Heaven in the Bluegrass State

Heaven for Kentuckians likely consists of nothing but an endless series of basketball courts, but if there’s any little corner tucked away somewhere that’s dedicated to football, it simply must look like this:

Louisville at Kentucky. In a perfect world, this rivalry is always coached by Howard Schnellenberger and Rich Brooks, and the postgame show is conducted over fine scotch in front of a roaring fireplace with hunting hounds sprawled on the floor and tasteful 19th century landscape paintings on the wall.

What I’ve been reading

Nike Coach of the Year Clinic – 2011 and the 2011 Offensive Line Coaches C.O.O.L. Clinic Handbook, each edited by Earl Browning. These simply must be purchased every year. I’m just now getting into the C.O.O.L. clinic handbook, but the C.O.O.L. clinic is the best offensive line coaches clinic out there. And the Nike Coach of the Year Manual, as always, has some great stuff, including great information from Chris Ault of Nevada on the Pistol and Gary Patterson of TCU. With these you always know what you get: an accessible, digestible breakdown of discrete topics by great coaches in the “hot” areas among coaches.

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, by Michael Sandel. This is one of those books I passed by at least ten times before I finally bought it at one of those Borders going-out-of-business sales. I didn’t buy it because I knew it would cover a lot of territory I was already familiar with, including the 1,000th spin on the infamous trolley problem. But of course that is also the reason I eventually bought it, and I haven’t been disappointed. The book is based on Sandel’s famous philosophy course at Harvard (which was filmed and reproduced by PBS), and has the accessible, even-handed tone of a good instructor. The book doesn’t break any new ground (it isn’t designed to) and if you’ve read all the source material — Kant, Mill, Rawls, Nozick, and of course Plato and so on — then maybe this book isn’t so necessary, but I enjoyed it a great deal and do recommend it.

Women, by Charles Bukowski. And now for something completely different. This is a filthy book by a filthy old man (this seems like a common genre these days) but, though tedious in parts, is highly entertaining and Bukowski does both have a simple, elegant way with words and an eye for good set pieces. But parents, don’t buy this one for your kids.

The American, by Henry James. If you enjoyed the Bukowski book but feel like you need an intellectual shower to clean off, then the old don himself, Henry James, is typically a good, safe and sterile choice. I downloaded this on my Kindle about a week ago when flying and devoured the whole book. The American has a rather preposterous plot but James somehow makes almost everyone in the book thoroughly likable.

The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley. This book looks, sounds, and reads like it was written by an economist, except that it is more entertaining (and probably more informative too). This actually makes some sense given that the author is Matt Ridley, a trained biologist who happened to be an editor for The Economist for close to ten years. The upshot of the book is that we often underestimate humanity’s ability for upward progress, naming a few different causes, most notable among them being job and task specialization throughout history. The book itself is excellent and while I generally agree with his premise that our trajectory is upward, it’s not clear that all of the credit (or blame) can rest on the causes he names. But these are quibbles; if not exactly spectacular, it’s a solid book.

Snag, stick, and the importance of triangles (yes, triangles) in the passing game

When Sid Gillman revolutionized and all but invented the modern passing game, he did it through a “conceptual” approach to pass plays based on three “pass concepts”. Because football is governed by its immutable twins of strategy — arithmetic and geometry — these remain the foundation for all effective pass plays:

Simple stuff

  1. Vertical stretches — These place two or three receivers at different levels vertically up the field to “stretch” the defense. Examples include the smash concept and the frontside flood concept (see here for a diagram and here for  a video). Another name for these are high/low or hi/lo reads.
  2. Horizontal stretches — These place two, three, four, or five receivers horizontally across the field or a portion of it to “stretch” defenders from left to right or right to left (or inside to out or outside to in). Examples include all-curl.
  3. Man or “object receiver” reads — These are not necessarily distinct from the above horizontal and vertical stretches, but the focus is on having a route or combination of routes that will defeat man-to-man coverage. Examples include the mesh concept from the Airraid, bunch passes and option-routes.

