Thoughts About Drafting Quarterbacks

So let’s say you’re [Chicago general manager] Pace, and you’ve determined that you really want Trubisky. You call the 49ers and trying to work out fair compensation if the Browns do not pick him at one. You think Trubisky’s going to be the long-term Bears quarterback, starting in 2018 or later…. The market for quarterbacks is always weird…. For quarterbacks, NFL history says you pay Four Seasons prices. That’s why I can’t fault Pace for what he did. He wasn’t willing to risk losing the guy he loved.” — Peter King, The MMQB

I like my odds

The biggest story from the 2017 NFL draft was the surprise move by the Chicago Bears to pay a hefty price to the San Francisco 49ers — the 3rd overall pick plus the 67th and 111th picks, plus a 2018 3rd round pick — in order to move up a single spot in the draft, where they selected North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. It was a stunning trade, in no small part because Chicago, having just spent significant money to acquire free agent QB Mike Glennon, was not an obvious candidate to draft a quarterback let alone pay a steep price to do so. But the Trubisky trade wasn’t the only trade involving a first round QB, as both the Chiefs and Texans also paid premiums to get their (hopeful) quarterbacks of the future, namely Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, respectively. Per both the traditional Jimmy Johnson trade chart as well as Chase Stuart’s updated version, both trades were expensive for the teams trading up: the Chiefs paid 120 cents on the dollar under the Jimmy Johnson chart and 170 cents on the dollar under Chase’s version, while the Texans paid approximately 125 cents on the dollar under the Jimmy Johnson chart and 154 cents on the dollar under Chase’s chart.

Was this rational? Well, a common response — and it’s the response baked into Peter King’s excellent MMQB piece from today — is that if the QB is a success and becomes a star and leads the team to Super Bowls, then the price tags for these teams will be cheap. The counter is essentially an extrapolation from the trade value charts: while that may be true ex post, on an ex ante basis the price tags are hefty — and later success won’t change that — particularly given that we all know many highly drafted QBs nonetheless fail.

I am not particularly interested in proving one perspective right or wrong (and I have not watched enough of Trubisky to really evaluate him), but I am quite interested in how to think about this question, as it’s one of the most vexing questions in all of sports and it’s a discussion that seems to frequently get off track. Further, it’s clear NFL teams approach QB draft picks entirely different than they do every other person; as Bill Barnwell wrote about and then separately said to me, “Teams are working with entirely different trade parameters for QBs than they are for players at most other positions.” To begin the process of answering the question, I wanted to lay out a handful of statements that I think (believe?) to each be true, although some point in different directions.

  • The most important thing is to understand the concept of “base rates,” or Bayesian probability. The basic idea — which can quickly get complicated — is that if you think there is a 95% chance of something happening (say, of Mitch Trubisky being the next Peyton Manning), the probability of that is not 95%, it is instead a blended probability that includes your estimated probability and the base rate, or historical success rate, for similar selections. Around 50% of 1st round QBs fail, and that number goes up for every round. (UDFAs actually produce more starters than 6th and 7th rounders, but that’s in part because there are so many more QBs that enter the league as UDFA than late rounders) As Dan Kahneman explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow (which every draftnik should read):

    [Bayesian reasoning] is named after an English minister of the eighteenth century, the Reverand Thomas Bayes, who is credited with the firsy major contribution to a large problem: the logic of how people should change their mind in light of evidence…. There are two ideas to keep in mind about Bayesian reasoning and how we tend to mess it up. The first is that base rates matter, even in the presence of evidence about the case at hand. This is often not intuitively obvious. The second is that intuitive impressions of the diagnosticity of evidence [i.e., the accuracy of your evaluation of how likely a QB prospect is to succeed] are often exaggerated…. The essential keys to disciplined Bayesian reasoning can be simply summarized:

    (1) Anchor your judgment of the probability of an outcome on a plausible base rate.

    (2) Question the diagnosticity of your evidence.

