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.

Henry and the quietly efficient Coker starred for Alabama on Saturday, but the offense’s tempo and design helped them both. One particular play caught my eye: a third-quarter design in which Coker had four options all built into the same play — a quick hitch pass to his left, a bubble screen to his right, a handoff up the middle, or a seam pass to his tight end.


That’s modern spread offense stuff all the way (right down to the center arguably being illegally downfield when the ball was thrown).


Washington State was supposed to be Leach’s reclamation project — both for the program and for himself following an ugly divorce from Texas Tech. When WSU hired Leach in the fall of 2011, I was thrilled: Yes, Leach is a fan (and media) favorite, and yes, his teams throw a lot, butlearning the intricacies of his Air Raid offense was in many ways my graduate school in football strategy. Many of his ideas regarding scheme and how to organize and practice offense have shaped the thinking of an enormous number of coaches at every level of football, and I was excited to see his offense back on the field.


Smart Football Round-Up 9/2/2015

In connection with the start of the season (and the new book), I’ve been doing some Q&As and podcasts. Below are some links:

  • Solid Verbal Podcast: Talking defense and the start of the college football season with Dan Rubenstein.
  • RotoViz Radio: A fun discussion with Josh Norris and Matthew Freedman about trends in the NFL, quarterback reads and progressions and the potential of some young receivers.
  • AndtheValleyShook Q&A: Q&A with Billy Gomila on LSU’s new defense, pro-style versus spread and college football trends.
  • The Oklahoman Q&A: A Q&A with Jason Kersey regarding the Big 12, Oklahoma, and the Air Raid offense Lincoln Riley is bringing to Norman.

Amazon drops Kindle price of The Art of Smart Football to 99 cents

Amazon has dropped the price of the Kindle edition of my new book, The Art of Smart Football, to 99 cents.

My old book, The Essential Smart Football, is also only 99 cents right now. Note that you can read Kindle books on non-Kindle devices by downloading the free Kindle app for your computer or for iOS or Android.

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:


Audio Round-up — The Art of Smart Football

I’ve spent the last few days doing a few selected podcasts and radio hits (and there’s more to come). They were all fun; links are below.

It also looks like Amazon has dropped the price on the paperback copy of The Art of Smart Football to $8.99 and the Kindle edition to $6.99.

Smart Notes: Chan Gailey, Matching Markets, Russell Wilson’s Contract, Marcus Lattimore, Sleep, 7/9/2015

Fascinating discussion of why we (i.e., most everyone in the modern world) can’t fall asleep.

– Bill Barnwell on Russell Wilson’s contract and the year the NFL gave the MVP award to a kicker.

Former South Carolina runningback Marcus Lattimore says his NFL career was “hell… every day.

Is Chan Gailey a quarterback whisperer? I like Chan and he’s a good coach, but “QB whisperer” seems a bit much. Probably a better fit for the Jets than they’ve had recently, however.

– I really enjoyed this GQ article on the infamous Magic City club of Atlanta.

Alvin Roth on the EconTalk podcast discussing “Matching Markets,” or markets that require the buyer and seller to select each other. This interesting applications for free agency and recruiting.

James Light on Gunter Brewer’s passing concepts. James has had a lot of good stuff recently.

Doug Farrar on whether any runningback could excel behind Dallas’s line.

I enjoyed this bit of game theory:


Matt Hinton on the dark side of conference realignment and Holly Anderson on rattlesnake rodeos.

Matt Levine on whether you can really game index funds.

– Make sure to sign up for the Smart Football email list (there will only be emails when there’s news, like a new article). Also be sure to “Like” Smart Football on Facebook.

New podcast with the Solid Verbal

I went on the Solid Verbal podcast with Dan Rubenstein, where we chatted quarterbacks, TCU, defensive adaptations to the spread, and lots more. Listen in here, or on iTunes.

Smart Links – Virtual Reality, Spider 2 Y Banana, Jet Sweeps – 4/6/2015

New Kentucky offensive coordinator (and Air Raid alumnus) Shannon Dawson mic’d up at spring practice as he installs his new offense:

Virtual Reality for Quarterbacks?

