Strategery round-up – 6/21/2010

Good links all related to football strategy, though we begin with a video of Gus Malzahn’s Auburn O, via Offensive Musings:

Defending the bunch. If a defense plays a lot of man coverage, you can bet that the offense (if they have any sense, anyway) will quickly start using “bunch” or “compressed” formations. Anyone who has ever played backyard football can give the answer: it’s much easier to get open if your defender can get “screened” by congestion of some sort — either your teammate running a “legal screen” (versus, ahem, an illegal pick which no one ever does, right?) or even some cluster of receivers and defenders. Defenses, not to outdone by such offensive wizardry, have responses, summed up well in posts by RUNCODHIT and Blitzology.

Unsurprisingly, discipline is a key factor. Blitzology covers some mechanics, while RUNCODHIT adds some background:

[Y]ou can’t run press-man on both WRs[;] alignment won’t allow you to. Also, to run straight man against reduced splits is suicide. The offense will pick you off and open-up a WR to the inside or outside. Because of this threat, defenses have to stay in pure-zone or combo-man coverage.

And,

versus the run 3-way [coverage] places the [strong safety] in a position to force the ball inside. The corner is assigned play-pass responsibility, and the [free-safety] is a flat-foot read player . . . . Against the pass the . . . [strong safety] has the first man to the flat. If no one attacks it, he sinks under the first WR outside. The corner[back] has the first deep route outside — he is going to [back]pedal on the pass and read the WRs. The FS has the first man deep inside. His technique is essentially the same as the corners’. If a deep receiver does not show in or out, then they play a “zone it” technique and help their partner.

3-way coverage

Bonus: Check out RUNCODHIT on “Pattern Reading vs. Zone Dropping” and Blitzology’s series on attacking BOB or Big on Big pass protection. (I’ve described the principles of this protection here.) Series parts one, two, three, and BOB vs. the 3-4 defense.

Think you have what it takes to be an NFL guy? Check out this Slate article on the work ethic of NFL coaches. The answer — it’s about managing people, as much as it is about strategizing and ideas:

What exactly does a head coach do for 23 hours every day? . . . Imagine telling George Halas that he should have worked 20-hour days. He would have laughed you out of his office, then gone back to inventing the T-formation. No matter how many variations on the spread offense you come up with, it’s still the spread offense, not Fermat’s Last Theorem. . . . The guy with the biggest whistle has a fleet of coordinators and position coaches that handle all the grunt work, from conditioning to game-planning to skill-training. . . . Instead, the coach functions as a sort of CEO, coordinating large-scale strategic planning while ensuring all members of his organization perform competently. Viewed through that lens, this endemic insomnia shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, CEOs fetishize waking up early just as much as football coaches. . . .

Screenery strategery. If you’re going to spread the ball out or throw the ball at all, day one is usually spent working on the basics of passing: timing, quarterback drops, rhythm, catching, and the basic routes. Day two, however, goes to screens, those little gadget plays that, particularly at the lower levels, make being a pass first team really worth it. These impressive little suckers manage a quite impressive trifecta: (1) they are easy to complete (and maybe should be thought of as runs rather than passes), which can build your quarterback’s confidence and allow you to get the ball to your playmakers in space; (2) they are often your best weapon against aggressive, blitzing defenses, which can otherwise overwhelm young players just learning how to throw the ball efficiently; and (3) unlike a lot of passing-related concepts, these make heavy use of misdirection, that great equalizer between teams of greater and lesser talent.

In that vein, two great primers out there are Mike Emendorfer’s UW-Platteville screen presentation and this recent post from Brophy’s blog.

Football and math, oh my. Good post on the basics of “football math” — i.e. who and where do you attack. Here’s a test: Where would you attack in these two situations?