  • When I looked at the evidence most recently, the best data I could come up with was that QBs selected in the first round “succeeded” (fairly loosely defined; not limited to All-Pros and Super Bowl champs) around 50% of the time. The odds were slightly higher for top 10 picks and then slid down as the first round continued.
  • If you haven’t guessed, the failure to account for base rates is the flaw in King’s argument about Chicago (at least as presented; whether it was in fact a bad deal is something we’ll get to): Even if Pace is “sure” Trubisky was his guy, that doesn’t imply that no price is too steep as the base rates will anchor that probability down to something closer to 60-65%, even assuming a very high degree of confidence by the Bears. Ignoring base rates is one of the largest draft fallacies, and while it afflicts decisionmakers on both sides of the ledger it is most commonly an issue for those who are over optimistic about specific prospects. So trading up for a QB can be very risky.
  • However, having a good starting QB is extremely valuable. It is essentially impossible to win in the NFL with a bad QB. It is difficult, though not impossible, to win without a serviceable or replacement-level starter QB. It is much, much easier to win with a top tier QB. The position is essentially the most valuable one in all of sports.
  • Furthermore, a good QB on his rookie deal is maybe the most valuable asset in all of sports. Hitting on a rookie QB presents enormous organizational-level rewards: not only do you find your franchise savior, the CBA and rookie wage scale — plus the fifth year option for first rounders — results in massive savings for the franchise, money that can be spent on other assets. Barnwell: “No player in the NFL is creating more surplus value for his team than Dak Prescott, who appears to be an above-average quarterback in line to make less than $2 million combined over the next three years. Not far behind him is Carson Wentz, who should still be a massive bargain despite being guaranteed $21.8 million over the next three seasons (with a fifth-year option to come). When you consider that the free market guaranteed Brock Osweiler two years at an average of $14 million per year and Mike Glennon $18.5 million for one season, even the $7.3 million Wentz is going to earn is a relative pittance.”
  • Finding a serviceable QB is a real challenge, one exacerbated by the concept of a draft itself. When combined with a scarcity of good, starter-level QBs in the NFL more generally, the draft hands over to chance whether or not a team will ever hit on a rookie QB: A team needs a top pick in a year when there are such QBs available, and those sorts of QBs only come around every few years. In other years the team either must weigh drafting a QB too high or taking other needs (and teams drafting near the top typically have many). Skill and organizational stability also play roles, but there is a lot that simply comes down to chance — not to mention a negative cycle where downtrodden teams reach for first round QBs and thus propagate the cycle of failure->fire coaching staff/GM->new regime reaches to pick new “savior” QB of the future->failure->repeat, while a few teams go from one top-flight QB to the next, like the Packers from Favre to Rodgers or the Colts from Manning to Luck. Exacerbating this cycle is that elite QBs almost never come onto the free agent market.
  • Nonetheless, it is at least theoretically possible to compare the odds and cost of trading up and paying a premium for a first round QB — and thus taking a 50-70% chance on him becoming an effective starter — versus recreating that 50-70% probability by accumulating QBs in later rounds, i.e., the 2nd through 4th round. (Tom Brady aside, rounds 4-7 rarely produce quality NFL starters, and while there are a fair number of productive UDFAs, that is a much larger pool.) The analogy here is that most NFL draft picks are 2- or 3-star high school recruits, but that’s a quirk of the numbers because there are many more 2- and 3-star recruits by volume than there are 4- and 5-star recruits; a given 4- or 5-star recruit is significantly more likely to be drafted than a 3-star recruit.

Based on the above, below are some tentative conclusions:

  1. Good QBs, and rookie QBs in particular, are extremely valuable, and while the market price to acquire them is high it’s at least arguable that the potential payoffs justify even very steep price tags, even if the binary probability of success versus failure remains near 50% (or worse for later rounds). In other words, it still might be a coin flip whether Trubisky, Mahomes or Watson succeed, but if they do they would produce an incredible amount of surplus value to the entire organization in terms of on-field production as well as relative cost savings versus free agents and stability (i.e., job security).
  2. Nonetheless it is still possible to “overpay” (typically in terms of trade value) for rookie QBs, an issue that is most likely to arise if a team ignores the impact of base rates, i.e., the cost of a trade looks much more attractive if you think the likelihood of success of a potential QB is 85-95%, whereas even if that is your organization’s internal judgment — and I’d question you if it was — the true probability is somewhere closer to 60-70% given the impact of base rates. The same analysis applies in later rounds as well, applied to lower base rates of success (often dramatically lower), albeit compared to lower costs.
  3. It may be possible to more cost-effectively replicate the odds of hitting on a first rounder by taking multiple shots at QBs in the 2nd through 4th round range, until the organization hits on a QB. Seattle effectively used a version of this in hitting on Russell Wilson.
  4. Nonetheless, the most high percentage pool for identifying future star NFL QBs remains the first round, and that’s even after factoring in “first round” QBs who had no business being picked in the first round (EJ Manuel, Jake Locker, etc.).
  5. Finally, none of the above matters if your organization and coaching staff lacks the structure, knowledge and expertise to develop and coach a young quarterback. Without that you are doomed.