These three categories essentially made up the full panoply of choices for the passing game for, well, for a really long time. But at some point — most notably with Bill Walsh’s 49ers — a “new” concept began emerging, though it wasn’t actually new at all but was instead a very clever twist on what Gillman had synthesized. Walsh realized that you could combine the horizontal and the vertical stretch to create a kind of “new” stretch, though one made up of both of Gillman’s first two categories. Moreover, Walsh often combined the two zone beaters — the horizontal and vertical stretch — with the third category, the man beating concept, into a single “triangle” read that also was designed to defeat man coverage. If the perfect pass play was the Holy Grail of modern football, then the triangle is its best personification to date and Walsh its Galahad.

But let’s take a step back to understand why the triangle stretch works, along with its negatives. The best vertical or horizontal stretches use more than two receivers, with three or more receivers being used in various “zone flood” routes. If you caught the defense in the right look it was mathematically impossible for them to defend you: If you ran the three-level flood route against Cover 2, they had two guys (a corner and a safety) to defend three receivers; and if you caught a Cover 3/4-under defense with your all-curl concept, it was easy pick’ins:

All this has been detailed before, and if you can identify what coverage you are facing it is still better to run a true three-level vertical stretch or five-receiver horizontal stretch against the right coverage — if you get that right, there’s very little the defense can do. But, of course, it’s not so easy to figure out what coverage the defense is in before the play; indeed, with the advent of combo coverages and pre- and post-snap shifts, it’s often is difficult to even determine what the coverage was even after the play.

Enter the triangle stretch. The insight behind the triangle is that the horizontal and the vertical stretch are combined to create a single straightforward read for the quarterback that provides answers no matter what the defense presents.

All of the major “new” (in relative terms) passing concepts are based on a triangle read. The weakness of the triangle stretch is that it’s typically only possible to only get a two-man horizontal or vertical stretch, whereas with a true “flood” you can place three (or more) receivers across the field on a given plane to truly defeat a defense. This limitation means that a triangle can be throttled by certain coverages that rotate to the triangle side.


Smart Notes – zone runs, slot coverage, goal-line defense – 8/8/2011

Zone runs, from Coach Roth:

The basic tenants of zone blocking are these: 1) Each offensive lineman is responsible for the playside zone 2) The defense moves, so how do counter act that? 3) We have five offensive lineman, it is therefore our job to block five defenders.

Each player will step to the left and block a player with in that zone. So what about rules? Most (if not all) O-line coaches will go on and on about rules. I, however, prefer to think of it as a framework, more like an “If, Than,” statement. I want my players to have freedom, with in that framework, to figure out how best to accomplish the result I desire.. For us, that process will start with a question: “Am I covered by a defender, or am I uncovered by a defender?”

Saban-speak on covering the slot, from Brophy:

With two receivers split from the formation (slot) you end up with a 3-on-2 advantage for the defense. As we covered before, there is a variety of ways to handle this. In attempt to tackle two things at once, we’ll cover these concepts using Saban-speak (out of Nick Saban’s playbooks). It should be noted that Saban’s “system” is extremely concise, flexible, and modular (in its application). What comes with those benefits is a dictionary full of terminology to communicate every conceivable action and response on the field. We’ll use his method as a way to keep a central thematic framework, but these concepts are relative to what everyone else does (so don’t get hung up on the verbiage).

The first is basic Cover 3 Sky (“Fist”) with what amounts to be the old “country cover 3”. Fist brings the overhang player down outside of #2 receiver serving as primary force. This defender will drop into the seam and not carry any route by #2 deeper than 12 yards and jump the first receiver to the flat. The corner would play all of #1 receiver vertical (or #2) out and up. The free safety would play middle of the field to the #2 receiver. Because these two receivers are handled by these three players, additional receivers (releasing back) would be immediately jumped by the next linebacker inside (Will) unless #1 or #2 released inside.

Examples of matching in Fist


The Peter Principle, from Coach Hoover:

Recruiting pitch: You get a dollar-for-dollar credit towards future education for every dollar we make directly from you

The good Senator has a very interesting idea, bouncing off of a statement by Desmond Howard:

“But if you want to play the education game, then check this out. If they get my likeness for life, then they should be committed to my education for life. So if Mark Ingram 20 years from now, when they’re still selling his jerseys in Tuscaloosa, says ‘You know what? I want to get my Ph.D.’ Guess who should pay for that? They should be committed to his education for life. They’re still selling his jerseys.”

