Recommended reading, 2011 edition

I am frequently asked to recommend books for coaches or just people interested in learning more about the game. There really is no single one source — and I’m not sure there could be — but here are some suggestions of books I’ve enjoyed that tackle the strategic side of football.

- Finding the Winning Edge, by Bill Walsh. The bible.

- The Bunch Attack, by Andrew Coverdale and Dan Robinson. Probably my favorite passing game book of all time; don’t be scared off by the reference to the “bunch” only. Although that’s the theme, the book is really a comprehensive look at the passing game as a system, understanding defenses and coverages, protections, and how to build variations off of the passing game to make it all go. Coverdale and Robinson’s books on the quick pass game are essential as well.

- 2011 Offensive Line Coaches Handbook, edited by Earl Browning. all of the fancy stuff about the passing game and building a “pro-style” gameplan go out the window if you can’t block on some fundamental run plays and on pass plays, and the COOL Clinic lectures remain one of the best sources of information. I enjoyed this year’s edition, though you can find valuable information in almost all of them.

- Coaching the Under Front Defense, by Jerry Gordon. There are lots of good books on defense — including the all-time classic, Coaching Team Defense by Packers legend Fritz Shurmur — but I think Gordon’s book is a great overview and introduction not only to the 4-3 Under but the concept of team defenses generally. I also found it very helpful as a reference work, as out of the various other books and materials I have I kept pulling this off the shelf to see about defending runs pulling guards, certain pass concepts, and so on.

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Smart Links – 12/14/2011

Indiana’s buzzer-beater to beat Kentucky set to the theme from Hoosiers:

- Craig James runs for Senative.

- What happened to the Triangle Offense? And the last frontier of the Triangle, in Manila.

- Coach Hoover on Tebow.

- Amazon rewarding people who report on higher prices in stores.

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Mike Leach: Pistol offense maven?

Mike Leach, now head coach at Washington State, has gone out and hired someone with a little pistol offense pedigree:

One interesting note from the hiring and firing that occupies college football fans for the better part of the holiday season is the hiring of former Nevada and UCLA assistant Jim Mastro by Washington State. Mastro is schooled in the pistol offense, a run-first attack known for cranking out 1,000 yard rushers with regularity. It seems incompatible with Leach’s pass-friendly Air Raid scheme, but it may not be as inharmonious a match as you might think.

Leach protege Dana Holgorsen has worked with integrating the pistol formation and other variants of the scheme into his sets at West Virginia and Oklahoma State. In order to keep his attack fresh and unpredictable in his return to coaching, Leach may be looking to do the same thing by going straight to one of the attack’s sources. It’s a fun tweak, but don’t worry, Cougar fans: Leach will still throw the daylights out of the ball, and then probably pass some more even after he’s all out of daylights, so to speak.

I think this is right: Don’t expect Leach to junk his Airraid anytime soon, though you may see more pistol. What’s interesting is that Leach has talked about the importance of the pistol, contrasting it with, say, the wildcat, which he didn’t think is a lasting change. Instead the pistol, says Leach, will have staying power as it “changes the angles” in the running game. You can see this in the clip below:

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New Grantland Blog: Draw It Up: Army-Navy and the Flexbone Offense

It’s up over at the Triangle Blog:

Niumatalolo and others at the academies, however, have evolved the offense by not just lining up in the same flexbone set and running the veer triple and the midline option 40 times a game. (Although they’re happy to do that, too, if you don’t defend it well.) Instead, they will also mix in formation variations, motion, shifts, and so on to get the matchup that they want. In other words, the service academies are running a pro-style, multiple-formation, heavily game-planned, option offense. Sounds like heresy, but look at Navy’s touchdown in the second quarter on Saturday.

Read the whole thing.

The interplay of recruiting, eliteness and pro-style versus spread schemes

Blutarsky and B&B discuss some interesting points. Explicitly or implicitly, the discussion turns on the role of schemes and top-flight recruits, coupled with scheme transitions. In short, are there advantages to recruiting to pro-style offenses versus the spread, and is it wrong (or at least misguided) to hire coaches who will transition their team from one to the other? And what’s the better plan for the long-run? I don’t think there even could be an answer to these questions, but below are some non-systematic thoughts.