The Evolution of the Inverted Veer/Power Read … and of Alabama and Clemson’s newest wrinkle, the “Toss Read”

For the last five or six seasons, the so-called Inverted Veer (also known as the Power Read) has been one of the most effective plays in football, and it has been the weapon of choice for some of college football’s greatest talents, including Cam Newton and RG3 and now Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Jalen Hurts. Yet, as is always true in football, defensive coaches do not stand idly by as offenses innovate and have begun devising better and better ways to shut down the play.

But the cat and mouse continues, as while defenses have gotten better at defending the Inverted Veer offenses have, in turn, responded with new wrinkles, particularly this season and particularly from the two teams who will be playing in the National Championship Game, Alabama and Clemson. But to appreciate those wrinkles one must understand why the Inverted Veer was developed and why it works.

For most of its early history, the play most synonymous with the so-called “spread offense” — at least the version that featured multiple receivers and a dual-threat quarterback lined up in the shotgun — was the zone read play, in which the offensive line blocked an inside zone running play while the quarterback read or optioned an unblocked defender. An ingenious evolution (typically credited to current Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez when he was at tiny Glenville State), the zone read allowed teams to dress up their traditional zone blocking by leaving backside defensive end unblocked and thus either eliminating the threat that he tackles the runningback or making the defense pay if he crashes down.

But the zone read, while a great concept, is essentially just a hypercharged bootleg, and works best as a constraint to control the backside for an otherwise effective zone running game. But traditional option football, which the zone read in part derived from, almost always involves reading a frontside, not a backside, defender. And the reasons are simple: numbers and angles.

As the diagram above shows, a well designed and executed playside option play should give the offense a numerical advantage as well as great blocking angles; in short, the playside of the line can ignore one or two playside defenders who are being read (and thus should be made wrong by the QB’s reads) as they build a wall to seal off the backside.

Birth of the Inverted Veer/Power Read

By the mid-2000s, the shotgun spread-to-run and specifically the zone read had begun sweeping across college football, both as pioneers like Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer lit up scoreboards and moved up the coaching ranks and also as bluebloods like Texas used zone read tactics to unleash rare talents like Vince Young. But it wasn’t until the end of the decade that spread teams found a way to successfully meld these shotgun spread tactics with old-school, playside reads. And one of the original vehicles for this innovation was an unexpected one: then TCU quarterback Andy Dalton.

Specifically, TCU, under head coach Gary Patterson and then-offensive coordinator (and current Virginia Tech head coach) Justin Fuentes, unveiled a new read play en route to an upset victory over a Clemson team coached by a first year head coach by the name of Dabo Swinney.

“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. When one reporter asked [then Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin] Steele why the zone read was giving his defense so much trouble, Steele explained the difference between a true zone read and what Dalton was running on Saturday.

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Smart Notes – Clemson’s Offensive Playbook, Lamar Jackson’s Passing, Belichick, Match Quarters

Clemson’s offensive playbook. I’ve now had a few different sources send me Clemson’s offensive playbook from 2013 under then-offensive coordinator (and current SMU head coach) Chad Morris. From 2012 to 2013, the Tigers — led by quarterback Tajh Boyd and featuring weapons like DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Tajh Boyd and Martavis Bryant — averaged over 41 points per game while compiling a 23-4 record, which included bowl wins over LSU and Ohio State. More relevant to now, Clemson’s current co-offensive coordinators, Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, were both on Clemson’s staff going back to 2011 and they have largely kept the offense the same, with the primary wrinkles being additional window dressing as well as a few additional passing concepts to play to quarterback Deshaun Watson’s strengths. As a result, the offense found in the the 2013 playbook is essentially the same one Ohio State will see on New Year’s Eve as they face off in the College Football Playoff.

Let’s not get fancy

You can download the part one of the playbook here and part two here.

The first things that should jump out to you about this playbook are:

  1. All of the terminology is built around being run from the no-huddle, so playcalls are limited and primarily use word concepts for play names, as Clemson will often use related words such as NFL team names, cities and mascots to all refer to the same concept;
  2. If you are familiar with Gus Malzahn’s offense it’s exceptionally similar to what Gus Malzahn has run — and not just the play concepts, but in how the offense itself is constructed, called and designed, right down to referring to receivers as numbers (“2”, “5” and “9” being the names for receivers, rather than X, Y and Z) — which should be no surprise given the long history between Morris and Malzahn; and
  3. It’s extremely simple to the point where there’s really just not that much there, as the whole philosophy is to keep it simple so it can all be run extremely fast.

