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.
(more…)

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.

Smart Links – Strategery Round-Up: two-tight ends, the 3-4 defense, rocket toss and “Iso” – 12/8/2011

Old school Green Bay Packers’ use of two-tight ends:

Two good links from Ron Jenkins:

Wisdom from Woody Hayes:

[W]hen I first starting coaching listening to Woody Hayes talk about designing an offense. He talked about you start with your schedule and rank all your opponents from one to ten in terms of toughness to beat. Then you base your offense on beating the top 3 or 4 teams. That’s it. Once you are done there you just make sure you’re sound against everything else.

The importance of choosing your coverage in the 3-4 defense:

(more…)

Combining quick passes and a shovel pass or shovel screen

I recently discussed the evolution in combined or “packaged” plays, which involve combining quick passes, run plays, and screens to best take advantage of what ever evolving defenses throw at offenses. Since describing the concept, I’ve seen an increasing number of NFL teams use it, including the Green Bay Packers and the New York Jets, to decent if unspectacular effect.

And most interestingly, a reader pointed me to a slight wrinkle on the stick/draw combination that Oregon under Chip Kelly ran in their spring game last year: a quick pass combined with a shovel pass. See the diagram and video below (note that the diagram is not entirely accurate; I drew the “stick” concept but Oregon actually ran “spacing,” which I like as a concept but like less for this purpose).

I point this out because I actually like the quick pass plus the shovel play more than I like the draw. The blocking scheme for the line remains the same: basic draw blocking, potentially with a fold technique, though you can also try to leave a defensive end unblocked if you’re willing to read him. But doing it as a shovel pass over the draw has a number of advantages, I think.

(more…)

New Grantland: The Case for Baylor’s Robert Griffin III

It’s up over at the Grantland Blog:

Robert Griffin III should win the Heisman Trophy. From Baylor’s first game this year, when he shredded Gary Patterson’s vaunted TCU defense for 359 yards and five touchdowns, Griffin has consistently been the best performer in college football. He’s only a couple yards shy of 4,000 for the season, he’s set an NCAA record for passing efficiency, and the former track star has rushed for 644 yards and nine touchdowns just for good measure. (Keep in mind “track star” isn’t just a way to say he’s fast; Griffin is literally a track champion.) Oh, sure, stats are stats — what matters is whether he’s a winner, right? Well, he won nine games at Baylor, a team that hasn’t done that since 1986. But is he clutch? Oh yeah, that. He’s clutch.

baylor

Read the whole thing.

Simple Rating System: Final results and predicting the Bowls – 12/5/2011

Believe it or not, the Oklahoma State Cowboys ended up finishing #2 in the SRS. Like last week, LSU remains the clear #1. But on the basis of the most impressive SRS game of the season, the Cowboys topped the Crimson Tide.

Rk.  Team                 Conf  G    MOV      SOS      SRS      W-L
1.   LSU                  SEC   13   24.4     41.4     65.8     13-0
2.   Oklahoma St          B12   12   20.6     43.7     64.2     11-1
3.   Alabama              SEC   12   23.4     40.4     63.8     11-1
4.   Oregon               P12   13   18.7     41.1     59.8     11-2
5.   Stanford             P12   12   19.3     39.6     58.8     11-1
6.   Oklahoma             B12   12   14.0     44.7     58.7      9-3
7.   Wisconsin            B10   13   21.8     36.7     58.5     11-2
8.   Boise St             MWC   12   20.9     34.2     55.1     11-1
9.   Michigan             B10   12   15.3     39.7     55.0     10-2
10.  Southern Cal         P12   12   11.0     42.1     53.2     10-2
11.  Texas A&M            B12   12    8.0     44.4     52.4      6-6
12.  Arkansas             SEC   12   12.3     39.6     51.8     10-2
13.  Houston              CUS   13   22.4     28.7     51.1     12-1
14.  Baylor               B12   12    7.0     44.0     51.0      9-3
15.  Michigan St          B10   13   11.2     39.2     50.4     10-3
16.  Georgia              SEC   13   10.2     39.3     49.5     10-3
17.  Notre Dame           IND   12    8.0     41.5     49.5      8-4
18.  TCU                  MWC   12   17.1     32.3     49.4     10-2
19.  Missouri             B12   12    6.3     43.0     49.3      7-5
20.  South Carolina       SEC   12   10.1     39.2     49.3     10-2
21.  Texas                B12   12    4.8     44.4     49.1      7-5
22.  Kansas St            B12   12    4.9     43.3     48.2     10-2
23.  Nebraska             B10   12    7.0     41.1     48.1      9-3
24.  Florida St           ACC   12   13.2     33.8     47.0      8-4
25.  Arizona St           P12   12    6.6     39.6     46.2      6-6
26.  Virginia Tech        ACC   13    9.8     35.6     45.4     11-2
27.  Clemson              ACC   13    7.4     37.3     44.6     10-3
28.  Southern Miss        CUS   13   15.5     29.0     44.5     11-2
29.  Penn State           B10   12    4.0     40.4     44.4      9-3
30.  California           P12   12    4.4     39.5     43.9      7-5
31.  Toledo               MAC   12    9.8     33.8     43.6      8-4
32.  West Virginia        BgE   12    7.2     36.1     43.3      9-3
33.  Vanderbilt           SEC   12    4.2     39.0     43.2      6-6
34.  Ohio State           B10   12    3.5     39.8     43.2      6-6
35.  Cincinnati           BgE   12   11.3     31.9     43.2      9-3
 (more…)

