But the cat and mouse continues, as while defenses have gotten better at defending the Inverted Veer offenses have, in turn, responded with new wrinkles, particularly this season and particularly from the two teams who will be playing in the National Championship Game, Alabama and Clemson. But to appreciate those wrinkles one must understand why the Inverted Veer was developed and why it works.
For most of its early history, the play most synonymous with the so-called “spread offense” — at least the version that featured multiple receivers and a dual-threat quarterback lined up in the shotgun — was the zone read play, in which the offensive line blocked an inside zone running play while the quarterback read or optioned an unblocked defender. An ingenious evolution (typically credited to current Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez when he was at tiny Glenville State), the zone read allowed teams to dress up their traditional zone blocking by leaving backside defensive end unblocked and thus either eliminating the threat that he tackles the runningback or making the defense pay if he crashes down.
But the zone read, while a great concept, is essentially just a hypercharged bootleg, and works best as a constraint to control the backside for an otherwise effective zone running game. But traditional option football, which the zone read in part derived from, almost always involves reading a frontside, not a backside, defender. And the reasons are simple: numbers and angles.
As the diagram above shows, a well designed and executed playside option play should give the offense a numerical advantage as well as great blocking angles; in short, the playside of the line can ignore one or two playside defenders who are being read (and thus should be made wrong by the QB’s reads) as they build a wall to seal off the backside.
Birth of the Inverted Veer/Power Read
By the mid-2000s, the shotgun spread-to-run and specifically the zone read had begun sweeping across college football, both as pioneers like Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer lit up scoreboards and moved up the coaching ranks and also as bluebloods like Texas used zone read tactics to unleash rare talents like Vince Young. But it wasn’t until the end of the decade that spread teams found a way to successfully meld these shotgun spread tactics with old-school, playside reads. And one of the original vehicles for this innovation was an unexpected one: then TCU quarterback Andy Dalton.
Specifically, TCU, under head coach Gary Patterson and then-offensive coordinator (and current Virginia Tech head coach) Justin Fuentes, unveiled a new read play en route to an upset victory over a Clemson team coached by a first year head coach by the name of Dabo Swinney.
“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. When one reporter asked [then Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin] Steele why the zone read was giving his defense so much trouble, Steele explained the difference between a true zone read and what Dalton was running on Saturday.
“Not to get too technical, but on the zone read, the quarterback fakes to the running back going this way and the quarterback goes the other way,” Steele said. “What they were doing was faking zone read one way, the quarterback would step like he was going this way but they would pull the guard and chase it the other way. It was a new look. We got over there and drew it up, got it adjusted out, but we were doing it on the fly and adjusting it on every call.”
In other words, Patterson and Fuentes had discovered a way to combine the philosophy of traditional offense with the technology of the shotgun spread, and it was so good that Andy Dalton was able to carve up Clemson on the ground. I coined this concept an “inverted veer” because it took the old-school “veer option” philosophy of sending the runner and the QB to the same side but inverted their paths: instead of the runningback inside and the quarterback going around edge, the runningback ran a sweep and the quarterback was effectively the dive player.
I named it “Inverted Veer” in part because I anticipated teams using a variety of blocking schemes for this concept, including traditional veer blocking. But one of the most appealing aspects of the play for coaches was its “cheapness,” meaning that it used a blocking scheme that was already in every coach’s repertoire: the Power-O play. “Power” blocking schemes use the same philosophy as a veer or playside option scheme: the playside linemen leave one or two defenders unblocked in order to get angles and double teams so they can effectively cave in the defense, but instead of reading the playside defenders, in Power the offense brings in additional blockers, typically the fullback and a backside guard.
TCU’s Inverted Veer elegantly combined both concepts by pulling the backside guard to lead around and reading the playside defensive end. As Swinney’s Clemson team learned that day, it was a fantastic concept, but throughout 2009 the play remained on the fringe, a novelty that allowed a QB like Andy Dalton to get a few rushing yards. But it wouldn’t take long for the Inverted Veer’s prominence to rise.
The Explosion: Malzahn and Cam Newton
The 2010 college football season was a wild, fun, rather weird season, as evidenced by the top four teams in the final postseason BCS rankings: #4 Stanford, #3 TCU, #2 Oregon and #1 Auburn. Out of that group only Auburn could be considered one of college football’s traditional blue bloods, and even then the Tigers were just two years from a 5-7 season. But there was a very special reason that particular Auburn team went 14-0 and garnered a National Championship: Cam Newton, and even more particularly the blend of Newton’s rare talents and a novel, uptempo “power spread” offense orchestrated by offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
I’ve written elsewhere about Malzahn and his schemes, but for this purpose suffice to say that Malzahn and Newton made the Inverted Veer/Power Read such a prominent part of Auburn’s offense that year — and it was so spectacularly successful — that Newton is essentially synonymous with the play. Indeed, the Inverted Veer was the vehicle for some of Newton’s most spectacular highlights as he powered Auburn to a national title and himself to a Heisman trophy.
And after Newton and Auburn’s spectacular season, the word on the play was out. By the next season seemingly every college and high school team had added the Inverted Veer to their playbooks, including, with the arrival of Malzahn associate Chad Morris as offensive coordinator in 2011, the Inverted Veer’s original victim: Dabo Swinney’s Clemson team. Below is a diagram of how the play crystallized, which comes straight from Clemson’s playbook.
And the play even found its way to the NFL too — though NFL teams were understandably cautious about using their quarterbacks as inside rushers — though eventually the Carolina Panthers realized that Newton was such a rare talent that they incorporated his old college play into their attack, and it was one of the plays that powered them to the Super Bowl last season. (Hat tip: Ted Nguyen.)