I will admit to my biases in that, while I am always a proponent of simplicity, the sophistication of the passing game in this playbook — or, frankly, from much of Clemson’s film — leaves me a bit cold. Now, as I mentioned, Clemson’s staff has done a nice job adding more to the passing game to better feature Deshaun Watson’s skills, and there’s no reason for Clemson to drop in 500 of Bill Walsh’s favorite pass plays into the middle of a very streamlined, tightly organized offense, but it’s clear that the goal of Clemson’s offense is to make you defend Clemson’s tempo, formations, runs, “shot play” play-action passes behind your secondary and individual one-on-one matchups in the passing game, and only then do you worry about specific pass game concepts.

That said, there is some cool stuff in there in terms of the running game itself as well as packaged plays/run-pass options, such as the below play which combines inside zone with a simplified form of the “Levels” pass play that Peyton Manning made famous:

But in terms of the passing game the most sophisticated things I notice — again, both from watching Clemson and from the playbook — involve staple concepts like Snag where the QB can either read the three playside receivers or make a pre-snap decision to work the backside receiver one-on-one, as shown in the below diagram from the playbook.

There are also a limited number of “coverage reads” in Clemson’s offense, such as the below which combines a slant/flat concept (good against single safety coverages like Cover 1 man and Cover 3 zone) and double slants (good against 2 deep coverages like Cover 2 and Cover 2 man).

If I sound overly critical I don’t mean to be; if anything it’s a testament to the job Dabo Swinney has done building a program over a playbook, and ultimately wins and losses being about players over plays. That said, when you play against the best teams, players and coaches you need to bring your best stuff — and have the right answers when your opponent brings theirs.

The Art of Smart Football and The Essential Smart Football for 99 cents. Amazon is currently running a Kindle special on my books, The Art of Smart Football and The Essential Smart Football; both are currently only 99 cents for Kindle.

Lamar Jackson’s passing. Louisville quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson is electric, tough, and just plain exciting, but no one is going to confuse him just yet for Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. But he’s also not Tim Tebow, as he has a tremendous amount of raw passing talent and fabulous arm strength (seriously, watch this throw), and he’s been growing and improving by leaps in bounds not only in his accuracy but also his footwork and reads. Jackson has at least one more year at Louisville to learn and develop in Bobby Petrino’s offense — as well as a matchup against LSU’s excellent defense to show his stuff — and I’m looking forward to seeing how another offseason and fall camp benefits him in terms of continuing to improve how he reads defenses, identifies blitzes and coverages and finds secondary and tertiary receivers. I put together a short clip on the Smart Football Instagram page earlier this season showing the early signs of his development; hopefully these trends continue.

The psychology of trick plays. Washington head coach Chris Petersen is — somewhat rightly, somewhat unfairly — branded as a “trick play coach,” largely because of his Boise State team’s amazing last second heroics against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The New York Times (with a slight assist from some blogger) delves into the psychology of trick plays, when to use them and how they really benefit a team. Also, Lindsay Schnell at SI did a great piece on the history of that Boise State/Oklahoma game, and it’s also never a bad time to revisit those three crazy plays that led to a Boise win.

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Best Books I Read in 2016: Air Raid, Homo Sapiens, Song of Ice and Fire, Dragons and Tacos

The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, by S.C. Gwynne. This is the most fun football book I’ve read in some time, which is a credit to Gwynne but also to his subject matter, namely Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and the motley bunch of players, coaches and a few administrators who supported or in some cases simply tolerated the birth of the Air Raid.

gwynneGwynne is an accomplished writer but not necessarily a football expert, but he nonetheless handles the technical aspects of the Air Raid with aplomb, which is in a sense not surprising given that one of the hallmarks of the Air Raid is its simplicity. But the heart of the book — and its true value — is Gwynne’s reconstruction of Mumme’s and later Leach’s journey as they designed and developed what eventually became the Air Raid offense the 1980s and early 1990s at places like Copperas Cove high school, Valdosta State and, most colorfully, Iowa Wesleyan.

