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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LSU Hires Dave Aranda as Defensive Coordinator

Aranda is an excellent hire for Les Miles and LSU. From LSU’s release:

Aranda1

I’m here to stop you

“This is a great hire for us,” Miles said. “Dave has an outstanding track record of producing some of the best defenses in college football. We’ve seen him up close and understand how difficult it is to have success against him.

“He’s everything that we were looking for in a defensive coordinator. He’s youthful with tremendous enthusiasm; our players are going to love him. He brings great defensive knowledge to our staff both as a technician and as a strategist…. Dave will bring different packages and an attacking style to the field,” Miles said. “Watching his defense play, they are tough to move the ball on and they are sticky in every situation. His defenses do a great job of getting off the field.

Given that he’s an up and comer there’s not an enormous amount of information out there on Aranda, but what there is — and the tremendous defenses he’s coached at Utah State and Wisconsin — indicates that he’s very good teacher and coach. I quoted him (very) briefly in The Art of Smart Football, and the below clip gives a bit of insight into some of his philosophy on rushing the passer.

Also the coaches I’ve met with seem to universally praise him, citing both some of the techniques he uses (often lining up his defensive tackles a yard or more off the ball to help with slanting), and his candor in taking full responsibility for Wisconsin’s blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game last season. (Here is an old powerpoint from Aranda on pass rush when he was a GA at Texas Tech.)

Aranda is also at the forefront of defending both read-option plays and has developed some interesting answers for packaged plays/run pass options in recent years.

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My Favorite Books of 2015

This is a list, in no particular order, of the books I read in 2015 which I consider my favorites. This does not mean these books came out in 2015; it only means I read them this calendar year. For a list of recommended football books/resources, see here.

121

  • Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull. Half management how-to and half corporate history (with a healthy dose of Steve Jobs anecdotes), this remarkable little book about the origins and rise of Pixar films surprised me with not only how engaging the writing was but also how enjoyable it was to read. And the appendix on “Thoughts for managing a creative culture” is alone worth the purchase price. If you loathe anything that smells like a management book then I suppose you should avoid this one too, but I generally don’t like management books and this one is unlike any that I’ve previously read.
  • The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph J. Ellis. One of the surprisingly poorly understood facts about our national history is that while the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the United States Constitution did not come into force until 1789 (and was not ratified by all thirteen states until 1790), and prior to 1789 the United States operated under the Articles of Confederation, which merely established “a firm league” among the several states; the Articles were more like a treaty than a constitution. In the view of many — particularly John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington — the Articles created an unworkable and untenable framework for the young country, and the solution was one that consolidated federal power in the system we have now, featuring executive, legislative and judicial branches. Ellis’s book does an excellent job placing these historical figures and their debates in the context of the times, providing insights on the tactics and compromises that ultimately resulted in the Constitution we currently (subject to several amendments) have today.
  • Collected Essays, by James Baldwin. For myriad reasons Baldwin’s work is as relevant as ever, and this is an excellent introduction into his writing and a reminder of what a beautiful stylist Baldwin can be, as his prose often vibrates with life. But of course it’s also the substance; essays like “Faulkner and Desegregation” are just devastating.
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Smart Notes — Christian McCaffrey’s Halfback Option, Holgorsen’s Power Football, Belichick on Marv Levy, Emory & Henry Formation

McCaffrey’s Y-Stick, Halfback Option

Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey narrowly missed out on the Heisman trophy in one of the most competitive races in recent years, as McCaffrey, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Alabama’s Derrick Henry each had remarkable seasons, with Henry taking home the trophy. But McCaffrey might be the most intriguing one of the bunch as he has tremendous skills but I’m still wrapping my mind around how he projects to the NFL, as while he weighs only around 205 pounds (by contrast, Rams rookie Todd Gurley is 225 pounds), he has preternatural agility and quickness, yet has thrived in Stanford’s bruising, power based system while rushing for 1,847 yards. But what makes McCaffrey truly special to me are his special skills as a receiver.

christian

Of course, McCaffrey has the pedigree of an outstanding “space player“: McCaffrey’s father was Ed McCaffrey, a thirteen year NFL veteran wide receiver (who could really ball); his grandfather, Dave Sime, was “ranked one of the fastest humans of all time“, won an Olympic silver medal in the 100 meter dash and at one point held the world record in the 100 meter dash; and his mother, Lisa, was a soccer player at Stanford who once (jokingly?) told Sports Illustrated, “That’s why Ed and I got together — so we could breed fast white guys.”

But it’s not just that McCaffrey is great in the open field, a fact evidenced by his insane 3,469 all purpose yards, which broke the record set by none other than Barry Sanders. McCaffrey also has a tremendous feel for the passing game and for running routes, as evidenced by how often Stanford used him in their “HBO” or “half-back option” schemes.

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Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015

I’ve always been floored by the quality of the feedback and discussion from Smart Football readers, so it’s always fascinating to see which books are most popular among readers. The following is a breakdown of the books purchased over the last year by Smart Football readers. If you’d like to see a list of recommended coaching resources, see here.

