Over the last few months I’ve asked a number of coaches at a variety of levels what they thought football strategy would be like in 50 years. Given that, as a profession, coaches tend to be focused on immediate goals—the next practice, the next game, the next play—the response I received from one small college head coach was typical: “First, hell, I can’t predict how strategy will change next year, let alone in 50 years. Second, it doesn’t matter, because in 50 years I will be dead.” And the coaches who did proffer predictions tended to give ones that might hold true in the next four or five years—like an increased use of power formations and power runs, in the alternative, even further moves by offenses towards the wide open spread attacks—but that would either be long in the past by the time we reached 50 years or that, with such a long time horizon, would be mere blips along the way.
Yet all agreed football strategy and tactics will change over the next fifty years, but the iterative give-and-take of offense versus defense means that predicting specific future strategies is almost impossible. Instead, the key is to look at what trends have and will continue to affect all technical trades, from medicine to engineering, as football coaching will continue to evolve in response to those same trends.
To date, so-called analytics or data based approaches—other than basic charting of tendencies—has had very little real world impact on strategy: coaches teach blocking, tackling and catching, draw up plays to beat coverages, and largely ignore external analyses. And, given that most of the strategic analytics currently produced is noise—a victim to garbage-in/garbage-out and naive models that don’t appreciate the game’s nuances—this is a rational response. But, over the next 50 years, tracking technology is likely to bridge this gap between coaches and data-crunchers which will lead to several innovations in how teams prepare their gameplans and even call plays.
Read the whole thing.]]>
But Gibbs didn’t think of the play on his own. “We stole it,” Gibbs told Sports Illustrated. “We saw some film on Nebraska, and Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative things with his line up front. We were watching it and thought, God, that’s good stuff. So we stole it.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong with this: You can’t patent a football play, and once it’s on film it’s there for the world to see — and for other coaches to copy. And arguably no coach over the last two seasons has been better at strategically “stealing” plays than Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Kiffin has a history of being flexible with offense, as while an assistant at Southern Cal under Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Norm Chow, Kiffin spent a lot of time at Tampa Bay’s facilities where his father was the defensive coordinator and Jon Gruden was the head coach, where he picked Gruden’s brain and studied hours of film on Gruden’s West Coast Offense. Many of those concepts eventually made their way into USC’s attack. And one of the reasons Nick Saban hired Kiffin was because he wanted someone who could bring a true pro-style approach to Alabama’s offense while also modernizing it, as Saban had seen first hand how quickly offensive football was changing. Kiffin has largely succeeded on both fronts.
But Alabama’s win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl was one of Kiffin’s best games, as he first loosened up Michigan State’s excellent defense with short passes, packaged plays and screens, before surgically dismantling it (while Alabama’s defense completely suffocated MSU’s offense). And several of the key plays for Alabama were ones Kiffin had borrowed from film study. From The Wall Street Journal:
[H]ere’s the most notable thing about those two Alabama plays: They weren’t actually Alabama’s.
Chris B. Brown, a corporate lawyer who writes about strategy for his website Smart Football, was watching the game the next morning, unable to stay up on New Year’s Eve with two young children, when he noticed something unusual. Alabama had recycled the same plays that had worked for Baylor and Oregon in their recent games against Michigan State.
The first Alabama deep ball was a ripoff of a Baylor play that went for a touchdown against Michigan State in the very same bowl game and stadium last season. The second Ridley bomb was right out of Chip Kelly’s old playbook at Oregon.
Alabama coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin have a history of borrowing plays. Brown remembered Alabama scoring against Wisconsin this season on a run that Ohio State used to run all over Oregon in last season’s national championship. But they’re at their most brazen in bowl games, because that’s when they can add a few wrinkles that might work against only one opponent.
“They have done a good job of pulling ideas from different teams and using them to often devastating effect,” Brown said in an email.
I have previously written about Alabama’s use of Ohio State’s wrinkle to the Counter Trey in which it’s run from the shotgun with a fake jet sweep going the opposite direction, and I wanted to explore the specific origins of the plays Kiffin borrowed and used to great effect in the Cotton Bowl.
As many now know (and as I’ve also written about at length), the Spartans’ defense largely cycles between their base defense, a 4-3 alignment with “Quarters” coverage behind it, and aggressive zone blitzes. To broadly oversimplify, MSU’s Quarters is a hybrid man-to-man/zone coverage where the cornerbacks are locked up in what looks like (and often ends up being) man coverage while the linebackers are free to stop the run. The key to the defense is the play of the safeties, who stand at around eight yards and “flat-foot read” the tight-end or inside/slot receivers, which determines whether they are responsible for flying up to stuff the run, help the cornerbacks by becoming “robber” defenders who read the QBs eyes and can double teaming the outside receivers, or if the safeties will instead lock up one-on-one with the tight-end or slot, all depending on what those receivers do.
Michigan State’s record over the last few seasons speaks for itself, and when that defense is rolling it looks like it’s everywhere because it naturally adapts to what the offense is doing with nine defenders up to stuff the run, help on passes to the offense’s best outside receivers, and cover the four verticals pass play. As former Michigan State defensive coordinator (and current Pittsburgh head coach) Pat Narduzzi said a few years back at a clinic: “I believe one defense can stop everything; I believe we could play an entire football game in our base defense. I believe that if everyone lines up exactly right, reads their keys, and does all the fundamentals involved with the defense, it is enough to win.”