As someone who has written extensively about Mumme, Leach and the Air Raid offense, I approached the book with trepidation — OK, fine, my usual policy on books like this is not to bother with reading them — but enough coaches told me I should read, and I’m glad I did. Gwynne’s book filled in for me the offense’s pre-Valdosta and pre-Kentucky history, but what I found most remarkable about the book was its chronicling of the fact that in the early 1980s Hal Mumme was a Division I offensive coordinator (UTEP from 1982 to 1985) who desperately wanted to run a pass-first offense but had no real idea how to do it and didn’t even know where to go to learn. He tried to watch San Francisco 49ers games and he eventually started trying to copy BYU’s schemes under LaVell Edwards, but these were poor emulations off of film without any of the related coaching points (indeed, some of Mumme’s earliest experiments involved Mumme trying to write down the plays he saw BYU QB Jim McMahon run while watching the Holiday Bowl on TV), and there were so few people to visit or spend time with that much of the early Air Raid was just trial and error. (Early in his tenure as head coach at Copperas Cove high school, Mumme tried running a version of the run and shoot but it largely died on arrival.)

Things took off when Mumme made more of a connection with the BYU staff and began meeting with Edwards and BYU assistants Norm Chow and Roger French, and then once Mumme teamed up with Leach at Iowa Wesleyan the two made a variety of pilgrimages to meet with pass-oriented coaches like then-Green Bay coach Lindy Infante and then-Miami coach Dennis Erickson. But again, consider how different this was than the situation in 2016: Nowadays one can watch unlimited NFL all-22 film (for a small fee) and can download countless playbooks and game films, there are coaching message boards and social media accounts dedicated to football and football strategy (plus, uh, some blogs and websites), one can easily buy or borrow a huge variety of books and DVDs, there’s Youtube videos of clinic talks and GIFs of basically every meaningful play, and communication among fans and coaches in general is much easier, and if all else fails there are coaching and consulting services you can pay for where they tell you how to install whatever offense or defense you want to run. But in 1989 the sole option was, more or less, get in the car and drive six hours to learn from someone who is doing what you would like to do, which is why it took Mumme roughly a decade of experimenting at high schools and small colleges to bring the Air Raid offense from conception to completion. On the other hand, however, those established coaches were willing to meet with off-the-radar guys like Leach and Mumme for hours and even days because the two of them had in fact gotten in the car and driven to their offices, rather than sending them some emails or just tweeting at them.

In any event, The Perfect Pass had a few minor flaws: it was probably a bit too charitable to Mumme regarding how his Kentucky tenure ended amid NCAA scandal, though that entire situation was a mess and I’m aware of no evidence that Mumme directly authorized the cash payments made by his staff, and the book’s arguments are weakest when trying to declare definitively that the game is only going in the direction of more and more passing (a weakness of hyperbole shared by the book’s title). But those are relatively minor quibbles, as this is one of the most fun football books I’ve read in years, and I’m glad the story of these guys and this offense finally got the definitive treatment they deserve. And, if nothing else, the following passage alone was worth the price of admission, as anyone who knows me (particularly my wife) simply nods when I show it to them:

[Mumme] spent much of his free time diagramming pass plays. He would often do this on scraps of paper or whatever he could find to write on, scrawling down ideas about how to freeze this or that defensive back, how to flood a zone defense, how to throw a curl/flat combination, how to protect against a blitz. He did this everywhere he went, day and night, so much so that he trailed these little artifacts of ambition and desire behind him at his home and office. They were tiny pieces of the master plan he didn’t have yet. June actually picked them up and put them in boxes. She soon discovered that he didn’t need to keep them. The writing itself was the mnemonic device.

sapiens

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. While The Perfect Pass was the best football book I read this year, Sapiens was far and away the best overall book I read. I looked it up after I heard Nobel laureate Dan Kahneman (another Smart Football favorite) mention it on a podcast, and I read a sample chapter with little expectation. But while I was immediately hooked, the book kept evolving as I read it, as what began with a fascinating recantation of the lives and activities of the earliest proto-humans — Neaderthals, homo erectus and early homo sapiens — soon turned to an examination of why it was that homo sapiens, after hundreds of thousands of years of surviving but pretty much existing in the middle of the food chain, suddenly rocketed to the top of it (and in the process driving many ancient beasts to extinction, like giant sloths and mammoths), conquered multiple climates, and eventually began domesticating the world around them, from farm animals and livestock to crops. And Harari includes a fascinating albeit depressing argument about the true nature of our relationship to our most necessary crop, wheat:

Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth. In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of miles without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 870,000 square miles of the globe’s surface, almost ten times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous? Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was attacked by rabbits and locust swarms, so the farmers built fences and stood guard over the fields. Wheat was thirsty, so humans dug irrigation canals or lugged heavy buckets from the well to water it. Sapiens even collected animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.

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New Ringer: Chip Kelly’s offense is broken. Really broken. How did that happen?

