New Grantland: Bill Belichick’s wily, ruthless strategic methods

It’s now up over at Grantland:

It worked. The Giants held Kelly and his receivers in check en route to a 20-19 win, albeit with some help from one of the most infamous missed field goals in NFL history, and today Belichick’s Super Bowl XXV game plan sits in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Already well known at the time in coaching circles, Belichick became a household name by relying on two of the pillars that continue to define him: ingenious defensive tactics and precision without sentimentality.

Twenty-four years later, head coach Bill Belichick is still bombarding opponents with shrewd, coldly rational tactics. The result: His Patriots are making the sixth Super Bowl appearance of his reign, chasing their fourth title. To claim the crown, they’ll have to best the defending champs, a Seattle Seahawks team coached by a man who knows a thing or two about defensive tactics himself. But while Pete Carroll’s otherworldly defenses have succeeded the last few seasons largely because of the way Carroll elegantly uses simplicity to unleash his squad’s great talent, Belichick resists classification. No modern football coach can match Belichick’s deep knowledge of schemes and strategies, or his multidecade track record of applying that knowledge to devastating effect.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: Inside the Evolution (and Oregonification) of Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Offense

It’s now up over at Grantand:

At Florida, Meyer’s offense revolved almost entirely around the quarterback. From 2007 through 2009, Tim Tebow led the SEC in pass efficiency while also leading the Gators in rushing yards, and the lasting image of those UF offenses is of Tebow plunging into the line on power runs. That approach worked with a 6-foot-3, 235-pound rhinoceros at quarterback, but with Tebow off to the NFL in 2010, Florida’s offense began to fall apart, and the Gators limped to an 8-5 finish. Meyer stepped away from the game in 2011 to spend more time with family, and during that time he was able to study many of the sport’s most innovative coaches and schemes. When Meyer rejoined the coaching ranks and started searching for a coordinator who could mesh the newest trends with what Meyer had done before, he asked around for suggestions, and several of his closest friends in the business suggested the same name: Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Herman.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: Aaron Rodgers, Mike McCarthy and Creating the New Joe Cool

It’s now up over at Grantland:

More than 20 years later, on the brink of a divisional-round playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, McCarthy again finds himself in a teacher-student partnership with an elite pupil: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Though McCarthy is facing a similar challenge of figuring out how to help one of the game’s best quarterbacks get even better, his relationship with Rodgers is far more collaborative than his pairing with Montana ever was, allowing coach and quarterback to try to improve themselves, each other, and the very offense Walsh taught Montana so long ago.

Read the whole thing.

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Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2014

I’ve always been floored by the quality of the feedback and discussion from Smart Football readers (whether on this site, Grantland or on Twitter or Facebook), 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. I get very minor referral revenues from Amazon purchases and, as a result, I am able to track which books are purchased by readers. The data is entirely anonymous but it is, to me at least, quite interesting. (Click to enlarge the charts.)

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2014

2014 Chart 1

The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2014 (excluding The Essential Smart Football)

2014 Chart 2

Below is the full list of books. Note that I simply included the top books and did not include a separate “other” category. I thought the list was fairly eclectic this year, as non-football books had numbers comparable to the football ones. And, as usual, books that focused on football strategy dominated all other sports or football titles.

The Smart Football Glossary

Football is bathed in jargon. Other sports have their wonky terms but anyone who even casually watches a football game is bombarded with a cascade of code words, while even experienced fans usually can’t make heads or tails of what coaches and players say to each other on the sidelines. Some of this is inherent in a game made up of a few seconds of action interrupted by breaks for communication. And the phenomenon of platooning — where offensive players don’t play defense and vice versa — creates additional opportunities for coaches and players to communicate, and, like any other pressure filled profession, from the armed forces to medicine, communication in these circumstances is condensed so that the most information is conveyed in the fewest syllables.

wordcloud1All too often, however, discussing even the most rudimentary and fundamental football concepts is needlessly offputting, something exacerbated as too many announcers and analysts use streams of buzzwords to sound intelligent without actually conveying any information (something I try very hard to not do, though undoubtedly with inconsistent success). Unless you’re sitting on an NFL sideline trying to tell your position coach what the defense is doing, you are better off using as little jargon as possible and instead trying to explain what you see in English.

