Breakdown of Drew Brees’s Saints passing game, and four verticals

Available over at the NY Times’s Fifth Down blog. Check it out there.

Most depressing thing I read today

From a study of NCAA probation penalties:

… The study reveals universities who belong to conferences whose champions receive annual automatic BCS bowl bids (BCS automatic-qualifier schools) received less stringent probation penalties from the NCAA infractions committee than other Division I institutions. Also, the research indicates FBS institutions receive less probation years than FCS institutions and non-football sponsoring schools. Finally, the results suggest historically Black colleges and universities in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference (HBCUs) received harsher probation penalties than other Division I institutions.

Read the whole thing. (H/t Blutarsky.)

And yet, as bad as this is — and it is terrible — I still tend to prefer the NCAA system and am more hopeful that it can be fixed than the NFL’s current autocracy, which works as follows, at least for individual players:

Commissioner Roger Goodell determines if you have violated the NFL’s policies. If you have, Commissioner Roger Goodell will bring enforcement against you. Commissioner Roger Goodell will determine if Commissioner Roger Goodell properly determined that you violated Commissioner Roger Goodell’s policies, and then determines the punishment. If you disagree with Commissioner Roger Goodell’s ruling or punishment, you may appeal to Commissioner Roger Goodell. Finally, Commissioner Roger Goodell will determine of you have complied with Commissioner Roger Goodell’s terms of punishment and/or probation.

The wisdom of Texas Tech’s Taylor Potts

Potts, after the Red Raiders’ loss to Texas: “We’d get on a roll offensively and then get a penalty and go right back where we started,” Potts said.

“We tried to beat Texas and ourselves in the first half. In the second half, we just tried to beat Texas.”


And they gave it a pretty good effort. That is, until Sergio Kindle shut the door.

Spurrier wants balance: Is he asking the right questions? Are his critics?

Steve Spurrier watched the game film of his offense’s horrible performance against NC State and concluded: we weren’t aggressive enough. And people are ridiculing him for it.

Steve Spurrier has watched the entire N.C. State game twice and part of it a third time.

The South Carolina coach reached two conclusions: The Gamecocks were too conservative offensively in their 7-3 win in Raleigh, and such an approach is not going to cut it this weekend at Georgia.

“We had a pretty conservative game plan. I didn’t realize how really conservative it was until I watched the game twice now – almost three times,” Spurrier said Sunday. “We wanted to give the running game a chance, so we did do that. But we obviously need to try for some big plays along the way a little bit more probably.”

USC’s run-pass ratio in the opener was nearly 2-to-1, with the Gamecocks running 42 times and attempting 22 passes (although some of those rushes were scrambles by or sacks of quarterback Stephen Garcia).

Still, the attack looked much too plain for a coach credited with introducing the SEC to an intricate downfield passing attack in the 1990s.

And while Spurrier is not ready to scrap the Gamecocks’ revamped rushing scheme after one game, he made it clear he wants to see a more balanced attack against Georgia.

“We certainly can’t bring that game plan to beat Georgia on offense. I don’t think we can,” Spurrier said. “But we don’t want to send Stephen back there and get sacked and run around all night either. We’ve got to get us a balance between runs and passes that we can hit and look like a good offense.”

The buzz has been that Spurrier must be nuts — hey, he’s already given up on the run game. But look at the numbers. I’ve previously talked about a notion of “balance” that only looks at the number of runs or passes or the total yards with rushing and passing as being misleading, and that a far better metric is comparing the expected — or, in lieu of that, average — yards per attempt of each, though, since passes are riskier than runs, passes should still average more (have a premium). The reason is because the defense will respond to your playcalling; it’s a game theory thing.

So let’s look at the numbers. Overall, the Gamecocks averaged a measly 2.57 yards per rush, and an okay 6.7 yards per attempt, though with an interception. There can be problems at looking at the raw numbers, particularly on third down where the result is binary: convert or fail to convert. So let’s look at first down, where clearly the optimal strategy is to maximize your expected gain.

The sample is small, but on first down South Carolina ran the ball 16 times and averaged a mere 3.06 yards per carry. They threw it nine times for 78 yards (and no INTs), resulting in a very healthy 8.67 yards per attempt. I can safely say that Spurrier should have called more first down passes. The OBC’s instincts are right. His playcalling was too conservative, at least on first down, which is the most important down in football because there are more first downs than any other down.

Smart Football Blogpoll – Week Two…late edition

Well, I accidentally submitted this poll too late to count for the overall poll (seen here), though that is probably for the best. Mine was a bit of a monstrosity. Discussion follows the poll. I’ll be back on schedule next week.

Rank Team
1 Florida
2 Texas
3 Southern Cal
4 Alabama
5 Penn State
6 Brigham Young
7 Boise State
8 Oklahoma State
9 Ohio State
10 Mississippi
11 Georgia Tech
12 TCU
13 Utah
14 Cincinnati
15 North Carolina
16 Nebraska
17 Notre Dame
18 Miami (Florida)
19 Oregon State
20 Kansas
21 Texas Tech
22 Missouri
23 Tennessee
24 Michigan State
25 Clemson

So, the first thing I did was eliminate every team that lost. Is that rational? I don’t think so, but the BlogPoll instructs that results are supposed to be about what happened on the field. Now, later on I will definitely count close losses, etc into a fuller vision of teams, but for now I thought I’d try this. Among the remaining teams I just employed my gestalt approach: a blend of likelihood of winning the big one, reward for playing well, and elements of a “power poll.”

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: