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Thursday, May 14, 2009

David strategies and Goliath strategies

Malcolm Gladwell's new New Yorker piece is called "How David Beats Goliath," and professes to describe what strategies underdogs -- or "Davids" -- can use to defeat Goliaths. His basic premise is that Davids all too often fall into the trap of playing Goliath's game, which is rarely going to lead them to victory: there's a reason that Goliaths are Goliaths and Davids are Davids. Instead, they should do something unique (the article's subtitle is "When underdogs break the rules") and risky:

The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful — in terms of armed might and population — as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time. . . .

What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

So far so good. This is consistent with what I wrote in my post, "Conservative and Risky Strategies (and Kurtosis)." The problem with Gladwell's argument, however, is that although he recognizes that Davids ought not to employ Goliath strategies because it is a game they can't win -- "Arreguín-Toft found the same puzzling pattern. When an underdog fought like David, he usually won. But most of the time underdogs didn’t fight like David. . . ." -- he nevertheless assumes that Goliaths should all be using these David strategies as well, and can't understand why they don't.

This is incorrect. Just as Goliath strategies are often sub-optimal for Davids, David strategies are often sub-optimal for Goliaths. The reason Gladwell seems to miss it is because he doesn't have a broad theory for what makes a strategy appropriate for an underdog. His primary example is of the decision of a basketball team composed of twelve-year girls to use the full-court press in basketball the entire game. He also cites Rick Pitino as an example of a coach who has successfully used a David strategy at various stops, and as further counterfactual to the unsuccessful coaches who forgo using the press. This example has been much discussed and even derided as a descriptive matter in basketball, though Gladwell responds to the basketball points here.

More importantly though, Gladwell is actually right in a sense: the press (in basketball at least), is a pretty decent example of an underdog strategy. He fails to recognize that what makes it as a good underdog strategy is also what likely makes it inappropriate for Goliaths -- it is a high risk, high reward, high variance strategy. One reason it works for underdogs may have little to do with how good it is on absolute terms; the fact that there is increased variance by itself has value for underdogs because it might give the underdog a chance of actually winning. On the flipside, however, while a full-time press strategy might increase a Goliath's chance of blowing out an underdog, it also might result in them losing a game they shouldn't. I described all this previously, but the WSJ Daily Fix (Carl Bialik) does a nice job summarizing it:

To understand why, imagine that the Goliaths — the nickname of Philistine State’s basketball team — typically beat opponents by 10 points. They’re playing an average opponent in their next game. Strategy A, a low-variance strategy will, two out of three times, yield a Goliaths victory between 5 and 15 points (with the rest of hypothetical games played with that strategy falling outside that range, including a very small number of losses). But a high-variance strategy has a much wider range of outcomes, with two thirds of games ending somewhere between a five-point Goliaths loss and a 25-point rout. The second strategy, then, will lead to more games where the Goliaths lose. And that’s particularly costly in single-game-elimination competitions such as the NCAA tournament.

For true Davids, the full-court press might help, particularly if it’s not always expected so opposing Goliaths can’t know whether to prepare for it.

I used this image to visually represent the higher-variance, flattened bell curve of expected results from an underdog strategy. (I also assumed that the higher risk strategy increased the overall expected points too, though, as stated earlier, we need not make that assumption.)

I previously explained this trade-off for underdogs and favorites. For Davids:

It's a well-worn belief that underdogs -- i.e. the kind of severely outmatched opponent that cannot win without some good luck -- must employ some risky strategies to succeed. This has long been believed but now we have a reason, though it also teaches us that there is a price to this bargain. The underdog absolutely must take the riskier strategy, whether by throwing more and more aggressively, by onside kicking, or doing flea-flickers and trick plays. They have to get lucky. In the process, however, they also increase the chance that they will get blown out, possibly quite badly. But isn't that worth the price of a shot at winning? Florida might pick off the pass and run it back for a touchdown; they might sack the quarterback and make him fumble; they might blow up the double-reverse pass. If so, then things look grim. But what if they didn't? And if the team didn't do those things, how can it beat them by being conservative? By waiting for Florida to make mistakes?

