Smart Notes 9/11/09

LSU vs Georgia TechThe best of times, the worst of times. Georgia Tech’s win over Clemson was a fun game to watch, but ultimately taught us very little. GT scored on a long touchdown run (beautiful), and then a punt return for a touchdown off a quick kick and then one of the great trick plays in the form of a fake field goal where GT snuck a guy onto the field. And, after the initial burst, GT’s offense completely stagnated, and, over that stretch, Clemson looked like the better team.

But I wasn’t that impressed with them. Tigers quarterback Kyle Parker had a bizarre statline, where he completed touchdown passes of 77 yards and 63 yards, and added another 37 yard completion, but other than that he was 12 of 28 for 84 yards. I mean, I know it’s not totally fair to imagine someone’s statline without their best plays, but the fact that Clemson could not move the ball well other than two or three enormous plays doesn’t necessary speak well to an offense. (And this goes for GT’s 400 yards of offense considering 82 of them came in the first two plays.)

I think the takeaways are that: both teams are probably better than last year, but have issues; Georgia Tech will not win many games if they have to throw it; Clemson has a very impressive defensive line (they used a nose tackle on every play and managed to stop the dive-phase of the option without committing many extra people, which helped them run down the rest of the option until GT went to some counter plays); Dabo Swinney passed a test by bringing his team back; and Paul Johnson just earned a +1 for wins attributable to coaching (at least in a sense) since the quick kick return and the fake field goal were the result of good planning and taking advantage of plays, and both played into the margin of victory. The question on that last one is whether Johnson has any more of those in his system.

- Option to win. Speaking of Johnson and the option, Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated has a nice article on the subject.

- Best preview you’ll read this week. Blutarsky previews South Carolina vs. Georgia, blahblahblahblah.

- 1969, football’s season of discontent. From Slate.

- What is Michael Crabtree doing? From the Fifth Down. I am normally pretty sympathetic to players who fight for their value — fans and owners are quick to turn them into greedy jerks who “won’t play” to turn all the leverage and public opinion against them when this is, realistically, their one shot to get paid while the money they don’t take will just wind up funding jumbo trons and luxury boxes and whatnot. But I don’t really have a handle on the Crabtree situation: do we really know what he wants? Are the 49ers lowballing him? (That wouldn’t surprise me.) Or is he being irrational? (That wouldn’t totally surprise me either.)

- Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes lead the Steelers to victory. I didn’t get to watch all of this game, but Roethlisberger is turning into sort of the Lebron James of football to me. Now, he’s not as good as Lebron, but both are excellent, excellent players, who play the game with almost zero grace. I love Lebron, but for pure fluidity and elegance and aesthetic measures, Kobe or Jordan just obliterate him. Yet he’s amazing, and aesthetics is not a metric that affects the bottom line. Same with Roethlisberger: the guy lumbers around, points downfield, does those herky-jerky pump fakes, but hey, he’s turned into a hell of a quarterback.

- A video on pairing wine with cereal. Seriously.

- Professor sees parallels with nature in NFL touchdown binge. Thanks to Coach Maddox for the link to this article.

Adrian Bejan a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, likens the NFL’s evolution to a river’s effect on its basin. (Stay with us, here.) Over time, a river relentlessly wears away its banks and, as a result, water flows faster and faster toward its mouth. When obstacles fall in its way, say, a tree, or a boulder—or in the case of an NFL offense, beefy linebackers like the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis or the Chicago Bears’ Brian Urlacher—it will figure out how to wear those away, too.

“The game is a flow system, a river basin of bodies that are milling around trying to find the most effective and easiest way to move,” says Prof. Bejan. “Over time you will end up with the right way to play the game, with the patterns that are the most efficient.”

In 1996, Prof. Bejan, who began following the NFL after coming to the U.S. from Romania to attend college, came up with a theory about natural phenomena known as the Constructal Law. The theory, he says, can be used to explain the evolution of efficiency in everything from river basins to mechanical design. By extension, he says, it could also be applied to the explosion of offense in the NFL.

Former NFL team executive Charlie Casserly, who is now an analyst for CBS Sports, says the spreading out of NFL offenses is a logical development—especially as defenders become faster and bigger. “You take the defense out of that eight-man front and you open all sorts of new running angles,” Mr. Casserly says.

The transformation of football from a game of brute strength and collisions to one of speed and open seams isn’t limited to the NFL. Four decades into a half-century career in coaching, Warren Wolf of Brick Township High School in central New Jersey, concluded that the most efficient play he could call was to immediately put the ball into the hands of his best athlete and provide him with ample room to wreak havoc on the defense. Whether that meant running or passing, the result was the same: The chaos created space, and the space allowed his team to move the ball up the field. “Nine times out of 10, the broken play is the best play in football if you’ve got a guy who can move,” Mr. Wolf says.

Tom Lemming, the recruiting expert and analyst for CBS College Sports, says no one on the college level has figured out how to neutralize the speed of the spread offense, either. “The offense always sets the agenda, and the defense plays catch-up,” Mr. Lemming says.