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How small schools navigate conference realignment

I haven’t yet posted anything on conference realignment yet, which is something I want to correct — though I admit I’m kind of glad I didn’t write a premature excursus on Texas’s and Oklahoma State’s strategic impact on the Pac-10 or how Will Muschamp would defend Oregon’s spread or how Ohio State would deal with Missouri’s. But the obvious (and most useful) angle to the realignment discussion treats the debate as about business decisions by very profitable entities, with the most coveted being the most profitable entities (Notre Dame and Texas, really). This angle has been much considered.

Yet the more interesting and less focused upon question is to think about what you would have done if you were one of these little guys to be left behind? Arguably nobody handled the realignment issue better — at least once factoring in the relative strength of their bargaining position — than Baylor, whose strong lobbying efforts (coupled with a lucrative TV deal for Texas) helped save the Big 12.

Thus, when I caught an item on the WSJ’s Deal Journal blog I was intrigued. The piece was “Football M&A: How One Small School Navigated Conference Realignment, about how Rice dealt with the demise of the old SWC and found itself in the WAC. It’s worth quoting most of it in full:

How do [small schools] play their M&A strategy when terms are being dictated by the bigger, richer, more winning schools?

Deal Journal tracked down Bobby May, the now-retired athletic director at Rice University who shepherded the Owls through the death of the Southwest Conference in the early to mid-90s to the Western Athletic Conference and, finally, to their current home in the Conference USA.

Then, as now, the culprit behind conference realignment was money, though in the SWC’s case it was how difficult and costly it was getting for its private schools (Baylor, Rice, SMU and TCU) to compete with schools subsidized by the state (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Oklahoma), among other factors.

May is a Rice man through and through. He was a student from 1961-65, came back in 1967 as an assistant track coach, ascended through the athletic department and serving as AD from 1989 to 2006. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Deal Journal: When you were caught up in this, was Rice, as one of the smaller schools in the SWC, trying to be proactive, or did you have to wait to see how the chips fall and then make your move?

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Paragraph of the day

[A]s the psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons show in their new book “The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us,” the effects of experience are highly specific to the experiences themselves. If you train people to do one thing (recognize shapes, solve math puzzles, find hidden words), they get better at doing that thing, but almost nothing else. Music doesn’t make you better at math, conjugating Latin doesn’t make you more logical, brain-training games don’t make you smarter. Accomplished people don’t bulk up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.

That’s from Steven Pinker, who doesn’t agree that the internet is making us dumber. How does this apply to football, and specifically football coaching?

Madden 11 to scout your games — and sell others the reports

That’s the headline of this piece about the newest entry to the Madden franchise, via an interview the development team did with ESPN. From the article:

Madden NFL 11 will log every play you call online, building a book on your tendencies that will available, in-game, to any multiplayer opponent. While the reports can be earned or unlocked, they can also be bought for cash. . . .

EA Sports’ Madden team revealed the new scouting reports feature today in an extensive discussion with ESPN’s Jon Robinson. Tendencies like your opponent’s run-to-pass playcalling ratio, the side of the field it’s run to, the side of the field his defense targets, will be redeemable through a coin system – one coin per scouting report – and coins may be earned for free by playing online games – and completing them. Coins can also be purchased for cash (or Microsoft Points) for those short on funds but needing intel fast. Finally, every retail copy of Madden 11 comes with access to 50 free scouting reports.

Sounds like a lot, but there are 45 separate tendency reports you can get access to, although you can buy the entire batch for 25 coins pre-game. But yes, that means you have to pay to see the book on yourself – such as the fact you always go to a slot receiver over the middle on third-down (raises hand) and everyone knows it.

There was no mention of how many coins it would take to buy a single report, nor of how much reports would cost in real-world cash or Microsoft points.

Money issues aside, that is pretty interesting. From a behavior/decision standpoint, I’m not sure how useful it will be. I would like a general view of whether a guy is a run guy or a pass guy (and maybe an inside run versus outside, and short passes versus longer), but anyone intelligent will build up tendencies (run right) and then destroy opponents who overcompensate by breaking the tendencies. As always, it’s a game theory thing: I’m less interested in the scouting report than the reactions to the scouting reports.

