Florida’s no-huddle: More plays for me equals less chance of you winning

For all the talk of more pro-sets and and putting Tebow under-center, the biggest change the Florida Gators may installed on offense is a new “bonsai” (or “bonzai”?) package: a no-huddle look they got from Oklahoma whereby they can use multiple tempos — i.e. line up and call the play right away, or line up, get a look at the defense, and call a play. Specifically:

Word from Gator Country ($) is that the Gators’ no-huddle package, deployed sparingly in the steamrolling of Charleston Souther, is called either “banzai” or “bonzai” or “bansai” or something. (Gator Bytes confirms this.) . . . .

The idea is stolen from Oklahoma’s hurry-up, which helped power their near-unstoppable 2008 offense. . . .

There are many reasons to use this scheme, but one of them is that Florida simply has better talent than most (all?) of its opponents. And if you have more talent than your opponents then you want to get as many “trials” as possible to maximize your chance of winning. Conversely, an optimal game for an underdog would be where they managed to get lucky, score early, and end the game right there. In other words, the underdog wants a high variance strategy. The hurry-up no-huddle for Florida (I know they will use different tempos) is a way to get more of these trials. Think of it this way. There is very little chance of Kentucky beating Florida this year. It’s not impossible; we could think of what would have to happen. Tebow would have to play awful, Florida would have to turn it over, blow some coverages, fumble a kickoff or punt or two, and Kentucky would have to take advantage of all of those mistakes. In other words, they’d have to be very, very lucky. Unless you are a partisan or don’t understand statistics, you have to admit that if Florida and Kentucky played 1,000 times Kentucky might win at least one of them. If Florida runs more plays than usual (Oklahoma ran more plays than any team in college football last season), then this is like factoring in extra games into a single one — the Gators would have more opportunity to smooth out instances of the other team getting lucky.

Of course I’ve previously discussed this dynamic of underdog and favorite (or “David” and “Goliath” strategies):

Going extreme hurry-up to get as many plays as possible — other than endurance, I suppose — is a Goliath strategy: it decreases variance by increasing the number of trials. The chance of getting only heads and no tails in five coin flips is much higher than it is in a hundred — i.e. the impact of the law of large numbers or regression to the mean. If Oklahoma has significantly more talent, better schemes, and everything else than the underdog, then the more plays it run the more likely it is to exhibit its raw dominance over the underdog; the underdog is less likely to “steal” a few good plays and get the heck out of dodge. The principle is the same as the difference between an underdog winning a game in a single-elimination tournament and trying to win a seven-game series: the seven-game series is far less likely to produce upsets.

The logic runs exactly opposite for Florida’s opponents this year, all of whom are likely to be considered underdogs:

As explained above, the higher variance and thus David-favoring strategy is to reduce the number of “trials” — i.e. plays. This is where a passing strategy and a strategy that involves “shortening the game and keeping it close” might run counter to each other. Incomplete passes typically stop the clock (I can’t keep the college clock rules in my brain anymore), as do plays where the ballcarrier goes out of bounds, which is more common on passes (same with the clock rules). If an underdog were to get an early lead, they obviously would love it if the game effectively ended right there. Yes, there is much to say about the problems inherent in not playing to lose and all that, but those are means questions, not ends. And all can agree that an underdog would love to get an early lead in a game against a favorite and have the clock run out as fast as possible.

Whether or not Meyer had stochastic reasoning in mind when he went to this, this kind of strategy should benefit his team overall, but especially against overmatched opponents; it’s kind of like upset-repellent. Even if the Gators got down and played poorly, they would always have the option of lengthening the game and evening out the probabilities.


Deconstructing: Preview of Boise State vs. Oregon

Now up over at Yahoo’s Dr Saturday. Check it out.

Anatomy of a Super Bowl winner: Steelers breakdown at NYT Fifth Down Blog

My breakdown of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense is up over at the New York Times Fifth Down Blog. This should become a weekly thing, so check out the inaugural post.

Football trivia: Paul Johnson vs. Jim Tressel

Paul Johnson once faced Jim Tressel in a national championship game. What were the teams and what was the result? Find out after the jump.


Tackling a cyclone: Grantland Rice, the internet, and the death (and rebirth) of sports writing

From the poem “Alumnus Football,” by Grantland Rice:

Grantland Rice

Grantland Rice

For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks — not that you won or lost –
But how you played the Game.

This most famous line of famed writer Grantland Rice’s career — “how you played the game” — is frequently invoked but, more often than not, not attributed to him, or anyone else for that matter. It has achieved a status limited to those phrases, aphorisms, or observations, that are so inevitable that, rather than imagine them having been concocted by a writer and made real by pen and paper, typewriter, or computer, instead simply exist somewhere within ourselves. No one can create something so true. The aphorism itself of course refers not just to sports but to life as well, and thus applies to writers who write about athletes as well as the athletes themselves. Anyone with the audacity (or egoism, as Orwell put it) to publish their words in any form will not be judged only by their readership numbers, their entitlement to column space, or any of the old metrics. It’s how they played the game.

And, as Spencer Hall cogently explains for the Sporting Blog, the internet is finally breaking down some of the old barriers.

[Regarding the death of the 800-word columnist at newspapers.] The internet exploded this framework in a few critical ways. First off, it turns out people think in bits both shorter and longer than 800 words. Shocking, but sometimes people could read thousands and thousands of words at a time without passing out due to dehydration. Astounding, I know, but somehow the long distance runners of the reading world made Bill Simmons a very wealthy man, and the sprinters turned Deadspin in the face-eating, thousand-tentacled beast it is today. Like it or not, readers don’t just think in 800-word snippets.