Indeed, six years later Inverted Veer is still one of the best plays in football, as it’s a staple play for both teams in this year’s national title game, Alabama and Clemson, and Louisville QB Lamar Jackson just won a Heisman trophy with many of his highlight reel runs coming on this very play.
But while in 2009 Clemson was trying to defend a play they had literally never seen anyone ever run before, by 2016 the every defensive coach in the country has studied, analyzed, and spent extensive time on defending the Inverted Veer. For example, Nick Saban’s 2015 Alabama playbook — which is otherwise essentially unchanged from his 2008 Alabama playbook — includes an extensive section analyzing how to defend the Inverted Veer, or in his terminology, “Read Sweep Q Power.” (Click on the diagram to enlarge it.)
And so, as always, the cat-and-mouse game has continued for the Inverted Veer, with coaches on both sides trying out different tactics and wrinkles.
Early Wrinkles: Jet Reads, Changing Reads, Lead Blockers
The real purpose of the Inverted Veer/Power Read is to widen or at least freeze the defensive end in order to open up the inside power run for the quarterback, but if that end squeezes that runningback on the edge should be a good play. But as defenses have seen the play more that isn’t always necessarily the case, and all too often the read player or even a runningback can successfully play the quarterback from outside-in and also play the sweeper inside-out.
One early wrinkle was to bring the sweeper in motion, transforming the play into a hybrid jet sweep/inverted veer. This was simply a way for the sweeper to have a little extra speed to either threaten or actually hit the edge.
The next obvious wrinkle — already shown in some of the clips above — was to add additional lead blockers for the sweeper. When executed correctly this can put the defense in a bind as the defense must “fit” the extra blockers and get additional defenders to stop the sweep…
… but if it does, it runs the risk of overplaying the sweep and being vulnerable to the quarterback cutting it back. (Hat tip: Mike Casazza.)
The other common wrinkle is to borrow a page from traditional option football and the zone read and to change who the offense reads. Specifically, many teams that feature the Inverted Veer/Power Read like Ohio State often have the backside guard block the defensive end while the quarterback actually reads the playside linebacker whether to hand off or pull. This can be particularly devastating if the linebacker is flowing fast to fit up on the sweeper; the result is often that the guard blocks the defensive end while the linebacker opens up the QB run by simply taking himself out of the play.
These are great, solid concepts, but in the last year or so there have been some truly fascinating new wrinkles, including one that will be featured by both teams in the national championship game. But first a wrinkle run by the only team to beat Clemson this season.
Inverted Veer for the Non-Running QB
The obvious drawback of the Inverted Veer is that it requires the quarterback to be an inside runner; unlike the zone read he can’t take it around end and get out of bounds or take a knee, he must run it inside and take on linebackers and safeties. If you have Cam Newton, great, but if not, then you either can’t run the play (because your QB is not an effective runner) or you can’t run the play very often (because you don’t want him to take many hits).
A somewhat surprising team found a solution to this quandary this year: Pittsburgh, led by offensive coordinator Matt Canada. (Canada has since been hired as LSU’s new offensive coordinator.) Canada has always been a somewhat out-of-the-box thinker and is known for his creative use of jet sweeps and pre-snap motions and shifts, but this year he turned the shovel pass into an offense unto itself. Canada even ran a play that I had once merely theorized about, which combined a shovel pass read with a sprint-out pass:
But maybe the most creative thing Canada did this season was to find a way to run the Inverted Veer while eliminating the QB as the inside runner, namely by replacing him with a player trailing as the pitch man. It’s obviously a tricky read for the quarterback as it happens so quickly, but Pitt’s QB was an effective decisionmaker. And the play was really one of the catalysts for one of the most remarkable games and wins of the season: Pitt’s remarkable 43-42 upset over Clemson.
The downside of this concept is the offense loses the plus-one advantage that comes from using its QB as a run-threat, but it’s still a tremendous way for offenses that don’t have a running quarterback … or that want to put their QB in harm’s way less often.
The Toss Read
The latest evolution in the Inverted Veer/Power Read is a very 2016 story. The first coach I’d ever heard of running this play I only know of as “coachfloyd” on the CoachHuey football coaching message boards, and the first couple of times I read his text-only descriptions of his team’s new spin on the Inverted Veer I honestly couldn’t visualize what he was describing. (A pitch? What’s the technique? How does the read work?) And yet within a few weeks various high school teams had already installed the play — seemingly on the basis of these message board posts and word of mouth — and within a year a variety of big time college programs were each using it, including both Alabama and Clemson.
The adjustment to the Inverted Veer is simple, but its effects are profound. Quite simply, instead of sweeping in front of the quarterback, the runningback lines up next to him and flares out at the snap looking for a pitch. The quarterback makes the exact same read as he does on the Inverted Veer/Power Read, except if the defensive end squeezes he pitches the ball outside to the runningback instead of handing it to him. The effect of this simple adjustment is to put the defensive end in significantly more stress than the traditional Inverted Veer, as instead of relying on the runner to outrun the defensive end the back is already four or five yards outside of him at the time he catches the ball. The below is an example from Clemson’s dominating win over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl:
And, as with the classic version, when the defense starts flowing outside that opens up the inside run for the quarterback, as shown in the below example with Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts in the Crimson Tide’s Peach Bowl win over Alabama.
The result is something that looks a little bit like a speed option with power blocking, though with some subtle differences. First, the quarterback ultimately has a different running track, with a much more downhill track than on speed option where the QB is attacking the read defender’s outside shoulder. And, second, the decision is made almost immediately after the snap, which ultimately protects him better as he either gets the ball to the runningback quickly or becomes a runner, in both cases before the read defender or any other defender can lay a big hit on him while he’s vulnerable.