Considered more broadly, Constructal Law may be the closest thing to a grand unified theory for the evolution of sports. In a sports context, the river is the relentless search for the easiest way to score or win more often. In soccer, there is the indefensible through-ball, passed between two defenders to a striker sprinting into open space. In basketball, the two-handed set shot eventually gave way to finding the tallest, fastest players who could jump the highest and dunk.

Prof. Bejan recently published a study that showed during the past 100 years, the speed of world-record sprinters in both running and swimming has been increasing at the same rate as their size. In other words, the human race is figuring out what animals have long known, that bigger means faster. Whales swim faster than tuna, for instance, and horses run more quickly than mice.

The professor doesn’t fashion himself as an expert in sports. In his 20s he was a member of the development program for Romania’s national basketball team. When he arrived in the U.S. to study at M.I.T. in 1969, he knew almost nothing about American football. In the 1990s, he says, the relationship between the evolution of efficiency in nature and the human drive to create the easiest and most efficient systems for living became clear to him. The world and its inhabitants, he argues, are simply genetically predisposed toward speed.

This drive to efficiency may also apply to the people who make the rules. If it’s human nature to promote speed whenever the action appears to be slowing down, it’s no surprise the NFL decided, in 2004, to tell officials to crack down on the amount of contact defensive backs can have with wide receivers. In scientific terms, the NFL wanted to make the system flow more efficiently. (The fact that touchdowns make for good television might have played a role here, too.)

“The evolution of the drawing never ends,” Prof. Bejan says. “And the evolution of the river basin only goes in one direction.”

  • http://bryandewberry.com Bryan

    Great synopsis of last nights game. Weird scoring followed by a great comeback to make a snoozer into a nail biter. I thought GT had a couple stand outs on that dline as well but it looked like they were tired in the 4th qtr.

    Gary V is awesome.

  • http://www.collegegameballs.com cgb

    I think it is fair enough to chalk up the 63 yard pass as all Spiller. However, the deep ball to Ford was beautiful. I had to watch the replay to get full appreciation for it. On another note, I received about five text messages about how Georgia Tech was going to eat our (VT’s) lunch after they got out to their lead. I feel a little better about our chances after watching Clemson come back.

  • http://brophyfootball.blogspot.com brophy

    Whoa! the Darwinian theory of the Prof Bejan article is worthy of its own post! Thanks for sharing.

    The one constant is space (of the field) and time (of regulation). How to best maximize how to get from point A (spot) to point B (endzone) as efficiently as possible is the key. Breaking the Laws of Tradition (running between gaps) may be the quickest way to gain an understanding of utilizing the ENTIRE 53 1/3 yard width of the field

  • http://brophyfootball.blogspot.com brophy

    I should’ve also said……the tossing of conventional wisdom on its head with the spread, where some of the BEST plays (fast/slow screens) occur when there is NO blocking (although drawn up, very rarely are all defenders at the point of attack properly blocked) may be something to think about

  • Dave

    re: Crabtree

    The 49ers are not lowballing him. Crabtree wants more than Heyward-Bey got, the 49ers aren’t going over slot. I’ve got little sympathy for him.

  • softbatch

    Hi, Chris, with the GT/Clemson game fresh in our minds, I was hoping you’d elaborate on a long Anthony Allen run last night that was apparently called a “crossbuck”. GT appeared to run it at least twice: the first time with great success, the second time only gaining maybe 5 yards at most.

  • http://clempsonfootball.blogspot.com DrB

    Actually we’re going to look at the crossbuck play on my site, probably today.

    The problem was that the DE collapsed and Conner took the wrong assignment. He was supposed to cover Allen.

    I agree with your idea of the game Chris.

  • dan

    first, let me say i love the blog. a daily read for me…

    i couldn’t disagree with you more about roethlisberger, though. they’re already started to build him up as the next favre: a goes-out-and-has-fun-gunslinger… who is just as likely to lose you a game as he is to win it. it’s not that he’s without talent and he’s definitely shown (two games in a row, now) that he can lead that last drive to win. but he’s a fundamentally bad QB who pump fakes too much, holds the ball too long (and too often dangerously away from his body), doesn’t know when to take a sack or throw it away, etc. he’s incredibly frustrating to watch, especially with the announcers and writers talking about him as if he’s the next coming of elway. put him on a team with a lesser defense and i’d think you’d see his winning percentage take a huge hit. one doesn’t win too many games in the NFL by putting up 13 points in 4+ quarters.

  • Anonguy

    I think I’d be more sympathetic to Crabtree if I could understand where he was coming from. Wanting more money because you think you would be drafted in the top 5 if not for an injury (doubtful, considering the one team in the top five in line to take him ditched their spot) is kinda ridiculous. Plus, instead of taking his slot money, then going out there and showing Al Davis just how ridiculous his pick of Bey was, he’s decided he’d rather sit around with his arms crossed pouting like a diva who didn’t get her favorite dressing on her salad and now won’t leave her dressing room because everyone hates her. So much for him being too humble to be a diva, eh Coach Leach? Stick your neck out for the guy and he goes and pulls all this.

