Gregg Easterbrook: NFL should hire more high school coaches

Well, I know a lot of high school coaches who would agree with this:

[T]he larger coaching issue is that once again, the NFL is stocking up on head coaches who have never been a head coach at any level, even high school, before becoming the boss in the pros.

Steve Spagnuolo, the new coach of the Rams, has never been a head coach at any level, not even when he worked for the Barcelona Dragons. Spagnuolo has been an assistant coach or scout for the University of Massachusetts, the Redskins, Lafayette, the University of Connecticut, the Dragons, the Chargers, the University of Maine, Rutgers, Bowling Green, the Frankfurt Galaxy, the Eagles and the Giants before landing the Rams headmastership. Twelve previous employers — he must have quite a collection of team apparel! But no head coaching experience before becoming an NFL head coach.

Rex Ryan, the new head coach of the Jets, has been an assistant at Eastern Kentucky, New Mexico/Highlands, Morehead, the Cardinals, the University of Cincinnati, Oklahoma and the Ravens. . . . Raheem Morris, the new head coach of the Bucs, has been an assistant at Hofstra, Cornell and Kansas State. Lots of college pennants for his dorm room — but no head coaching experience. Morris has never even been a coordinator at any level, and now he’s an NFL head coach. Todd Haley, the new head coach of the Chiefs, . . . [had] no head coaching experience before becoming an NFL head coach. Josh McDaniels, the new head coach of the Broncos, has been an assistant for Michigan State and the Patriots. He didn’t even collect much team apparel, in addition to less than a decade of experience, before becoming an NFL head coach.

Meanwhile Jim Fassel, Jon Gruden, Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan — a combined 701-536-4 as NFL head coaches — aren’t working in the NFL this season. Schottenheimer and Shanahan each have more career victories than any active NFL coach, yet neither wears a headset. Only four active NFL head coaches have at least 100 victories (Bill Belichick with 153, Jeff Fisher with 133, Tom Coughlin with 123 and Andy Reid with 107). Yet 100-plus winners Shanahan and Gruden were just shown the door and 100-plus winner Schottenheimer can’t get his phone calls returned.

Why do NFL teams keep hiring head coaches who have never been head coaches? This year, inexperienced head coaches sound good because Mike Smith and John Harbaugh, neither of whom had been a head coach previously at any level, just did great jobs in Atlanta and Baltimore. But other factors are at work. One is inexperienced gentlemen earn less than experienced head coaches. Going into the next round of collective bargaining talks, NFL owners are attempting to project a “woe is me, the wolf is at the door” financial image. There will be internal league pressure come late December for no owner to give Bill Cowher the $10 million a year that is reputed to be his price for returning to coaching, as this would counteract the league’s poor-mouth campaign. Hiring inexperienced coaches to moderate salaries, on the other hand, fits the times.

Another factor is that inexperienced coaches kowtow to owners and general managers. For bureaucratic reasons, some NFL front offices prefer a head coach in weak political position. . . .

Next, the track record of major-college head coaches who jump to the pros — Nicky Saban, Bobby Petrino, Steve Spurrier — isn’t good. Few Division I coaches even want NFL posts. Who in his right mind would give up the job security and fawning treatment that football-factory college coaches enjoy, in order to be knifed in the back for a couple of years in the NFL, then fired? If big-college head coaches either won’t take NFL jobs or don’t do well in them, owners may assume that NFL assistants without head coaching experience are the only option. But what about the universe of small-college and high school head coaches? The more coaches I meet and the more I learn about football, the more I become convinced that some of the best coaching occurs at small colleges and in high school — where coaches must succeed without huge staffs and unlimited budgets. But the NFL looks down its nose at small colleges and high schools; Mike Holmgren was one of the few successful recent NFL coaches to begin as a high school head coach.

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Best high school nicknames

The (excellent) Andy Staples of SI.com did a great bit on high school team nicknames recently. Among the best names Staples pointed out were the Stuyvesant Peglegs, Dunbar Poets, Watersmeet Nimrods, Cary Imps, and, the winner, Cairo Syrupmakers.