But the weak point of Quarters (and other coverages in the same family) is the stress it puts on the safeties to play the run, read offensive players, and still be able to react and then hold up in man-to-man coverage, especially if the linebackers don’t re-route a speedy slot receiver. Indeed, Baylor sees a lot of Quarters coverage variations in the Big 12, and one of their favorite answers is to go play action and have the outside receivers run 5-10 yards to the sideline and just stop while the inside slot runs a “Win” route vertical — get open deep.
In the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State last season, Baylor scored on a 49 yard touchdown pass from Bryce Petty to KD Cannon on a play in which Baylor’s outside receivers simply took MSU’s cornerbacks out of the play, while Petty made a ball fake and Cannon vaporized MSU’s safety on a vertical route before running under a pretty deep ball from Petty. (And look carefully: Baylor only had ten players on the field on this play.)
And after a slow start for his offense in the Cotton Bowl, Kiffin decided to get aggressive . . . after some encouragement from his boss. “It’s the first quarter and we’re not doing well,” Kiffin said this week. “Nick says on the headset, ‘You need to go after the safeties.'”
To do so, Kiffin used the same concept Baylor had run to engineer a 50-yard bomb to freshman phenom Calvin Ridley to set up Alabama’s first touchdown: Alabama’s outside receivers ran outside routes on the sideline to hold the cornerbacks; Jacob Coker made a play-action fake to Derrick Henry to hold the linebackers; and Ridley ran a deep double move — the same stem to the post and then fade back out that Cannon had used the prior year — against a Michigan State’s safety who was trying to both read the play-fake and match the speedy Ridley one-on-one.
“In that last game [against Michigan State] we were fortunately able to get ‘Quarters’ type looks versus Calvin [Ridley] in the slot a couple of times,” Kiffin said this week. “And we hit a couple of big plays.” What he didn’t mention was that the blueprint for attacking those safeties was right out of Art Briles’s Baylor playbook.
While the first long bomb to Ridley kicked things off for Alabama, the last one, a 50-yard third quarter strike for a touchdown, was the coup de grâce. And this one, too was inspired by one of Michigan State’s former opponents, though what Alabama did was a mixture of two different Oregon staples.
First, one of Oregon’s favorite plays since Chip Kelly was a play that (I believe) they referred to as Saints but which most refer to as “Deep Cross” or, in Air Raid parlance, “Y-Cross.” The Oregon version of the play is always run from the shotgun as it combines the old Y-Cross concept with a fake zone run and a backside bubble screen — staple concepts in Oregon’s offense which enhance the deception and can help free up the receivers. Meanwhile, the slot or tight-end runs the deep crossing route at a depth of 12-18 yards while the receiver outside of him runs a deep post or a curl. The play can hit in a lot of different places depending on the coverage, but the deep cross and the backside post puts the safeties under stress for a downfield shot. Below is an example from Philadelphia under Chip Kelly, who first brought the play to Oregon.
You can watch Marcus Mariota diagram this very play for Jon Gruden (who calls it, in own parlance, “Bubble Y-Over”), though note that while Mariota draws it up with the backside receiver running a curl Oregon often either tags that receiver to run a post or, alternatively, sometimes he actually reads the coverage: He runs the post if he can get open deep and, if not, he stops and turns it into a deep curl. The idea is the offense is faking an inside run play to draw up the linebackers and safeties and can either hit the vertical receiver, the deep crossing receiver behind the linebackers, or the deep post if the safeties cheat up or they leave him one-on-one. It’s a play Oregon runs several times in every game.
This is the concept Kiffin and Alabama used to spring Ridley for the long third quarter touchdown, but there was a wrinkle to it, which also happened to be Oregon inspired. When Michigan State and Oregon matched up in 2014, the Ducks broke the game open in the second half with several long Marcus Mariota throws, many of which featured bunched receivers criss-crossing at the snap. In Michigan State’s Quarters defense, they define the coverage responsibilities for the secondary by them from the sideline: the outside WR is #1, the next guy is #2, etc.
By using the bunched sets with the “switch” releases, Oregon was able to spring receivers for easy gains when Michigan State’s defenders got confused on who they were covering, and even when there wasn’t a bust it can cause hesitation which is enough for a receiver to get leverage to get open. In the below play, Oregon runs the four verticals concept while #2 and #3 to the three receiver side switch their releases and a runningback goes in fast or “bullet” motion to the field, all tactics designed to mess with the Spartans’ coverage responsibilities.
With that background, you can see how Kiffin took staple Oregon concepts and combined them to get a crucial touchdown in the Cotton Bowl. From a set with bunched receivers to each side (a very common Oregon formation), he called Oregon’s version of deep cross with the fake screen away from the back and the deep cross and post to the other side, with Ridley — originally lined up as the inside receiver — running the post while the outside receiver runs the deep cross. And, even though Michigan State looked to be in a form of pure man coverage rather than Quarters and didn’t bust their assignments at the snap, the concepts Kiffin borrowed — play-action Y-Cross combined with the bunched sets with switch releases — nevertheless caused hesitation in the Spartans’ secondary and again got Ridley one-on-one with a safety.
Although each of the plays I’ve highlighted were borrowed from so-called spread offenses like Ohio State, Baylor and Oregon, Kiffin’s borrowing them very much fits in with his and Saban’s “pro-style” background, where the emphasis is on situations and gameplanning — and drawing ideas from anywhere — as opposed to running only a core set of plays that fit together and relying on your team’s execution and the coach’s ability to move down the sequence as the defense tries to react.
“You’re always trying to get matchups, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, because they coach too and they have good players as well,” Kiffin said earlier this week. “But you’re always trying to get certain coverages for certain plays, and that’s what we do all week, to figure out, ‘Do they play this versus this in these situations so we can run these plays?'”
The risk of this approach is you run too many disparate plays that don’t fit together and your players can’t master, but Saban sets the tone for his team and he has always believed that his players will master what he throws at them — so long as they trust Saban’s “Process.” And maybe that’s the secret to the success of Kiffin’s cribbing from other teams: Anything that survives The Process is bound to work.]]>
“This is a great hire for us,” Miles said. “Dave has an outstanding track record of producing some of the best defenses in college football. We’ve seen him up close and understand how difficult it is to have success against him.
“He’s everything that we were looking for in a defensive coordinator. He’s youthful with tremendous enthusiasm; our players are going to love him. He brings great defensive knowledge to our staff both as a technician and as a strategist…. Dave will bring different packages and an attacking style to the field,” Miles said. “Watching his defense play, they are tough to move the ball on and they are sticky in every situation. His defenses do a great job of getting off the field.
Given that he’s an up and comer there’s not an enormous amount of information out there on Aranda, but what there is — and the tremendous defenses he’s coached at Utah State and Wisconsin — indicates that he’s very good teacher and coach. I quoted him (very) briefly in The Art of Smart Football, and the below clip gives a bit of insight into some of his philosophy on rushing the passer.
Also the coaches I’ve met with seem to universally praise him, citing both some of the techniques he uses (often lining up his defensive tackles a yard or more off the ball to help with slanting), and his candor in taking full responsibility for Wisconsin’s blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game last season. (Here is an old powerpoint from Aranda on pass rush when he was a GA at Texas Tech.)
Had the pleasure of speaking with Aranda at the WFCA clinic last year. Very bright and helpful to this young coach. Loved his work at UW.
— Benjamin Flack (@CoachBenFlack) January 2, 2016
Aranda is also at the forefront of defending both read-option plays and has developed some interesting answers for packaged plays/run pass options in recent years.
One way Aranda keeps his defense simple but reactive is by giving his linebackers several reads on each play that can evolve both pre- and post-snap that nevertheless are only based on a few key looks for the players. In a private whiteboard session he told some high school coaches that when teaching a defense a rival school’s coaches (I won’t name names) might might draw up 75 different looks for their players, but for his there’s only three looks. Some examples of these reads can be found in this excellent article with Aranda from Xs and Os Labs, where he talks about how he combines one-gapping and two-gapping principles to defend the spread run game.
Aranda, who runs a 4-3 base quarters package used to play single-gap control defense and wind up getting gashed for big yardage on zone wind backs because of a numbers advantage on the offense because of his two-safety look.
“[On a “Zeer” or zone-read-veer run scheme, n]o matter how you draw it up, the offense will have four guys at the point of attack: the QB, the tackle, the guard and the running back. If you’re a one gap type team and you’re playing it that way, whether your have a five and a 1-tech or a 3- and a 5-tech it really doesn’t matter because it’s four on three,” says Aranda. “You have two DL and one LB. The DE gets the shaft because he has to play two aspects: the dive, the bend of the dive to the inside out to the QB. You’re cheating a guy. An easy answer is to use someone from outside the box and bring him inside the box. The problem with that is the bubble screens and the now screens that are thrown by these offenses. Teams will read the LB that is walked out. If that LB steps up and reads run on the play action to handle QB on zone read. Once the QB sees him step up, he disconnects from the RB and throws the slant over the top of his head. It’s a tough play. I found you needed to get four and four and equate the numbers post-snap.”
Aranda has a very simple philosophy when it comes to his second level players playing the read game: If you’re in the core [i.e., the box], you play in the core and if you’re outside the core you play outside the core. “This handles all of that fly sweep you may see out of unbalanced formations,” says Aranda. “There is no inside linebacker needed to run down sweep, or safeties negating force. Everything must be assignment football, particularly when playing the option.”
His Mike LB’s assignment pre-snap when playing the Zone or Zeer read is to sit in the A gap, but post-snap he has some key progressions to work through starting with his first step. . . .
Initially, Aranda tells his Mike LB’s to work to stack the 2-technique, but as the play bends back he must be ready to fall back. To do that, he must be at five-yards. “If it’s coming tight downhill, that 2-technique is going to clear out the A gap. There is no A gap so it’s already bending back to begin with. As the offensive tackle is coming down on the 2-technique, and our 2-technique is already squeezing the guard, the RB will bend back. The further he bends back, there is our 5-technique. For our Mike LB reads, we play clear or cloudy. If they zone it, the guard surges on the 2-technqiue, the tackle wipes out the 2, now Mike is already sitting in the gap so he plays the back. If the back bends it and it’s cloudy (the end is there) the Mike is over the top and will be a QB player inside out. If the Tackle works to surge on 2-technique, then turns back out on the 5- technique (to open up the B gap) it’s a clear read so the Mike hits it. Essentially, he plays clear to cloudy and dive to inside out on QB. But everything works off the defensive tackles.”
“The way we play quarters, the outside LB is the force defender. We play the safety as sky force but it’s a replacement force if the LB gets cracked. We used to put the safety as the pitch player, but he also has number two vertical so he’s in conflict. Teams could run the back-side number two in orbit and now they have a pitch player. The LB plays into the number two receiver man-to-man. He’ll play the QB if he comes out his way and he’ll also play pitch. The safety is sitting off of him. He plays the outside half of QB to pitch. We tell the safety if number two blocks he triggers off that LB so we can get those two involved (diagram 15). Whenever that safety has pitch responsibility in a quarter’s system where he has two vertical, there is a problem. We need to be tied with the LB. We play crack replace with the safety so the LB can be more aggressive. If they run a slant/bubble combination, the safety must see the block on that LB. The LB who is covered down can play the run aggressively through receiver. The safety is the protector.”
Some evolutions are good ones.]]>
Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey narrowly missed out on the Heisman trophy in one of the most competitive races in recent years, as McCaffrey, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Alabama’s Derrick Henry each had remarkable seasons, with Henry taking home the trophy. But McCaffrey might be the most intriguing one of the bunch as he has tremendous skills but I’m still wrapping my mind around how he projects to the NFL, as while he weighs only around 205 pounds (by contrast, Rams rookie Todd Gurley is 225 pounds), he has preternatural agility and quickness, yet has thrived in Stanford’s bruising, power based system while rushing for 1,847 yards. But what makes McCaffrey truly special to me are his special skills as a receiver.
Of course, McCaffrey has the pedigree of an outstanding “space player“: McCaffrey’s father was Ed McCaffrey, a thirteen year NFL veteran wide receiver (who could really ball); his grandfather, Dave Sime, was “ranked one of the fastest humans of all time“, won an Olympic silver medal in the 100 meter dash and at one point held the world record in the 100 meter dash; and his mother, Lisa, was a soccer player at Stanford who once (jokingly?) told Sports Illustrated, “That’s why Ed and I got together — so we could breed fast white guys.”
But it’s not just that McCaffrey is great in the open field, a fact evidenced by his insane 3,469 all purpose yards, which broke the record set by none other than Barry Sanders. McCaffrey also has a tremendous feel for the passing game and for running routes, as evidenced by how often Stanford used him in their “HBO” or “half-back option” schemes.
Stanford has for years combined a halfback option with the Y-stick concept, going at least as far back as the Andrew Luck days. To one side Stanford runs Stick, in which an outside receiver runs vertical, either a slot receiver or a RB runs to the flat, and a third receiver runs a quick stop or turn route — the “stick” route. This concept creates a triangle stretch on the defense with a vertical stretch (with the vertical and the flat) and a horizontal stretch with the flat and the stick routes. Stanford’s wrinkle is to run a half-back option to the other side, which thus also puts the middle linebacker in a bind. For the mechanics of the running back option route, Air Raid progenitor Hal Mumme has succinctly explained how they work:
There are three key reads to [the option] route: being able to recognize man or zone, proper depth when running the route, and the timing between the quarterback and the running back… On this route we want [the RB] to line up directly behind the tackle with our heels at five yards. Pushing off on our inside foot we want to release outside the tackle and head straight up field to a depth of four yards past the line of scrimmage. If the back sees zone coverage, he will hook up, turn and face the quarterback. Now when the back knows he has man-to-man coverage he must recognize the leverage of the defender. If the defender is playing the back with inside leverage he will push off his inside foot and drive to the outside, running away from the defender. If the defender is playing the back with outside leverage he will plant his outside foot and break inside the defender.
Against zone coverages, the flat, stick and option route (which has settled between the linebackers) create a horizontal stretch on the underneath zone defenders that should produce an open receiver for a steady gain. But against man-to-man coverage, the stick concept pulls defenders out of the box leaving the option route one-on-one in space — and when that’s one-on-one is Christian McCaffrey versus a linebacker or safety, the defense is in trouble.
McCaffrey makes that look easy — effortless, really — but coaches from Mumme to LaVell Edwards to Bill Walsh have all talked about how many running backs don’t ever develop a feel for the kind of free-flowing split decisions option routes require, and notice here too that just before the snap Southern Cal crosses their linebackers and the one initially lined up over McCaffrey blitzes while the other jumps over. McCaffrey sees all that happen in a split second and still makes USC pay. That’s just a great feel for the game.
I still have a lot more Christian McCaffrey to watch — and, a true sophomore, he has to play at least one more season at Stanford due to NFL/NFLPA rules — but McCaffrey looks to me like an instant impact kind of NFL talent, particularly if his coaches know how to use him as a receiver out of the backfield.
Holgo’s Last Stand
Depending on what news article you read last week, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen was either on the brink of being fired or his job for 2016 was never seriously in doubt, but there was enough something to cause WVU’s athletic director to put out a statement that, despite being “disappointed with how our regular season ended” (a one-point loss on the road to Bill Snyder’s 6-6 Kansas State team, following a four game winning streak), “Dana Holgorsen will return as our head football coach in 2016.” Since going 10-3 with an Orange Bowl victory in his first season (in the old Big East), Holgorsen’s WVU teams have gone 7-6, 4-8, 7-6 and 7-5 in the past four years in the Big 12.
I’ll come back to the question of whether that record should earn you another year coaching West Virginia, but the fact that this was even a discussion owes much to some changes Holgorsen made to his offense this season, namely to expand his running game.
Although he has said he doesn’t like the label, Holgorsen comes from the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach “Air Raid” tree which, yes, means throwing the ball a lot, but has also traditionally meant a very simple running game: Leach and Mumme really only ran draw and a played they called “base” which was like an Iso (lead) play from two-backs but became something of just “hit the guy in front of you” blocking, as neither called many run plays unless the defense had mostly abandoned the box to defend the pass. At Houston and Oklahoma State, Holgorsen was one of the first in the Air Raid tree to use zone blocking, which every modern Air Raid team outside of Leach’s Washington State teams — from Texas Tech to TCU to Oklahoma State to Texas A&M to Oklahoma to Cal — uses as the foundation for their running game. Even when Holgorsen and then-Oklahoma State offensive line coach Joe Wickline invented the three-back “Diamond formation,” the run plays they used from that formation used almost exclusively zone blocking.
All of which made Holgorsen’s latest evolution interesting. When former WVU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh left for Oklahoma, Holgorsen hired Ron Crook, a longtime line coach who had spent two seasons at Stanford coaching tackles and tight-ends, with one of the explicit reasons being he wanted to integrate power football into his Air Raid philosophy.
“One of the things that impressed me about [Holgorsen] was he said, ‘I felt like our style didn’t give us a chance to play to the level we needed to play to and I think there are some things we need to change,’” Crook recalls from that first meeting. “I think I was excited that here’s a head coach who has had a lot of success doing things a certain way, but has recognized there’s something he wants to change and he’s going out and doing it.”
That only manifested itself in fits and starts the last couple of seasons, but this year — and really, in the middle of this year — Holgorsen, Crook and WVU really committed to the Power/Counter run game featuring pulling guards and fullbacks kicking out defensive ends and wrapping up to linebackers, in part because the strength of the team was in its runners but also because of shortcomings in the passing game. But there’s no question it fueled the Mountaineers four game win streak. And one of the fascinating thing were all the variations Holgorsen showed. (Videos courtesy of Mike Casazza.)
In addition to typical power — fullback kicks out the defensive end, backside guard wraps and pulls to linebacker — Holgorsen’s team made steady use of Counter, which simply flips the assignments of the two with the backside guard kicking out the defensive end and the fullback/H-back wrapping for the linebacker.
They ran this scheme from a variety of formations, including a nifty version from splitbacks with the playside RB taking counter steps so he can follow the other RB leading the way.
West Virginia also ran this scheme from the three-back Diamond formation, with the backside guard kicking out the end man on the line of scrimmage and the two fullbacks both leading the way to the linebackers.
But maybe the most interesting stuff Holgorsen did — particularly for a so-called Air Raid disciple — was how he integrated his quarterback into the schemes. For example, Holgorsen got a lot of mileage out of running quarterback power with some simple packaged plays with receiver screens or short stick concepts to the outside, and letting his QB throw the screens or quick passes or keep it himself on the inside run.
Yet what really got me was seeing Dana Holgorsen run a Power-I mashup, with a QB power plus another lead blocker, as shown below.
None of these concepts are new — Power/Counter is the second most popular running scheme in the NFL and College Football — but I think it says something about the state of football strategy that one of the key innovators in the Air Raid lineage is integrating Power-I and even single wing football concepts into the offense.
West Virginia rode these concepts to finish second in the Big 12 in rushing with over 235 yards per game on the ground — including 299 yards per game in WVU’s four game November win streak — which in turn ultimately saved Holgo’s job, though the events of the last few weeks makes one wonder exactly how much longer it’s been saved for. Indeed, after issuing his formal statement, WVU’s AD later made these remarks about Holgorsen’s contract, which expires in just two seasons, a rarity for college coaches in light of the four-year recruiting cycle.
“We haven’t gotten to that point,” Lyons said. “We will talk to [Holgorsen] about the current contract in the coming weeks. We’re looking at it one way; he’s looking at it from a different standpoint.
“There’s no specific timeline for this though. Dana will be our coach in 2016. We may get it done by the end of this week or next. We may not.
“His agent has brought [renegotiating] up and I have to see what he’s proposing. I’m not sure what he’s looking for. Also, I have some things in mind.”
That sounds… not promising? Also, I’m pretty sure the way the WVU AD is looking at it is giving Holgorsen an extension while reducing the impact of terminating Holgorsen early.
In any event, the question of whether Holgorsen should be back is really a question about what’s appropriate for West Virginia as a Big 12 team. If Alabama goes 7-6, 4-8, 7-6 and 7-5, you better believe that coach is getting fired. On the other hand, Glen Mason at Minnesota had a career record of 64-57 and was fired after going 10-3, 7-5, 7-5 and 6-7 in his last four seasons; Mason’s replacement, Tim Brewster, went 1-11 the next season and was fired in the middle of the 2010 season with a cumulative record of 15-30. Sometimes 7-5 isn’t too bad. (For reference, legendary WVU coach Don Nehlen’s average season record was approximately 7-5.)
In the Power 5 era, with the specter of continued conference realignment always looming, the pressure is on schools to not accept anything less than top tier results, and it’s fair for 2016 to be a make-or-break year for Holgorsen’s WVU tenure. But if 2016 is his last season, WVU better nail the hire. Just ask Minnesota.
