50+ yard losses on running plays.

    We all know that a few big plays can make a mediocre running back's rushing average look great. But how much effect do long gains have on the league rushing average? The best way to see this is to break down every running play by distance. . . . The table reveals a surprising fact: the mean carry may yield four yards, but the median carry yields only three yards, and the data distribution is centered at two yards. . . .

    Over 20 percent of running plays gain zero or one yards. Factor in losses, and over one-fourth of all runs result in negative or negligible yardage. The rushing average for the plays in the -4-to-10 yard range in 2005 was 2.95 yards per attempt. Long runs make up only about nine percent of all rushing plays, but they increase the league rushing average by over 40 percent. . . .

    As a way of negating the importance of team strength as well as studying the contrasts between rushing styles, let's examine a pair of teammates from 2005.

    Last season, Tatum Bell gained 920 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Mike Anderson gained 1,014 yards but averaged just 4.2 yards per carry. Despite the wide disparity in yards per carry, DVOA and DPAR ranked Anderson as the better back. Anderson was 37.0 points above replacement level, Bell 16.4. Anderson was 20.3 percent better than the average back, Bell just 7.6 percent.

    Bell's rushing average was inflated by several long runs: he had a 68, 67, and 55 yard run in 2005, plus several 35-yard runs. Anderson's longest carry of the season was 44 yards, and that was his only run longer than 25 yards. We all know that Bell is a "home run threat" while Anderson is more consistent. But is it really fair to downgrade Bell because of his long runs? We're inclined to downgrade Bell somewhat because so much of his value is contained in a few plays. But is that really fair? After all, gaining four yards at a time is great and all, but big plays are pretty important, too. . . .

    Anderson's yardage distribution is centered in the 2-3 yard range, while Bell's is centered in the 1-2 yard range, giving Anderson a full yard-per-play advantage on carry after carry. Bell's advantage, of course, is on runs of more than 10 yards. All but 6.5 percent of Anderson's runs gain from -4 to 10 yards, while 10.5 percent of Bell's runs are outside the chart (he only lost five yards on one play last season). Give them both 200 carries, and Bell will have eight more long runs than Anderson, and those runs will be longer than what Anderson can usually muster. But Anderson will gain an extra yard that Bell couldn't on dozens of other
    runs. . . .

    Anderson's in-the-box mean was 3.36 yards per attempt, noting again that his "box" is larger. Bell's was just 2.67. What's interesting is that we tend to think of backs like Anderson as "ordinary" while backs with Bell's big-play potential are held in higher esteem. But Bell's rushing distribution is more in line with the league norms than Anderson's. He's very good, but his contributions are typical of what backs around the league provide. Anderson, at least in 2005, was the unique player, providing hard-to-get, down-in, down-out production.

    The difference between Bell and Anderson suggests that "cloud of dust" backs are more valuable than "boom or bust" backs, but we must be careful when using cheesy labels. Our perception of a back's production profile are often way off. How would you classify Marshall Faulk in his prime? Probably as a boom-or-bust back, albeit one with lots of boom and only a little bust.

    But Faulk's running distributions show that in his prime he was much more than a big-play machine. . . .

    Faulk's in-the-box mean was 3.37, a very good figure. What's more, his "box" only included 86 percent of his runs. Faulk had seven 12-yard runs, six 16-yard runs, and three 18-yard runs in 2000, giving him a very high percentage of 11-20 yard runs. But what's most remarkable about his production was his ability to avoid no-gainers and his above-average totals in the 3-5 yard range. Fast, shifty Faulk was just as good at using his skills to gain a yard or two as he was at burning defenses for long gains.

    By contrast, [Jonathan] Stewart's ability to avoid losses and pick up two or three yards couldn't offset his complete lack of big-play potential. At first glance, Stewart's distribution looks similar to Anderson's. But his in-the-box mean of 2.8 is over a half-yard lower. The differences are subtle -- Anderson is a little more likely to gain five or six yards and a little less likely to lose yardage -- but they add up over a few hundred carries. And Stewart, like Anderson, concentrated 95 percent of his carries in the -4-to-10 yard range, so he had few 10-20 yard bursts to increase his productivity. Stewart, like Anderson, was providing a unique skill, which is why he was able to stay in the league for several years. Unlike Anderson, he wasn't a great exemplar of that skill, and the Football Outsiders metrics took him to task for it. . . .

    Teams don't generate rushing yards in three-, four-, or five-yard bursts. They gain it through punctuated equilibrium, waiting through dozens of minimal gains for a few big plays per game.