And Goliaths:

Think about when Florida plays the Citadel. The Gators have a massive talent advantage compared with the Bulldogs. As a result, what is the only way they can lose? You guessed it: by blowing it. They can really only lose if they go out and throw lots of interceptions, gamble on defense and give up unnecessary big plays, or just stink it up.

A fan or some uninitiated coach might see this as a lack of effort, but another view might be that Florida used an unnecessarily risky gameplan that cost them a victory. And since we know that they would win almost every time, what did they gain by being more aggressive? Even if they gained in expected points, this is something like the difference between a forty-point and sixty-point victory, which ought to be irrelevant.

So Gladwell accurately identifies the fact that Davids should use underdog strategies -- and thus avoid playing the favorite's game as so many do -- he fails to perceive that the corollary is also true: Goliaths shouldn't necessarily use David strategies, either.

Application to football

Basketball aficionados are all over Gladwell, trying to poke holes in his understanding of the press or basketball or whatever. With Gladwell, that's kind of beside the point. The basic premise is true: underdogs win when they make the game theirs, not the favorite's.

The question then is how to determine what are good underdog strategies. Year2 at TeamSpeedKills concludes:

"The challenges they both [full-court press and Malzahn's offense] present opponents are all the more challenging for their uniqueness."

He should have stopped there, because that's also where Gladwell's argument ends. It's solely about being different.

I disagree. I think being different is merely a dominant strategy: all else being equal, it is better for Goliaths and Davids alike to be be different. Year2 and Gladwell are correct that there are some dominant strategies that Goliaths merely overlook (and I think Gladwell may have assumed incorrectly that pressing the entire game was one of them rather than what it is, a good but high variance strategy).

Jerry of Joe Cribbs Car Wash tries to draw a direct parallel between the press Gladwell discusses and Gus Malzahn's up-tempo no-huddle offense. First, I'm not convinced that going no-huddle is a dominant strategy, better for all teams. A team definitely gains the advantage of endurance, and there is a psychological advantage and all that, but, overall it seems fairly value neutral: it's just the repetition of the same trials over and over again.

Except that it isn't, but in the exact opposite way you'd think. Going extreme hurry-up to get as many plays as possible -- other than endurance, I suppose -- is a Goliath strategy: it decreases variance by increasing the number of trials. The chance of getting only heads and no tails in five coin flips is much higher than it is in a hundred -- i.e. the impact of the law of large numbers or regression to the mean. If Oklahoma has significantly more talent, better schemes, and everything else than the underdog, then the more plays it run the more likely it is to exhibit its raw dominance over the underdog; the underdog is less likely to "steal" a few good plays and get the heck out of dodge. The principle is the same as the difference between an underdog winning a game in a single-elimination tournament and trying to win a seven-game series: the seven-game series is far less likely to produce upsets.

So mere up-tempo, no-huddle is not an underdog strategy (and may in fact be a better strategy for Goliaths).

But what strategies would be good underdog, high-variance strategies? Here are some possibilities.

  • Passing. It's very clear that passing is a higher-variance (and higher reward) strategy than running. The nature of passing can vary (if you only throw bubble screens that does not entirely count) but passing repeatedly is an underdog strategy. Now, good passing teams can reduce risk, throw safer passes, and the like. All good. And there is an open question with what mix of passes: Deep ones? Short ones? What blend is correct? That can be sorted out later. The bottom line though is that passing is a high variance strategy that can give an underdog a better chance of winning -- and a better chance of messing up and getting creamed.