    Though he probably isn’t in any hurry to show up, considering the other holdout guy, Sir Andre McMoobs broke his foot a couple days after signing and reporting. Though, his ultimate hope in the holdout is the pass offense suffers and they get desperate. Of course, if they’re smart, they’ll understand that a rookie with zero time in their system wouldn’t really be the best savior.

    But then again, the Niners hired Mike Nolan, so who knows?

  • http://carfreeinbigd.blogspot.com larchlion

    First, I believe it to be illegal to “sneak” a player onto the field. Rather, what Paul Johnson did, was to line up his 11 as if to go for it, ran ten of them off the field, and ran ten of his FG unit onto the field while the wr lingered near the sideline and never actually came off the field.

    It worked so beautifully b/c of the fake fg pooch cluster-f that GT ran. B/c they had just seen something similar, when the snap went to the kicker, the D relaxed and assumed it was a pooch.

    As for Crabtree, the two factors weighing the most heavily both involve Heyward-Bey. First, Crabtree felt he was the top wr in the draft (and probably rightly so, but that is beside the point). Crabtree got hurt, DHB ran a fast forty, the rest is history. Crabtree feels slighted that he wasn’t the first WR taken and feels he deserves similar money to DHB.

    That might be an attainable compromise for the niner front office had Al Davis not completely blown the slotting out of kilter and overpaid DHB wildly. This lead to the delay in the signings of Maybin and Smith, but both eventually came to their senses and got into camp. Crabtree, however, being the same position as DHB, AND feeling that he is better, is still hung up on that deal.

  • jake

    G tech has issues between the guards. They could not combo anyone off the ball in the second half. QB follow worked but the triple and midline looked terrible.I thought the QB and #33 looked extremely tired down the stretch for g-tech. I’d like to see more breakdown and video on the defensive breakdowns.

  • http://black02.com Mark

    Johnson has wanted to install an airraid into his offense, the problem is Nesbit’s passing ability has not come along well. There was a time in the game that Nesbit has a negative passer rating. Johnson has stated time and time again that to get the team to where it needs to they must be able to pass at times to take advantage of defensive overpersuing.

    The complaint is that due to Johnson’s offense he’ll never be able to get a QB that can pass. I disagree, the person he may get to run the system may not be a pocket passer I believe he can get someone who can throw well enough to win.

  • Chris

    I hate it when quarterbacks become known for how many fourth quarter comebacks they have. That just tells me that they’re terrible in the first three quarters.

    He threw two picks, took a huge sack that was all his fault, and averaged 11 per completion. His amazing ability to drive his team into a huge and then pull them out with dinky passes is awesome. Whoooooo.

  • Trey

    Chris,

    I was a little surprised to see you say, “Georgia Tech will not win many games if they have to throw it.”

    That’s probably true — but how do you make Tech throw it? I’m not sure there’s any intelligent way to “force” Paul Johnson to throw the ball a lot. Simply getting a few scores ahead certainly won’t do it.

  • Andy

    I went back and watched the game on DVR this weekend. What struck me on the option was not so much the lack of success on the dive phase (the playside defensive lineman generally took the dive back forcing the keep/pitch phase even if the NT blew up the centers block), it was the overall number of missed blocks both by the line but also by the A backs and the wide receivers. On half a dozen plays they were one to two terribly missed blocks between a zero yardage play and a big gain. GT had less success than Navy did against OSU when they went ahead and ran plays with straight up blocking (dive with straight up and not veer blocking). This is one of the main problems they had in losses last year; they seem to have cleaned up dive/keep reads though.

    In my view, their success is much more dependent on fixing blocking(and in the medium term of getting a line that can hold its own). While the passing game was not crisply executed, it seemed to serve its purpose (I believe that both of the interceptions were by the safeties implying that the threat of the pass forced safeties to play the pass). In general I thought Clemson’s defensive strategy was to use line play and athleticism and did a decent job of it. I think we can only really comment on the passing game when we see a team sell out a lot more against the run.

    On another note, it was interesting to watch some adjustments that Paul Johnson seems to be making. The three I found most interesting is that the tackle generally stepped hard outside of the DT rather than either looping or taking a veer release and did a pretty good job of getting to their blocks. Last year DTs often literally held blockers on veer release and/or knocked back the OT when they took a looping release.

    They also seemed to shorten up the motion into the option (it seemed last year the backside of the defense was slanting with the motion and disrupting plays. Also they ran probably a half a dozen counters to the A back opposite the path of the B bak with the motion A back folding inside.

  • dr

    DHB may not have been the best WR in the draft this last season, but it seems that Crabtree has already proven Al Davis made the right choice. Yes he probably overpaid DHB, but he not only got a receiver out of him, he has also removed a first round draft pick from his cross-town rivals.

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