    And those big plays aren't that big. We've focused on gains of ten or less in this article, ignoring the 10.5 percent or so of plays that yield more yardage. The vast majority of those runs gain 11-20 yards: 6.9 percent overall. Almost 25 percent of the rushing yardage gained in the NFL is generated on runs of 11-20 yards. There were 960 such runs last year: 30 per team, or just over two per team per game. Amazingly nearly 10 percent of all rushing yardage is generated on runs of 30 or more yards, plays which occur about four times per year for a typical team.

    These distribution breakdowns are so interesting that they might seduce us into making some wacky conclusions. Keep in mind that all of these averages and distribution patterns are situation dependent. . . .

    Without further study, we shouldn't leap to grand conclusions. But we know this much: if we expect to gain four or five yards on every running play, we're going to be disappointed most of the time. No wonder passing totals have been creeping up for decades. If all a handoff gets you is two yards and a cloud of dust, you might as well throw the ball.

    Lots going on here, but it mostly just reinforces what we know: Backs and teams have different styles, and it is not always easy to compare them; you want a guy who (a) does not lose yardage, (b) consistently gets positive yardage, and (c) is a big-play threat. They don't always come that way, so it is interesting that Tanier and FO conclude that the consistent back is simply better than the big-play threat. I'd like to see more to support that -- i.e. that the "dozens of first downs" or extra yards Anderson might have pulled down for the team were worth more than Tatum Bell's big plays. I'm not saying I disagree, but that it is interesting. That kind of conclusion could have troubling implications for a guy like, say, Barry Sanders, or moreso Reggie Bush.

    Chase of the PFR Blog points out marginal yards, and adds:

    I looked at rushing yards over 3.0 yards per carry. However, as the author has implied, I've begun shifting my focus away from yards per carry.

    Rushing first downs is a key part of evaluating a running game. Without play by play information, I'd want to focus on rushing first downs, rushing yards, rushing TDs and carries.

    I think this is good; rushing first downs should be part of the evaluation. According to CFBStats, last season's top first-down teams in college football are an expected bunch:

    1. Air Force
    2. Tulsa
    3. Navy
    4. Nevada (tie)
    4. Oklahoma State (tie)
    6. Oregon
    7. TCU
    8. Florida
    9. Oklahoma
    10. Georgia Tech

    As a side note, I do think yards per carry is most useful on first down, and CFB Stats (as well as the pro-football reference site), has a ready breakdown of rushing stats by down, for all teams. For example, the yards per carry of the top 5 teams in the country last year, limited solely to first down, were:

    1. Nevada 6.95
    2. Louisiana-Lafayette 6.77
    3. Florida 6.76
    4. Navy 1843 6.12
    5. Oregon 1676 5.96

    Each team had over 1,600 yards on first down alone (everyone bud Oregon had over 1,800, and Nevada over 2,000). And those averages -- yes I just pasted that thing from FO saying you can't solely look at averages -- indicates that these teams had a lot of favorable down and distances to convert (Louisiana-Lafayette, the one seemingly strange entry, was in the top 15 of total offense last year despite not being a great throwing team).

    In the end ... I have to think about this question some more. I think we're moving in the right direction, as, again, part of my motivation is to find handy and easy to use stats (thus one reason I dislike the idea of some kind of "running back efficiency rating" like they use with quarterbacks). I agree that the debate is going to be between styles of running game (or running back), as well as situation. I would imagine that teams like Oregon or Georgia Tech are going to have much different looking rushing distributions than, say, Wisconsin. But we're on our way down the path to the end.

    End note: I'll be on vacation this week. I have a couple of posts set to go up, but otherwise I'll be out of pocket until next weekend/week. Cheers.

    Friday, July 31, 2009

    Assorted Links

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

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

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

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

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

    Thursday, July 30, 2009

    What is old is new again

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

    H/t CoachHuey.

    Breaking down the Oklahoma State offense

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

    Smart Links 7/30/09

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

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

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

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

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

    6. Best thing you'll see in awhile.

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

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

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009

    Assorted links

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

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

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

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

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

    The quarterback

    Some things never change.

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

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

    Saban on Tebow, the Gators' O

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

    On Tim Tebow at the next level . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    On the "Spread" offense . . .

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

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

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

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

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

    On the disruption of an inexperienced QB . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Tuesday, July 28, 2009

    Blitz-master Jim Johnson dies

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

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

    He will be missed.

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

    Responses to responses about David and Goliath Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This is the biggest problem with the example TN uses:

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

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

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

    The expected point value of this play is:

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

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

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

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

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

    Smart Notes and Links 7/28/09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A little experience, however, changes everything.

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

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

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

    6. An inviting summary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Monday, July 27, 2009

    Smart Links and Notes 7/27/09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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