  • Reducing the length of the game and the total number of plays. As explained above, the higher variance and thus David-favoring strategy is to reduce the number of "trials" -- i.e. plays. This is where a passing strategy and a strategy that involves "shortening the game and keeping it close" might run counter to each other. Incomplete passes typically stop the clock (I can't keep the college clock rules in my brain anymore), as do plays where the ballcarrier goes out of bounds, which is more common on passes (same with the clock rules). If an underdog were to get an early lead, they obviously would love it if the game effectively ended right there. Yes, there is much to say about the problems inherent in not playing to lose and all that, but those are means questions, not ends. And all can agree that an underdog would love to get an early lead in a game against a favorite and have the clock run out as fast as possible.

  • High variance defense. This is a difficult question. On the one hand, the defense could go for a blitzing, press type defense that might grab turnovers and get opportune stops, on the theory that you only need a few of these to get an underdog advantage. On the other hand, to an underdog each touchdown given up could be backbreaking, and in any event shortening the game by forcing the offense to march the ball up the field methodically, using up the clock, might be better. Yes people like to talk about "if we have the ball, they can't score" but that mistakes time of possession with possessions. If the underdog can force the favorite to use up a lot of clock and, at minimum, not score a touchdown, and then the underdog can somehow pull of a touchdown itself, then huge advantage to the underdog. On the other hand, pressing defenses that give up big plays periodically might play right into the Goliath's hands because it can score without taking much time off the clock. There is more to this but that is enough for some preliminary thoughts. Likely some mixed strategy is best.

  • Other high variance strategies. Although much of the focus is on offensive and defensive strategies, the best bet for the David strategies is likely in the realm of truly high-variance strategies like trick plays or onside kicks. Onside kicking is particularly promising, because it is something an underdog can get better at, would be unique, and can be disguised. There's at least a chance -- unless data proves that it remains a fool's strategy, like throwing lots of hail marys (high risk but not beneficial) -- that a high percentage of routine onside kicking can give underdogs a real chance. Because when it works, it both gives the offense decent field position and steals a possession. When it doesn't, that's bad, but hey, we're talking underdog strategies.
So those are some options. Interestingly, it could be argued that on offense, the best strategy might be something like the flexbone or another triple-option offense like Paul Johnson uses: it has big play potential (and thus can be a substitute for passing), yet carries the benefit of keeping the clock going, which works against pass-first underdogs.

In any event, it's an interesting discussion, and an eternal one: how do underdogs beat the big guys? How do the big guys keep from getting beat? Gladwell of course can't resist bringing up that greatest of underdog stories, the American Revolution, where a definite David strategy birthed a nation. And now we're the hegemony, the Goliath. I don't necessarily think any of this is relevant to our country's place in the world, but there's a reason why it all fascinates us so.


Anonymous said...

The piece on Davids and Goliaths make perfect sense, but what about the players that are between the two? What about the average teams that aren't great and aren't terrible? Do they adapt their strategy to the team they are playing - use high-risk strategies against good teams and low-risk strategies against bad teams? It seems like this is more difficult than adapting one strategy for all games.

Gladwell did a big piece on ESPN yesterday with Bill Simmons that sheds light on a lot of stuff, including the NYT article. Definitely worth looking at if you're interested in this kind of stuff.

The Mathlete said...

What's interesting about football is that the run/pass element is really contradictory in which side it supports. Running has less variance and therefore favors Goliath but also typically reduces the overall quantity of possessions in a game which favors the Davids. Passing is the opposite, increasing possessions but increases variance.

I guess the way to go is a fast tempo running game for Goliaths and slow tempo passing game for the Davids.

brad said...

One thing not on your list was going for it on fourth down.

As you know some research indicates that it is a good strategy in its own right and also increases the variance.

Two teams come to mind that have sucessfully used underdog stragies in my mind: Wake Forest and Navy/GT with Paul Johnson.

Both used lots of faking/misdirection on offense and threw play action passes.

On defense Wake mainly played zone and looked for interceptions/fumbles but blitzed ocasionallys.

To me the formula is.

On offense

Use a high variance running game
Be unique
Take your time
When you pass, pass deep off of play action.
Play try to get a big high risk play once a series.

On defense

I general try to slow them down and take a long time. Don't give up the big play.