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015

2015 Chart 1

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015 (excluding The Art of Smart Football and The Essential Smart Football)

2015 Chart 2

Below is a list of the books with links. Note that I simply included the top books and did not include a separate “other” category.

Smart Notes – Defending Packaged Plays, Baylor’s Lazy Offense, Buck Sweep, Murder

Defending Packaged Plays.

Packaged plays are among the most deadly tools in the modern offense’s arsenal. These plays, sometimes also referred to as run-pass options, combine different types of plays into one while giving the QB the option to choose; they are a type of read-option that don’t require the QB to run the ball at all. They started years ago with combining inside runs with a built-in bubble screen, but they have grown and expanded over recent years and now frequently feature running plays — complete with the offensive line blocking for the run — with downfield passing routes designed to be open if the defense plays the run, which in turn keeps them honest and thus opens up the run.

This is why just about every team in college football now uses these plays, with teams as diverse as Baylor and Alabama alike profiting from them, and in the NFL the Steelers, Patriots, Eagles, Packers and many others have been using packaged plays repeatedly. And when they work, they are awful pretty.

run slant

Yet, like anything else new, defenses are getting better at defending packaged plays. Their purpose is to isolate a defender who is responsible for both the run and the pass, such as a safety or a linebacker, to put him in conflict, and to make him wrong. But if the defense simplifies itself and defines who is doing what — in other words, playing man-to-man coverage in the secondary while committing everyone else to the run — then there is no conflict and hence no read, and the defense should have numbers to defend the run. This is a sound response, and the rise of packaged plays is one reason defenses are playing more and more man coverage.

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College Football Playoff: Should the Committee Pick the “Best” or the “Most Deserving” Teams?

While the College Football Playoff is an improvement over the old BCS system it, unsurprisingly, has not done away with controversy or debate regarding the identities of the top teams in the country. The College Football Playoff Selection Committee released their first ranking today, and the predictable result was a lot of back and forth on television and online regarding what the committee got right and what it got wrong. The problem is not the fact of the arguing — quite nakedly, engendering “debate” is the sole purpose of releasing ineffectual rankings rather than waiting to release the ones that matter — it’s that the arguments usually involve people talking past each other.

There’s nothing wrong with this opinion; indeed, it’s probably even in some circumstances correct: some people do think that a team being undefeated means it’s good enough to beat any team that isn’t. But that’s probably a minority view, and if someone is ranking the undefeated team over the one or two loss team it’s probably not because they necessarily think the undefeated team would beat the other team it’s that, being undefeated, they deserve being in the playoff more than a team with a loss.

Most people don’t always express their arguments in these terms — “best team” versus “most deserving” — but that’s essentially all it comes down to. This tension is why the playoff, despite being an improvement over the BCS, is not a panacea, either. I wrote about all of this for Grantland right after the end of the BCS era, and, two years into the College Footbal Playoff experiment, I continue to stand by every word:

The larger issue is figuring out how we should determine a sport’s “champion.” The wildly unpopular BCS was one method, while the new College Football Playoff will be another, but I’m referring to something more fundamental: What criteria should we use to determine who gets the title?

One answer is that the champion should be the season’s “best team,” possibly defined as the best overall team or the team we think would be favored to beat every other team on a neutral field. Another answer is the “most deserving team,” loosely defined as the team that produced the best overall season. These two things are not always the same. It’s perfectly possible for the best team — i.e., the most formidable — to lose a close game or even two on a bad kick or a fluke play, while another team runs the table by winning close games.

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New Grantland: Football 101 – Why Power Running Works

It’s now up over at Grantland:

While many think the term “power football” describes an attitude or perhaps even a formation, coaches actually use it to refer to something more technical: the Power-O and Counter Trey run plays, which most coaches simply call Power and Counter, and which are foundational running plays in the NFL and college football.

Power and Counter are so effective because their very designs are forged from aggression. They’re deliberate melees built on double-team blocks, kick-out blocks, lead blocks, and down blocks, and preferably finished off by a running back who drops his shoulder and levels a defender or two before going down. And as this GIF shows, they can be things of beauty:

counter

While football increasingly seems to revolve around quarterbacks who post gaudy passing stats in spread attacks, the inside running game remains the sport’s core no matter what offense a team runs. Let’s take a closer look at how Power and Counter were developed, why they work, and how teams are putting some new spins on some old plays.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland (Shootaround): Alabama’s Spread Offense and Requiem for Mike Leach

I participated in Grantland’s shootaround following week one of the college football season, and I wrote about Alabama potentially embracing the spread offense and the inauspicious start to the season by Washington State under head coach Mike Leach. Some excerpts:

But Saban also likes winning, and after troubling losses to Texas A&M in 2012, Auburn in 2013, and Ohio State in 2014 — plus limited sympathy for his public complaints — it appears that he’s settled on an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. Alabama’s offensive transformation began two years ago and took a big step forward last season under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, with the Crimson Tide setting school records in numerous categories. But the Tide’s Week 1 win over Wisconsin was the best evidence yet that Saban is a spread offense convert in practice, if not entirely in spirit.

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