I could not agree more.  Well, actually, I could:  if the school is still selling those jerseys when the player’s kids are college-aged, they should get a free ride, too.  It’s the least a system that professes to promote both amateurism and academics should do.

This is a great idea. People who say we shouldn’t pay players (and many of whom say we should) often point out to students that they do get something of value: an education. So imagine this recruiting pitch:

“Come to this University and play football and you will receive a free education and room and board at a premiere university. In addition, if the University and the athletic department make any money by selling products with your name or likeness, like jerseys, athletic posters, and so on, you will receive credit that can be used at any point in the future to pay for additional education at this University received by you, your spouse, or your direct children.

Coaches be crazy

One of the best parts about football being back is we get to hear all the really weird things football coaches say. Indeed, during practice, being a coach often means a steady monologue by the coach to his various players where they get to showcase their, ah, unique personalities (to an entirely captive audience, no less). One of my favorite weird personalities is new West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, who (along with his staff) gives us a window into their coaching style through the promotional video below (h/t to reader Peter):

The best part of the video comes at the 0:23 second mark — Holgorsen: “You’re so focused on me that you’re completely oblivious to your surroundings . . . . That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Not to be outdone, ESPN Page 2 put together the answers from the SEC coaches to their coaches questionnaire. Given that the SEC pays its coaches more than any other conference, it’s not a surprise that, for the most part, these guys are generally pretty unique personalities (except in Bobby Petrino’s case, where the unique feature is how entirely without affect he is). For example, Les Miles could not have answered this question more perfectly, while Saban — effectively forbidden to use clichés by the question — seems entirely flummoxed.

[Q:] Which cliché is most overused by coaches?

Les Miles: I have no idea. I am not that coach. I don’t operate that way. I fight for unique and accurate ways to be descriptive. I don’t necessarily handle it that way.

Nick Saban: Well you know, I really can’t say one in particular. We all talk about focus and preparation. And sometimes I think we talk to our players about these things, and I’m not sure our players understand what these things are or how to do these things. We probably should spend a little more time explaining to them exactly what we expect so they can do these things better. If we talk about intensity all the time, I’m not sure a player could tell you what intensity is. Sometimes I define that qualm.

Nick is surely right that “[s]omtimes I define that qualm” is not destined to become an overused cliché. Not to be outdone, Spurrier is always good for a one-liner:

Smart Links – Manny Diaz, Hitler Beer, Probability – 7/29/2011

Hitler beer:


– Too many things to list, but great stuff (particularly on coverages) over at Brophy’s site.

– Manny Diaz’s Danger (Fire) Zone: Burnt Orange Nation and Barking Carnival both with some solid analysis of new Texas DC Manny Diaz’s defense.

Maybe it’s my bias, but I’m from the “If you got two then you ain’t got one” school of thought:

A lot of people talk about our quarterback situation saying if you don’t have a starter, you don’t have a quarterback. I disagree. We have two really good quarterbacks. Both of those guys are great players, great people, exceptionally talented, outstanding team players, and really want to win. – Purdue Coach Danny Hope

This sentence is accurate: “He was fine, but seriously, this cast of coaches is the exact opposite from the polished evangelists of the SEC.” Also, management books and Butch Davis.

The Senator (and Joe Posnanski) on … well it’s hard to describe; just read it.

Making the leap: Camp for incoming college freshman.

Darren Sproles to New Orleans. Swapping out Reggie Bush for Darren Sproles seems to me an upgrade at that hybrid/scatback position for New Orleans. Thoughts?

Klosterman on the fastest human alive.

Posnanski on Jeter’s 3,000.

Jerry Joseph basketball scandal.

The book review that killed John Keats.

Old movie plots technology has destroyed.

The danger of saying what has already been said; a problem that has existed for at least the last 4,000 years.

