New Grantland: Darren Sproles and the rise of the “space player”

My new piece is up over at Grantland. Check it out.

Scan the list of the NFL’s total yardage leaders and you’ll see their names. Most of them have the title running back — Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, Jahvid Best, and Ray Rice, to name a few — but there is no one prototype for these players. Indeed, in the same group you’ll also see receivers, most notably Wes Welker of the Patriots, a “slot receiver” who is the undisputed master of the underneath route and the receiver screen (although this year he’s been doing all that and more). An older example is former Pro Bowler Eric Metcalf, who made the rare switch from running back (where he ran for more than 600 yards in two different seasons with the Cleveland Browns) to wide receiver (where he had more than 1,000 yards in 1995 while playing in the Falcons’ run-and-shoot offense), all while returning kicks and punts. But without a doubt, today’s top space player is the New Orleans Saints’ runner/receiver/kick returner/human Molotov cocktail Darren Sproles. Sproles is straight-ahead fast, but he is a great space player because of his other attributes: quickness, lateral agility, a second gear to blow by defenders, and a low center of gravity. Sproles returns kicks for the Saints but, then again, every time he touches the ball it’s like a kick return — he’s in space, and one missed open-field tackle against him might mean a touchdown.

Read the whole thing.

Smart Links – 10/6/2011

Advice from Steve Jobs.

- The tire juke drill for runningbacks.

- Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has no qualms about taking risks.

- History of the Erhardt-Perkins offense.

- Love the fullback pop pass.

- Re-conceptualizing the strong safety in the 46.

- Celtics great Bill Russell joins the lawsuit against the NCAA regarding the use of former players’ likenesses.

- Civil Rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth has passed away.

- Seth Davis, an intelligent guy, fails economics.

- Closing the book on Bryce Brown.

- A mixed bag, but a couple of these deleted scenes really are great.

New Grantland Blog: LaGarette Blount and the Power O

It’s up over at Grantland:

The game-winning play is one of the oldest plays in football, and is used at every level, from high school to the NFL: the “Power” or “Power O” play. It’s called “power” because the goal for the offense is to get extra blockers to the point of attack, i.e. where the ball is going, to simply outnumber the defense. (It also sounds tough, and coaches like that.) There’s more strategy on why teams like to go to the power play on a given down and distance as opposed to a zone run (as we saw this season with Darren McFadden), but there’s no question it was the better look against the Colts on Blount’s 35-yard touchdown run.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland blog: Darren McFadden’s touchdown

It’s up over at the Grantland Triangle:

The key play for McFadden and the Raiders was his 70-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, which came on the Raiders’ base run play: the inside zone. The theory behind “zone running” is that, given all the multitude of shifts and maneuvers a defense can present — and the many formations offenses use nowadays — you need clear rules to run the ball effectively. The zone allows the offensive line to work together, double-teaming the defensive linemen before sliding off to block the linebackers (the “second level defenders”), while the running back has freedom to find the open crease. Against the Jets on this play, McFadden attacked the interior of New York’s defense before bouncing it around end for the big gainer.

Read the whole thing.

College football premature post-game impressions – 9/25/2011

LSU 47, WVU 21. The ultimate conclusion for this game was that, to paraphrase Dennis Green, both teams were who I thought thought they were: LSU is one of the best, toughest, most physical teams in the country, and my undisputed #1; and WVU is intriguing but extremely young on both offense and defense, a team that I have high expectations for but one that needs to grow up to have true success. I did think how they got there was extremely interesting, however. West Virginia outgained LSU by close to 200 yards, and, purely from a production standpoint, the vaunted LSU defense has to be extremely disappointed in itself and West Virginia has to know there’s not a team in the country they can’t light up. The biggest bright spot for WVU — and biggest surprise — was the fantastic pass protection Geno Smith received throughout the evening.

I'll take that ball please

But in a strange way if I was an LSU fan I’d be encouraged: Here was a game where my defense, the strength of my team, got eaten up for a gajillion yards, but I still won for three reasons: (1) LSU’s defense still grabbed four crucial turnovers; (2) LSU’s special teams dominated, particularly in the field position battle (the punter was amazing) and the timely kickoff return by Mo Claiborne; and (3) the offense made very few mistakes and was extremely efficient, hitting some big passes in the first half and grinding out the run game in the second. That’s the mark of a great team like LSU: they took an opponent’s best shot and were able to control and win a game with the other phases of their team. LSU will win a lot of games if they can keep up things like this:

Sometimes, it’s less obvious — such as, for example, the fact that LSU’s average starting field position tonight was its own 43-yard line, while West Virginia didn’t start a single possession past its own 29, and only then following the opening kickoff of the game. (For the night, WVU started eleven possessions inside its own 20-yard line; LSU started zero possessions inside its 20.)