But in football, terminology is often destiny, and some terms have become so ingrained that being familiar with them is critical for any intelligent fan; on the other hand, others have become so misused that using them actually deters rather than enhances understanding. The goal of this football glossary is simply to unpack a limited set of football buzzwords in a way that will make watching games on Saturday and Sunday more enjoyable. The important thing, however, is not to focus on the terms but instead on the explanations: if we’re all on the same page with those, the names we given the underlying ideas — whether you call it Smash, China or Shakes — what we end up calling it is simply detail, not substance. I’m sure your high school coach had his own name for each of these below.

Arm Talent: A notorious bit of scout-speak that is either a pseudo-scientific way to describe something obvious (“That quarterback has a strong, accurate arm”) or an extremely clumsy way to describe something better served with colloqiual english (“He has the ability to throw the ball from different angles to avoid oncoming rushers and still find an open throwing lane through which he can deliver the football”).

Bang 8 Post: A particular version of the “skinny post” or “glance” routes, the “Bang 8″ or “Bang 8 Post” was developed by former San Diego Chargers head coach Don Coryell and calls for the receiver to run seven-steps straight downfield before breaking inside at an angle. The particular angle the receiver takes, however, depends on the leverage of the defender covering him: the receiver’s job is to take whatever angle is necessary to ensure he is between the quarterback and the nearest defender. (“8″ is the number for a post in the Coryell route tree, see “Route Tree” below.) “Bang” indicates that the route is not thrown as a deep bomb but instead is a rhythm throw thrown by the quarterback on rhythm as soon as he hit the fifth step in his dropback. Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin of the Cowboys ran the Bang 8 better than anyone in NFL history:

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New Grantland: June Jones’s Retirement, and the Lasting Influence (and Possible End) of the Run-and-Shoot

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Yet Jones’s most important contribution to football will be his association with the run-and-shoot. It was an offense he first encountered as a record-breaking quarterback at Portland State while playing for Darell “Mouse” Davis. The run-and-shoot was developed by Glenn “Tiger” Ellison.2 Sometime in the mid-1950s, Ellison stopped to watch a group of kids play backyard football. Instead of huddling and running off-tackle, as his team did, the kids played a free-flowing game. The quarterback ran around while his receivers improvised ways to get open. Ellison’s insight was to channel his players’ improvisational instincts into an offense that could be run at any level. The run-and-shoot was born.

Some years later, Davis refined Ellison’s insights into a few four-receiver formations and a handful of pass concepts, where each receiver had the freedom to run three, four, five, or sometimes as many as six different adjustments, based on how the defense played. One “play” in the run-and-shoot could become, on the fly, the equivalent of 20 or 30 plays in a traditional offense. “The concept of reading the coverage, nobody did it,” Jones told CBSSports. “Nobody in the NFL [in the late 1970s and early 1980s] allowed their receivers to read coverage. If you’re running a curl, you’re running a curl. That was it. There was no conversion.”

Read the whole thing.

What Gadgets I’ve Been Using: Garmin Vivofit Fitness Tracker, UE Bluetooth Speaker, Clever Coffee Dripper, Babyfood

I’m not a big gadget guy but I realized that I’ve been acquiring several over the past few months and thought I’d share a few that have been working well.

vivofitGarmin Vivofit. The biggest revolution in football right now is not on the chalkboard or even in the stadium; it’s on the practice field, in the weight room and often even continues once the players have gone home — it’s the rise of so-called “sports science.” I wrote about some of the ways Chip Kelly monitors and tracks his players, and most of the NFL and many of the best college teams are using this technology to monitor and track their players. We’re in a world of data.

The Vivofit fortunately does not cost $25,000, but I’ve found it still generates — and most importantly prominently displays — a great deal of useful data. The Vivofit, along with most of the other leading “fitness trackers,” focuses on tracking your steps, reminding you when you’ve been inactive too long, and even monitors the amount and restfulness of your sleep. I’ve been thrilled with mine and it has definitely served its purpose of motivating me to keep hitting and surpassing my daily goals, which can be set manually or automatically by the software based on my own history. These devices are all very new — just ask most major college football and NFL programs which are experimenting with trackers of varying levels of sophistication (and cost) — and I’m guessing the next generation will render the current crop obsolete. But until then I’ve been very happy. I chose the Vivofit over the Fitbit because I wanted a tracker that displayed the number of steps, miles, calories and so on right on the face of the device. All of these devices sync with an app to track your progress over time, but I like being able to check mine in real time. The Vivofit also displays red lines if you’ve been inactive too long, which gets to the purpose of these devices: It’s not to perfectly track my steps or calories (though I certainly expect it to be close), but instead to keep me moving. At that it’s been very effective.