– Discounting future values:

Certainly makes splitting up the pie much easier

When the veteran NFL players and owners sat down to figure out how to best break up the $9 billion pie (which is all the lockout was about, regardless of what kind of White Hat/Black Hat/Heroes/Villains story the media tells), it was easy to see what group of essentially unrepresented stakeholders would lose: rookies. Both veterans and owners thought the rookies were making too much, and the representatives for the rookies said — wait, nevermind, there were no representatives for the rookies. So of course the result is things like this:

Imagine the bling on Olindo Mare

Carolina instead gave [kicker Olindo] Mare a four-year, $12 million dollar offer. That happened not because Mare went back on his word, but in the intervening months, the NFL veterans decided to rob Cam Newton to pay Olindo Mare. The most important (and player-friendly) aspect of the new CBA was the salary floor, requiring teams like Carolina to spend tens of millions of dollars. Only not on rookies.

. . . [B]etween Mare, Williams, Anderson and Johnson, Carolina has opened the door to spend $155 million dollars on three players who were on the team last year and a kicker. But hope and optimism for the Panthers in 2011 and beyond mainly rests on the drafting of Auburn star Cam Newton. And what will Carolina pay the young quarterback? Roughly 22 million dollars over four seasons, with a team-option for a fifth year.

That’s right: over the next four years, Carolina will pay their 38-year-old placekicker 12 million dollars and their franchise savior 22 million dollars. Newton’s contract looks even worse when you consider that Carolina can hold him for a fifth season, making it difficult for players to renegotiate until after they’ve completed three seasons.

Right. And, as Chase explains, this is not just limited to Carolina, but instead was out of design:

Combining Tom Osborne’s Nebraska offense with Chip Kelly’s Oregon offense? The stuff dreams are made of

Our system [at Oregon] isn’t necessarily unique. I always compare it with what Nebraska used to run, the option, when I was there. When I was in school, a lot of teams tried to run some of the option stuff we ran, just like a lot of people try to run what Oregon runs. It’s not any kind of fancy scheme that nobody else understands or knows about. It’s just the system. What we do is run a complete system. It has answers for everything a defense can throw at us. I think when you just try to run a piece or two of a system, and you don’t have the complete thing, it’s hard to get really good at it. It’s hard to have answers when people have answers for what you’re doing. That’s really the beauty of what Chip does. We’re 100 percent sold out to do what we do. We’re really good at it, and we know all the adjustments no matter what’s going on with the defense.”

. . . “The big thing is this: It helps greatly when an offense has a definite mentality to it. It helps greatly when you have a defined personality and set of standards. When I was at Nebraska, our calling card was we were a tough, physical team. Everybody knew it. We knew it. We were proud of it. We embodied it. We embraced it. We loved the fact that we were going to try to completely beat up a defense. Nobody wanted to play us because of the physical nature of our team.


Playcalling doesn’t have to be difficult

Okay, so here’s a story for you. Kilff Kingsbury was our starter, and he was sort of conservative, you know? B.J. (Symons) knew what I wanted to audible to before I even said it, but Kilff was just careful like that. It was third and long against someone, and their corner was cheating way up. Kind of a cheat back, and then at the last second he’d pop up.”

“Well, we had good technique, and were pretty good getting off the line, so I called “Six,” or our call for four verticals. We had it, and I called it, and Kliff shook me off. Now most of the time I’m fine with quarterbacks shaking me off, but we had this, and I got mad and called time out and said some things to Kliff.”

He spits in the ocean, and continues.

“So Kliff goes out there, and I call “Six” again, and he shakes me off again, and now we get delay of game. It’s fourth down, and we’re on our own forty, but I just call it again and have some words with Kliff. We hit it against that corner cheating up for a touchdown, and Kliff comes up and starts yelling at me angry on the sideline: ‘FINE, FINE, ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? WE DID IT YOUR WAY, AND NOW ARE YOU HAPPY?’ And I was.”

That’s from Spencer Hall’s day on the boat with Mike Leach, who is bordering on overexposed right now. That said, the above anecdote is great, and does more (for me) to illuminate why he’s worth studying than all of the Adam James stuff. I have read his new book and do recommend it, and I plan to have more to say about it in the near future.