Smart Notes – Trick passes, Rich Rodriguez, Emory Bellard- 2/12/2011

This has already gone everywhere:

There are two lessons to this: (1) this kind of trickery doesn’t always translate well to actual playing time, and obviously playing quarterback requires a lot of skills beyond this sort of thing and (2) this is still great stuff, but, related to (1), the football being an extension of you is merely necessary rather than sufficient to be a great quarterback. You can see this latter point in basketball: if you ever visit an NBA or even college practice, you can see the players doing unreal things with the ball, but in a game, with the pressure on and defense, it’s much more difficult. That said, you can also take the lesson that it takes more than being able to throw a couple of nice passes in backyard football (or to hit a few shots at the local gym) to be great. The real thing is always harder than it looks.

Emory Bellard has passed away. Bellard, father of the wishbone (he wanted to call it the “Y” offense), was the original from-high-school-to-the-big-leagues-with-a-wacky-offense guy:

Bellard was on Darrell Royal’s staff at Texas in 1968 when the Longhorns developed a formation with three running backs that came to be known as the wishbone.

He coached at Texas high schools for more than two decades and won three state titles. His success landed him on the Texas staff, and while other assistants relaxed during the summer before the 1968 season, Bellard was busy trying to figure out a way to utilize a strong group of running backs after Texas endured three straight mediocre seasons. (more…)

Worldly wisdom

For it is in the essence of his behaviour that he should be eccentric, unconventional and rash in the eyes of average opinion. If he is successful, that will only confirm the general belief in his rashness; and if in the short run he is unsuccessful, which is very likely, he will not receive much mercy. Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.

That is Keynes, not talking about coaching football, though it certainly applies.

NY Times vs the HuffPo

Tom McGeveran asks an important question, in his analysis of the AOL-HuffPo deal:

What is it about the environment of traditional journalism that makes it so that readers are more likely to interact with the Huffington Post reblog of a New York Times article than they are with the article itself?

The answer to this question, I think, is also a key part of the reason why the NYT paywall is a bad idea.

It’s worth using a specific example here, so let’s take Dave Pell’s suggestion and look at the NYT’s Olbermann scoop last night, and HuffPo’s reblog of it. When Pell first tweeted the comparison, the NYT blog had no comments, while the HuffPo blog had “hundreds of comments/likes.” Now, the NYT post is up to 93 comments, but the HuffPo post is still miles ahead: 2,088 comments, 1,392 likes on Facebook, 340 Facebook shares, 89 tweets, and 52 emails. All of which figures are easily visible in a colorful box at the top of the story. . . .

Still, the difference between the two pages is much starker than it needs to be: the NYT page is like walking into a library, while the HuffPo page is like walking through Times Square. The HuffPo page is full of links to interesting stories elsewhere on the site — about Egypt, or the kid in the Superbowl Darth Vader ad, or the stories my Facebook friends are reading. And there are lot of links to media stories, too; each one has a photo attached. (more…)

How can a pass-first team score more touchdowns in the red zone?

I received this great question from a reader:

We run the Airraid offense, and we’ve noticed that it’s very easy to move the ball down the field to the 20 but then it gets really difficult as the field compresses. We can’t power run because that’s not what we do and it’s hard to throw a lot of stuff because the field is compressed. The options shrink dramatically. Any suggestions?

This falls into the “easier said than done” category, but at the risk of stating the obvious here are some thoughts.

First, and I think Dan Holgorsen has moved in this direction, is to take the philosophy that you need to just run the stinking ball into the end zone. Gus Malzahn (who runs a more run-oriented offense) recently said this was his goal line philosophy to a group of high school coaches. It’s not exactly what you do as an Airraid (or run and shoot, or one-back spread) team but you should have some kind of package — two-back power, that three back set Holgorsen uses, maybe use an H-back, or even a wildcat type deal — as it’s important to get the ball directly forward. I think a lead blocker is key in short yardage because the defense can cover your offensive linemen and thus free up their linebackers to fill. (I think a lead blocker is overrated on normal downs and distance, however, but obviously the advantages to the spread diminish as you get closer in.)

Second, you can create some kind of other little package for “scoring” plays. Georgetown College of KY used to do this. Here is an excellent article describing their methods. They were a true run and shoot team under Red Faught and the later staffs, but also developed this little short yardage special situations package where they used the Delaware Wing-T and a handful of plays off of it — some runs, a speed option, a shovel pass, bootleg, and so on. I think doing something like this is highly doable and doesn’t ruin the rest of your offense. You only need a few plays. They averaged something like 70 points a game over a few seasons. Don’t just say you’re going to be an I-formation team and run the other team over. The Delaware Wing-T thing worked because it was so weird — unbalanced set, wingback — but also completely consistent with their philosophy with all the misdirection and set-up plays despite not being the run and shoot stuff they ran the rest of the time.

Third, you just run your offense but try to find your three or four scoring plays. (more…)

Smart Links – 2/9/2011

First, the chill:

chill

Explanation here. See also this paean to collegiate sports, also courtesy of EDSBS.

Are schools getting better at gaming the NCAA’s rules system? Blutarsky summarizes: “So while major infractions over the past decade maintained the same pace as they did in the 1990s, the NCAA categorized them more mildly (the “didn’t know” defense rears its head again) and punished less severely when they occurred. You can begin to understand why ADs like Mike Hamilton survive the transgressions of the Pearls and Kiffins of the college athletics world. Nobody expects to pay much of a price for them.”

Rewriting the book on libraries.

Negotiating and the FBI.

Did the blog Bruins Nation kill UCLA’s hire of Rocky Seto?

Alastair Campbell on leadership and winning.

Stewart Mandel on Saban’s oversigning defense.

The difficulty of making new discoveries.

Is debt good (for an individual)? Uh, no. For once I side against the theoreticians. Of course the theoreticians were writing in June of 2008, so maybe that’s why.

People believe what resonates with their prior held beliefs, an experiment. I think you can extrapolate this from politics to football recruiting and the incurrence or non-incurrence of penalties against or for your favored team.

Bidding for the kickoff

A system for bidding for the kick-off:

Dispensing with a coin toss, the teams would bid on where the ball is kicked from by the kicking team. In the NFL, it’s now the 30-yard line. Under Brams and Jorasch’s rule, the kicking team would be the team that bids the lower number, because it is willing to put itself at a disadvantage by kicking from farther back. However, it would not kick from the number it bids, but from the average of the two bids.

To illustrate, assume team A bids to kick from the 38-yard line, while team B bids its 32-yard line. Team B would win the bidding and, therefore, be designated as the kick-off team. But B wouldn’t kick from 32, but instead from the average of 38 and 32–its 35-yard line.

This is better for B by 3 yards than the 32-yard line that it proposed, because it’s closer to the end zone it is kicking towards. It’s also better for A by 3 yards to have B kick from the 35-yard line, rather than from the 38-yard line, it proposed if it were the kick-off team.

In other words, the 35-yard line is a win-win solution–both teams gain a 3-yard advantage over what they reported would make them indifferent between kicking and receiving. While bidding to determine the yard line from which a ball is kicked has been proposed before, the win-win feature of using the average of the bids–and recognizing that both teams benefit if the low bidder is the kicking team–has not. Teams seeking to merely get the ball first would be discouraged from bidding too high–for example, the 45-yard line–as this could result in a kick-off pinning them far back in their own territory.

“Metaphorically speaking, the bidding system levels the playing field,” Brams and Jorasch maintain. “It also enhances the importance of the strategic choices that the teams make, rather than leaving to chance which team gets a boost in the overtime period.”

This has been proposed before and I think it’d work well. It would also provide more opportunities to second guess coaches — a favored activity.

The coaching clinic juggling act – it’s all business

There are plenty of other places Georgia football coach Mark Richt would rather be on this gray rainy day. But three days after signing a highly rated recruiting class, Richt stood in a hotel ballroom in the middle of Long Island at a Nike Coach of the Year Clinic.

Looks like double speed outs with a middle read and a shallow cross controlling the middle

Coaches at schools who sign lucrative sponsorship deals with Nike are required to speak at two instructional clinics each year. From late January to early March, 71 major-college coaches will travel to 21 clinics across the country. They will speak to youth, high school and small-college coaches about “The Bulldog Passing Game” (Richt) or the “Broncos Winning Philosophy + Punt Returns” (Boise State’s Chris Petersen), all while spreading the gospel of a certain shoe and apparel company, of course.

“Normally a couple days after signing day, after the grind of a season that begins Aug. 1 goes through bowl season, then right into recruiting, usually you pass out for about a week, but somehow, now I’m in Long Island, N.Y., on the Saturday after signing day, and I’ll be honest with you: I’d rather be with my wife and kids, OK?” Richt says to the hundred or so coaches. “But when you get where you’re going, you get excited about talking ball. Excited about being here.”

. . . . Before 9 a.m. Saturday, Richt left Atlanta on a commercial flight and arrived in New York shortly before his presentation. Rohe says that because of stormy weather Richt was worried he might not make it back to Athens that night to interview coaches. So why did Richt fly into a city amid one of the worst winters in recent memory to speak to coaches from an area outside Georgia’s recruiting base?”I think it’s part of the contract,” he says. In fact, it is.