– Wall Street Journal on Baylor’s lazy routes (which I wrote about here)
– La’el Collins!
– Matt Waldman on Trevone Boykin
– Wade Phillips’s defensive call sheet
– Yikes: Bill Belichick on Marv Levy (from 1995):
The relationship was strained last week when Bill Belichick of the Browns took potshots at Marv Levy of the Bills for suggesting the Browns faked injuries to slow the no-huddle offense Monday night. Levy has made the suggestion in the past about other teams, including the New York Giants when Belichick was the team’s defensive coordinator.
Belichick replied: “I think that’s a bunch of garbage. It’s hard for me to have respect for Levy for saying that. It’s demeaning.” It’s almost unheard of in the NFL for one coach to publicly criticize another coach’s ability, but Belichick even did that.
“Here’s a guy offensively who came in and tried to run the Wing-T offense in Kansas City. That was brilliant,” he said. Belichick then noted how the Bills went back to the no-huddle at half-time of the Carolina game two weeks ago.
“The best thing he did was turn the offense over to Jim Kelly in the second half of the Carolina game and against us,” he said. “There’s a guy, Jim Kelly, who can run an offense and move an offense. Unfortunately, he (Levy) didn’t call more plays against us, like he did against Carolina. I would much rather go against him than Jim Kelly.”
– Books keep getting longer
– Ohio State’s issues on offense in 2015
– Coaching the two-gap nose
– Nifty: Bengals run four verticals from the Emory & Henry formation. Watch the Steelers defensive backs engage with both of Cincinnati’s tackles split wide and take themselves out of the play.
On an extremely brief personal note, suffice to say the season has gone rather quickly, as my non-football work has been extremely busy, we moved into a house just outside of New York City (I still commute to the City), and we just had our second child (on Thanksgiving!), another beautiful little girl. Oh, and Grantland died, which was… suboptimal. I have little to add to that subject beyond the countless words already spilled, other than to say I was fortunate to have any association whatsoever with such a talented group of people, all of whom I am indebted to in countless ways and further that I will always remain a fan of everyone there.
The Grantland development has also caused many to ask me what my plans are, who I’ll be writing for, and so on. There’s some meta-questions about all of this I’m still working through, but the short answer is that I asked ESPN to break my contract with them and they have now agreed to do so, and my plan (for now) is to (1) get back to writing on smartfootball.com more frequently, mostly shorter pieces or collections of thoughts as is this case with this piece, (2) write feature pieces for other publications (i.e., freelance), including for ESPN where there are a number of people I have great respect for, many of whom I consider friends, and (3) use this site as a platform for other projects and ideas, including hopefully featuring the writing of some other excellent strategy writers, though likely on a small scale. Number 3 is the least well developed idea of the three, as I already have pieces for other publications in the works, though the idea of continuing to grow the idea behind Smart Football is exciting to me.
Thank you all for the support over the years, and please don’t hesitate to email me at chris [at] smartfootball.com.]]>
The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015
The Most Popular Books Bought by Smart Football Readers in 2015 (excluding The Art of Smart Football and The Essential Smart Football)
Below is a list of the books with links. Note that I simply included the top books and did not include a separate “other” category.
Packaged plays are among the most deadly tools in the modern offense’s arsenal. These plays, sometimes also referred to as run-pass options, combine different types of plays into one while giving the QB the option to choose; they are a type of read-option that don’t require the QB to run the ball at all. They started years ago with combining inside runs with a built-in bubble screen, but they have grown and expanded over recent years and now frequently feature running plays — complete with the offensive line blocking for the run — with downfield passing routes designed to be open if the defense plays the run, which in turn keeps them honest and thus opens up the run.
This is why just about every team in college football now uses these plays, with teams as diverse as Baylor and Alabama alike profiting from them, and in the NFL the Steelers, Patriots, Eagles, Packers and many others have been using packaged plays repeatedly. And when they work, they are awful pretty.
Yet, like anything else new, defenses are getting better at defending packaged plays. Their purpose is to isolate a defender who is responsible for both the run and the pass, such as a safety or a linebacker, to put him in conflict, and to make him wrong. But if the defense simplifies itself and defines who is doing what — in other words, playing man-to-man coverage in the secondary while committing everyone else to the run — then there is no conflict and hence no read, and the defense should have numbers to defend the run. This is a sound response, and the rise of packaged plays is one reason defenses are playing more and more man coverage.
The problem with straight man coverage, however, is that it is, well, straight man coverage: if the offense has anyone you can’t match up with then the offense won’t fiddle around with packaged plays and will instead run a regular pass play (or screen, or certain run plays) and hurt you with more straightforward plays.
As a result, defenses have increasingly been employing different tools to defend packaged plays, the most effective of which has been to shift and disguise their coverage so the offense can’t get a bead on which defender to read. For example, in week one Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans shredded Tampa Bay whenever they lined up in two high coverage by reading the inside linebackers to decide whether to hand off or throw.
Doing this with Mariota made sense, as he was comfortable with packaged plays and the quick decisions they require from his time at Oregon — and it lets him use his arm and his brain rather than his legs — but now-deposed Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt failed to evolve his use of packaged plays and other teams caught up.