In short, the Toss Read is a great wrinkle that I expect more and more teams to use, particularly as I’ve increasingly heard over recent years how many issues teams (particularly high school teams) without star players at quarterback or runningback have had with the Inverted Veer. Essentially without fail, every high school coach I know of that has begun running the Toss Read now swears by it.
Yet as with all great wrinkles it’s not just the base concept, but also the variations off of it. And nowhere was this more evident than the Fiesta Bowl, as Clemson repeatedly gashed Ohio State with a fake Toss Read that turned into a quarterback counter trey run the other way.
Ohio State had clearly spent a lot of time preparing for Clemson’s offense and specifically for the Toss Read, but Clemson was able to use that preparation and over aggressiveness against it to produce some of their biggest runs of the night.
Of course, Alabama’s defense has been historically great this season, so Clemson will have to find creative ways generate yards and points. Fortunately for the Tigers, the Toss Read might provide a clue: one of the rare breakdowns in Alabama’s defense came against an Ole Miss team that also began using the Toss Read this season, and more importantly scored on a devastating 63-yard touchdown pass on a fake Toss Read that turned into a play-action pass.
But whatever the outcome in the National Championship Game, expect to see a lot of the Inverted Veer and Toss Read — and their many variations and wrinkles — in the years to come.]]>
You can download the part one of the playbook here and part two here.
The first things that should jump out to you about this playbook are:
I will admit to my biases in that, while I am always a proponent of simplicity, the sophistication of the passing game in this playbook — or, frankly, from much of Clemson’s film — leaves me a bit cold. Now, as I mentioned, Clemson’s staff has done a nice job adding more to the passing game to better feature Deshaun Watson’s skills, and there’s no reason for Clemson to drop in 500 of Bill Walsh’s favorite pass plays into the middle of a very streamlined, tightly organized offense, but it’s clear that the goal of Clemson’s offense is to make you defend Clemson’s tempo, formations, runs, “shot play” play-action passes behind your secondary and individual one-on-one matchups in the passing game, and only then do you worry about specific pass game concepts.
That said, there is some cool stuff in there in terms of the running game itself as well as packaged plays/run-pass options, such as the below play which combines inside zone with a simplified form of the “Levels” pass play that Peyton Manning made famous:
But in terms of the passing game the most sophisticated things I notice — again, both from watching Clemson and from the playbook — involve staple concepts like Snag where the QB can either read the three playside receivers or make a pre-snap decision to work the backside receiver one-on-one, as shown in the below diagram from the playbook.
There are also a limited number of “coverage reads” in Clemson’s offense, such as the below which combines a slant/flat concept (good against single safety coverages like Cover 1 man and Cover 3 zone) and double slants (good against 2 deep coverages like Cover 2 and Cover 2 man).
If I sound overly critical I don’t mean to be; if anything it’s a testament to the job Dabo Swinney has done building a program over a playbook, and ultimately wins and losses being about players over plays. That said, when you play against the best teams, players and coaches you need to bring your best stuff — and have the right answers when your opponent brings theirs.
– The Art of Smart Football and The Essential Smart Football for 99 cents. Amazon is currently running a Kindle special on my books, The Art of Smart Football and The Essential Smart Football; both are currently only 99 cents for Kindle.
– Lamar Jackson’s passing. Louisville quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson is electric, tough, and just plain exciting, but no one is going to confuse him just yet for Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. But he’s also not Tim Tebow, as he has a tremendous amount of raw passing talent and fabulous arm strength (seriously, watch this throw), and he’s been growing and improving by leaps in bounds not only in his accuracy but also his footwork and reads. Jackson has at least one more year at Louisville to learn and develop in Bobby Petrino’s offense — as well as a matchup against LSU’s excellent defense to show his stuff — and I’m looking forward to seeing how another offseason and fall camp benefits him in terms of continuing to improve how he reads defenses, identifies blitzes and coverages and finds secondary and tertiary receivers. I put together a short clip on the Smart Football Instagram page earlier this season showing the early signs of his development; hopefully these trends continue.
– The psychology of trick plays. Washington head coach Chris Petersen is — somewhat rightly, somewhat unfairly — branded as a “trick play coach,” largely because of his Boise State team’s amazing last second heroics against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The New York Times (with a slight assist from some blogger) delves into the psychology of trick plays, when to use them and how they really benefit a team. Also, Lindsay Schnell at SI did a great piece on the history of that Boise State/Oklahoma game, and it’s also never a bad time to revisit those three crazy plays that led to a Boise win.
– So you want to work for Bill Belichick? Here is a great article on the rigors — and long-term benefits — of being a junior grunt working for Bill Belichick. The subtext of this is that football knowledge isn’t necessarily esoteric or even difficult, but learning its intricacies is a grind, and there is really no substitute for that grind.
– Belichick on Navy. Speaking of Belichick, here is a great video of Belichick drawing up a play from Navy’s 1959 offense, when Belichick’s father was on the staff. The best part is when Lesley Visser asks, “How well would this play work today?” “Football is football.”
– Match Quarters. One of my favorite discoveries of this football season is the Match Quarters site, run by a current high school coach and former Baylor graduate assistant under Phil Bennett detailing a methodical, philosophical approach to 4-3/4-2-5 Quarters coverage in the age of the spread offense. This page is a great place to start.
– Offensive line intricacies. Former NFL offensive linemen Geoff Schwartz has been moonlighting for SBNation, and he has a couple of great pieces out. The first is about how defensive linemen frequently get away with holding, and the second is about how teams use their runningbacks and tight-ends to help their tackles in pass protection.
– Chop runningback screen. One of the keys to any good runningback screen is for the runningback to sell that he is blocking, which both helps the concept of the screen play — as it effectively makes two players responsible for the runningback, the rushing defender and a dropping defender — and it ensures the runningback can actually get out there for the screen. The below is a nifty wrinkle I hadn’t seen before, where a fullback executes a backside cut block obefore releasing for a screen.