– UE Mini Boom Wireless Speaker. Bluetooth speakers don’t always give you the best sound quality but it’s hard to beat them for convenience — connecting your phone, iPad or other device to this speaker is a cinch. I liked this one based on its small size — portable means portable even though I typically use it at home — and the sound quality has been excellent (considering it is bluetooth). It sounds good both playing my music, as well as a few baby songs.

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Downfield passes as the “pitch phase” of the read-option, as run by Russell Wilson, Gus Malzahn and many, many, others

Since the invention of the zone read from the shotgun, coaches have dabbled with creative ways to add a third option for the quarterback. Early on, teams added a second runningback or receiver looping around for a traditional pitch, while others have added bubble screens where the receiver can either get the ball right at the snap as a pre-snap read or as a late option after the quarterback has kept it.

And for at least the last six or so years — but probably more like ten — teams have given their quarterback the ability to throw downfield as part of the pitch phase. I don’t know who was first, as some say it was Rich Rodriguez, others point to the Todd Graham era at Tulsa when he had offensive coordinators Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris, but I first saw the play back in 2007 and it seemed to gain some momentum in 2011 as Graham at Pittsburgh and a flurry of high school teams scored touchdowns with it. But there’s no doubt the play hit the national consciousness when Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team scored their penultimate touchdown against Alabama in the Iron Bowl with the play.

play

When Auburn ran the play they ran it with as many as four options for the QB, though my understanding is they also sometimes just called it as a called keep for the quarterback where he could either run it outside or throw it downfield. The purpose of this wrinkle isn’t really to just hit an easy touchdown pass when the defense falls asleep — though it does that too, just ask Alabama — it’s to create real run/pass conflict for a cornerback who is a run “force” defender to the backside.

quadruplemalzahn

Against teams that use the QB as a run threat, like Auburn, defenses need to get secondary players involved in run support. Sometimes that means safeties but other teams a corner will be the “force” defender whose job it is to set the edge and funnel runs inside, as with Cover 2. The traditional bubble or pitch concedes the edge of the defense to the force player, while these concepts put him in what is essentially a high/low bind: either he stays with his man and gives up easy yards to the quarterback or he comes up and gives up big yards behind him. In Cover 2 it’s the safety’s job to get over to the receiver, but that’s why the WR doesn’t fly upfield on a streak route. Instead it’s a “hole” throw, just behind the corner and before the safety can get over.

This isn’t the basis for an entire offense and doesn’t represent any kind of football revolution, but it is a sound concept, which is why I’m not surprised the NFL has taken notice. Last night Seattle QB Russell Wilson threw a TD pass against the Packers on this very concept (h/t SBNation):

throw

After the game, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll copped to getting the play from Malzahn and Auburn:

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New Grantland: Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi’s Stingy, Adaptable Michigan State Defense in the Age of the Spread Offense

My latest piece on Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi’s Michigan State defense is now up over at Grantland:

Rather than trying to call the right defense and maybe being right or maybe being wrong, Dantonio and Narduzzi have responded to this challenge by building a responsive defense that mutates into the right alignment depending on what the offense does. Against four vertical receivers, Michigan State wants four man-to-man defenders who can carry the receivers all the way upfield; against crisscrossing underneath receivers, the Spartans want to be in a zone coverage that lets their defenders break hard on the ball and on those receivers, rather than forcing them to chase in man-to-man; and against the run, the Spartans want as many as nine defenders in the box.

How do they manage all that at once?

MSUQuarters1

Read the whole thing.

Amazon is running a 99 cent special on The Essential Smart Football for Kindle

Amazon has a short-term 99 cent special of my book, The Essential Smart Football for Kindle.

Click here to see the offer.

The Essential Smart Football