As good as this list is, it leaves out some other ridiculous ones from around the country. The best of the rest, as it were, must be the Yuma “Criminals.” I’m serious. Don’t believe me? Watch them enter the game by following two squadcars.

Not to be outdone are the Ribet Academy Fighting Frogs:

Or, maybe my favorite, the Laurel Hill Hoboes:

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Defining what makes an offense horrible

My answer can be found over at EDSBS. I go into detail at the link, but the best way I can sum it up is that offenses are like Tolstoy’s families: good offenses tend to be similar in that they all are coherent, have good line play, and have balance in one sense or another, while crappy offenses, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, are crappy in their own ways.

Check out the full thing.

Role of “tacit knowledge” in football

This might boil down to a fancy way to say something that should be obvious, but I found it interesting. When we talk about “knowledge” in the abstract we usually think of our brains like we do our hard drive: I now have more stuff in there, delineated and built up from a set of logical statements and propositions — i.e. I could, if asked and given the time, explain and write out everything I know. Yet our “knowledge” can go beyond this, to skills that can’t be boiled down to logical propositions, but no doubt improve our efficacy. Imagine if our brain was a computer, but as we added more “knowledge” the processor got faster, it could handle more information at once, and more accurately and consistently found the right answer and applied it quickly. (Pretty much the opposite of how computers actually work; they work best the less they have been used.)

Well there’s a bunch of formal thought with this. I’ve touched on how  just brain processes generally can affect players, but what about coaches and other non-athletic heat-of-the-moment decisions?

Tacit knowledge, by Daniel Little: Scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi introduced the idea of “tacit knowledge” in his 1958 book, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Google Books link)[,] as a critique of the positivist conception of scientific knowledge and the idea of knowledge as a system of logical statements. Polanyi was trained as a physician before World War I; worked as a research chemist between the wars; and found his voice as a philosopher of science subsequently.

This []concept[] captures an important dimension of knowledge absent in most philosophical treatments of epistemology (“knowledge is a system of true justified beliefs”). The simple idea is that there are domains of knowledge [not] represented propositionally or as a system of statements, but []rather[] embodied in the knower’s cognitive system in a non-propositional form. This … is more analogous to “knowing how” than “knowing that”. Polanyi gives the example of a physician in training learning to “read” an x-ray. What is first perceived simply as an unintelligible alternation of light and dark areas, eventually is perceived by the experienced radiologist as a picture of a lung with a tumor. So the physician has somehow acquired a set of perceptual and conceptual skills that cannot be precisely codified but that permit him/her to gain a much more knowledgeable understanding of the patient’s hidden disease than the novice. . . .

It is unremarkable to observe that many aspects of skilled performance depend on “knowledge” that cannot be articulated as a set of statements or rules (link). The basketball guard’s ability to weave through defenders and find his way to the basket reflects a complex set of representations of the court, the defenders, and probable behaviors of others that can’t be codified. So it seems fairly straightforward to conclude that human cognition incorporates representations and knowledge that do not take the form of explicit systems of statements. Rather, these areas of knowledge are more “intuitive”; they are more akin to “body knowledge.” But they are nonetheless cognitive; they depend on experience, they can be criticized and corrected, and they are representational of the world. (Talk to a skilled athlete about a complex task like finding a shot on goal in hockey or beating the defender to the basket, and you will be struck by the degree of intuition, gestalt, and realism that is invoked. And the same is true if you talk to an experienced labor organizer or a police detective.)

What is striking about Polanyi’s position in Personal Knowledge is that he shows that [this does] not pertain solely to physical skills like wine-making, playing basketball, or piloting a tug boat. Instead, they extend deeply into the enterprise of scientific knowledge itself. An experimental chemist or physicist has an uncodified ability to interpret instruments, evaluate complex devices, or recognize unexpected results that is the result of experience and training and cannot be reduced to a recipe or algorithm. [Same goes for football coaches seeing patterns in defenses, etc.]