I will be writing for The Ringer this fall (which I’m quite excited about). My first piece is about how (and why) Chip Kelly’s offense is fundamentally broken:

And now Kelly — stripped of any oversight over personnel — is in charge of a 49ers offense that boasts arguably the worst skill-position talent in the NFL and will be led at quarterback by Blaine Gabbert, whose 71.9 career passer rating puts him behind such exalted figures as Geno Smith and Brandon Weeden. While Kelly’s Oregon and early Eagles offenses broke records by weaving together multiple formations, adaptable running schemes, and multifaceted read-options, all powered by an ingenious spread offense philosophy and a frenetic, up-tempo pace, in the last two years those elements have been undermined or simply fallen away, and Kelly’s offense has become, in Evan Mathis’s words, the most “never-evolving, vanilla offense” in the NFL. How did that happen?

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Read the whole thing.

Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys and Third Level RPO/Packaged Play Reads

Dallas Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott had about as good of a preseason debut as any rookie could ask for: Prescott finished the game 10 of 12 for 139 yards and two touchdowns, including a perfect strike to receiver Terrance Williams down the sideline. But as impressive as that throw was, Prescott’s most impressive trait was his calm and poise: In an opening weekend when higher profile rookie QBs like Jared Goff and Carson Wentz looked at times shaky and off-kilter, Prescott looked like a vet. So while there’s no need to get the hype train rolling too fast — it was one preseason game, and Prescott was facing almost entirely backups and guys who likely won’t make the roster — it was a great start.

But, even if Prescott plays great, all he can do is solidify his spot as the backup QB behind Tony Romo, which is why the most interesting play to me was one that told me something about what the Cowboys will do even when Prescott’s not in there. Specifically, on Prescott’s first touchdown pass, a ten-yarder to Dez Bryant, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called a “third level” packaged play, also known as a run-pass option or RPO. Third level packaged plays are the newest (although not that new) step in the evolution of shotgun spread “read” concepts: When the shotgun spread first became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the defining plays were the zone read and read-option plays, in which the QB read a “first level” defender, i.e., a defensive lineman. The big innovation by the end of the 2000s and early 2010s were, first, built in screens, and later the earliest packaged plays/RPOs in which receivers ran slants, hitches and sticks and the QB would read a “second level” defender (i.e., a linebacker or nickel defensive back playing like a linebacker) to determine whether to hand off or throw.

In recent years a few teams — most notably Baylor, although there are others — began using packaged plays where the quarterback read a safety to determine whether to hand off or throw. This had two primary effects: (1) it is an excellent response to Quarters coverage, in which the safeties read the offense to determine whether to play the pass or the run, often outnumbering offenses in the run game as they are so difficult to account for; and (2) it transforms a read concept that was originally designed to move the chains by having the QB either hand off or throw a screen into a handoff or a touchdown.

Corey Coleman

Which brings me back to Dak Prescott’s play against the Rams. There was nothing that sophisticated about the concept: The Cowboys called an inside zone run play, in which they blocked all of the Rams’ frontal defenders, including the backside defensive end (i.e., no read option element), and tasked Prescott with reading the safety to the side of the single receiver, who just happened to be Dez Bryant. Now, I’m not sure if Bryant was only allowed to run a fade or had some sort of choice in what route he’d run (either choosing on the fly or via a pre-snap signal between receiver and QB), but teams often adjust the route by the single receiver to find the way to best attack the safety.

In any case, given that it was Dez Bryant singled up, all Prescott really needed to confirm was that the safety wouldn’t be able to help, something he was able to do quite quickly and likely even pre-snap. (A savvier safety might have aligned inside and then hurried back outside; Prescott did stare down Bryant a bit.) And with an extra safety stepping up for the run and a freak of nature 1-on-1 near the goal line, Prescott’s choice was simple:

Prescott

So while Prescott’s performance should give Cowboys’ fans hope for what they might see in the future, this play should give them some insight into what they might see this season: A cutting edge concept that, in the end, reduces to a winning formula: Run the ball behind that great offensive line with extra numbers, or throw it to #88. That makes sense to me.

Smart Notes — Harbaugh’s Coaches Clinic, Mouse Davis R&S Tapes, Twitter, Toenail Fungus

Clinic season. Springtime is when coaches get together and — to some extent against their own interests (though not entirely) — share information on the ins and outs of their schemes, personnel strategies and general program management. Sometimes this involves one staff visiting another, but the backbone are the clinics, where (typically) college and sometimes NFL coaches give presentations to (typically) high school and small school coaches. There’s an entire ecosystem around these, both as informal job fairs and also as increasingly corporatized events, but they remain tremendously valuable sources of information (even though coaches are more guarded in the age of the internet than they used to be) and an area where the culture of football coaching culture remains unique.