Last year, Richt’s total compensation was $2.9 million. According to the terms of his contract, $742,000 of that sum is from “compensation for his Equipment Endorsement Efforts.” He also receives $3,600 worth of shoes, apparel or equipment manufactured by Nike each year. In the contract, it states “Richt agrees to fully comply with and abide by the terms and conditions of the Nike contract.” . . . (more…)

Best of Smart Football – 2010

Due to various life commitments (new job, moving to New York City, getting engaged) 2010 wasn’t quite as productive as 2009 was in terms of pure volume of articles and words produced, but the site continued to grow and, in the process of writing it, I learned a lot from the great readers here at Smart Football. Below, in no particular order, is a list of some of the best and most popular pieces:

Lastly, I simply must highlight two very popular guest articles for the site:

The future of football and the wave of brain injuries

We’ve been here before, historians remind us, and we have the pictures to prove it: late-nineteenth-century newspaper and magazine illustrations with captions like “The Modern Gladiators” and “Out of the Game.” The latter of those, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1891, describes a hauntingly familiar scene, with a player kneeling by his downed—and unconscious—comrade, and waving for help, as a medic comes running, water bucket in hand. It accompanied an essay by the Yale coach Walter Camp, the so-called Father of American Football, whose preference for order over chaos led to the primary differentiating element between the new sport and its parent, English rugby: a line of scrimmage, with discrete plays, or downs, instead of scrums.

What is old is new

Camp viewed football as an upper-class training ground, not as a middle-class spectator sport. But the prevalence of skull fractures soon prompted unflattering comparisons with boxing and bullfighting. Another image, which ran in the New York World, depicted a skeleton wearing a banner labelled “Death,” and was titled “The Twelfth Player in Every Football Game.” Campaigns in Chicago and Georgia to outlaw the sport were covered breathlessly in the New York dailies. That was in 1897, “the peak of sensationalized football violence,” as Michael Oriard, a former offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs who is now an associate dean at Oregon State University, explains in “Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle.”

…What was missing from this picture was the effect of all that impact on the brain. You got your “bell rung,” they used to say. You’re “just a little dinged up.” This was not merely macho sideline-speak; it was, as recently as a decade and a half ago, the language of the N.F.L.’s leading doctors. Elliot Pellman, who served until 2007 as the Jets team physician, once told a reporter that veteran players are able to “unscramble their brains a little faster” than rookies are, “maybe because they’re not afraid after being dinged.”

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., is the name for a condition that is believed to result from major collisions—or from the accumulation of subconcussions that are nowhere near as noticeable, including those incurred in practice. It was first diagnosed, in 2002, in the brain of the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who died of a heart attack after living out of his truck for a time. It was next diagnosed in one of Webster’s old teammates on the Steelers’ offensive line, Terry Long, who killed himself by drinking antifreeze. Long overlapped, at the end of his career, with Justin Strzelczyk, who was also found to have C.T.E. after he crashed, fatally, into a tanker truck, while driving the wrong way down the New York Thruway….

…The fastest running on a football field often occurs during kickoffs and punts, when some members of the defending team are able to build up forty or more yards of head-on steam before a possible point of impact…. One proposed reform that I’ve heard about would involve removing this element from the game, through automatic fair catches, or at least neutering it, by shortening the distance travelled by the kicking team. The most frequent head-butting on a football field, meanwhile, occurs at the line of scrimmage, where linemen often begin in what’s known as a three-point stance: crouching and leaning forward on one hand, and then exploding upward in a meeting of crowns. Another suggestion: banning the stance and requiring linemen to squat, sumo style. And then, more important, there’s simply teaching proper tackling technique. As one recently retired player put it to me, “Instead of telling a kid to knock the snot out, you say, ‘Knock the wind out of him.’ ”

“The reality is you’re going to need about twenty fixes that reduce risk by a couple of percentage points each,” Chris Nowinski said. “There’s still going to be four downs. Still going to be a football. Still going to be eleven guys on the field—and touchdowns. Other than that, everything’s in play.” . . .

…How many of the men on the field in the Super Bowl will be playing with incipient dementia? “To me, twenty per cent seems conservative,” Nowinski said. C.T.E., as of now, can be observed only with an autopsy. The ability to detect it with brain scans of living people is at least a couple of years off. “It’s not going to be five per cent,” Nowinski went on. “The reality is we’ve already got three per cent of the brains of people who have died in the last two years confirmed, and that’s not alarming enough to people. What number is going to be the tipping point? People are O.K. with three per cent. They may look sideways at ten per cent. Maybe it needs to be fifty per cent.”