. . .This line of thought converges to some extent with arguments that Hubert Dreyfus advanced in What computers can’t do: A critique of artificial reason in 1972. (Here is his update of his position; What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason.) Dreyfus was fundamentally critical of artificial intelligence research in the 1960s, and the strategy of attempting to codify expert knowledge in the form of a set of rules that could then be implemented as computational algorithms. His position was a phenomenological one; basically, he took issue with the idea that cognitive competences like chess-playing, problem-solving, or pattern recognition could be reduced to a set of precise and separate rules and statements. Instead, there is a holistic aspect in ordinary practical knowledge that cannot be reduced to a set of discrete algorithms.

Of special interest for Understanding Society is the question of whether ordinary people have “tacit social knowledge” of the social world they inhabit (link, link, link). What is involved in the competence a person demonstrates when he/she successfully navigates a formal dinner or a contentious union-hall argument? Can the knowledge that the competent social participant has about expected behavior from particular individuals be represented as a sum of propositional beliefs? Or, more plausibly, is this a good example of tacit knowledge, more akin to a rough map of a terrain than a codified set of statements? . . . All of this makes me think that we need richer models of mental life and competence than we currently possess (link). [Coaching and executing on the field strikes me as as much about tacit knowledge as with any kind of formal knowledge.]

Urban Meyer to N.F.L. coaches: I’m not impressed

gators-coach-urban-meyerFrom Judy Battista’s great New York Times piece from the weekend:

On the horizon is the University of Florida’s star quarterback, Tim Tebow, who will enter the draft next year. He could open the door to what was once virtually unthinkable in the N.F.L.: a quarterback with the size and sturdiness of a linebacker who reads the defense and has the freedom to run as often as he passes in the college-style spread-option offense.

In many ways, change has been forced on the N.F.L. because defenses are so fast and complex, and because fewer drop-back passers, fullbacks and blocking tight ends are being produced in a college game dominated by the spread.

So it is little surprise that almost all N.F.L. teams occasionally use a four- or five-receiver offense, and that Florida Coach Urban Meyer, who has all but perfected the spread with the Gators after giving it prominence at Utah, has been asked for advice from at least four N.F.L. teams, including the New England Patriots.

“I think it would have worked years ago,” Meyer said. “No one has had enough — I don’t want to say courage — no one has wanted to step across that line. Everyone runs the same offense in the N.F.L. A lot of those coaches are retreads. They get fired in Minnesota, they go to St. Louis. They get fired in St. Louis and go to San Diego. I guess what gets lost in the shuffle is your objective is to go win the game. If it’s going to help you win the game, then you should run the spread.”

I particularly liked his line about everyone running the same offense in the NFL. I, of course, wrote the same thing several weeks ago, and had many people tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about. (And anytime both Urban Meyer and Mike Leach are roughly on the same side of an issue, then that is probably the correct side.) And, Meyer might be a college guy, but he’s good friends with Belichick and, as the article pointed out, multiple N.F.L. teams have contacted him.

But things are changing. Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis.

Game day open thread

I won’t be able to post at least until tomorrow, but don’t forget to follow me on twitter, where I’ll be updating throughout the day.

Also, check out my preview for Dr Saturday one of the interesting but under the radar games, Mizzou vs. Illinois.

Here’s a final thought: I have no problem with Oregon suspending Blount for the season, and I agree that it is good to keep him on the team. For his sake, at least, I hope he works toward a very important goal he still has remaining: the NFL draft, where a year of good behavior and rehabilitation (coupled with his existing talent) could do him wonders.

Game day: Let’s get it

Game Day

It’s game day. College season begins tonight. Grab a cocktail,* find a comfy chair, and settle in. The season is going to go by faster than you think.

In the interim, check out my column today for the NY Times Fifth Down Blog, about zone blitzing.

* I recommend a Tom Collins or an Old Fashioned, though maybe go easy if you’re not quite in mid-season form.

