Smart Links – 10/11/2010

Why is Norm Van Brocklin still a record holder? Surprisingly thrilling romp through the record books, courtesy of Chase at the PFR Blog.

Modern thoughts on the trolley problem.

This article is indescribable, but I highly recommend it.

– I agree with Bill Simmons about the Pats’ handling of Randy Moss.

Hand-wringing, Texas Longhorns style.

I hear his next child will be named “Battery acid.”

Smart Links – Strategery round-up – 10/1/2010

Great analysis of the Indy Colts offense from Mile High Report.

– Brophy’s blog (which has really become a group blog) with all kinds of good stuff. Brophy talks defensive trends, while Hemlock discusses “Match Zone or Match Man.” Hemlock:

I would rather face a match zone team as a Run-N-Shoot coach than a pattern reading – spot drop team (more on this formulation in my next post). Why? Pure and simple: match zone teams, especially those that are heavy fire zone ones, by and large, always end up, regardless of shell, in a 1 Hi look. I can thus tell my people to disregard the other 6 generic shells we use to categorize coverage and instruct them to focus their attention on attacking the technique of the defender charged with matching them. So, for all intent purposes, match zone takes the thinking out of things for my receivers because for as far as they’re concerned all they’re facing is man.

Also at Brophy’s site, check out Chris Vasseur’s bit on the 30 Dime Package. Finally, check out Brophy’s pieces (one and two) on TCU’s “2 Read” defense. (See also RUNCODHIT.)

– Great new site, great new taste. The folks from Buckeye Football Analysis joined the SB Nation mothership and have an excellent site, Along the Olentangy. All the posts are must reads, but check out the breakdowns of Tressel’s offense (including its development over the last season). Check out analysis of OSU’s dropback pass game, run game and run/pass balance, zone runs, the zone read, sprint-draw series, and early season offensive review. Whew. Thank me later.

– RockyTopTalk discusses Florida’s offensive woes. Not mentioned? Playing Kentucky.

– MummePoll is back! So go sign-up now, and read all about it here. Do. Go. Now.

– Not strategy related, but read this article from the NY Times Dealbook about the talented and prolific Aaron Nagler of CheeseheadTV.

Head scratcher of the day

From ESPN’s Big Ten blog:

Adam Rittenberg: So, [Brian] Bennett, we meet again. Good starts for both the Irish and the Wolverines on Saturday, and it should be a great one in South Bend. Let’s talk offense. What do you think Knute Rockne and Fielding Yost would say about these two systems matching up?

Brian Bennett: I think both coaches would have spit in a leather helmet in disgust. What’s the over/under on total number of snaps under center on Saturday? Five?

Er, both Yost and Knute Rockne made extensive use of the shotgun.

Why do people think the shotgun is new?

Good paragraphs about Madden

And not just this year’s edition. From ESPN:

Hawkins wanted “Madden” to play out like the NFL. Equivalent stats. Similar play charts. Real football.

By contrast, Lyndon and Knox previously had made a well-received “Monday Night Football” title featuring arcade-style, action-heavy game play. That clicked with Genesis “Madden” producer Rich Hilleman, whose top design priority was fun — a game with more sacks, more bombs, more tackles in the backfield and more 60-yard runs than real-life NFL football. Something akin to an episode of “The Hills,” or what philosopher/author Umberto Eco dubbed the “hyperreal” — seemingly authentic, yet more entertaining than the genuine article.

“I came to the game from making flight simulations,” said Hilleman, who is now EA’s chief creative officer. “If you make an F-16 fighter simulation and it’s very accurate, to fire a single missile takes like 20 procedures. Only that’s not people’s perception of being a pilot. People’s perception is Tom Cruise. Push a button and blow something up. With Genesis ‘Madden,’ we wanted to emphasize what makes football exciting, not perfectly replicate the brutality of a 3.1-yard-per-carry running game.”

And:

“Let me ask,” Madden said. “When we get into the spread, the quarterback in shotgun, do the linemen get in three-point stances?”

“In some sets,” White said. “But largely in two-point.”

“They should all be in two-point stances,” Madden admonished.
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Player salaries and economic rents

Brian Burke opines on NFL salaries:

Personally, I think they’re all overpaid, rookies and veterans. If you ask most football players if they would still play football for $80,000 per year instead of $800,000 or $8 million, they’d say yes. It’s almost certainly a better proposition than whatever else they’d be able to do in the labor market. If Sam Bradford had the choice between playing in the NFL for $80k/yr or looking for an entry level job in Oklahoma City, what do you think he’d do? Every dollar above $80k is icing on the cake. Technically, it could be considered economic rent.

In economic terms, rent is a misnomer. It does not refer to money you pay a landlord for your apartment. It refers to the money above the minimum amount required to induce the employment of a resource. There is always rent claimed by both sides of all voluntary transactions, otherwise people wouldn’t agree to the transaction in the first place. . . .

It seems to me almost all of the economic rent in professional sports goes to the players. It’s hard to imagine any other multi-billion dollar company paying more than 60% of its revenue to a few hundred employees. It’s not that the salaries are high in absolute terms, it’s that the athletes should gladly play for far less.

I tend to agree… or do I? I am conflicted. It is a plausible account, but there is a lot of uncertainty there as well. One, the NFL and other sports leagues are already incredibly distorted markets, aided as they are by exceptions to anti-trade law and a general public (to say nothing of lawmakers and judges) who are fine giving the NFL monopoly power over professional football (which may be a perfectly rational and fine choice). Second, and more importantly, the lifespan of an NFL player is blisteringly short. I’ve heard a variety of estimates, but most often the estimate is put at around 2-3 years; never have I heard even five seasons.