Maybe the most egregious example of this came in week 5 as the Dolphins repeatedly outfoxed Whisenhunt (yes, the interim-coach led Dolphins outfoxing your coach is a kind of death knell) on these concepts by confusing the QB’s reads. In the below clip, Mariota is reading the backside inside linebacker — who is unblocked as the backside tackle is blocking out on the defensive end — to decide whether to hand off on an inside run or throw a slant into what should be a vacated area.
Yet even though the linebacker steps up for the run — and thus Mariota’s read takes him to the slant — the nickel defensive back had been reading Mariota’s eyes the entire time and he simply steps in front of the slant for a too-easy pick-six.
Does this mean defenses have figured these plays out? Not even close; one of the many reasons Whisenhunt got fired was because he had only superficially begun integrating these plays into his offense, rather than truly understanding how they fit together. But I’ve seen other examples of plays like this so far this year, and it’s evidence that defenses are catching up. That, of course, shouldn’t be a surprise. In football, nothing stays easy for long.
Baylor’s Lazy Offense
Undefeated Baylor takes on Oklahoma this weekend, and even though the Bears had to turn to a freshman quarterback and Oklahoma suddenly looks like a juggernaut, does anyone not expect Baylor to continue to put up a crazy amount of points? Part of that is the great talent they have on offense, including a sturdy, veteran offensive line, as well as lethal receivers like KD Cannon and Corey Coleman. (On SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt on Monday night, Art Briles described Corey Coleman as “a bad dude. He will pull your heart out and watch it stop beating. He’s a bad hombre.”)
And of course it’s also how well designed it is, as I talked about at length in The Art of Smart Football. For example, look at all the space the bunch trips formation into the boundary creates for Coleman:
But the most remarkable thing to me is how lazy Baylor’s offense is. What do I mean? I mean that if you watch Baylor closely, you will frequently see something you almost never see: receivers jogging or even just standing around while their teammates run their routes full speed.
And here’s the weirdest part: It’s by design. Briles actually coaches his receivers to save their legs when the play isn’t going to them, and their tempo, maximum receiver splits, and packaged plays mean that those receivers often affect the defense just based on how they line up rather than what they do after the snap.
Indeed, when Briles and Baylor find a matchup they like they often simply call a one man route where one receiver is given a “win” route — get open deep — and the others just kind of sit it down. The QB’s job is to hit the receiver deep or throw it away.
It’s amazing to me any team can get away with this, let alone arguably the best offense in the country at any level.
– Need 401k advice? Ask Marshawn Lynch.
– College Romance That Led to Murder: Fascinating, enthralling New Yorker meditation on a bizarre set of murders.
– Brophy on matching up defensively with run-pass option/packaged play offenses and coverage examples.
– Nifty Wildcat Buck Sweep with a fake end around from Gus Malzahn at Auburn:
– An, uh, interesting trick play.
– Lin-Manuel Miranda versus Black Thought in a freestyle battle.
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Oh, and to go back to something I said recently: Yes, some people still think undefeated teams are automatically better than one-loss teams
— Bran-DOOM SCARE-abee (@TeamSpeedKills) November 4, 2015
There’s nothing wrong with this opinion; indeed, it’s probably even in some circumstances correct: some people do think that a team being undefeated means it’s good enough to beat any team that isn’t. But that’s probably a minority view, and if someone is ranking the undefeated team over the one or two loss team it’s probably not because they necessarily think the undefeated team would beat the other team it’s that, being undefeated, they deserve being in the playoff more than a team with a loss.
Most people don’t always express their arguments in these terms — “best team” versus “most deserving” — but that’s essentially all it comes down to. This tension is why the playoff, despite being an improvement over the BCS, is not a panacea, either. I wrote about all of this for Grantland right after the end of the BCS era, and, two years into the College Footbal Playoff experiment, I continue to stand by every word:
The larger issue is figuring out how we should determine a sport’s “champion.” The wildly unpopular BCS was one method, while the new College Football Playoff will be another, but I’m referring to something more fundamental: What criteria should we use to determine who gets the title?
One answer is that the champion should be the season’s “best team,” possibly defined as the best overall team or the team we think would be favored to beat every other team on a neutral field. Another answer is the “most deserving team,” loosely defined as the team that produced the best overall season. These two things are not always the same. It’s perfectly possible for the best team — i.e., the most formidable — to lose a close game or even two on a bad kick or a fluke play, while another team runs the table by winning close games.
In theory, the now obsolete BCS was designed to create a championship game by blending these two approaches: The coaches’ poll would reward the teams that had put together the best seasons, while the computers would crunch numbers to objectively measure the strongest teams. In practice, however, the BCS was incoherent and flawed. If the computers spit out data the voters didn’t like, the computers were changed, and the coaches’ poll has long been riddled with inexplicable results.
And so, the BCS is dead. In the last few years, many fans and pundits allowed the word “playoff” to take on something of a talismanic quality. Replacing the BCS with a playoff system would surely cure the evils of the BCS, they thought, and quite possibly “save the sport” by “settling things on the field.”
Here’s the problem: A playoff does not even attempt to crown either the best or most deserving team. The very purpose of a playoff or tournament is the exact opposite: No matter a team’s talent or apparent destiny, everything can be undone on a single day by a single bounce of the ball. (Admittedly, that’s actually the allure of a playoff, hence why they call it March Madness.) Yet we’ve become so accustomed to playoffs that it’s difficult for us to think of any other way of selecting a champion. (Playoff-think is such a dominant paradigm that Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight proposed mitigating some of the arbitrary tendencies of the NFL playoffs by giving points to teams that had better seasons than their opponents before the games even start.)