Make them play error proof football the longer the drive the more likely they will stop themselves with penalties or turnovers.

Try to strip the ball and play zone to get interceptions.

Like passing on offense blitz once or twice a series and make it count. Send enough guys to do the job. Blitz primarily on first down when they have just gotten the ball and other times when teams don't expect blitz.

Anonymous said...

@ thehurt: I think that's an excellent and very underrated point. Most teams aren't USC or Florida and most teams aren't Vandy or Duke. Even the Citadel normally plays teams like themselves (as opposed to FBS juggernauts). I would think it would be very difficult to run a fast, no-huddle, 100 snap goal offense one week and then try to slow it down to 60 snaps the next.

As a general comment, I think people are overrating the extra snaps a no-huddle offense gives to its opponent. It's not like you're going to be able to huddle your way to a 30 snap game. I think on the outside edge, you'll give the opposing team 15 more snaps a game. Is giving a "better" opponent those extra snaps worth more than being able to run a type of offensive tempo that gives even good defenses fits? I just don't think so.

Brian Burke said...

Chris-Someone gave me an advance copy of that article a couple weeks ago, and it made me think of your post on high-variance right away.

I agree that the bball guys are largely missing the point of the Gladwell piece. It's not really about the full-court press, but about breaking the paradigm that gives Goliath his advantage. For example, David fought without armor and without a sword--a completely insane idea at the time. He used a stand-off weapon (a sling) instead.

I think Gladwell's main point was how it's outsiders who are the ones who come up with revolutionary ideas. They aren't constrained by conventional thinking. Bill James is a perfect example.

I'm working on a post that will pick up where you left off with your 'kurtosis' illustration. In your example you have the graph skewed favorably for the underdog who is using the high-variance strategy. But even when the high-variance strategy reduces the mean result, it still helps the underdog.

Unknown said...


Good to have you back blogging regularly again.

One interesting complication to Goliath's single game strategy maybe the effect of the old-BCS margin of victory component. Goliath's best strategy for a single game maybe to go for low variance, but for an entire season it maybe best to go for high variance against very weak teams. If you gave a BCS contender 5 non-conference throw away games to run up the score on, but combined with a 5% chance they may lose one of those games - they may very well be best guided to go for the high variance strategy.

Now, the BCS has been moving away from margin of victory for a while, but that may have some unintended impacts on the appeal of college football to TV audiences.



Chris said...


Excellent, I'm looking forward to your piece then. And I completely agree that high-variance strategies favor (at least heavy) underdogs, even if their absolute expected value/scoring/etc decreases -- i.e. that variance is good in its own right in terms of increasing the chance of winning. I know that argument has come up in the context of the recent financial crisis and investment manager/CEO compensation, where with option/call type compensation schemes they got heavily windfall compensated if things went well, and if not then it was status quo. Interesting in any event.

brad: I did leave out fourth downs, mostly because as you indicate that's a huge topic, and might very well be a dominant strategy, or at least underutilized, strategy in its own right. Writing this did highlight for me something I hadn't really considered: that some "underdog" strategies are the discovery of a new, "dominant" strategy, i.e. spreading the football and using the QB as a runner gives offenses an inherent arithmetic advantage (or at least helps negates one of the defense's advantages). On the other hand, others seem to work for awhile but fail when they get ported over to Goliaths, because in reality they are only high variance strategies. Rightly or wrongly, this was an implicit criticism of the run & shoot. It'd be interesting if the answer was not that the 'shoot had a flaw, but also that big teams were right to be scared off of it, since it was maybe too high-risk high-reward in terms of sight-adjusts, etc.

Anyway, you're right on the fourth downs, and there's much that has been written about it (Brian himself has done some good work) and more to be said.

Finally, thehurt: I agree that it's easy to discuss re: Goliaths and Davids, but harder with mid-level teams. What should Purdue University do, who plays three or four out of conference cupcakes but then must play Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State against whom they are the David? Even if the answer is to just switch based on the opponent, that ignores the reality of trying to get your football team ready and better as the season goes on.