This skews the incentives. Were Sam Bradford to have taken the $80,000 a year job, he would be giving up a lot now, but it’s much more likely that his other career would last far longer, and as a result his income would be much smoother. And of course the number one pick is not really the appropriate metric; it’s not evident that, from a financial perspective at least, making around $400,000 a year for three or even four years and then having no career prospects at all is better than starting in a $70,000/year job with growth potential and stability. (I know in this economy nothing is certain.)

Two points flow from this. The first is that it cannot be accurate to compare an NFL player’s salary with the salary of Joe Schmo, office manager. Their income stream is more like that of an artist, or even an entrepreneur — variable with their success, with great opportunity to be set for life, with also a high likelihood of bust. As I’ve pointed out, 78% of NFL players file for bankruptcy. As this NY Times article points out, it’s not easy to manage your money if it comes in irregular, large chunks, followed by long dry-spells.

And second, if you make your money at once you end up paying more in taxes than someone who earned the same total amount, in smoother fashion, over the same period. To use an example of an entrepreneur, imagine the there are only two tax rates: 40% if you make over $200,000 and 20% if you make over $45,000. If two neighbors both make $500,000 over five years, with neighbor 1 making $100,000 every year while neighbor 2 making $250,000 twice and zero in the other years, neighbor 1 will have paid $100,000 in taxes while neighbor 2 will have paid $200,000.

Is any of this determinative of whether or not football players make too much? No, but I think it all adds a significant layer of uncertainty to their ability to make a living that, particularly when coupled with the well documented health issues that come from playing football, including brain injuries, make high incomes somewhat more understandable, even if they could be characterized as raw economic rents.

Shameless self-promotion – Maple Street Guides

Like last year, I have written a variety of pieces for the wonderful Maple Street Press, which specializes in team-centric preview guides — i.e. preview guides wherein all 128 pages are about your team, rather than having to share your single-page half-and-half with Akron (sorry Akron) or Michigan State (sorry Michigan State). This season, I wrote seven articles for six different publications, and had the collateral benefit of working with some very talented (and extremely patient) publishers and editors. So, obviously, if you like any of these teams, I recommend shelling out the 12 duckets to buy a copy; they can be ordered through Maple Street’s website (see the links below) or found in stores on a regional basis.

And if you’re curious what they look like in print, here is a link to an article I did last season for the Florida guide — I think it came out somewhat better than Tebow’s actual season did. In any event, here are the choices. Without further delay, and in no particular order, are the articles:

We Are Penn State, edited by Mike Hubbell of BlackShoeDiaries. My article is titled “Inside the Spread HD,” but as I explain, that term is really a misnomer or at least merely serves cosmetic purposes, as at best Penn State’s offense is formed from coach Galen Hall’s two-tight, power approach (similar to the Indianapolis Colts’s core offense), with Jay Paterno’s “be multiple” impulses laid on top. At worst, however, this balancing act can lead the Nittany Lions away from having any particular identity. I discuss this balancing act, along with some of the key concepts, along with how PSU may feature Evan Royster this year.

Cornhusker Kickoff 2010, edited by Jon Johnston of cornnation.com. My two articles, “Shawn Watson and K.I.S.S.” and “Offensive Tendencies,” discuss the man entrusted with steering the other half of Nebraska’s team, the offense, self-proclaimed west coast guru and Mike White disciple, Shawn Watson. Obviously, with how dominant the defense was Nebraska was a few more yards and a few more points away from an even better season, and the Cornhuskers showed flashes worthy of hope in their bowl game against Arizona. I discuss Watson’s evolutions and the team’s options for 2009 in each.

Yea Alabama, edited by Todd Jones and Joel Gamble of rollbamaroll.com. My article, “The McElwain Way,” sheds some insight into the sarcastic and funny Jim McElwain, whose one-back power offense has in many ways been both the perfect complement to Saban’s defense and the difference between Alabama’s 7-6 record in Saban’s first year (without McElwain) and 26-2 record since. I focus particularly on ‘Bama’s run game.

Here Comes the Irish, edited by Pat Misch of The Blue-Gray Sky. My article, “A Passing Primer,” is a nuts and bolts introduction to Brian Kelly’s offense and what he might do at Notre Dame. I’ve touched on similar topics previously, but I’d never had the opportunity to pull it all together as I did there. I look at Kelly’s run game, passing concepts (including how he handles pattern read coverages), favorite quirks, and his general approach to offense and especially quarterbacks.

Hail to the Victors, edited by Brian Cook of mgoblog.com. The buzz coming out of spring camp at Michigan is that the Wolverines are moving to a 3-3-5 (or 3-5-3) look on defense, harkening back to Rich Rodriguez’s preferred defense at West Virginia. In “Back in Time,” I take a look at the origins of the 3-3-5, some of its progenitors (like Charlie Strong, formerly of Florida and now of Louisville, and the quixotic Joe Lee Dunn), how it is similar to and differs from traditional 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, and the ways it has evolved for modern football.

Packers Annual 2010, edited by Brian Carriveau of the Journal-Sentinel Online and Cheeseheadtv.com. Yes, an NFL article! In “Unleashing Aaron Rodgers,” I discuss Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin’s “pro-spread” attack, how they handle the blitz by deploying more receivers and giving Rodgers more options, and how Rodgers cycles through his progressions on such staple concepts as “smash” and “levels.”

So, feel free to run out and buy a bunch for your friends (note that I don’t get paid based on how many you buy, and I do really think these are quality products). I would say that they’d make great stocking stuffers, but even I must admit that they will be a bit out of date by then.

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.