The primary advantage of a playoff is certainty, and after years of endless BCS debate — which followed decades of debate under the earlier bowl systems — certainty has real allure. But in most sports that have playoffs, like the NFL or the NBA, the criteria for getting to the playoffs is basically objective. Most playoff spots are decided based on win/loss records, with certain mechanical tiebreakers in place and known in advance. It’s not that the playoff crowns the best or most deserving team — just ask the 10-6 New York Giants that knocked off the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. It’s that the loser has nothing to complain about: Everyone knows the rules.
Yet the new College Football Playoff lacks the very thing that makes playoffs in other sports so palatable, namely a semblance of objective certainty. While the defective BCS formula should have been interred long ago, it has been replaced by a Council of Platonic Guardians. The College Football Playoff selection committee will meet confidentially, then announce the identities of the playoff participants by edict. That’s not exactly what I’d call “settling it on the field.”
Most fans realize the new system is flawed, but figure it’ll be an improvement over the BCS since we’ll be talking about no. 4 versus no. 5 rather than no. 2 versus no. 3. Maybe so. But that logic works even better for no. 8 versus no. 9, and better still for no. 16 versus no. 17. And while an eight- or 16-team college football tournament sounds genuinely amazing, it’s naive to think that wouldn’t have a real effect on how the regular season actually works. It also makes me wonder what happened to trying to crown the best or most deserving team as champion, rather than the team that happened to win a single-elimination tournament.
I’m not at all sad to see the BCS go, but I’m not sure any playoff, let alone this particular playoff, will solve much in a world of conference realignment and more than 100 FBS teams scattered across the country.]]>
While many think the term “power football” describes an attitude or perhaps even a formation, coaches actually use it to refer to something more technical: the Power-O and Counter Trey run plays, which most coaches simply call Power and Counter, and which are foundational running plays in the NFL and college football.
Power and Counter are so effective because their very designs are forged from aggression. They’re deliberate melees built on double-team blocks, kick-out blocks, lead blocks, and down blocks, and preferably finished off by a running back who drops his shoulder and levels a defender or two before going down. And as this GIF shows, they can be things of beauty:
While football increasingly seems to revolve around quarterbacks who post gaudy passing stats in spread attacks, the inside running game remains the sport’s core no matter what offense a team runs. Let’s take a closer look at how Power and Counter were developed, why they work, and how teams are putting some new spins on some old plays.
Read the whole thing.]]>
But Saban also likes winning, and after troubling losses to Texas A&M in 2012, Auburn in 2013, and Ohio State in 2014 — plus limited sympathy for his public complaints — it appears that he’s settled on an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. Alabama’s offensive transformation began two years ago and took a big step forward last season under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, with the Crimson Tide setting school records in numerous categories. But the Tide’s Week 1 win over Wisconsin was the best evidence yet that Saban is a spread offense convert in practice, if not entirely in spirit.
Henry and the quietly efficient Coker starred for Alabama on Saturday, but the offense’s tempo and design helped them both. One particular play caught my eye: a third-quarter design in which Coker had four options all built into the same play — a quick hitch pass to his left, a bubble screen to his right, a handoff up the middle, or a seam pass to his tight end.
That’s modern spread offense stuff all the way (right down to the center arguably being illegally downfield when the ball was thrown).
Washington State was supposed to be Leach’s reclamation project — both for the program and for himself following an ugly divorce from Texas Tech. When WSU hired Leach in the fall of 2011, I was thrilled: Yes, Leach is a fan (and media) favorite, and yes, his teams throw a lot, butlearning the intricacies of his Air Raid offense was in many ways my graduate school in football strategy. Many of his ideas regarding scheme and how to organize and practice offense have shaped the thinking of an enormous number of coaches at every level of football, and I was excited to see his offense back on the field.
But rebuilding Wazzu was never going to be easy, and some warning signs appeared early in Leach’s regime: Upon arriving in Pullman, Leach seemed more hell-bent than ever on throwing the ball nonstop, and despite all of his Air Raid protégés refocusing on running as well as throwing, the Cougars have finished dead last nationally in rushing for each of the past three seasons. Leach’s staff has also seemed to be in constant upheaval, with a revolving door of assistant coaches. Perhaps most alarmingly of all, Leach has seemed less an idiosyncratic football coach and more the character of “Mike Leach” — a caricature of the coach portrayed on 60 Minutes, in the New York Times, and in countless breathless profiles. Leach’s scattershot interests are part of his charm, and the early expectations for his WSU success may have been unrealistic, but regardless: Something has seemingly been missing since the start of his Cougars tenure.
That feeling was amplified considerably this weekend when Washington State, a 31-point favorite, dropped its season opener 24-17 to a Portland State team that finished 11th in the Big Sky Conference last season and still has an interim head coach. Now, Leach’s reclamation project seems less likely to succeed than ever. He probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, as firing him at the end of this season would cost WSU almost $5 million, but unless something changes fast, Washington State will be someone else’s rebuilding project before long.
Read the whole thing (plus all the great contributions from the rest of the crew).]]>