Who should be the NFL rookie of the year? Cam Newton vs. Andy Dalton

Cam Newton and Andy Dalton are having outstanding rookie seasons. Newton has been setting records since the beginning of the season, while Dalton has helped make Cincinnati the NFL’s most surprising playoff contender. With the season 11 weeks old, many fans are thinking about who will wind up winning some of the NFL’s main individual awards. Aaron Rodgers has just about locked up the AP MVP award and should probably grab the AP Offensive Player of the Year Award, too. The AP Defensive Rookie of the Year will almost certainly be Von Miller, also known as the “other” reason the Denver Broncos have won five of their last six games. But what about the Offensive Rookie of the Year award?

"Cam, is the rookie of the year award a done deal?" "Like they say...."

Realistically, either Dalton or Newton will win the award. DeMarco Murray and A.J. Green are having great seasons for a rookie running back and wide receiver, respectively, but the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award is as much about position as performance.

From 1967 to 1983, the award went to a running back in all but three seasons. In 1968, Terry Cole led all rookie running backs with only 418 yards, so the award went to the top rookie receiver that season, Earl McCullouch. In 1970, the top rookie running back was Dallas’ Duane Thomas, but he had been less impressive than the Cowboys’ 1969 offensive rookie of the year, Calvin Hill. The top receiver, Ron Shanklin, was unspectacular, so the award actually went to Buffalo quarterback Dennis Shaw. Shaw had a an ugly 3-8-1 record, but all of his wins were 4th quarter comebacks. He also finished 6th in the league in passing yards. In 1976, wide receiver Sammy White had a monster year for the Vikings while no rookie running back stood out.

In fact, from the inception of the award in 1967 until 2003, Shaw was the only quarterback to win the award. But since then, Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Young, Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford have taken the award in every even year starting in ’04. In 2005, Kyle Orton was the only rookie QB with at least 200 attempts; while his 10-5 record was nice, his individual statistics were terrible, and Cadillac Williams took home the award. In 2007, Adrian Peterson was an obvious selection, and it probably didn’t hurt that Trent Edwards was his top competition at quarterback. In 2009, Percy Harvin won the award on the basis of his receiving and returner skills, while Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman were each busy throwing seven to eight more interceptions than touchdowns and completing fewer than 55% of their passes.

(more…)

Mike Leach is the new coach at Washington State: Rejoice and be glad

Raise your jolly rogers: Mike Leach is back. After two years of book-touring, suing ESPN, hosting talk-radio, and chillin’ in Key West, Leach is set to coach again in 2012, this time as head pirate in charge of the Washington State Cougars. History, connections, anecdote, and theories regarding the hire abound, but first thing first: It’s a great hire.