Weekly fullback awesomeness – again featuring Kyle Juszczyk @JuiceCheck44 – com’on Gruden, don’t let me down tonight with your Grinder! #MNF pic.twitter.com/3bfGhfXgc0
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) December 12, 2016
– Zen of the day. Keep your head on a swivel when coming across the middle.]]>
Gwynne is an accomplished writer but not necessarily a football expert, but he nonetheless handles the technical aspects of the Air Raid with aplomb, which is in a sense not surprising given that one of the hallmarks of the Air Raid is its simplicity. But the heart of the book — and its true value — is Gwynne’s reconstruction of Mumme’s and later Leach’s journey as they designed and developed what eventually became the Air Raid offense the 1980s and early 1990s at places like Copperas Cove high school, Valdosta State and, most colorfully, Iowa Wesleyan.
As someone who has written extensively about Mumme, Leach and the Air Raid offense, I approached the book with trepidation — OK, fine, my usual policy on books like this is not to bother with reading them — but enough coaches told me I should read, and I’m glad I did. Gwynne’s book filled in for me the offense’s pre-Valdosta and pre-Kentucky history, but what I found most remarkable about the book was its chronicling of the fact that in the early 1980s Hal Mumme was a Division I offensive coordinator (UTEP from 1982 to 1985) who desperately wanted to run a pass-first offense but had no real idea how to do it and didn’t even know where to go to learn. He tried to watch San Francisco 49ers games and he eventually started trying to copy BYU’s schemes under LaVell Edwards, but these were poor emulations off of film without any of the related coaching points (indeed, some of Mumme’s earliest experiments involved Mumme trying to write down the plays he saw BYU QB Jim McMahon run while watching the Holiday Bowl on TV), and there were so few people to visit or spend time with that much of the early Air Raid was just trial and error. (Early in his tenure as head coach at Copperas Cove high school, Mumme tried running a version of the run and shoot but it largely died on arrival.)
Things took off when Mumme made more of a connection with the BYU staff and began meeting with Edwards and BYU assistants Norm Chow and Roger French, and then once Mumme teamed up with Leach at Iowa Wesleyan the two made a variety of pilgrimages to meet with pass-oriented coaches like then-Green Bay coach Lindy Infante and then-Miami coach Dennis Erickson. But again, consider how different this was than the situation in 2016: Nowadays one can watch unlimited NFL all-22 film (for a small fee) and can download countless playbooks and game films, there are coaching message boards and social media accounts dedicated to football and football strategy (plus, uh, some blogs and websites), one can easily buy or borrow a huge variety of books and DVDs, there’s Youtube videos of clinic talks and GIFs of basically every meaningful play, and communication among fans and coaches in general is much easier, and if all else fails there are coaching and consulting services you can pay for where they tell you how to install whatever offense or defense you want to run. But in 1989 the sole option was, more or less, get in the car and drive six hours to learn from someone who is doing what you would like to do, which is why it took Mumme roughly a decade of experimenting at high schools and small colleges to bring the Air Raid offense from conception to completion. On the other hand, however, those established coaches were willing to meet with off-the-radar guys like Leach and Mumme for hours and even days because the two of them had in fact gotten in the car and driven to their offices, rather than sending them some emails or just tweeting at them.
In any event, The Perfect Pass had a few minor flaws: it was probably a bit too charitable to Mumme regarding how his Kentucky tenure ended amid NCAA scandal, though that entire situation was a mess and I’m aware of no evidence that Mumme directly authorized the cash payments made by his staff, and the book’s arguments are weakest when trying to declare definitively that the game is only going in the direction of more and more passing (a weakness of hyperbole shared by the book’s title). But those are relatively minor quibbles, as this is one of the most fun football books I’ve read in years, and I’m glad the story of these guys and this offense finally got the definitive treatment they deserve. And, if nothing else, the following passage alone was worth the price of admission, as anyone who knows me (particularly my wife) simply nods when I show it to them:
[Mumme] spent much of his free time diagramming pass plays. He would often do this on scraps of paper or whatever he could find to write on, scrawling down ideas about how to freeze this or that defensive back, how to flood a zone defense, how to throw a curl/flat combination, how to protect against a blitz. He did this everywhere he went, day and night, so much so that he trailed these little artifacts of ambition and desire behind him at his home and office. They were tiny pieces of the master plan he didn’t have yet. June actually picked them up and put them in boxes. She soon discovered that he didn’t need to keep them. The writing itself was the mnemonic device.
– Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. While The Perfect Pass was the best football book I read this year, Sapiens was far and away the best overall book I read. I looked it up after I heard Nobel laureate Dan Kahneman (another Smart Football favorite) mention it on a podcast, and I read a sample chapter with little expectation. But while I was immediately hooked, the book kept evolving as I read it, as what began with a fascinating recantation of the lives and activities of the earliest proto-humans — Neaderthals, homo erectus and early homo sapiens — soon turned to an examination of why it was that homo sapiens, after hundreds of thousands of years of surviving but pretty much existing in the middle of the food chain, suddenly rocketed to the top of it (and in the process driving many ancient beasts to extinction, like giant sloths and mammoths), conquered multiple climates, and eventually began domesticating the world around them, from farm animals and livestock to crops. And Harari includes a fascinating albeit depressing argument about the true nature of our relationship to our most necessary crop, wheat:
Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth. In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of miles without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 870,000 square miles of the globe’s surface, almost ten times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous? Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was attacked by rabbits and locust swarms, so the farmers built fences and stood guard over the fields. Wheat was thirsty, so humans dug irrigation canals or lugged heavy buckets from the well to water it. Sapiens even collected animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew.
The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.