Supreme Court gives NFL the Terry Tate treatment

The NFL, having convinced both a district court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that it was a “single-entity” for anti-trust purposes and thus exempt from anti-trust liability under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to make that the law of the land for the entire country. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for a unanimous court, said simply:

Actually that was Terry Tate, but the message was basically the same: NFL, you’ve overreached — you can’t transform 32 disparate, separately owned teams into a single-entity simply by setting up a joint venture, National Football League Properties or NFLP. For background, I’ve written about the case several times (where I confidently predicted that the NFL would lose), and the NY Times explains the posture well:

The case was brought by American Needle, an apparel maker from Illinois that lost its contract with the league when the N.F.L. entered into an exclusive 10-year, $250 million deal with Reebok in late 2000 to produce hats, jerseys and other league-branded merchandise.

American Needle argued that the league’s deal with Reebok violated antitrust law because the N.F.L. was a collection of individually owned teams that compete with one another, not a single entity able to negotiate contracts on behalf of its teams. By striking a deal with Reebok, the league effectively conspired to stifle competition, the company argued.

American Needle appealed to the Supreme Court….

In rejecting the position of the NFL (and that of the various other leagues who filed briefs in support of the NFL), the Court explained (I’ve removed the citations):

“Every contract, combination in the form of a trust or otherwise, or, conspiracy, in restraint of trade” is made illegal by §1 of the Sherman Act. The question whether an arrangement is a contract, combination, or conspiracy is different from and antecedent to the question whether it unreasonably restrains trade. This case raises that antecedent question about the business of the 32 teams in the National Football League (NFL) and a corporate entity that they formed to manage their intellectual property…

[…]

“[S]ubstance, not form, should determine whether a[n] . . . entity is capable of conspiring under §1.” This inquiry is sometimes described as asking whether the alleged conspirators are a single entity. That is perhaps a misdescription, however, because the question is not whether the defendant is a legally single entity or has a single name; nor is the question whether the parties involved “seem” like one firm or multiple firms in any metaphysical sense… The relevant inquiry, therefore, is whether there is a “contract, combination . . . or conspiracy” amongst “separate economic actors pursuing separate economic interests,” such that the agreement “deprives the marketplace of independent centers of decision-making” and therefore of “diversity of entrepreneurial interests.”

In applying this framework, the Court rejected the NFL and lower courts’ rationale that the NFL is a “single-entity” because the NFL is seems like a single-entity in what it termed a “metaphysical sense,” simply because you need multiple teams and hence cooperation to play a football game:

Each of the teams is a substantial, independently owned, and independently managed business. “[T]heir general corporate actions are guided or determined” by “separate corporate consciousnesses,” and “[t]heir objectives are” not “common.”… Directly relevant to this case, the teams compete in the market for intellectual property. To a firm making hats, the Saints and the Colts are two potentially competing suppliers of valuable trademarks. When each NFL team licenses its intellectual property, it is not pursuing the “common interests of the whole” league but is instead pursuing interests of each “corporation itself”… Decisions by NFL teams to license their separately owned trademarks collectively and to only one vendor are decisions that “depriv[e] the marketplace of independent centers of decision-making,” and therefore of actual or potential competition.

[The NFL and its teams] argue that they constitute a single entity because without their cooperation, there would be no NFL football….But that does not mean that necessity of cooperation transforms concerted action into independent action; a nut and a bolt can only operate together but an agreement between nut and bolt manufacturers is still subject to §1 analysis. Nor does it mean that once a group of firms agree to produce a joint product, cooperation amongst those firms must be treated as independent conduct. The mere fact that the teams operate jointly in some sense does not mean that they are immune.

And in a footnote, the Court summed up its rejection of the “Zen riddle: Who wins when a football team plays itself?” argument the NFL advanced:

Although two teams are needed to play a football game, not all aspects of elaborate inter-league cooperation are necessary to produce a game. Moreover, even if league-wide agreements are necessary to produce football, it does not follow that concerted activity in marketing intellectual property is necessary to produce football.