Stanford head coach David Shaw: “It was the first time I could actually visualize something like that. ‘I was like, ‘Wow, if we could actually put quarterbacks in a virtual world so we’re not using extra practice reps, we’re not extending practice at all — we’re not messing with the 20-hour work week, we’re just creating a library of things for a QB to learn something, that’d help your backup QB who’s never gonna get as many reps as a starter and helps your starter get three reps on a play that he screwed up on and he can just watch the same thing over and over again and see everybody and feel like he’s there.’ When Derek started explaining it to me, I got really excited.”

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan: “When you’re watching on film you have a birds-eye view from the sky. It’s hard to see if they’re leaning one way or the other. But with this, when you’re going through your cadence and start to go through your dummy count, you can see the safety start to creep up a little bit. That’s an indicator. When you’re just watching film, you don’t get the sound, you don’t get that real-life feel of the game. With this, I can see what the structure is.”

Breakdown of Washington linebacker/safety prospect Shaq Thompson by Matt Bowen:

I tend to side with the scouts who see Thompson as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. And I would put him on the weak side (Will) where he can run to the ball, scrape over the top and clean up. Think of Lovie Smith’s scheme in Tampa with the playmaker at the Will ‘backer position. Thompson could be that guy.


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.

vivofit– Garmin 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.


Smart Links — Strategery Round-Up: GPS tracking, bootleg passes, defending 3×1 — 7/15/2014

GPS tracking to measure exertion, speed and to prevent injuries (see also here):

Four years ago, Erik Korem and Joe Danos, who were FSU assistants at the time, brought the idea to [Jimbo] Fisher after seeing the devices used by an Australian rules football team. The Australian company that makes them, Catapult Sports, had never had an American football client, but Fisher was quickly sold on the possibilities of designing highly specialized training programs for his athletes that promised increased production and fewer injuries. “He knew at some point in time, we were going to be ready to face the best of the best, and we had to be a little bit different,” head strength coach Vic Viloria said. “His little bit different turned out to be really, really impressive.” . . .

The cost is dwarfed by the sheer scope of information the devices provide. Each GPS monitor returns about 1,000 unique data points per second, which for 95 players practicing for a few hours a day amounts to an overwhelming amount of information for coaches to dissect. Florida State now employs two assistants working full-time hours — Jacobs and Kratik Malhotra, a data analyst with a degree in electronics engineering — just to sift through the numbers. . .

Florida State’s run to a national championship last year hinged greatly on an unusually low number of injury casualties, which Fisher hardly chalks up to luck. With information gleaned from the GPS devices, Florida State virtually eliminated soft-tissue injuries — muscle pulls and strains — and Fisher adjusted the team’s practice schedules to reduce midweek workload and ensure his team peaked on Saturdays. The more FSU’s coaches learned about the data delivered by the GPS systems, the more the team’s conditioning and practices could be tailored to the specific needs of each player.

Defending 3×1 (trips) formations, Part IV:

There are many key items to look at when setting the defense up vs. 3×1, but if your opponent utilizes the bubble as a mainstay, I’d suggest overloading to the trips side of the coverage. Now this may mean rolling a safety down and playing a one-high look in these situations, or playing a version of TCU’s Special coverage, but whatever you do, I’d over play the trips side. First off, when coupled with the run game, the zone read can easily be defended as discussed in a previous post. The LB’s track the RB and the DE gets a two-for-one on the RB and the QB, usually giving the QB a give read. Now, if the QB, or the OC is savvy enough to simply call the bubble, instead of having the QB read it since the OC knows the DE is sitting on the give and the QB keep, he’s now made the DE a three-for-one player, because this gets the DE into pursuit quicker than if the QB were actually reading the play. Likewise the over shift in coverage puts more defenders closer to where the offense is trying to attack. Again, this is a big win for the defense. I recommend rolling into a one-high shell late, or even on the snap to gain a defender with leverage on the bubble.

NIU’s empty quarterback power and counter combination play:

Northern Illinois has a pretty nifty offense. It seems to be all the rage these days. However, when you watch the film, the vast majority of the offense relies heavily on the old, reliable power blocking scheme. In this case, since they run QB power from an empty formation, they’re kicking out the end with the guard in this specific usage of the power scheme. You may consider this a trap play, but it’s using the power blocking concept (specifically the “counter” play scheme, with the QB’s read acting as the “wrapper” typically filled by the fullback or pulling tackle). They run a lot of QB power, and this article will focus on their combination QB power play with the jailbreak screen.