One of the most important and sustained ideas running through the book is that what ultimately distinguished homo sapiens from all other creatures — other mammals, other apes, and even other “humans” like neanderthals — was not our opposable thumbs or some other physical criteria, but instead it was our ability to generate, believe in and act upon what he calls “myths” or “fictions” (essentially ideas and cultural institutions), particularly on a large scale, collective basis. Legal and social systems, religions and social customs and practices are the stuff that societies, cultures, companies civilizations and, yes, sports are made of, and they allowed us to transform from creatures that lived in small, loosely organized groups (the hallmark of most apes) to our modern status. Sapiens is a fascinating, ambitious and difficult-to-summarize that was also just plain readable. Here’s a Financial Times interview with Harari. Highly recommended.
– Winning Defensive Football, by Richard Bell. I had never heard of this book until recently, which is surprising because it’s excellent. (It lands the award for “Best Technical Football Book” that I read this year.) Bell was the defensive coordinator at Air Force for 11 seasons up to 2006, and before that served as defensive coordinator for Georgia, Navy, Texas Tech and West Virginia, and was the head coach at South Carolina for one season. The book is not a narrative book so much as it is a defensive playbook, laying out in copious detail (the book description touts “over 1,000 diagrams”) 400 pages that describe Bell’s 3-4 defense, from run fits to technique to coverages. It’s also all quite modern: the blitz package was excellent and detailed, and the sections on coverages go over not only Bell’s main coverages (Cover 1, Cover 3, Cover 2 and his match-read Quarters concepts, Cover 4 and Cover 6), but also how they each adapt to various offensive formations and route combinations and pre-snap calls and checks for the defense).
My only criticism is that there’s been so much change in football in the last ten years I was at times left wondering how Bell might have adapted some of his defensive calls to, say, a hurry up-tempo spread that used the zone read and packaged plays/run-pass options, in the same way that he has sections on defending the more traditional triple option. But that’s also what the book was about: giving a coach the tools to think through those problems rather than answers in a box. The bottom line is this is a must buy for any defensive coach at really any level, as well as for any offensive coach who wants to better understand a modern, multiple defense.
– A Song of Ice and Fire Series (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons), by George R. R. Martin. I had unintentionally managed both to not read any of these books or to watch any of the Game of Thrones TV series, until on a late night Uber ride home from the office I started watching the the first season of the HBO series. It was good — excellent in ways, obviously — but I can’t say I was consumed by it. I watched two more episodes and then moved onto other things, and then for some unknown reason I bought the first book, A Game of Thrones, on Kindle, and then read the entire book in about a week. I then downloaded A Clash of Kings and read that in about two weeks, and then read the third book, A Storm of Swords, on similar timing, and ultimately ended up reading the entire series in about a two and a half month period. I then of course spent the following two weeks reading every fan and Reddit theory I could find. (I have still only made it to episode 2 of Season 2 of the series.)
Was it good? Martin has his tics (at least 10 different seated characters manage to “rise ponderously”), and there were definitely times when the plot got in the way of story development (I never thought I’d hear a single character say “I am looking for a high-born maid of three-and-ten” so often), but, well, I did read 1.7 million words of his books — which apparently translates to reading War and Peace or Infinite Jest three times over — in a little over two months, and it was certainly a breezy 1.7 million words. That’s as good of a recommendation as I can give (and saying much more would probably be some kind of spoiler), though I will give my ranking of the books:
– Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck. The concept behind this book is simple: a shocking amount of a person’s success, achievement and growth relates to what “mindset” they bring to the activity, field or endeavor, and people with “fixed mindsets” (i.e., the belief that the relevant traits like intelligence or some other talent, are fixed and unchangeable) systematically do worse than people with “growth mindsets” (i.e., the belief that even the most important traits are malleable and can be developed through hard work and dedication) consistently achieve more. It’s a simple idea — and, frankly, one that arguably is behind most coaching clichés about the importance of “improving by 1% every day” and so on — but Dweck has done remarkable work of developing it and showing its efficacy over the years. And it’s an extremely powerful idea, particular her discussion of how it’s possible to have growth mindsets in some areas and fixed mindsets in other areas as well as the idea that much of what we consider “praise” (particularly telling young children they are “smart”) has the unintended effect of reinforcing a fixed mindset with respect to intelligence that can cause all sorts of problems down the road. But I keep coming back to the idea that concepts in Dweck’s book are in many respects an academic gloss on what you can find in John Wooden’s writings or just in the learned experience of team sports, particularly football at its best. And I mean that as a compliment.
– The Dream of Reason, by Anthony Gottlieb. A history of Western Philosophy, over however many books or however many volumes, is an endeavor frought with peril, and as such in my mind graded on a curve. Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy is deservedly famous but it’s also a strange, idiosyncratic and at times needlessly (and unhelpfully) challenging book. Gottlieb’s book is, by contrast, very lucid, easy to read and even funny in parts, and it deals meaningfully with the philosophical ideas of each period and thinker. Whether he spends too much or too little time on this or that idea is the kind of quibble I’ll leave to the professional academics.
– Bonus: Best Kids Book I read this year: Dragons Love Tacos, by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Now that I have children I both read far less and much more than I ever did. I read far fewer normal books, but like most parents most of my evenings end with reading a small handful of children’s books, usually something we’ve read countless times before and sometimes I have barely hit the last page before the request arrives to flip flip back to the first one and start over. So I’m always looking for entertaining kids books (recommendations welcome), and while I’m a big fan of the classics (we are big Dr. Seuss household) I have to admit that I find this book irresistible in tone and style all while teaching eternal life lessons like, if you fail to read the fine print dragons might incinerate your house.]]>
And now Kelly — stripped of any oversight over personnel — is in charge of a 49ers offense that boasts arguably the worst skill-position talent in the NFL and will be led at quarterback by Blaine Gabbert, whose 71.9 career passer rating puts him behind such exalted figures as Geno Smith and Brandon Weeden. While Kelly’s Oregon and early Eagles offenses broke records by weaving together multiple formations, adaptable running schemes, and multifaceted read-options, all powered by an ingenious spread offense philosophy and a frenetic, up-tempo pace, in the last two years those elements have been undermined or simply fallen away, and Kelly’s offense has become, in Evan Mathis’s words, the most “never-evolving, vanilla offense” in the NFL. How did that happen?
