Grantland: LSU and the Speed Option

It’s now up over at the Grantland blog:

The best and most crucial example of the speed option in the game came in overtime. The play-by-play simply refers to it as a 15-yard rush by Michael Ford, but the play essentially ended the game, as Alabama had just missed a field goal and, after the run, LSU’s field goal — and thus its victory — became inevitable. On this play, LSU showed a particularly interesting wrinkle. Not only did it run the speed option but it actually lined up in an unbalanced formation, and then ran away from the extra blockers. As can be seen from the image above, LSU put the tight end, H-back (a tight end lined up off the line) and a wide receiver all to the right side of the formation. To the left, the Tigers had only the offensive guard and the tackle. Alabama’s adjustment was to overload the offense’s right side, to the point that it was undermanned to the weak side.

Read the whole thing.

The NFL doesn’t want you to have access to the “All 22” film

The NFL doesn’t want “All-22” game film — the “eye-in-the-sky” view that coaches use to analyze their teams and their opponents** — released to the public because “it would open players and teams up to a level of criticism far beyond the current hum of talk radio… [F]ans would jump to conclusions after watching one or two games in the All-22, without knowing the full story.”

It should be this simple

This is, of course, ridiculous. Obviously the argument doesn’t work, because if anything the All-22 would clarify the hasty conclusions fans and commentators already jump to on the basis of poor angles and little information. And even if it did open them up to criticism, so what? It’s an arbitrary game played for people’s enjoyment. If the First Amendment to the Constitution protects citizens’ ability to criticize the actions and policies of government and government actors, even during times of war — something that could potentially have a cost in human life — I should think that people who are paid millions of dollars to coach and play an arbitrary game can stand a little bit of heat. The whole thing is silly.

The proffered reason — that it would result in too much criticism — is so silly that it can’t possibly be true. But if it’s not true, then what is the real reason? I struggle with this (though I shouldn’t overlook the Occam’s razor-esque possibility that it’s simply that the people with decisionmaking authority over these kinds of things at the NFL are not intelligent, thoughtful people and do it for no real reason at all), as the only apparent conclusion is that it’s simply to insult the intelligence of fans and people who enjoy football. In short, it leaves two possibilities: first, either we really would fail to comprehend the complex array of movement on the field by twenty-two supremely athletic but human men, and thus we need the gentle paternalism of the cameraman and producer to show us, in a kind of cinematic baby talk, “See, with this close-up the quarterback throws a pretty spiral to the receiver!”; or, second, football isn’t even a game so much as it is a product to be branded in a particular way, and by restricting the All-22 the NFL can by Orwellian imagery of extreme close-ups and slow-motion shots emotionally convey to us the narratives solely how they want to in the way they want to. In either case, it’s all about controlling the message; the only question is why, and all the answers are depressing.


Simple Rating System – Week 10: Where LSU — and ‘Bama — continue to lead the pack

Last week, I discussed how the simple rating system could be an easy-to-understand and effective predictive ranking system. This week, I’ll be updating the ratings after the week 10 results, and providing an update on each conference. As always, special thanks to Dr. Wolfe who publishes the game scores for every NCAA and NAIA game each week.

The SRS assigns equal weight to each game, so by week 10, the weekly fluctuations are not significant. Still, here are the current SRS standings as of today:

Rk   Team                Conf   G   MOV      SOS      SRS      W-L
1.   LSU                  SEC   9   22.6     46.1     68.7     9-0
2.   Alabama              SEC   9   23.6     43.6     67.2     8-1
3.   Oklahoma             B12   9   20.6     45.8     66.4     8-1
4.   Oklahoma St          B12   9   20.3     45.8     66.1     9-0
5.   Stanford             P12   9   27.2     37.7     64.9     9-0
6.   Oregon               P12   9   20.6     41.5     62.1     8-1
7.   Boise St             MWC   8   23.3     37.5     60.8     8-0
8.   Wisconsin            B10   9   22.8     37.6     60.3     7-2
9.   Texas A&M            B12   9    7.3     48.2     55.5     5-4
10.  Michigan             B10   9   14.7     40.5     55.2     7-2

LSU vs. Alabama: The Zen Riddle

Can a game be great even though the quarterback play is only average (or even below average, depending on how you adjust for the competition)?