Just three guys talkin' ball

Just three guys talkin’ ball

While most of the name clinics are sponsored by coaches organizations or big companies such as Nike, many individual schools hold annual clinics, largely as a recruiting tool for the local high school coaches. Of course, anytime there’s a recruiting angle involved, you know Jim Harbaugh is going to up the ante, and his Michigan coaches clinic assembled a great roster of speakers — his brother John Harbaugh, Art Briles, Mike Martz, Teryl Austin, Dean Pees, etc. I wasn’t able to attend this year but fortunately another tradition in the coaching community involves the sharing of clinic notes. And, first, James Light picked up some interesting tidbits throughout, beginning with the joint panel with Jim and John Harbaugh and their father, longtime coach Jack Harbaugh (mgoblog has a full transcript of the panel here):

Jim Harbaugh – Coach Harbaugh talked about the type of coaches they’re looking for. Experts in their field. High character people that represent Michigan. Great motivators. Positive energy. Coach Harbaugh also talked about how to spot coaches that they don’t want. He doesn’t want people on his staff that “Coach like Costanza.” He talked about a Seinfeld episode where George reasoned that if you act frustrated and angry, everyone will assume you’re working harder. Doesn’t want coaches who are standoffish. Most times those coaches pretend to know everything because they’re afraid of getting exposed. Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know, but let’s work together to figure it out.

John Harbaugh – John went through a few of the staples of his coaching philosophy

  • Build it the way you believe in. Not what you think someone else wants. They’ll run you out either way.
  • Don’t do the job to keep the job. Do what you believe is right.
  • Coaches compete everyday. With each other (game plan) and against each other (practice)
  • Never stop learning, you can always get better. He talked about how he picked up some power run game ideas from one of the high school speakers, Akron Hoban (OH) Head Coach Tim Tyrrell.
  • It’s not about what you can’t do. Find what you can do. There is opportunity in everything and everywhere. He mentioned a free agent that they lost recently. Rather than dwelling on the loss, Coach Harbaugh said “We’ve got a different path now. Different opportunity. Maybe we can add another pass rusher now, or rebuild the OL to run some different schemes. Find a way.”
  • Football provides an opportunity that no other sport can. Everyone can be a part of the team and contribute in some type of meaningful way, scout team etc. Roster isn’t limited like basketball or baseball.

James Light also has good stuff from Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin (Austin: “We encourage good body language. Bad body language… fosters resent and divineness.” Light: “[Austin] use[d] specific plays from film as examples of bad body language to convey the point…. Coach Austin pointed out the reaction of Louis Delmas after the touchdown. That was the type of body language that they won’t tolerate…. It creates dissension within the team and shows weakness to the opponent.”) and new Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown:

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Farewell to Peyton Manning: Quarterback, Gamesman

Peyton Manning announced that he has played his last down of football, and it’s a sad day for any football fan, particularly this one. It’s also simply difficult to fathom a football season that doesn’t include him: His NFL career spanned an incredible eighteen seasons, which, when combined with his four seasons as a starter at Tennessee, means he’s been the starting QB of a major college or NFL team for the last twenty two years; it’s been a very long time since we’ve had football without Peyton Manning’s exploits to marvel at. (And, albeit in the pre-internet/recruiting services age, Manning was as high profile of a recruit out of high school as they come; here’s a long-form Sports Illustrated piece on him from 1993.)

peyton-manning12I’ve written extensively about Peyton Manning in the past, and there is much, much more to say, but for now just a few notes. Peter King has a nice retrospective on Manning’s influence on the quarterback position, something that can’t be underrated given that he, along with Tom Brady, bridged the QB position from the prior generation of greats — Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway — to now, a period when the game itself, but particularly the passing game, changed dramatically.

Much of Peyton’s legacy centers, quite rightfully, around his mental mastery of the position, particularly his audibles and adjustments at the line of scrimmage: The enduring image of Peyton Manning is less about him standing tall in the pocket, arm extended, with a beautiful spiral extending from his fingerprints, than it is of a frenetic Manning gesticulating wildly as he directs teammates and identifies at opponents, while shouts of “Omaha” cascade in the background. But one underrated aspect of his stewardship at the line was his gamemanship: Many of his signals and calls at the line were ploys to trap opponents.