1. For the truly elite-level recruiting teams, I think the agnosticism of pro-style treats them well because they basically recruit incredible players and then figure out the system and scheme later. Moreover, spread offenses, option offenses, and really any pass-first offense (including West Coast attacks of which I’d put Georgia in the category) require very good quarterback play. Alabama and LSU are basically designed to win in spite of their quarterbacks; Nick Saban does not want to return an all world defense with a bunch of five-star playmakers and lose because his QB was a junior and had some “growing pains”, which absolutely happens at every level. In other words, if you get be a top 5 recruiting team every year, it’s not that you want to be pro-style it’s that you want to be “system neutral.” They can get superior talent and can fit plays around those incredible guys. Note that this isn’t the same as “fitting your scheme to your players,” because we’re talking about first round draft choice guys not guys with certain strengths and certain weaknesses. I leave aside whether pro-style is truly more attractive to recruits or not.

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Refreshing the site’s look

I have been mulling about a few things I would like to do to the site:

  • Develop iPad/iPhone/Android Mobile versions of Smart Football.
  • Polish up the sidebar — what would be most useful to have on it?
  • Clean up the header, title, etc.
  • Add Google Plus to the social share at bottom — any other sharing tools people wish they had?
  • Embed advertising in RSS feeds.

I’m also open to any other suggestions or ideas. If you or someone you know has design and/or programming capabilities feel free to reach out to me at chris [at] smartfootball.com. Much appreciated.

Adapting the Rocket Toss Sweep to Spread and Pro-style Offenses

The top four rushing teams in college football this past season — Navy, Air Force, Army, and Georgia Tech — each ran the flexbone offense or some variation of it. “Well,” you say, “those offenses run the ball a lot, so that inflates the yardage.”

Rocket: Just get it to the fast guy

To a point, yes, but even if you simply look at them on a yards per rushing attempt basis they were each in the top 10, with Navy last at 5.40 yards per attempt at 10th and Air Force and Georgia Tech tied for 3rd at 5.75 yards per attempt. And maybe the most impressive (or at least surprising) statistics of the season is that FCS power Georgia Southern hung over 300 yards rushing at over 7.7 yards per carryversus Nick Saban’s vaunted Alabama defense, a solid 230 yards more than the average for ‘Bama’s opponents. (It should be noted that the game was not close.) So it pays to study what plays and principles give them so much success.**

Obviously these flexbone teams use a lot of option principles, which may or may not be adaptable to what a given team currently does. This is especially so for spread-to-pass or pro-style teams that simply don’t have the time to work on a complex set of quarterback reads for option; it’s great stuff, it’s just a different offense and would require certain trade-offs. I am a big believer that many teams simply try to do too much and end up bad at a lot of things instead of very good at a couple of them.

But one play — really a series, rather than a play — that is criminally underutilized is the “Rocket Toss Sweep” or simply the “Rocket” series. See below for an example of the base rocket play.

The rocket similar in concept to a jet sweep, but with some notable differences. Specifically, because the sweeper takes a deeper path:

  • the play actually happens faster than the jet, because the pitch can occurs outside of the box rather than via a jet which usually takes place where the quarterback is standing;
  • this depth actually allows the offense to get additional lead blockers in front of the rocket sweeper — it’s the ultimate “numbers to the perimeter” play; and
  • because so much action is flowing to the playside, counters are even better off of the rocket action than they are from the jet sweep, as shown in the video clip below.

This last point is the real reason why I think the rocket sweep is a must include for any spread or even multiple pro-style offense, especially if they don’t use the quarterback in the run game. The difficult part in designing and executing any run game is controlling for two defenders: the counterpart for the quarterback and the runningback. In the traditional pro-style defense against a run play, it is the runningback’s defensive counterpart that causes problems: when a quarterback hands off and watches the play, a deep safety stays back to watch out for play-action, but some unblocked linebacker or defensive end can cause problems by taking away the cutback or simply causing confusion in running assignments. By using the quarterback in the run game with reads and options you can control that defender, but for many pass-first teams that’s not necessarily an option. You’re either Oregon or you’re not.