The Court of Appeals carved out a zone of antitrust immunity for conduct arguably related to league operations by reasoning that coordinated team trademark sales are necessary to produce “NFL football,” a single NFL brand that competes against other forms of entertainment. But defining the product as “NFL football” puts the cart before the horse: Of course the NFL produces NFL football; but that does not mean that cooperation amongst NFL teams is immune from §1 scrutiny. Members of any cartel could insist that their cooperation is necessary to produce the “cartel product” and compete with other products.

(Emphasis mine.) This is correct: the NFL’s position was really too bizarre to stand (hence the unanimity in rejecting it). But it’s also true that this case is not that significant: it merely overturned the ruling of one outlier lower court, and otherwise it was a narrow opinion. It did not rule out that the NFL could ultimately win the case — indeed, it sent fairly clear signals that the NFL ought to win under the “rule of reason” analysis (which again speaks to why it was so weird that the NFL wanted pure immunity in the first place). All the Court determined was that the NFL could be liable.

So it was a narrow case, likely to soon be forgotten other than as a real but relatively minor humiliation of the NFL’s upper management and legal counsel for asking the Supreme Court to take the case in the first place (a rare thing for a party that wins in a lower court). Lyle Denniston of Scotusblog explains the ho-hum nature of the case:

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Tebow goes in the first round to the Broncos

I like Tim Tebow as a player and I have always thought he will one day start at quarterback in the NFL — the only variables are how long it takes and how long he stays there.

What makes the discussion interesting really gets to the nature of quarterback, as opposed to almost all other positions in sports. Namely, that usually when you see these debates you’ll see them regarding whether to take a guy with great character and questionable talent, or great talent and questionable character. The thing about Tebow is that he not only has great character he actually has a great deal of talent, at least in terms of his big frame, good feet, and overall arm strength. Instead what he needs to work on is technique. Now, all rookies must work on technique, but there’s no question that quarterback is different, and at the end of the day it is throwing technique and the skill to put the ball where it must be that separates quarterbacks from citizens.

In other words, this isn’t the flipside of whether you’re drafting Lawrence Phillips or Randy Moss, two great talents who came in with character issues, or whether Tebow is another Graham Harrell or Danny Wuerffel, two guys with great character and drive but questionable ability. Instead Tebow has some design flaws in what he’s doing — which, it must be noted, have never actually done much to deter him from winning games or setting passing records — and the question is whether, given a year or two on the bench as all but the most highly drafted rookies have, he can improve his technique and marry it with his other great qualities.

So I throw it out to the readers: Don’t just tell me whether you think this was a good pick, tell me whether it’s possible to draft a guy with both talent and great character who needs to be molded into a better quarterback. And also tell me whether, if it is possible, if Denver can be that place for Tebow.

Smart Links 4/16/2010

– Jon Gruden with Tim Tebow: Nothing too dramatic here — and who knows if it will hold up when the lights are on — but Tebow’s throwing motion looks pretty smooth here to me. If nothing else just further evidence that the kid will work to improve anything you tell him is a weakness. Again, we’ll see if he can really fix a motion he’s had since he was at least 16, but he’s clearly worked at it. Footwork looked pretty solid too. (If I was running a team, I’d consider him as a third-to-fourth rounder and get him into camp and make him work on this stuff for the next year.) As a bonus, see here for Gruden tearing Colt McCoy down pretty good. And he’s right — even about the accent stuff — though there’s no reason the NFL playcall should be as long as it is. (McCoy remains a better pro prospect at the moment than Tebow.)

Do football writers know football? To be fair, reporters need to be experts on different things, and being a beat reporter and Xs and Os guru is not really realistic. That said, one reason I write is to try to provide a window into strategy and analysis, and that is important to the average fan is because so much sports commentary is about assigning credit and blame, if you don’t understand what the coaches were trying to do or you don’t understand what the players were being asked to do, it is hard to know who to praise and who to chide. (Also see this post for Orson Swindle.)