The NFL provides another counterpoint, since the shades of favorites or underdogs rarely goes beyond about a touchdown. One reason I enjoy this topic is because college presents unique challenges, but we're all still working on what the optimal strategy is for equally matched opponents. That quest goes back at least as far as Bill Walsh, who is the first I ever saw who explicitly framed it in those terms. (As he said, big time colleges can, for about 9 or 10 games of the year at least, run whatever they want because of talent. Not so in the NFL. Yet the NFL has so much homogeny with schemes -- though also fewer teams.)

Anyway, lots of fascinating questions.

Jon said...

Dean Oliver talked about some of these issues in Basketball On Paper. Another way for David to slay Goliath is to get Goliath to employ risky strategies. For instance, you could get a favorite's defense to blitz more than normal. Not sure how you'd do that, but I wanted to throw out an example.

Jon said...

I also made a mental connection while reading that article. "The press is about legs." Isn't part of Mike Leach's success a product of his conditioning program?

Jon said...


Great blog, wouldn't the optimal strategy be a fluid one where you adjust your strategy according to what has happened. For example you are a huge underdog, but you force a couple turnovers and are up 10 at the half using a high variance strategy, you wouldn't want to keep using the H-V strategy in the 2nd half you'd use a low variance strategy which even if that means the most likely outcome is you being outscored by 7 in the 2nd half, is ok b/c you are up by 10.

Reminds me of the strategy used by the Steelers in their last year w/ Cowher and most Parcells coached teams. Play a normal game and then if you get the lead, take the air out of the football to prevent any huge variance swings.

Year2 said...

I wasn't really trying to address the idea of variance and its implications in strategy in my piece, I was mainly just trying to parse the argument Gladwell was making, which appeared to simply be, "be different." In part two of his exchange with Simmons, Gladwell goes over the issue again and doesn't mention variance at all. His concern with the running a full court press with a frontrunner has nothing to do with high variance and everything to do with getting coddled stars to commit to running it. He seems to believe that NBA teams not running the press has everything to do with high salaries and a reluctance to change, because in context of discussing the former he says, "Still, is there any other industry in the world (well, outside of Detroit) so terrified of innovation?"

That said, I think you're right on the high variance issue. I think the illustrations with the bell curves is very apropos (and doesn't get used enough when talking about the differences in teams and strategies, I think).

I would argue that high variance defense is not good for an underdog because defense is like shorting a stock: constrained potential gain with unlimited potential loss. With the rather random occurrence of turnovers excluded, the gain a defense gets is more or less capped at about a loss of ten yards (anything significantly more is probably the result of a busted play or wild shotgun snap), but the only limit of the defense's loss is the back of the endzone. There are definite implications in field position and down/distance scenarios, and what constitutes success changes situationally, but I would say that being more conservative on defense is probably better.

There's probably a ton more factors to go over in figuring out how underdogs win. For instance, I found in a study of SEC games since 2002 that upsets (defined as a loss by a team with two or more wins on the season than its opponent) were almost 50% more likely to occur in games starting before 3:00 local time than those starting at 6:00 or after, and are more than twice as likely in those early games than in mid-afternoon games. In addition, only about 59% of upsets were actually decided by a score or less.

That last fact, if it bears out over a larger sample size, would indicate to me that reducing the number of plays in the game and hoping to steal it at the end is technically a better strategy than coming out with guns blazing, but not by that much. On some level, upsets (and especially the biggest ones) rely on the Goliath screwing something up. Otherwise, can you really call it an upset?

Dr Obvious said...

Good article, it illuminates a truth I discovered playing a board game called Ra. It's a bidding game where everyone knows each others points at all times. When I'm winning, I play safe. When I'm losing, I try to 'shoot the moon'.