Back to business

I love Mike and I obviously can’t wait to see his offense back in action, but I was skeptical of the “fit” between Mike and some of the other schools whose name he was connected to. Big Ten schools tend to either like their coaches a certain way — a way not typical for Leach — or probably couldn’t afford him; SEC schools could afford him but the culture shock on both sides would be larger than I think people realized; and while Leach said he’d basically take any job, I don’t think he sat out for two years to coach a non-BCS conference school. Washington State, on the other hand, is, in my mind, perfect. It’s not perfect in the sense that the team has been struggling in recent years, but they’ve had winners there, and if Leach can get them to a bowl game in the next couple of years the perception will be that he’s been successful. Contrast this with, say, Ole Miss, where a bad game in week five and a couple of questionable calls (and trust me, there would be many calls that diehard SEC fans would not understand) and the pressure would be of an entirely different order.

Indeed, at Washington State Leach can essentially say he’s getting back to the tradition of guns blazing offense and great quarterbacking that defined the Cougars in the modern era. In 1987, Dennis Erickson brought his one-back offense to Pullman and engineered a big turnaround in his second season when they went 9-3, including an upset of then #1 ranked (and Troy Aikman led) UCLA. Erickson left for Miami the following season and was replaced by Mike Price, an Erickson one-back protégé (and actually a high school teammate of Erickson’s). Price led the Cougars to several successful seasons, most notably in 1992 when the team was quarterbacked by Drew Bledsoe and later two Rose Bowl seasons, 1997 when led by Ryan Leaf and 2002 when led by Jason Gesser. The 2002 squad shared the Pac-10 title with Pete Carroll’s Carson Palmer led Southern Cal team, and went to the Rose Bowl ahead of USC due to their head-to-head tiebreaker.

Although I don’t expect Leach to junk his Airraid for Erickson’s one-back offense, this history is important, at least to Leach. In his book Leach mentions that, had he not joined up with Hal Mumme and began running their twist on the BYU passing game, he would have run Dennis Erickson’s one-back three-step game, which was in fact what he’d been doing before he and Mumme got together. Further, after Mumme and Leach’s first season at Kentucky in 1997, they visited Mike Price and his staff at Washington State after their Rose Bowl season. There they picked up some information on formations and receiver screens. It may be irrelevant, but Mumme’s Airraid had always been a two-back offense, while in 1997 Washington State ran a ton of four-wides with one back. That personnel group and formation would later dominant Leach’s offense when he began running his own show.

But all this is important because it is possible to win at Washington State; from 2001 to 2003, the Cougars had three straight ten win seasons. It may be that the Pac-10/12 is much better top to bottom than it was then, but this is not as big of a rebuilding job as, say, Kentucky was when Mumme and Leach went there.

Building a staff. The most important job for Mike right now is to quickly and effectively put together a staff. Fans may expect Leach to arrive in Pullman and by sheer force of history and personality begin to tear up Pac-12 defenses, but the quality of assistants is extremely important. Historically, the assistants Leach has been around, both when he was an assistant himself and later as a head coach, have gone on to continued or increased success elsewhere as four or five have become D-1 head coaches and a number of others have gone on to become offensive coordinators. Further, Mike is a strange guy: he talks too long in meetings, can ramble when recruiting, was never known as a die-hard recruiter, and is very focused on certain things — his offense and his quarterbacks — and really needs others to take the lead in other matters.

(more…)

Can inexperienced quarterbacks succeed in the playoffs? The Houston Texans and the T.J. Yates experiment

The Houston Texans are currently having the finest season in their nine-year existence. With an 8-3 record, Houston is almost certainly going to make the playoffs. But after losing quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart in consecutive games, the Texans are down to their third string quarterback.

Doing a lot of this

That man is T.J. Yates, a rookie quarterback out of North Carolina. Yates did manage to torch LSU for over 400 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, one of three 400-yard performances by Yates in his senior season. But you can’t fault Texans fans if they’re a little concerned.

Houston signed Jake Delhomme this week, but he’s expected to serve as the primary backup and mentor. If the Texans go with Yates for the final five games of the season, will he be the most inexperienced quarterback to ever start a game in the playoffs?