Read the whole thing.]]>
But, even if Prescott plays great, all he can do is solidify his spot as the backup QB behind Tony Romo, which is why the most interesting play to me was one that told me something about what the Cowboys will do even when Prescott’s not in there. Specifically, on Prescott’s first touchdown pass, a ten-yarder to Dez Bryant, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called a “third level” packaged play, also known as a run-pass option or RPO. Third level packaged plays are the newest (although not that new) step in the evolution of shotgun spread “read” concepts: When the shotgun spread first became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the defining plays were the zone read and read-option plays, in which the QB read a “first level” defender, i.e., a defensive lineman. The big innovation by the end of the 2000s and early 2010s were, first, built in screens, and later the earliest packaged plays/RPOs in which receivers ran slants, hitches and sticks and the QB would read a “second level” defender (i.e., a linebacker or nickel defensive back playing like a linebacker) to determine whether to hand off or throw.
In recent years a few teams — most notably Baylor, although there are others — began using packaged plays where the quarterback read a safety to determine whether to hand off or throw. This had two primary effects: (1) it is an excellent response to Quarters coverage, in which the safeties read the offense to determine whether to play the pass or the run, often outnumbering offenses in the run game as they are so difficult to account for; and (2) it transforms a read concept that was originally designed to move the chains by having the QB either hand off or throw a screen into a handoff or a touchdown.
Which brings me back to Dak Prescott’s play against the Rams. There was nothing that sophisticated about the concept: The Cowboys called an inside zone run play, in which they blocked all of the Rams’ frontal defenders, including the backside defensive end (i.e., no read option element), and tasked Prescott with reading the safety to the side of the single receiver, who just happened to be Dez Bryant. Now, I’m not sure if Bryant was only allowed to run a fade or had some sort of choice in what route he’d run (either choosing on the fly or via a pre-snap signal between receiver and QB), but teams often adjust the route by the single receiver to find the way to best attack the safety.
In any case, given that it was Dez Bryant singled up, all Prescott really needed to confirm was that the safety wouldn’t be able to help, something he was able to do quite quickly and likely even pre-snap. (A savvier safety might have aligned inside and then hurried back outside; Prescott did stare down Bryant a bit.) And with an extra safety stepping up for the run and a freak of nature 1-on-1 near the goal line, Prescott’s choice was simple:
So while Prescott’s performance should give Cowboys’ fans hope for what they might see in the future, this play should give them some insight into what they might see this season: A cutting edge concept that, in the end, reduces to a winning formula: Run the ball behind that great offensive line with extra numbers, or throw it to #88. That makes sense to me.]]>
Jim Harbaugh – Coach Harbaugh talked about the type of coaches they’re looking for. Experts in their field. High character people that represent Michigan. Great motivators. Positive energy. Coach Harbaugh also talked about how to spot coaches that they don’t want. He doesn’t want people on his staff that “Coach like Costanza.” He talked about a Seinfeld episode where George reasoned that if you act frustrated and angry, everyone will assume you’re working harder. Doesn’t want coaches who are standoffish. Most times those coaches pretend to know everything because they’re afraid of getting exposed. Don’t be afraid to say I don’t know, but let’s work together to figure it out.
John Harbaugh – John went through a few of the staples of his coaching philosophy
- Build it the way you believe in. Not what you think someone else wants. They’ll run you out either way.
- Don’t do the job to keep the job. Do what you believe is right.
- Coaches compete everyday. With each other (game plan) and against each other (practice)
- Never stop learning, you can always get better. He talked about how he picked up some power run game ideas from one of the high school speakers, Akron Hoban (OH) Head Coach Tim Tyrrell.
- It’s not about what you can’t do. Find what you can do. There is opportunity in everything and everywhere. He mentioned a free agent that they lost recently. Rather than dwelling on the loss, Coach Harbaugh said “We’ve got a different path now. Different opportunity. Maybe we can add another pass rusher now, or rebuild the OL to run some different schemes. Find a way.”
- Football provides an opportunity that no other sport can. Everyone can be a part of the team and contribute in some type of meaningful way, scout team etc. Roster isn’t limited like basketball or baseball.
James Light also has good stuff from Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin (Austin: “We encourage good body language. Bad body language… fosters resent and divineness.” Light: “[Austin] use[d] specific plays from film as examples of bad body language to convey the point…. Coach Austin pointed out the reaction of Louis Delmas after the touchdown. That was the type of body language that they won’t tolerate…. It creates dissension within the team and shows weakness to the opponent.”) and new Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown:
Defending the Spread Run Game: In terms of defending zone option, Coach Brown will use a PUP technique for his defensive ends, also commonly referred to as squeeze and pop. The defensive end being read will play the QB and the bend (RB cutback) on zone. The unblocked defensive end will stay square and shuffle flat down the line of scrimmage to close the space on any zone cutback. If the Quarterback keeps the ball, then the defensive end is chasing the QB from the inside out to his help. Coach Brown stressed that you have to get the defensive ends help versus zone option. You can’t just assign the DE to the QB with no help and expect him to take away the zone cutback and be able to run down a Quarterback like Deshaun Watson.