Your answer probably determines whether you thought last night was a good game or a bad one, or even whether it was fun to watch or was boring.

Should Lynn Swann be in the Hall of Fame? What do the numbers say?

As one of members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee, I appreciate Peter King’s candor when it comes to the struggles the voters face when discussing wide receivers. King has written about the wide receiver conundrum frequently, including this note a couple of weeks ago:

Hall of Fame Headache Dept.: Art Monk retired after the 1995 season with 940 catches, most in NFL history. On Sunday, Derrick Mason of Houston became the 11th player in 16 years to pass Monk. Mason had one catch in the 41-7 rout of Tennessee, giving him 941.

Larry Fitzgerald, 27, is 296 catches behind Monk. Andre Johnson, 29, is 242 behind him. We haven’t even begun with the children of the aerial generation, the receivers just starting their careers in a time of unprecedented passing.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The 44 electors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame will have to define what a Hall of Fame receiver is over the next few years, because they’ll be facing an onslaught of receivers way beyond Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed. Isaac Bruce (1,024 receptions) or Torry Holt (920)? Or both? Hines Ward (980) or Mason (941)? And the tight end position could get similarly silly, numbers-wise. Tony Gonzalez has 289 more catches than any tight end in history.

There has to be something to separate these guys, and each voter has to search his/her conscience to judge them on more than numbers. I am one of the voters. It’ll be interesting, and perhaps maddening, to see how it unfolds.

I have several suggestions on how voters should tackle this admittedly tricky problem (here’s my article addressing the Carter/Brown/Reed conundrum), but I’ll leave further discussion of that for another day. For now, I want to examine exactly how much differently wide receivers are used today than they were 40 years ago. It’s easy to say things like “the passing game has exploded” but there’s nothing preventing us from being much more precise than that.


The Simple Rating System: Bringing order (kinda) to chaos

[Ed. Note: This is the first post by my good friend and stat guru Chase Stuart. For at least the rest of this season, Chase will be contributing his unique perspective to the site. Chase has previously contributed to the New York Times Fifth Down and the Pro-Football Reference Blog. You can also follow Chase on twitter.]

The last two seasons, I have published college football ratings using the Simple Rating System. Before explaining how the Simple Rating System (SRS) works, allow me to first explain what the SRS is trying to do (and just as importantly, what it’s not trying to do).

A want and enjoyment of numerosity

Most rating systems fall into one of two categories. A rating system could simply replicate the standings in any particular league; such a rating system would best be described as retrodoctive or explanatory. A retrodictive rating system fits the data to explain what happened in the past. The BCS computer ratings are mostly retrodictive; so are player or team ratings that give significant weight to high-leverage plays that tend to be highly random (clutch play, fumble recovery rates, etc.). An explanatory rating system tries to measure how much a team or player has accomplished in the past; it does not attempt to answer the question “what will happen next?” When Bill Parcells said “You are what your record says you are,” he’s championing retrodictive ratings. So was Rich Kotite when, coaching the 7-2 Eagles in 1994, he said to the media: “Judge me by my record.” An explanatory rating system would say that Kotite and his Eagles were doing well; but it would never have predicted that Kotite would go 4-35 over the next — and final — 39 games of his career.

The other type of rating system is a predictive system, which works as they name implies: it tries to predict the future. Here is a useful chart detailing some of the differences between the two in college football rating systems. Predictive rating systems are not very concerned with wins and losses; instead, they focus on more granular pieces of data. The best and most obvious example of a predictive rating system would be the formulas used by the folks in Vegas. Those who make point spreads aren’t disturbed if their rankings place Team A, which has “accomplished less” than Team B, higher up in their rankings. This weekend produced a useful example. No purely retrodictive rating system would put the Oklahoma Sooners ahead of the Kansas State Wildcats. Oklahoma was 6-1 but lost to a mediocre Texas Tech team; Kansas State was undefeated and had beaten some solid teams, albeit in less than thrilling fashion. Both the BCS ratings and the Associated Press’ rankings had Kansas State over Oklahoma, because those systems are designed to acknowledge accomplishments. But despite being the higher ranked team and playing at home, Kansas State was a 14-point underdog to the Sooners. And Oklahoma promptly went into Manhattan and blew out the Wildcats, 58-17.