Hardly. There have been 13 quarterbacks to start a playoff game with five or fewer career regular season starts. In fact, he’d only be the third rookie quarterback with to be inserted into his team’s lineup for the last five games of the season and then start in the playoffs. Perhaps more surprisingly, there have been five times since 1960 when a quarterback made only one regular season start in his entire career before being called on to start a playoff game. Going chronologically:

Tom Matte, 1965 vs. the Green Bay Packers

In 1965, the NFL was a 14-team league with two divisions. The playoffs were simple: the two division winners would play in the last championship game before the start of the Super Bowl era. Under Johnny Unitas, the Colts raced out to 7-1 record, with the only loss coming at Lambeau Field by a score of 20-17 in week two. Unitas missed the Colts’ ninth game with a back injury, but backup Gary Cuozzo (more on his reputation as the best backup quarterback in football here) led the Colts to victory and threw for five touchdowns in his absence. Unitas returned the next week and helped the Colts pick up another victory and one tie. By then, the 9-1-1 Colts held a 1.5 game lead on the 8-3 Packers with only three games left to play. But against the Bears, Stan Jones and Earl Leggett tore Unitas’ knee in a classic high-low hit that ended his season. The Colts offense was helpless against Chicago, losing the game 13-0.

(more…)

Simple Rating System for 11/28/2011 – Finish line in sight, the final picture sharpens

Last week, the Simple Rating System did not have Arkansas in the top three; the SRS was unimpressed by the Razorbacks, which explains why they didn’t drop too much. Last week, the SRS had Arkansas at #13 with a score of 53.4; this week they’re 13th at 52.1. LSU is now alone at the top, with a 1.2 point edge over Alabama. That jives with the early reports that the Tigers will be a 1.5 to 2 point favorite over the Crimson Tide in the potential rematch. Oklahoma State actually drops by over a point because Tulsa dropped by 2.5 points after getting blown out by Houston, and Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Missouri all dropped by a couple of points after unimpressive conference games (and their opponents did not improve by as much). But the Cowboys are still third, and the SRS puts them within a couple of points of Alabama.

Houston had by far its best game of the season this weekend — a 72.5 score after beating Tulsa (43.0) by 32 on the road (adjusted MOV of 29.5). According to the SRS, Houston’s worst five games all came in September. Since then, Houston has an average SRS score of 60.2 in its last seven games with not a single sub-50 performance. I was (appropriately) skeptical of the Cougars based on an easy schedule for most of the season, but they’ve been playing at an elite level for the last two months. The full SRS results:

Rk.  Team                 Conf  G    MOV      SOS      SRS      W-L
1.   LSU                  SEC   12   24.1     41.1     65.2     12-0
2.   Alabama              SEC   12   23.4     40.7     64.0     11-1
3.   Oklahoma St          B12   11   20.0     42.6     62.6     10-1
4.   Oklahoma             B12   11   17.7     43.3     61.1      9-2
5.   Oregon               P12   12   19.0     41.6     60.6     10-2
6.   Stanford             P12   12   19.3     39.9     59.1     11-1
7.   Wisconsin            B10   12   23.0     35.9     59.0     10-2
8.   Boise St             MWC   11   19.8     36.4     56.2     10-1
9.   Michigan             B10   12   15.3     40.1     55.4     10-2
10.  Houston              CUS   12   26.3     27.7     53.9     12-0
11.  Southern Cal         P12   12   11.0     42.4     53.5     10-2
12.  Texas A&M            B12   12    8.0     44.9     52.9      6-6
13.  Arkansas             SEC   12   12.3     39.8     52.1     10-2
14.  Texas                B12   11    7.1     44.0     51.1      7-4
15.  Georgia              SEC   12   13.4     37.6     51.0     10-2
16.  Michigan St          B10   12   12.7     38.1     50.8     10-2
17.  Notre Dame           IND   12    8.0     41.8     49.8      8-4
18.  Missouri             B12   12    6.3     43.3     49.7      7-5
19.  South Carolina       SEC   12   10.1     39.6     49.7     10-2
20.  Baylor               B12   11    5.7     43.9     49.6      8-3
21.  TCU                  MWC   11   15.6     33.6     49.2      9-2
22.  Kansas St            B12   11    4.7     44.0     48.6      9-2
23.  Nebraska             B10   12    7.0     41.5     48.5      9-3
24.  Virginia Tech        ACC   12   12.8     35.4     48.2     11-1
25.  Florida St           ACC   12   13.2     34.2     47.4      8-4
 (more…)