What's also interesting is that apparently many political bodies understand this, and always have. Many times, the people with military power get to set the rules of war. Pre-colonial royalty demanded full, complicated uniforms on soldiers, and only they could afford that in addition to silly things like guns. We currently outlaw and demonize political assassinations, which are a great strategy for small, cash strapped organization and nearly useless one for a large country fighting counter-insurgency.

Irregular militia using tactics learned from hunting and soft target bombing (the suicide aspect is inconsequential) are actually 2 pretty good David strategies that counter these Goliath imposed 'rules'.

John said...

This is fascinating. It makes explicit something that I think a lot of people implicitly recognize--that it's really hard to win playing "Goliath" straight up. Of particular interest, it would seem that recognizing this insight and systematically implementing it would actually decrease the effectiveness of "David" strategies both in particular (as goliaths focus on particular david strategies) and generally (as they are more aware of the particular dangers of any high-variance, non-goliath strategy). As the WSJ said, "For true Davids, the full-court press might help, particularly if it's not always expected so opposing Goliaths can't know whether to prepare for it." Interestingly, then, the more these sorts of "David" strategies are adopted, the less effective they may be as Goliaths expect them and work to counteract them. But this might have an interesting side-effect: preparing for such david strategies would take time away from preparing traditional goliath strategies, perhaps lowering the team's value on that dimension. Thus, a team might avoid upsets more but also do worse against other traditional powers (thus reducing the goliath's team variance). Thus, for example, it may have hurt Notre Dame to play Navy's option because, even though Navy itself wasn't a threat all those years because ND practiced defending the option, preparing for that David strategy and neutralizing it took time away from core Goliath strategies that were important in Goliath-to-Goliath games. I wonder what the equilibrium point is? Additionally, this would seem to put a premium on goliath strategies that dictate the game, and thus are more resistant to david strategies. Of course, then you have the issue of which strategy wins in dictating the game, since most david strategies have to (?) dictate the game in order to force goliath to play on their terms.

I also wonder about the efficacy of offensive versus defensive David strategies, and perhaps the differential rate of, for lack of a better term, "arbitrage" on both sides of the ball. For example, the press is a defensive strategy, and it strikes me that the most similar concept to the basketball press is a very aggressive, blitzing defense--both seek to dictate the terms of the opposing teams' offense, thereby stopping their offense and potentially generating easy points. (This would also suggest that a high-variance defensive strategy might be generally better since it prevents scoring and gives you easy points; the problem with high-variance offensive strategies is that even if you score a lot of points, Goliath is likely able to score a lot of points too (assuming you're equally awful on both sides of the ball. Perhaps the Ravens should adopt more high-variance offensive strategies!).) But we already see a lot of teams with aggressive, blitzing defenses, although this may reflect both its flexibility as a "David" strategy and as a "Goliath" strategy too (this sort of flexibility, if it really exists, is particularly interesting for teams like Purdue that find themselves Goliaths in some games and Davids in others). An example of the david side of aggressive defense is Jon Tenuta's Georgia Tech defenses--a bunch of small, barely recruited no names running a very aggressive defense very well and disrupting the other team. So this insight might do more to describe some of what we see than to offer a prescription for things to do (at least in a general sense; it may, of course, provide guidance for individual teams). So perhaps even if the gains are greater with a defensive david strategy, those gains have already largely been achieved, at least systemically. So perhaps even if offensive high-variance strategies might offer less overall value for a david, there's more room to innovate there (which is ultimately a key to david strategies, it would seem), particularly since there's an inherent advantage in dictating the nature of gameplay, which would also seem to be a key to david strategies. thus we could understand dual threat quarterbacks as a key david strategy, and one that is often employed by davids.