That’s from a piece from this week’s New Yorker, by Ben McGrath. Not much new is covered on this subject; indeed, much of it is giving deserved credit to the New York Times’s Alan Schwartz, who has made this subject his personal question. But it’s a worthy reminder of the serious risks inherent in our favorite sport and which we are only just beginning to understand.

I’ve written about this subject before, and I am still sure that the brain-injury/concussion problem remains the most serious threat to football, and it will not be resolved by tweets from Greg Aiello, the NFL’s spokesman. Yet — and this may sound harsh — I don’t really care about the risks to current NFL players. Like professional boxing, no one can, with a straight face, say that they don’t understand the risk of playing such a dangerous, high speed collision sport, and they are all compensated handsomely for it. (I have more sympathy for older NFL players who played before high salaries and before these risks were well understood.) Indeed, I think the NFL as spectator sport will continue to survive through more “Black and Blue Sundays” or even serious injuries like paralysis, potentially even a live-on-the-field death. Some quick cuts to show Roger Goodell solemnly addressing “the problem” with fines and rule changes will be enough to placate the masses and change the narrative on ESPN back to who will rally for the postseason.

But the more serious threat to football — and the one I care about more than whether a very narrow class of high-profile, high-risk, high-reward professionals are making a bad judgment by playing the game — is whether the evidence shows that amateur football can cause lasting, long-term brain damage. The big stories will come out of the NFL and, to a lesser extent, major college football, but if in ten years it can be demonstrated that four years of high school football significantly increases the risk of brain injuries and long-term disorders, then football really will have no future.

(more…)

First down means everything

According to an exhaustive study of NFL play data conducted by Yale professor Cade Massey, what happens on first and 10 in an NFL game is a powerful indicator of who will win.

According to Dr. Massey, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management, the ability of an NFL team to meet certain benchmarks on each down is one of the best predictors of whether a drive will be successful. When it comes to first down, he says, the magic number is four. That’s the number of yards Mr. Massey says teams need to gain on first and 10. Those that do, he says, are more likely to be successful in making a first down and keeping the drive alive.

. . . The four teams in Sunday’s playoffs have different approaches to first down—and rates of success. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who play the New York Jets Sunday for the AFC title, run the ball 55% of the time on first and 10 in the first three quarters of a game. (The fourth quarter isn’t included in the calculation because play-calling can be largely dictated by whether a team is ahead or behind). These runs by the Steelers rarely catch the opposing defense by surprise. . .  [T]he Steelers are daring the opposing team to try to beat them in a head-on collision.

. . . The Steelers have only managed to attain that magic mark of four yards or more on first downs 48% of the time—a number that puts them in the bottom half of the NFL. So far, the Steelers have been able to compensate for their lack of success on first downs by connecting on long passes on other downs. They’ve also excelled in the reverse role: Pittsburgh’s defense is the best in the league on first downs, holding opposing teams to less than four yards about 59% of the time.

. . . According to the numbers, the Jets are similar to the Steelers in that their first-down defense is better than their first-down offense. . . .

The Green Bay Packers rank No 2. in the NFL this season in recording successful plays on first and 10. The team also likes to pass on that down and distance 54% of the time—more than any other team in the playoffs and all but four in the NFL.

When Green Bay played the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Packers managed to run successfully on first and 10 early in the game with running back James Starks. But later in the game they began lining up in running formations—sometimes with two tight ends—and instead running play action passing plays. Those plays faked out the Falcons and led to big gains.

So who is likely to prevail? Green Bay is by far the best first-and-10 team left in the playoffs. But their opponents, the Chicago Bears, are also one of the best defenses at stopping offenses in that situation. . . .

Read the rest here. This is not a shocking result, but it’s possible to draw the wrong conclusion. I think the wrong answer is to pick plays that have extremely low variance at the expense of expected gain — i.e. the plunge into the line that, while it rarely loses yards, doesn’t average much, with the thought that you just want to avoid negative plays and want to get close to that four yard gain. As the chart below indicates, your probability of getting a first down in three plays depends far more on your expected gain than it does the variance.

chart

And, of course, game theory is relevant because you might significantly improve both your expected gain and variance on first down with simple consistent gainers, like runs off tackle, quick passes, and so on, by taking high variance chances, like play-action or some other kind of play that can significantly keep the defense off balance.

All that said, I think the upshot of Dr. Massey’s analysis is that most first down playcalling is not good, and too often puts the offense in a bad spot. If you show me a team that is good on first down, I’ll show you a good offense. Indeed, the best offenses look at it like they are playing under Canadian rules: if you only have two downs to get a first down, you approach the problem quite a bit differently. Third down shifts the burden away from the defense to the offense; better to avoid as many third downs as possible.