For WVU it’s a little more disappointing because there were opportunities, especially considering that they pulled it to 27-21 despite having dug themselves an enormous first half-hole. But the good news for the Mouintaineers is that what did them in last night — against what is in my view the best team in the country — were all fixable mistakes. Indeed, both of Geno Smith’s interceptions were not of the “bad read” variety, with the first being a ricochet off of a dropped pass and the second a bad decision to throw a quick lateral screen despite the presence of Tyrann Mathieu (after the game Holgorsen said Smith had the option to hand the ball off if he didn’t like the look of the screen). And while West Virginia’s special teams must improve, one reason that very talented teams have great special teams is because their rosters are deep. There isn’t anyone in the Big East that will present those kinds of challenges.

Ultimately, both teams have a lot of upside: For WVU, it’s to potentially run the table in the Big East and make a BCS game, while for LSU, it’s to solidify its spot as the best team in the country and to win Miles’s second National Championship. LSU has a big game coming up with Florida, but I can’t help look forward to November 5th, when the Tigers travel to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama. That game might have more BCS title implications than any other this season, including the bowl games.

- Alabama 38, Arkansas 14. I love Bobby Petrino’s offense, and it’s typically one of the best, most well orchestrated attacks in the country, but Nick Saban always seems to shut it down. Alabama had an insurmountable 31-7 lead in the 3rd quarter, and whatever else Arkansas tried to do was too little, too late. Indeed, it’s fascinating to contrast Alabama with LSU: ‘Bama may actually have the better defense, though it’s close, but I actually like LSU’s offense a lot better. But LSU doesn’t have Trent Richardson, who kind mask a lot of weaknesses at quarterback, and Saban football teams continue to make a living capitalizing on your mistakes and not making any of their own. As I said above, I know there are other teams in the way, but I can’t wait for LSU/Alabama. As we used to say back home, son you better tie your shoelaces tight and buckle your chinstraps because there’s gonna be some hitting in that one.

- Oklahoma State 30, Texas A&M 29.
(more…)

Things that are uninteresting and interesting about conference realignment

With the news that Pittsburgh and Syracuse have applied to join the ACC, the conference realignment discussions have taken on a whole new character, namely, the potential destruction of the Big East. I personally don’t enjoy talking about conference realignment, and I think most players and coaches don’t care — just tell them who they’re playing.

But there are some elements more interesting than others, and there is significance for many when it comes to how their team will fare as the old order is unsettled or simply what rivalries will be retained or destroyed. Here’s a non-scientific list of things I do not find interesting in these discussions and things that are interesting.

Not interesting:

  •  The daily grind of the news cycle. One team applies, another team threatens to leave a conference, another threatens to leave and then says they don’t want to leave, and so on. Given the tectonic shifts in the distribution and amount of football revenues with TV contracts and their attendant revenues, exclusive TV networks (like the Big 10 Network and the Longhorn Network), conferences with equal revenue sharing or proportional revenue models, conference championship games and so on, all this is going to take years to sort out. I think it’s safe to say that in two years, we’re still going to be talking about realignment. We may even be seriously discussing it in five years. This is a very significant time, but the interesting parts won’t be apparent As The World Turns on a daily basis.
  • (more…)

The history of american football in Europe

Hat tip:

Smart Notes – Brady’s 99-yard touchdown pass, Solid Verbal, valuable video games, pro combat uniforms, defending the option – 9/13/2011

Tom Brady, in the method predicted, carves up the Miami Dolphins:

How great was the 99-yard pass? And it was so simple. The Dolphins had played a lot of man-to-man coverage, primarily man-free with a single deep safety. The Patriots lined up in no-backs but with a tight-end in the game: The beauty of this is that the no-backs invited the press-man pressure but the tight-end let them protect with six blockers as opposed to five. And then the route combination? Literally the first pass that every high school installs: The hitch/seam combination. The outside receivers run five-yard hitch routes; had the Miami defensive backs played loose, Brady would have taken the quick pass to the flat. Instead they pressed and the slot receivers faded their routes to the outside and turned it into a fade route. Brady actually didn’t throw away from the safety, as the free safety rotated to Welker. But the safety looked like he was trying to jump the seam, and instead Brady lofted it over his head. Great stuff. The Patriots entire gameplan was extremely simple; their other best play was four verticals off of play-action with Brady hitting those tight-ends in the seam.

- Big moves. Ty and Dan are taking the Solid Verbal to Grantland.

- Just what you were waiting for. Nike’s pro combat uniforms are here. And, um, yeah:

I’m just waiting for uniforms that light up on contact like those old L.A. Lights shoes.

- South Carolina is preparing for Navy’s triple-option:

To get ready for Navy’s triple-option rushing attack, the Gamecocks’ defensive unit practice without a ball. The Midshipmen lead the nation in rushing, averaging more than 400 per game. The key to stopping an option attack is to be disciplined and not blowing assignments, Ward said. Which was why the Gamecocks’ defense practiced without a ball. “It was different, but it made you concentrate on your assignments,” Holloman said. “You can’t follow the ball and I think it’ll pay off for during the game.”

All good, but remember that you can’t only rely on playing assignment football against the option; they’ll figure out those assignments and screw with them.