Another thing i wonder about is how important psychology is in david strategies--it's clearly a factor in the press and in an aggressive defense. you touch on this issue with the "back-breaking" stuff. Again, that may help suggest why some david strategies, like the press and aggressive defense, are more widely adopted (or even dual threat quarterbacks--there's nothing more annoying than on third and long, some jack@$$ qb rushes for 30 yards on a broken play). Long pass plays are tough, but may actually be easier to mentally recover from--or at least, less disorienting--than stuff like the press or blitzing, which throws a team more systematically out of rhythm. And relatedly, perhaps the david/goliath nature of strategies is balanced out by other factors--for example, perhaps an aggressive, blitzing defense is more high-variance, but it creates the sort of mindset, etc, that elevates individuals' play, such that even though the strategy itself is higher-variance than a more reactive defense, that disadvantage (for a goliath) may be outweighed by a benefit in the play of particular players. Or even without this sort of feedback effect, the particular skillsets of different individuals may dramatically effect the implementation of particular strategies.

Anonymous said...

For starters, Gladwell's wrong about the press in basketball. The press favors teams with depth and athletes. This is probably why Gladwell cites a 12 year old girls' basketball team and loaded Pitino teams (as much as he hates on a very talented Providence squad) rather than your average run-n-gun college basketball team (Radford, anyone?). Contrast with the slew of slow-tempo college basketball teams that have been much more successful than their talent would indicate, like Chaney's Temple teams or Bennett's UWGB, Wisconsin and WSU teams, etc.

I bring that up on a football site because it makes me wonder if a slow tempo is always the underdog's friend. As Chris pointed out with respect to offensive strategy, the more possessions, the more chances for a talent disadvantage to be exposed. It's easy to think of game tempo as originating on the offensive side of the ball. After all, you control the clock when you're on offense. But, at least in basketball, the slow-tempo coaches will tell you that tempo is dictated by defense. Obviously the two are interrelated -- if you run a secondary break offense in basketball, you're bound to give up some points in transition; if you run Leach's Air Raid, you're bound to gas your defense after a few 3-and-outs that eat up 2 minutes of real time. But maybe the key takeaway in the underdog best practices analysis is that a team at a drastic talent disadvantage, on average, is not going to get more than a handful of offensive plays per drive regardless of the offensive system, such that the bulk of snaps will be Goliath's and the only way to control tempo is to force Goliath's offense to play a particular way.

The challenge, of course, is that if you are at a severe talent disadvantage, you "force" an offense to play a particular way by giving something up and making it obvious. So perhaps the strategy is to run a soft zone: encourage Goliath to run and throw short (high percentage) passes. Defend the side line, and let Goliath slowly walk up the field. When the end zone gets sufficiently close to the line of scrimmage that your safeties are both in the zone and in the play, then we find out if the D will keep David in the game. And hopefully Goliath screws up along the way.

If you accept that your offense will, on average, not be productive, then taking risks on special teams seems like a strong play if you can put yourself in position to still force Goliath to drive a significant distance (on average, all you lose is a short possession and Goliath still has to cover the field and burn the clock).

For similar reasons, the go-on-fourth down strategy seems misplaced in this context (though, generally, as pointed out by others, it may be the right baseline strategy) -- forcing Goliath into long field position is the name of the game.

Interestingly, while I do not think you can train an offense to play a slow (or fast) tempo one week and then play a fast (or slow) tempo the next, I do not believe the same is true of defense, at least not to the same extent. Most defenses have and extensively rely on any number of packages or schemes, frequently utilizing different personnel at key positions (unlike on offense, where, with rare exception, you wouldn't change your QB or any OL). That should lend well to playing a slow-down game one week and a "normal" tempo (whatever that may be) the next.

Anonymous said...

The author is basically saying that the underdogs (Davids) should use a contrarian approach to their Goliath opponents. If you are questionable, do something differnt than everyone else you play and get good at it so they have to spend the time to figure you out and not the otherway around. That is why I like running the option, esepcially the spread triple option (aka flexbone).

Campbell said...


First of all, thank you for all your work, it really is a pleasure to read and is now my default homepage.

One point to back up something you wrote:
"The chance of getting only heads and no tails in five coin flips is much higher than it is in a hundred -- i.e. the impact of the law of large numbers or regression to the mean. If Oklahoma has significantly more talent, better schemes, and everything else than the underdog, then the more plays it run the more likely it is to exhibit its raw dominance over the underdog; the underdog is less likely to "steal" a few good plays and get the heck out of dodge."