Tom Collins

  1. ice cubes
  2. 2 oz. dry gin
  3. 2 oz. lemon juice
  4. 1 teaspoon sugar (gomme) syrup
  5. soda water
  6. slice of lemon

Old Fashioned (two recipes, I think every man should know how he likes his)

  1. 2 ounces (60 ml) bourbon
  2. Splash of simple syrup or 1 cube sugar and just enough water to dissolve the sugar
  3. 2 dashes bitters
  4. Old Fashioned glass
  5. Place sugar (or syrup), bitters, and water in old-fashioned glass
  6. Crush sugar if needed and coat glass
  7. Add 2–3 cubes ice and whiskey
  8. Garnish with twist

And an old school version:

  1. Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey glass
  2. Add two dashes Angostura bitters
  3. Add a small piece of ice
  4. Add a piece lemon peel
  5. Add a (1.5 ounces or 44 mL) whiskey
  6. Mix with small bar spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass.

Well, that’s one way to approach it

From Harper’s Magazine:

[Editor's Note:] From a March email by Michael Kinahan, coach of a soccer team for girls aged seven and under in Scituate, Massachusetts, to the children’s parents. After parents complained to league officials, Kinahan resigned, saying in his resignation letter that the email was meant to be “a satire of those who take youth sports too seriously for the wrong reasons.” The email was obtained by the Patriot Ledger.

Congratulations on being selected for Team 7 (forest-green shirts) of the Scituate Soccer Club! My name is Michael, and I have been fortunate enough to be selected to coach what I know will be a wonderful group of young ladies.

Okay, here’s the real deal: Team 7 will be called Green Death. We will only acknowledge “Team 7” for scheduling and disciplinary purposes. Green Death is not a team but a family (some say cult) that you belong to forever. We play fair at all times, but we play tough and physical soccer. We have some returning players who know the deal; for the others, I only expect 110 percent at every game and practice. We do not cater to superstars but prefer the gritty determination of journeymen who bring their lunch pail to work every week, chase every ball, and dig in corners like a Michael Vick pit bull.

Some say soccer at this age is about fun, and I completely agree. I believe, however, that winning is fun and losing is for losers. Ergo, we will strive for the W in each game. Although we may not win every game (excuse me, I just got a little nauseous), I expect us to fight for every loose ball and play every shift as if it were the finals of the World Cup. As I spent a good Saturday morning listening to the legal-liability BS, which included a thirty-minute dissertation on how we need to baby the kids and especially the refs, I was disgusted. The kids will run, they will fall, get bumps and bruises, even bleed a little. Big deal; it’s good for them (but I do hope the other team is the one bleeding). If the refs can’t handle a little criticism, then they should turn in their whistles. My heckling of the refs actually helps them develop as people. The political-correctness police are not welcome on my sidelines. America’s youth are becoming fat, lazy, and noncompetitive because competition is viewed as “bad.” I argue that competition is crucial to the evolution of our species and our survival in what has become an increasingly competitive global economy and dangerous world. Second-place trophies are nothing to be proud of. They serve only as a reminder that you missed your goal; their only purpose is as an inspiration to do that next set of reps. Don’t animals eat what they kill? (And yes, someone actually kills the meat we eat—it isn’t grown in plastic wrap.) And speaking of meat, I expect that the ladies be put on a diet of fish, undercooked red meat, and lots of veggies. No junk food. Protein shakes are encouraged, and while blood doping and HGH use is frowned upon, there is no testing policy. And at the risk of stating the obvious, blue slushies are for winners.

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This post is about game planning and play-selection

Suppose first that you wish to cross a river that is spanned by three bridges. (Assume that swimming, wading or boating across are impossible.) The first bridge is known to be safe and free of obstacles; if you try to cross there, you will succeed. The second bridge lies beneath a cliff from which large rocks sometimes fall. The third is inhabited by deadly cobras. Now suppose you wish to rank-order the three bridges with respect to their preferability as crossing-points. Your task here is quite straightforward. The first bridge is obviously best, since it is safest. To rank-order the other two bridges, you require information about their relative levels of danger. If you can study the frequency of rock-falls and the movements of the cobras for awhile, you might be able to calculate that the probability of your being crushed by a rock at the second bridge is 10% and of being struck by a cobra at the third bridge is 20%. Your reasoning here is strictly parametric because neither the rocks nor the cobras are trying to influence your actions, by, for example, concealing their typical patterns of behaviour because they know you are studying them. It is quite obvious what you should do here: cross at the safe bridge. . . .