Meanwhile Coach Bird has high level notes from essentially every speaker (all the Harbaughs, Pees, Martz, Marc Trestman, Leslie Frazier, Juan Castillo) at the Michigan clinic. And, of course, Art Briles recently announced that Jim Harbaugh will be speaking at his Baylor clinic.
Football technology. There’s no question that in ten or twenty years, many aspects of coaching and playing football will be very different, with technological changes being the biggest driver: efficiencies in film study, player evaluation, data tracking, and teaching methods will have a huge impact on the game. I recently got a demonstration of STRIVR’s virtual reality system, about which I’ll have more to say in the future (the short version is that it’s a tremendous tool and really fascinating, and when a 330 pound nose tackle came at me I couldn’t help but get my hands up to punch him away), but VR will only be one component of the many coming changes.
But, as has been the case more generally, much of the impact of technology on football will be on improving communications. ESPN’s Kevin Seifert has a story about improving something that probably should have been fixed twenty years ago — the perpetual story about one team’s headsets “going out” in the middle of games — but it contains some interesting nuggets about future applications:
Finally, the Internet-based structure will allow for future additions to complement sideline technology. Imagine, for example, a digital play sheet on a quarterback’s wrist that changes based on signals sent in by a coach.
Of course, if the digital play sheet can change based on signals then wouldn’t it be easier to push a button to make the playcall appear on the QB’s digital wrist device and skip manual signals altogether (something that can’t be all that difficult with Apple Watches around)? In any event, the upshot is that this is where it’s all going. Now, the NFL (and especially college football) tends to like to restrict communications like this, preferring the pitfalls of older technology to encouraging a technological arms race, but technology will begin popping up and there’s no question it will eventually be an important part of NFL and college on-field communication. (True story: I played on a team where our opponent’s coaches went over to our offensive coordinator before a game, ostensibly to say “Hello,” but really so they could see what frequency the radio transmitter on his hip was set to. The opposing coaches then listened to all of my team’s playcalls (we lost), and then bragged about it after the game to the parents of one of my teammates over drinks, who for some unknown reason, thought it was funny that their son’s team was cheated out of a game (by the coaches, no less) and told everyone else. So, bring on the Apple Watches.)
Mouse’s Run and Shoot tapes. I recently stumbled on some great old videos on the Run and Shoot from maybe its most famous proponent, Mouse Davis. While I don’t (necessarily) advocate anyone running the “pure” Run and Shoot now, it remains one of the most fruitful offenses for study. (Plus Mouse is always fun to listen to.)
Twitterversary. Twitter turned ten years old on Monday, which I for some reason find a terribly depressing fact. (Though now we have an algorithm that can identify drunken tweets so, yay progress.) The New York Times asked some important twitter users about Twitter, and here’s football-twitter king Adam Schefter:
Twitter has ramped up the news-cycle speed to unimaginable levels. News emerges, it spreads, people react, and within minutes, the story is widely disseminated and analyzed. It’s one of the best parts of Twitter, maybe the best part: the ability to inform. Information pours out on Twitter.
We miss the dominant newspaper days, though it’s hard to pinpoint how much of that has to do with the evolution of Twitter and the digital day we’re now living in. Had neither come along, we might still be sitting at the kitchen table, sipping our coffee, reading the newspaper, rather than hearing about who the next Supreme Court justice is, at almost the same time he is selected.
Let’s set aside the oddness of using the nomination of a Supreme Court justice as the example (the news of the most recent Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, broke only moments before the President conducted a nationally televised press conference announcing his nomination), but it seems to me that Twitter qua Twitter doesn’t do much for the really big stories — earthquakes, wars, national tragedies, political issues, and so on. Yes, those of us on Twitter often read about those things faster than, say, if we waited for the stories to be printed in the newspaper, but making that jump ignores the fact that things like (a) television and (b) the rest of the internet (to say nothing of other social networks) also exist, which tend to do a pretty decent job of very quickly identifying major breaking news (which Schefter acknowledges). Instead, the information flood that Twitter excels at is an ocean of irresistible but ultimately meaningless minutiae, with the announcement of various personnel transactions in a made up game being a prime example. (The philosopher Bernard Suits once defined a “game” as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.)
But Schefter is surely right that the speed-race for breaking these kinds of silly but heavily trafficked tidbits is increasing every year, with Twitter being a prime culprit, which I suppose is yet another reason why I and so many others find it difficult to celebrate this ridiculous, seemingly poorly managed service that we nevertheless all spend so much time using.
Football and toenail fungus. This is only tangentially related to football, but Valeant — who has, uh, had a rough go of it recently — put out a commercial for its toenail fungus drug, Julia, in which a toe wearing a football helmet tackles toenail fungus (which is carrying a football) before a cutaway to an Xs and Os diagram of toenail fungus — just watch it (or, maybe, don’t):
So that’s both disgusting and ridiculous, though admittedly when it comes to advertisements for treatments of foot ailments it’s tough to improve on John Madden selling Tinactin. But it turns out the football toe commercial is not just a silly, it also drew the ire of the Food and Drug Administration:
The Food and Drug Administration wants to know if these memorable images skew perceptions of risks associated with medications. In a document posted online Tuesday, the agency outlined plans to study how consumers process live action and animated ads….
“Personifying animated characters may interfere with message communication,” the FDA said in the document. “Whether personified characters lead to reduced comprehension of risk and benefit information in drug ads is an important and unanswered question.”
As Matt Levine points out, the interested reader may have the chance to get involved as the study involves 1,500 people watching these ads followed by an online survey. But if you ask me they should just bring back John Madden.
Louisiana’s budget crisis. A few weeks ago Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards announced that the Louisiana state government was in such a deep, sustained fiscal crisis that budget cuts were inevitable, and the programs affected could even include LSU football:
In a rare statewide televised address, Edwards told viewers that the state would be forced to take extreme action — such as throwing people with off of kidney dialysis and shutting down hospice services — if new taxes didn’t go into place over the next few months. . . .