Can Charlie Strong succeed at Louisville? I say yes, but (a) it will take a few or two to undo the Kragthorping, and (b) Strong will find that he and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford (former Utah OC with Meyer) won’t be able to just run the Florida O at Louisville; it’ll have to evolve.

– The secret of the Airraid: “distilled offense.” (H/t Brophy.) Lede: “Talk to a few players and you’ll get the impression that Louisiana Tech’s old playbook was the college football equivalent of War and Peace. The new playbook? It’s more like a pamphlet. That’s if you could even call it a playbook. The players don’t necessarily refer to what they’re running as plays, but ‘concepts.’ Change a few details and a single concept grows into an offensive attack that looks overwhelming to opposing defenses, but could be executed by the Bulldogs with their eyes closed.”

The “greatest play in football”?

Why yes, the NCAA is quite interested in Reggie Bush’s testimony.

Tips on running the option.

– The West Virginia Mountaineers will honor the 29 coal miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion by wearing helmet decals with a white circle with 29 in the middle. (H/t WizOfOdds.)

Defending the counter-trey. (You can find a quick primer on the counter trey here.)

Why blitz?

Did Ohio State steal Oregon’s signals in the Rose Bowl?

Doc Sat on Brian Kelly.

Sorkin vs. Krugman

– And as an addendum, I have a lengthy piece on the NFL for the NY Times online on Monday; I will link to it when it is up. I also have some other topics I’d like to finish this weekend and schedule this week. Once I do I will post a schedule of what to expect on the blog this week.

Smart Notes 3/30/2010

West Virginia coach Bill Stewart singing is, well, a, um, sight to behold (h/t EDSBS):

– Nick Saban to use Julio Jones some at safety. Seriously. But I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. As high school coaches have long recognized: your best players have to play.

– How cold are Big Ten football games? The Daily Gopher concludes that “[t]he words “freezing” and “frozen” were completely inappropriate for describing Big Ten football in 2009.”

cold

But — what about a comparison with other conferences? And, as a Big Ten alumnus myself, I can say I’ve been to some very cold football games. Finally, I think one thing that skews the analysis it that in the midwest it simply gets colder sooner than, say, the southeast or west coast. As the chart shows, on October 10th, hardly the dead of winter, there were two games in the low 30s and three more in the 40s. If it’s 65-70 degrees in Georgia or Miami, it’s still fair to say that it’s cold in Big Ten country.

– Speaking of Big Ten country, will Paul Petrino be able to turn around the Illini offense? Last year I speculated about whether former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Schulz, newly hired from TCU, would be able to improve upon or expand on Mike Locksley’s success (I use that term generously) with Juice Williams. It turns out the answer was a resounding no (while TCU seemed to hardly miss Schulz, who was banished to Middle Tennessee State). The Zooker has kept his job, and managed to score what I thought was a pretty good pick as offensive coordinator: Bobby Petrino’s brother, Paul Petrino. This move made more sense to me for Zook than it did Petrino, as another dismal season and Paul’s hopes of joining his brother as a head coach of a BCS school might be seriously derailed. (Though I’d wager there’s always a position open on Bobby’s staff, just as there was for former mentor and Michigan State cast off John L. Smith.)

Petrino brings to Illinois a pro-style offense, and one that actually deserves the name because of the heavy resemblance to the pros and multiple nature. And if outgoing coordinator Schulz’s modus operandi was to “spread the wealth,” the brothers Petrino have summed up their offense as “FTS — Feed the Studs,” something that probably would have worked better with Arrelious Benn around. I have to think Illinois will improve on offense simply because Paul will bring more coherence, but with so many stalwart players gone and the state of the Zooker’s program being so perilous, it’s hard to say.

But who knows, maybe in the Janus-like Big Ten, where teams are either spread-happy or old school grinders, a pro-style, multiple attack can work wonders.