2007 Fiesta Bowl. Boise State does not win just because it lays out trick plays more often than the norm. It combined that (somewhat) extreme variance with a power running game that allowed it to keep the ball away from Oklahoma, thus reducing their play count and reducing the imbalance between the two opponents.
This was illustrated even further when Coach Petersen acknowledged that it was becoming less and less likely as overtime proceeded that his team would stop the superior Sooners and score themselves on a subsequent drive. Realising that the longer the game lasted, the more likely it was that the true higher-talented squad would win, he went for the win with the 2pt attempt.

To then call the play they did, well I'm not sure if it keeps with the underdog variance theme. I think it's just an excellent exploitation of the opponent's superiority and quality - he knew their coaches would leave no stone unturned in scouting and be aware of their propensity to throw screens, and knows that the Oklahoma defenders will react quickly to any initial throwing motion.

Anonymous said...

Chris' argument is something I'm thinking a little contrary to. I totally understand his point and it is a good one if a "unusual" strategy is really a high risk strategy. I think that the veer is a strategy that does some of the things he talks about (extending the game etc) but I wouldn't define it as high risk. I'm with Malcolm Gladwell here, if goliath adopts a david strategy I feel it will be highly successful in some instances. If you can convince a highly talented group to buy into the option, or the full court press it will be highly successful I think. He uses the war analogy with David Goliath conflicts the last 200 years, and as a history buff I would cite the vietnam war. The most successful units in the vietnam war were units that fought the war like the viet cong and NVA did, small units, deep in enemy territory fighting a guerilla war, but they had the backing of massive US firepower so when they did find the enemy they had the ability to annihilate them not just bloody them like they did to our units. We adopted the strategy piecemeal and it takes a lot of training which is true of most "david strategies". I agree with Gladwell that only if it is a high risk strategy would it not work for goliath. I dont think that the option is "high risk" some people do because of the pitch and mesh etc but it is no more risky than most offenses when you train your people to run it. I think the idea here is things become high risk when you try to piecemeal adopt a david strategy: like the team that dabbles in option, but is really an I team. It is high risk for them because of practice time. If I got in a stock car and went racing I would be in serious wreck, because I don't have the time, the "reps" so to speak. This is something Gladwell talks about in his book "Outliers" fascinating stuff but talks about how success only comes after 10,000 hours is the number he uses, but point being you can't dabble or half step. Gotta go all in and then the DAVID strategy will work for goliath.

Jonathan said...

Anonymous - the full-court press is not a "David" strategy. Gladwell betrays his misunderstanding of basketball when he claims that it is. The full-court press is something you employ when you have more depth and athleticism than your opponent - in other words, it's a Goliath strategy. If you have inferior depth and/or athleticism, you'd be insane to run it; your players would be gassed and give up lots of easy scores.

The real David strategy in basketball (as in football, I think), is to shorten the game by eating up clock. Witness all those Ivy League teams winning tourney games by scores of like 45-43. A full-court press increases the tempo, thus playing into the hands of the favorite.

Liebs said...

Very interesting article, especially as someone who has recently tried to become as knowledgeable on Paul Johnson's offense as possible after watching it in person. I'd say the main factor that decides whether your playing underdog or playing conservative in that offense is what the offensive line does (and of course how much the opposing defense cares, near the end against Miami we couldn't of run the clock out with our starters because their defense wasn't really caring anymore).

Also, if you ever do another article on Paul Johnson and his option schemes can you include your opinion on this debate of whether defensive coordinators will "figure out" the triple option?

Mr.Murder said...

"Running has less variance and therefore favors Goliath but also typically reduces the overall quantity of possessions in a game which favors the Davids. Passing is the opposite, increasing possessions but increases variance." -The Mathlete

Bill Walsh combined the two. aking short passes into a variance of the handoff. David scheme, Goliath execution.