Also, it so happens that sports fans were both far more eclectic and choosy than anticipated. . . . The model for many young bloggers, for instance, is not someone like a Vecsey, a Bill Plaschke, or anyone else you might see aping away on Around The Horn. It is a devoted specialist like Paul Zimmerman, or even a tangent-hopping single-topic writer like Gregg Easterbrook, or heaven forbid, writers who didn’t write about sports at all.

Sportswriting in that sense is dead, and perhaps has been dead for a long time. For that, raise a huzzah: trapped in the column, mobbed by the dueling schools of maudlin sentimentality (call it the “Albom school”) and knee-jerk antipathy generators like Jay Mariotti (creatively referred to here as “the Mariotti school,”) sportswriting on the whole has been uninteresting for a long, long, long time. There’s little point of treating the columnist like he’s something to be missed: good writing is good writing, and good writers will survive any transition between technologies.

. . . .Good ingredients work no matter the treatment, something that may not be true of generalist columnists who learned that single sentence paragraphs and easy moralizing about athletics and their place in society were a great way to stuff column space for paychecks.

The problem for them is that the audience is no longer captive. They can roam the internet looking for whatever they like, and if they’re under 40, they’re not waiting for it to come to them on their doorstep. They are still prisoner to one constant, however: the hunger for quality. If the general columnist dies out, it’s not because the audience lost the taste for something necessary. It is because they were making do all along with what they had, and left the instant they got a better offer.

In sum: Without the structural impediments and bottlenecks that propped up a certain brand of sports writing, it will be, as is true in most endeavors, the combination of ability and industry that will win the prize.

To illustrate how strange this sports writing bottleneck has been, it is helpful to look back to guys like Grantland Rice. He wrote at a different time: Typically, the only people who might read his recap of a game who had actually seen it were people who were in attendance. Maybe they had also listened on the radio, but that’s not certain. The form too was more free-flowing. It was known as the golden age of myth-making in sports, something derided later, but are we not moving back in that direction in the Tebow-era?

But this freedom allowed him to flout convention — or at least he wasn’t constrained by the conventions concocted by the later oligarchy that came to rule the sports writing world. Take his famous “The Four Horsemen,” article, written about a game between Notre Dame and Army in 1924, ostensibly a recap of that game. (This should go without saying, but this article — and this blog post — have little to do with Notre Dame. This is about a game that took place seventy-five years ago, and thus has little to do with whatever Notre Dame, or Army for that matter, has going on now. Were this article written about Syracuse or Michigan it would be just as good.) The article begins:


A premature look at the NE Patriots’ changes on D

Is Bill Belichick moving the Patriots away from the 3-4 defense? The buzz in Boston is that they are. Here’s a video clip of Richard Seymour talking about it and excerpts of a Q&A Seymour did with the Boston Globe’s Reiss’s Pieces blog:

To 4-3, or not to 4-3?

To 4-3, or not to 4-3?

4-3 vs. 3-4 defense

“. . . .We have the versatility to play in a lot of different fronts, a lot of different packages, whatever is going to give our team the edge. You know, the offense always knows where the play is going and the snap count, so if we can do some different things on defense to help us out in that process, whether it’s the 3-4 or the 4-3, whatever can give us the best chance to win.” . . . .

Does the 4-3 allow him to stand out as a pass rusher?

“It depends on what we’re executing. It isn’t always about sacks, [that)] can be overrated. It’s about getting pressure on the passer, taking care of your responsibilities first. There’s a time and a place for everything. If it calls for us to penetrate, get in the backfield, then that’s what we’ll do. But sometimes we’ll 2-gap, when playing 4-3 front as well. Some teams have different philosophies, where it’s a 1-gap defense, but we still 2-gap and everybody is responsible for two gaps.”


It’s here: Smartfootball.com! Tell your friends

The transition, far too long in the works, is now complete. I will now be posting exclusively here at smartfootball.com, as I had outgrown the old blogspot location. So update your bookmarks, links, and feeds. To immediately quell any fears, the blogspot site will remain open in perpetuity, as porting over all the archives was too hard and I also had no desire to shut any of that stuff down. Moreover, if you want to refresh your memory of some of the old site’s greatest hits (and keep up with what I’m writing elsewhere around the web or in print media), check out the Featured Articles page above.

Other than the new location and fancier digs, everything else should remain pretty much the same. I’ve flirted a bit with becoming a blogger for someone else’s platform, but for now I think it’s best to stay independent and just try to improve this site’s quality and visibility even more. I’m not quite ESPN.com yet, but the site’s readership has grown with an increase in my posting. In July 2007, we had a mere 10,000 hits; in July 2008, 20,000; and last month, July 2009, we had 170,000, and eight-fold increase over the prior year. I’m convinced that number can double at least another time.  I should have plenty of time to update frequently, at least until November, when my real job will pick up speed. But overall, it should be more of the same.

Of course, I’ve been writing a bit for Dr Saturday every Thursday, which will continue, and I hope to increase my reach elsewhere in the web as well. Moreover, I want to regularize a few features here, including possibly a detailed breakdown every Tuesday here, similar to what I’ve been doing for Doc Sat.

Lastly, I just want to thank all the readers here for your support and interest. I’m always amazed at how knowledgeable the commenters and emailers are, be it statistics, football history, or schemes and strategies. I’m convinced the Smart Football community is the smartest one on the ‘net, and that has very little to do with me. Stay tuned for plenty of content this week, and feel free to let me know what you think of the new design, and any suggestions.