In that 2002 game, Ismail told Manning the Jacksonville corner, Jason Craft, knew that when Manning made a shoveling motion at the line or called the world “Crane,” Ismail would run a short dig route. Later in the game, Manning gave Ismail “Crane!”

“Easiest double move I ever ran in my life. Touchdown,” Ismail recalled.

King doesn’t include a diagram but I know exactly the play he and Ismail were referring to, known as “Dig Pump” in the old Peyton Manning/Tom Moore nomenclature. The diagram below is from Manning’s old Colts playbook:

DigPump

Peyton was notorious for tricks like this I vividly remember him kicking off his remarkable 55 touchdown 2013 season versus the Ravens with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Julius Thomas on a fake receiver screen-and-go, which Manning rather cheekily set up by making the same call right before this snap that he had used earlier in the game to set up a real wide receiver screen pass. Manning, a stickler for fundamental technique, of course sold the fake screen during the play, but the real sales job came from getting inside the defenders’ heads.

touchdown

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New Feature: Football Strategy’s Tech-Fueled Future

I wrote a feature for Wired on what football strategy will look like in 50 years:

Over the last few months I’ve asked a number of coaches at a variety of levels what they thought football strategy would be like in 50 years. Given that, as a profession, coaches tend to be focused on immediate goals—the next practice, the next game, the next play—the response I received from one small college head coach was typical: “First, hell, I can’t predict how strategy will change next year, let alone in 50 years. Second, it doesn’t matter, because in 50 years I will be dead.” And the coaches who did proffer predictions tended to give ones that might hold true in the next four or five years—like an increased use of power formations and power runs, in the alternative, even further moves by offenses towards the wide open spread attacks—but that would either be long in the past by the time we reached 50 years or that, with such a long time horizon, would be mere blips along the way.

Yet all agreed football strategy and tactics will change over the next fifty years, but the iterative give-and-take of offense versus defense means that predicting specific future strategies is almost impossible. Instead, the key is to look at what trends have and will continue to affect all technical trades, from medicine to engineering, as football coaching will continue to evolve in response to those same trends.

[…]

To date, so-called analytics or data based approaches—other than basic charting of tendencies—has had very little real world impact on strategy: coaches teach blocking, tackling and catching, draw up plays to beat coverages, and largely ignore external analyses. And, given that most of the strategic analytics currently produced is noise—a victim to garbage-in/garbage-out and naive models that don’t appreciate the game’s nuances—this is a rational response. But, over the next 50 years, tracking technology is likely to bridge this gap between coaches and data-crunchers which will lead to several innovations in how teams prepare their gameplans and even call plays.

Read the whole thing.

Alabama’s Lane Kiffin: Master Copycat

The hallmark of Joe Gibbs’s Washington teams of the 1980s and 1990s was the Counter Trey or Counter Gap play, which featured the backside guard and backside tackle (two members of the Hogs) pulling to lead the way for John Riggins and Washington’s other powerful backs. The play became synonymous with Gibbs and Washington, and many credit his success with it as the reason why it is so ubiquitous in football today.

Kiffin

You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song

But Gibbs didn’t think of the play on his own. “We stole it,” Gibbs told Sports Illustrated. “We saw some film on Nebraska, and Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative things with his line up front. We were watching it and thought, God, that’s good stuff. So we stole it.”

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this: You can’t patent a football play, and once it’s on film it’s there for the world to see — and for other coaches to copy. And arguably no coach over the last two seasons has been better at strategically “stealing” plays than Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Kiffin has a history of being flexible with offense, as while an assistant at Southern Cal under Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, Kiffin spent a lot of time at Tampa Bay’s facilities where his father was the defensive coordinator and Jon Gruden was the head coach, where he picked Gruden’s brain and studied hours of film on Gruden’s West Coast Offense. Many of those concepts eventually made their way into USC’s attack. And one of the reasons Nick Saban hired Kiffin was because he wanted someone who could bring a true pro-style approach to Alabama’s offense while also modernizing it, as Saban had seen first hand how quickly offensive football was changing. Kiffin has largely succeeded on both fronts.

But Alabama’s win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl was one of Kiffin’s best games, as he first loosened up Michigan State’s excellent defense with short passes, packaged plays and screens, before surgically dismantling it (while Alabama’s defense completely suffocated MSU’s offense). And several of the key plays for Alabama were ones Kiffin had borrowed from film study. From The Wall Street Journal:

[H]ere’s the most notable thing about those two Alabama plays: They weren’t actually Alabama’s.

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