[Now s]uppose that you are a fugitive of some sort, and waiting on the other side of the river with a gun is your pursuer. She will catch and shoot you, let us suppose, only if she waits at the bridge you try to cross; otherwise, you will escape. As you reason through your choice of bridge, it occurs to you that she is over there trying to anticipate your reasoning. It will seem that, surely, choosing the safe bridge straight away would be a mistake, since that is just where she will expect you, and your chances of death rise to certainty. So perhaps you should risk the rocks, since these odds are much better. But wait … if you can reach this conclusion, your pursuer, who is just as rational and well-informed as you are, can anticipate that you will reach it, and will be waiting for you if you evade the rocks. So perhaps you must take your chances with the cobras; that is what she must least expect. But, then, no … if she expects that you will expect that she will least expect this, then she will most expect it. This dilemma, you realize with dread, is general: you must do what your pursuer least expects; but whatever you most expect her to least expect is automatically what she will most expect. You appear to be trapped in indecision. All that might console you a bit here is that, on the other side of the river, your pursuer is trapped in exactly the same quandary, unable to decide which bridge to wait at because as soon as she imagines committing to one, she will notice that if she can find a best reason to pick a bridge, you can anticipate that same reason and then avoid her.

The above passage is from here. Can you explain in what way this informs play-calling and gameplanning? Here’s an (incomplete) hint.

If Michigan violated limits on practice time, what might the NCAA do?

The Detroit Free Press reported that Rich Rodriguez’s Michigan football program blatantly violated the NCAA’s limits on when and how long players may practice:

rodri

Bad news.

The University of Michigan football team consistently has violated NCAA rules governing off-season workouts, in-season demands on players and mandatory summer activities under coach Rich Rodriguez, numerous players told the Free Press.

Players on the 2008 and 2009 teams described training and practice sessions that far exceeded limits set by the NCAA, which governs college athletics. The restrictions are designed to protect players’ well-being, ensure adequate study time and prevent schools from gaining an unfair competitive advantage.

The players, who did not want to be identified because they feared repercussions from coaches, said the violations occurred routinely at the direction of Rodriguez’s staff.

“It’s one of those things where you can’t say something,” one current Wolverine said. “If you say something, they’re going to say you’re a lazy person and don’t want to work hard.”

That player was one of six current or former players who gave lengthy, detailed and nearly identical descriptions of the program to the Free Press.

“We know the practice and off-season rules, and we stay within the guidelines,” Rodriguez said in a statement issued Friday to the Free Press. “We follow the rules and have always been completely committed to being compliant with all NCAA rules.”

. . .

The players say they routinely are required to work out or practice many more hours throughout the year than the NCAA allows. They also say members of Rodriguez’s staff have broken rules by monitoring off-season scrimmages.

Rodriguez denies the Free Press’s report, but others are quickly corroborating it. Via twitter, ESPN’s Joe Schad added, “Former Michigan starter tells me he would put in 11-hour days on Sundays (4 hour required is max),” and further that “[a]nother UM player told me he was usually the facility on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The maximum allotment per day is 4 hours.”

Briefly, a word on practice limits. People do not realize it, but major college football teams are allotted less practice time than many high school squads, to say nothing of the 24/7 world of the NFL. In high school, teams have seven-on-seven passing leagues all summer, spring practice, time for two-a-days in the fall, and so on. In college, the NCAA strictly limits when players can work out, when and how long they can use the football facilities, and, most stringently, when coaches can be around. (This partially explains the rise of strength and conditioning coaches, who spend their summers with players and, because they do not focus on football, are allowed greater contact with players in the off-season. Note that I do not claim any great expertise in these matters.)

In any event, the Free Press ominously mentions that “[i]f the NCAA investigates and concludes that U-M willfully and repeatedly broke the rules, the NCAA could find major violations. That could trigger probation, loss of scholarships and loss of practice time.” What penalties, realistically, could Michigan be subject to if the Free Press’s report is ultimately borne out by an investigation (either by the NCAA or done internally)?

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