– Socialized football? Not that football. From The Guardian: The British “is to unveil radical proposals that would give football fans first option to buy their clubs when they were put up for sale and require clubs to hand over a stake of up to 25% to supporters’ groups. The ideas, due to be included in the Labour manifesto with a promise of action in the first year of a new government, are designed to give fans a far greater say in how their football clubs are run and overhaul the way the game is governed.”

Brian Cook takes neither side in the Tebow-Fowler dust-up, and thus comes out ahead.

Josh Cribbs is very romantic. And by that I mean, well, not really very romantic.

– David Warsh gets meta about bloggers and journalists. It’s a good piece, though I fear it’s that time of the year when the offseason really hits and everyone wants to write about writing and blog about blogging.

– Go Kentucky: The entire U.S. population in 1790, a bit under 4 million, is less than the 2008 population of Kentucky.

Updated Featured Articles/Top past articles

I have updated the “Featured Articles” section of the site (located in the upper right hand corner), for two reasons: (1) it’s the offseason, and (2) I’d like to think many of my articles, although often written about specific teams and times, have an evergreen quality about them that makes them useful after their dates of publication.

Hopefully others agree, so do check it out. I’ve also rearranged some of the presentation, so let me know if there’s a better way I could do it, as the list of articles is beginning to grow long.

Smart Football Super Bowl Preview: Manning vs. Brees

Give the media two weeks before the Super Bowl and they will find every weird angle to take to fill the void: Who has the best food (uh, not Indianapolis); what U.S. Presidents are like what Super Bowl (In a matchup between Super Bowl III, with Broadway Joe, against Thomas Jefferson, the third President, Jefferson won because he “wanted it more.”); and opinion from every blustery ex-player and coach that can be found. But now that the game is here, there’s one aspect that absolutely is at the top of my list: The game features arguably the two best quarterbacks in the league who run undoubtedly the best — and most interesting offenses.

Colts

The show Peyton runs is amazing not only because of its effectiveness, but also because of its simplicity. Indeed, in all but specialty situations they have basically two personnel groups — two wide receivers, two tight-ends, and one running back and three wide receivers, one tight-end and one running back — and they have run the same few plays for the last decade. They rarely shift and instead rely on Peyton to get them to the line and find the appropriate play.

The theory for all this is simple. Although a defense has some options and disguise some things, there are only so many things a defense can do: they might be able to disguise press or loose coverage, or rotate the secondary or send an unexpected blitzer, but they can’t move a cornerback from one side of the field to the other after the snap, and there might be blitzers but there are only so many candidates. As a result Peyton gets his team to the line and surveys the defense. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore typically sends in three plays: two passes and a run or two runs and a pass, and Peyton makes his choice among those three options. Typically, Manning gets the ball snapped with under six seconds left on the play clock; he both wants to take his time surveying the defense and limit late shifts before the snap.

And Manning’s menu of plays are both simple and have been constant for a decade. For runs, he basically has three choices: outside zone (the most common), inside zone, and draw (there are a few others mixed in as well). Believe it or not, the run game comes basically verbatim from what the University of Colorado did in the early 1990s (except for the option runs, of course) — football is not as complicated as people think.

For the passing game, on early downs they run a lot of play-action, where the goal is either to beat the defense deep (through post routes and go routes) or to hit a deep void with a deep crossing route or corner. (The deep crossing route concept is described here.) Another go-to concept is three-verticals, though Manning likes to look for the inside slight off play-action as a quick throw right behind the linebackers. (Video below courtesy of Brophy.)

Play-action from under center:

Play-action from shotgun:

On passing downs and when Peyton is in the shotgun, you’ll see most of the traditional routes that other teams run, but far and away his favorite is the “levels” play. It’s almost idiotically simple — the inside receiver runs a ten-yard in route (often Dallas Clark) while the outside receiver (Reggie Wayne, most typically) runs a five yard in-route. Typically the linebacker runs with the slot and the quick five yarder is open, but once he’s hit that a few times Manning will hit the inside square-in for an easy first down.

levels

I’ve described the “levels” concept (with video) previously here. Below is another diagram showing what typically happens with the coverage:

ds
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