But the rocket series gives you some of that — it is a series — without necessarily requiring that you spend all the additional time required to use your quarterback in the run game. As one coach recently put it:

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Klosterman on the people who hate Tim Tebow

Chuck Klosterman has a strong piece on the people who hate Tim Tebow. I liked this piece because it inverted the usual structure of the Tebow discussion, which I can summarize as “TEBOWTEBOWTEBOWTEBOWHARFHARFHARF”. (Or, as Spencer Hall has accurately put it: “YOUR STUPID NON-COLLEGE-FOOTBALL-WATCHING RELATIVE SAYS: ‘Oregon has the uniforms and the colors and the things, don’t they? What’s with that? Hey, what do you think of Tim Tebow? ‘Cause I’ve got some real strong opinions I’d like to share.’”) From Klosterman:

The crux here, the issue driving this whole “Tebow Thing,” is the matter of faith. It’s the ongoing choice between embracing a warm feeling that makes no sense or a cold pragmatism that’s probably true. And with Tebow, that illogical warm feeling keeps working out. It pays off. The upside to secular thinking is that — in theory — your skepticism will prove correct. Your rightness might be emotionally unsatisfying, but it confirms a stable understanding of the universe. Sports fans who love statistics fall into this camp. People who reject cognitive dissonance build this camp and find the firewood. But Tebow wrecks all that, because he makes blind faith a viable option. His faith in God, his followers’ faith in him — it all defies modernity. This is why people care so much. He is making people wonder if they should try to believe things they don’t actually believe.

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What I’ve been reading

Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football, by John U. Bacon. I actually read this long ago when it first came out**, so I am late to the party. I thought it was a surprisingly entertaining and brisk read, as I finished it in a matter of days during an otherwise busy time. And many of the insights — particularly centering around Rodriguez’s time at West Virginia, the immediate transition, and the agendas of some of the local Michigan media — were fascinating both purely on the level of gossip and as an insight into the weird world of college sports. And if I have any complaint is that it is a profoundly Michigan book: I didn’t go there and I don’t have any particular affinity to the school, so some of the detail is relevant only to someone who deeply cares about the minutiae of the school (as Bacon clearly does) and, less generously, the narrative voice often veers into an extremely fan-centric view where everything Michigan is “proud” or “dignified” or “respectful” while every other Big 10 schools’ fans are “unruly” or “rude” or their coaches manipulative, and so on.

For a book that attempts to (and often succeeds) at telling a rather nuanced story about a complicated coach during a complicated time, that the book resorts to such tropes is not a plus, at least for those of us who didn’t spend four years in Ann Arbor. More interestingly, of course, is the portrayal of Rodriguez. He comes across generally well though rather naive — “What, you mean I must say the right thing and play some internal politics at Michigan?” — and then as the losses mount he basically appears to lose it, alternatively throwing furniture or crying after games. And yet he still comes across better than those around him, including Lloyd Carr. So I recommend the book if you have an interest in Rodriguez or Michigan (especially if you care about Michigan and can handle that perspective), and if you ever plan on being the head coach of a BCS school, there are many good lessons of the what-not-to-do-variety embedded in here.

- The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. This melancholy novella was the winner of this year’s Man Booker prize. I am unsure if I would say it deserved the prize, but I completely understand why it won: the writing is crisp and, at times, beautiful; and the story, which centers around a man and his immediate circle during their school days and his attempts to remember certain details some years later under unique circumstances, is generally tightly wrought and even has some (sort of) plot twists. It also felt extremely manipulative at times, as Barnes set me with mysteries, threw out some bizarre and somewhat implausible plot details, and then purposefully left the ending completely fuzzy (I have a particular interpretation which is, without giving anything away, that I still do not completely believe the narrator’s final account of the events at the end of the book). The best thing I can say is that at a short 140 or so pages, it was the perfect length for what it is, whatever that may be: I don’t regret at all buying or reading it, and, true to the book’s theme, I’ll probably remember the book more fondly than I initially experienced it.

- The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon.
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Four verticals is the best, Tim Tebow vs. the Vikings edition

Especially if the defense plays Cover 2 and is terrible at it:

You can read more on four verts here, here, here and here.