The governor didn’t stop at health care services, but also detailed catastrophic cuts to higher education. He said new revenue was needed to prevent universities from running out of money before the semester ends. LSU, the state’s wealthiest higher education institution, would only be able to pay its bills through April 30, unless some tax increases went into place.
The governor went so far as to say that LSU football was also in jeopardy, due to a threatened suspension of spring classes that would put college athletes’ eligibility in danger next year. . . . “Student athletes across the state would be ineligible to play next semester,” Edwards said. “I don’t say this to scare you. But I am going to be honest with you.”
So none of that is good, and while cuts to football shouldn’t be equated with more important programs like education and other mainstay public programs, it certainly gets people’s attention. And the outlook for football at universities outside of LSU is even worse:
The Southern University System, and University of Louisiana System, and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System are in the same boat: without legislators approving new revenue this special session, some campuses will be forced to declare financial bankruptcy, which would include massive layoffs and the cancellation of classes.
If you are a student attending one of these universities, it means that you will receive a grade of incomplete, many students will not be able to graduate and student athletes across the state at those schools will be ineligible to play next semester. That means you can say farewell to college football next fall.
I was reminded of this depressing state of affairs while reading this article on the broken public defender system in Louisiana, which already had a mixed record to begin with:
The constitutional obligation to provide criminal defense for the poor has been endangered by funding problems across the country, but nowhere else is a system in statewide free fall like Louisiana’s, where public defenders represent more than eight out of 10 criminal defendants. Offices throughout the state have been forced to lay off lawyers, leaving those who remain with caseloads well into the hundreds. In seven of the state’s 42 judicial districts, poor defendants are already being put on wait lists; here in the 15th, the list is over 2,300 names long and growing. . . .
With felony caseloads already far above the professional standard, the public defender concluded that turning down cases was the only ethical option…. Even if state funding remains stable, however, more than half of the public defender offices could be under austerity plans by the fall, turning away clients and laying off lawyers.
“It is in shambles,” wrote District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg in a recent ruling, in which he sought private lawyers to represent several jailed defendants. “Things were not good before, but they are in a terrible place now.”
– Economics of animated movies: “An executive producer who wants to cut costs has only two choice curbs: water and hair. Those are the most expensive things to replicate accurately via animation. It’s no mistake that the characters in Minions, the most profitable movie ever made by Universal, are virtually bald and don’t seem to spend much time in the pool.”
– Mark Richt on handling the blitz.
– The Solid Verbal had some great podcasts with coaches Tom Herman, DJ Durkin and Bronco Mendenhall.
– Ian Boyd on Katy Texas’s staunch 3-4 defense.]]>
I’ve written extensively about Peyton Manning in the past, and there is much, much more to say, but for now just a few notes. Peter King has a nice retrospective on Manning’s influence on the quarterback position, something that can’t be underrated given that he, along with Tom Brady, bridged the QB position from the prior generation of greats — Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway — to now, a period when the game itself, but particularly the passing game, changed dramatically.
Much of Peyton’s legacy centers, quite rightfully, around his mental mastery of the position, particularly his audibles and adjustments at the line of scrimmage: The enduring image of Peyton Manning is less about him standing tall in the pocket, arm extended, with a beautiful spiral extending from his fingerprints, than it is of a frenetic Manning gesticulating wildly as he directs teammates and identifies at opponents, while shouts of “Omaha” cascade in the background. But one underrated aspect of his stewardship at the line was his gamemanship: Many of his signals and calls at the line were ploys to trap opponents.
In that 2002 game, Ismail told Manning the Jacksonville corner, Jason Craft, knew that when Manning made a shoveling motion at the line or called the world “Crane,” Ismail would run a short dig route. Later in the game, Manning gave Ismail “Crane!”
“Easiest double move I ever ran in my life. Touchdown,” Ismail recalled.
King doesn’t include a diagram but I know exactly the play he and Ismail were referring to, known as “Dig Pump” in the old Peyton Manning/Tom Moore nomenclature. The diagram below is from Manning’s old Colts playbook:
Peyton was notorious for tricks like this I vividly remember him kicking off his remarkable 55 touchdown 2013 season versus the Ravens with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Julius Thomas on a fake receiver screen-and-go, which Manning rather cheekily set up by making the same call right before this snap that he had used earlier in the game to set up a real wide receiver screen pass. Manning, a stickler for fundamental technique, of course sold the fake screen during the play, but the real sales job came from getting inside the defenders’ heads.
I have seen Peyton Manning play in person as many times as any professional football player — not to mention the four times I saw him play at Tennessee, including one that remains unforgettable to me (though more for personal reasons than anything particular to Manning or even the game itself) — and it remained a thrill to watch him operate. And two of his seasons are among the handful of very best seasons any quarterback has ever had: 2013, when Manning, after all those neck surgeries and lacking feeling in his hands, launched 55 touchdown passes as he led what some measures indicate was the most prolific offense in NFL history; and 2004, which is possibly the greatest passing season in NFL history:
By ANY/A [Adjusted Net Yards Per Pass Attempt], Manning’s peak seasons were out of this world. His 2004 campaign rates as the best single-season performance in league history. Manning passed for 4,557 yards on 497 attempts, threw 49 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions, and took a staggeringly low 13 sacks. He averaged 9.78 ANY/A per dropback, which is awfully difficult to stop.
There will be (and are already) countless tributes to Peyton Manning. The best tribute I can think of is to continue to admire — and more importantly to study — a body of work that young coaches and quarterbacks will continue to scour for lessons for many, many years to come.]]>
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.”