New Grantland: The Kansas City Chiefs and the Counter Trey

It’s up over at Grantland:

At the snap, the Chiefs line up with one wide receiver, a fullback set to the offense’s left, and a tight end and H-back to the right. The strong side of the formation is to the offense’s right, but the fullback to the left is in position to block someone on either side. This presents a problem for the defense. Because they keep two safeties back (not pictured), they have a difficult time matching numbers to each side of the offense’s formation. Not counting the center and defensive nose guard, there are three defenders to the offense’s left to deal with three potential blockers, and four defenders to the offense’s right to deal with four potential blockers. But the counter trey brings two blockers from the backside to completely overwhelm the defense at the point of attack. (And, of course, the defense already had issues in not having counterparts for all of the offense’s blockers.)

Read the whole thing.

Attacking “Psycho” fronts and other blitz heavy defensive looks

When asked earlier this season how he would describe the current trend in modern defenses, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton summed it up in one word: “confusion.” While there are few truly “new” ideas in football, there is a near infinite number of ways to hide, disguise, or slightly vary those ideas. One increasingly popular idea in the NFL is the “psycho front“, which simply refers to a defense that has two, one or maybe even zero defensive linemen with their hands on the ground and tends to stack the line of scrimmage. This may mean the defense is bringing a heavy blitz — or it might not. Often, the defense will show this look and then back out of it into some kind of coverage.

The advantages of the pyscho are many, but the biggest key is that confusion Payton talked about: it’s difficult for the quarterback and offensive line to determine which of the potential rushers will blitz — other than through mind reading — and with so many of them there is a high likelihood that there will be an assignment bust. Further, although the defense might give away what deep coverage it is playing, it’s not clear what kind of underneath coverage it will be — man, zone, and if zone how many underneath? Two? Three? Four? These are real issues.

Of course, the psycho itself is just a spin on some scheme done before; the fact that a defensive lineman takes his hand off the ground doesn’t, by itself, change the defensive structure. Indeed, these same issues have been presented by NFL-style heavy blitz teams in the past. The problem presented in the image below is the same one as in the image above, as the defense shows a seven man defensive front while the offense has only the five linemen and one running back as pass protectors. If the offense uses some spread run game they can tilt the numbers slightly back to their favor, but it’s still a big issue.

So how do you attack these looks? Ultimately the offense will need the ability to protect and complete some passes downfield, but that’s not where I would begin. Below is a short list of ideas (in no particular order) to defeat these heavy or “psycho” fronts where the defense simultaneously threatens all-out man blitz, confusing zone blitz, and no blitz, all at once. Note that this is from the perspective of either a pro-style team or some kind of pass-first or pass-balanced spread team.


New Grantland: Tim Tebow and the 2-Point Conversion

It’s up over at Grantland:

Just after the snap and viewed from behind, you can see the problem for the Dolphins: everyone is squeezed inside. Indeed, after the game, many commentators wondered how the Dolphins were not looking for the quarterback draw. But that was the problem, as Miami coach Tony Sparano confirmed after the game: They were looking for the draw, which typically is a run up the middle where the linemen fake pass for a count before blocking. That’s why Miami‚Äôs defensive linemen had squeezed inside and the linebackers all looked that way too. What they weren’t looking for, however, was the quarterback power, and that’s what got them. In the image above, you can see the clear path for Zane Beadles, the pulling guard. Also, the one tricky block on the play is by the center, who must cut off the defender lined up over the guard; he executes this block and the backside is sealed.

Read the whole thing.

The gift that keeps giving: Buddy Ryan’s playbook

Check out this gem from the early pages of Ryan’s playbook (linked to in the prior post):