- The quest for the golden cartidge (i.e. a video game cartridge worth $5000) is a real thing:

(more…)

Smart Notes – NFL Week 1, Northwestern’s tricks, 82-6, twitter wisdom – 9/6/2011

Football is back:

- Five things to watch in week one of the NFL. Among them:

Julio Jones vs. the Bears Tampa 2: Really anxious to watch the rookie WR play this Sunday in Chicago. I know he has talent, size and deep ball speed—but I want to see him at the line of scrimmage vs. Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 scheme. The Bears’ CBs (Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings) will work to re-route the Falcons’ WR and force an inside release. Can he consistently win and get into the route stem when the Bears show their Cover 2 shell? Because if he does, then we get to see him work a deep half safety on the 9 (fade), 8 (post) and 7 (corner). That’s good football to check out.

- Northwestern with that sprint-draw from gun, via Sippin on Purple. Good breakdown of an underused play.

- So, that happened. Hal Mumme apparently scheduled for his McMurry University team — a Division III squad, meaning they don’t have scholarship athletes — to play Stephen F. Austin, an excellent FCS level school (i.e. whose roster is made up of scholarship athletes). The result, was, uh, ugly:

Hal Mumme’s McMurry University’s team took a record 82-6 loss to Stephen F. Austin last Saturday.

McMurry is a Division III team in Texas. Stephen F. Austin is ranked No. 14 in FCS, the same division that includes Eastern Kentucky, Jacksonville State, etc. Stephen F. Austin outgained Mumme’s team 668-120. McMurry quarterback Jake Mullins threw for just 79 yards and was sacked five times. The score was 53-6 at halftime.

Ever the Civil War buff, Mumme had a quote after the rout.

“I know how Lee felt after Pickett’s Charge,” McMurry coach Hal Mumme said. “It’s all my fault. I just asked them to do something they couldn’t do.”

I generally like Hal, but there must have been a payday or something involved. Wow. (Though McMurry is supposed to be transitioning to Division II.) Of course, Hal was also up to his old tricks. I’m not against going for it, but I’ve never heard the logic before that it’s actually better for the defense to give the other team the ball in red zone as opposed to their own twenty. Worth the trade-off of going for it, sure, but not that you were actually helping your defense:

With nothing to lose except a football game, McMurry went for broke from the start, going for it and failing on fourth down on its first four possessions. Three of those were in McMurry territory, including a fourth-and-8 from the 28. The Lumberjacks took advantage with a field goal and two touchdowns to take control before the game was eight minutes old.

“If I’d punted it, I didn’t think our defense could slow them down,” Mumme said. “Nothing against our defense, but we had to make big plays and get them off the field in three plays if we were going to stop them. It’s easier to do that when they’re in the Red Zone than when they’re back 80 yards away. They’re just like us — they throw it down the field real well.”

- Bill C on week one. Great stuff. See also this:

(more…)

Smart Football’s college football viewing guide: opening weekend

After perusing the television listings and gametimes, I’ve set out a rough chart to see how much football I can force upon myself. Games of interest sorted by timeslot.

The best moment in football -- leading the men to the field

Thursday, Sept. 1.

- Murray State at Louisville (ESPNU, 6:00pm): Obviously watch the game to see the good work Charlie Strong has done with Louisville’s development on defense and as a team generally, but also watch because Murray coach Chris Hatcher is an old Airraid guru who continues to throw the ball around. Hatcher won a Divison II National Title at Valdosta St, but his stint at Georgia Southern didn’t go quite as well. It’d be a shock if Louisville didn’t control the game, but, hey, Pat Forde already picked the Cardinals to lose this one.

Friday, Sept. 2.

- TCU at Baylor (ESPN, 7:00pm): If you’re watching football this is your choice, and it’s actually a pretty good one. Art Briles and Robert Griffin III should continue to put on a show at Baylor, but Gary Patterson’s vaunted 4-2-5 defense should be able to control the game. Even if you don’t watch live (it’s unlikely that I will), it’s worth the DVR to study that Patterson/Briles matchup.

Saturday, Sept. 3.

- Appalachian State at Virginia Tech (11:30am, ESPN3): This one has a big point spread, but Appy State is one of the best spread offense teams around; as VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster said in just a bit of hyperbole: “They’ve got a great scheme and they’ve been doing it a long time. I’m not sure what they do wasn’t invented right there. . . . A lot of people take credit for it, but these guys run it as good as anybody.” Foster knows a thing or two about defense, and his team will be stretched by the Appy State attack. Anytime there’s a disparity in levels talent should win out, but this one could get interesting.

- Minnesota at USC (2:30pm, ABC or ESPN2): You can see my rationale for watching Jerry Kill’s debut over at DocSat. (It still could get ugly though.)

- South Florida at Notre Dame (2:30pm, NBC): Notre Dame has a lot to potentially lose in this game, as if Brian Kelly opens this season with a stumble against a (supposedly) lesser but still talented opponent, good will might be in short supply. South Florida shouldn’t roll over but neither should it score a lot itself; the outcome of the game will largely depend on if Dayne Crist can show why he was picked to be ND’s signal-caller. This isn’t so much of a DVR-and-study game as it is one to keep your eye on: If it’s close into the fourth quarter, tensions will be high and the natives will be restless.

(more…)