Why every team should install its offense in three days (and other political theories on coaching offense)

Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia’s new offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting, has frequently said that his entire record breaking offense can be installed “in three days.” And, now that his three days of spring practice are up, he said on day four his team will simply “start over,” and will run through this install period three or four times during the spring. Wait, what? Hasn’t Holgorsen been a part of record breaking offenses for more than a decade, including the last three (at Houston and then Oklahoma State) as head orchestrator? Doesn’t saying you can install your entire top tier Division-I men’s college football offense in three lousy days seem a little bit like, I don’t know, bullshit?

Entire offense, three days -- power through

It does, but only because “complexity” is too often accepted as an end in and of itself and because we undervalue gains from specialization. As Holgorsen says, “no one” in his offense will play more than one position; he doesn’t even want someone to play both “inside and outside receiver.” The idea is a simple one: with limited practice time and, to be honest, limited skills, kids need to focus on a few things and to get better at them — the jack of all trades is incredibly overrated. While Urban Meyer’s Florida offense thrived for a time with Tebow and his omnipositional teammate, Percy Harvin, I’d argue that this reliance on a “Percy Position” — a guy that can play most every skill position on offense — eventually does more harm than good. I’m all for getting the ball to playmakers in different ways, but I am not — and neither is Holgorsen — a fan of doing it to the detriment of repetitions and becoming a master at your given position. It’s nature versus nurture on the football practice field, and I side with nurture.

Put another way, if your offense is well designed you don’t need to move a guy around to get him the ball. As one of Holgorsen’s assistants at West Virginia explains:

“Wes Welker at Texas Tech caught over 100 balls two years in a row and he played ‘H,” Dawson said. Michael Crabtree caught over 100 (at Texas Tech) and he play ‘Z.’ I had two receivers back to back that caught over 100 and that played ‘X.’ Then I had a guy catch 119 that played ‘Y.’

“It just depends on where that guy lines up,” Dawson continued. “The ball finds the play makers. Regardless of where you line them up. The ball finds the play makers. That is just the way it works out.”

If you’re looking for the guiding principle here, it is not one specific to football. Instead, it is (at least) as old as the opening of the Wealth of Nations:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.
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Football doesn’t have to be that complicated

Overheard at a coaching clinic:

Coach 1: “We just couldn’t stop you guys from hitting the speed out. We used our Tango technique, then switched to the Dragon Claw alignment, and even whipped out the Lombardi Kung Fu grip and we still couldn’t handle it. What are you guys doing to make that that route so effective for you?”

Coach 2: “Our fast kid runs it.”

Charlie Weis’s Offense: The Sequel

Charlie Weis, he of the “decided schematic advantage,” is back coaching an offense in college football, this time with Florida. Spencer Hall does a good job explaining Weis’s offense and what Gator fans might expect — or at least as good of an explanation as is possible considering the contradictions: Weis considers himself pro-style, yet once tried to unveil a spread option look to start a season before promptly abandoning it; at Notre Dame his offense’s achilles heel was his teams’ inability to run the ball, and yet when he went back to the NFL his team lead the league in rushing. As Spencer says:

The pattern is that there is no pattern, run/pass-wise, and that he seems genuinely happy to adjust to the tools he has on hand.

I think that’s right. I expect Charlie’s offense at Florida to actually be less of the go-for-broke-let’s-hit-the-home-run fest it became under Clausen. At that stage it had become so erratic that either Clausen, Tate, and Floyd shredded you for big plays or they failed to connect, often in critical situations — it had a Madden-esque feel to it by the end. The year with the Chiefs was likely good for Charlie in that with an average NFL quarterback, only a few outside playmakers and good runningbacks, he had to turn to the run game.

And in the NFL, you don’t make the run game better by adding option plays or doing anything too exotic like the college guys. Instead, you find as many ways as you can to run the inside and outside zones. And Charlie’s big wrinkle with the Chiefs was the same one that a lot of NFL teams adopted: the unbalanced line, or simply an extra offensive lineman. The Chiefs did this, the Ravens did it, and even Stanford, under Jim Harbaugh, often did it too. The reason why you do it, particularly on zone runs when the quarterback is not a threat, is obvious: create more gaps to run through and for the defense to worry about. Compare this lineup with Michigan (note that I’d just throw it to the slot receiver here):

With this (I’ve highlighted the extra lineman and one of the gaps created by having two tackles to that side):

The whole point of zone running is to block the defenders in those zones and to create vertical running lanes; creating the extra gaps should help create additional running lanes. In this instance, it worked brilliantly for Charlie (and it helps having Jamaal Charles). Indeed, I think this is the wildcat offense‘s lasting legacy for NFL coaches — more about unbalanced lines and playing with gaps than having a quarterback who can run.

When it comes to throwing the ball, I expect Charlie’s offense to look much like it did at Notre Dame, though, at least in the early days, there will likely be more of an emphasis on screen passes than downfield shots. But when he does throw downfield, you can expect to see the old favorites: quick slants, stick concepts, deep “go” routes, and the deep cross. Indeed, the deep cross was a feature play of his both at Notre Dame (see the second clip in the video below)…

And a favorite with the Chiefs, as shown in this video.

cross

Ultimately, I don’t expect Charlie to be in Florida for long, but that doesn’t mean he won’t leave his mark — a positive one. He’ll likely be there no more than two years, maybe three, before he leaves to become a college head coach again (yes) or another NFL spot. Charlie will only be able to handle working under someone else for so long. But I think the Muschamp-Weis situation will be fine: Will will defer to Charlie on the offensive side and he’ll provide an impressive sounding board (more on that in a moment), and Charlie will genuinely enjoy just getting to focus on creating gameplans, coaching quarterbacks, and calling plays. In the long run (and assuming he has a lot of success at Florida), Muschamp will probably end up with a coordinator whose roots are in the college game with college players, much like the guys Bob Stoops has worked with over the years. But Will undoubtedly wanted real-deal-NFL-guy to both be there as a recruiting pitch and for his own psyche — long-term NFL experience is one thing his mentor Nick Saban has that he does not (Muschamp spent one year with the Dolphins under Saban).

And Weis will be a great resource. He is generally known as an NFL “pro-style” guy all the way, but it’s often forgotten that, back in the 1980s, Weis spent the decade shuffling between high school and college programs, where he ran a variety of offenses, some of them quite surprising. From a post-game interview with Weis from 2005:

Q: Coach, after watching Saturday, this question begs to be asked: Did your career path ever intersect with Mouse Davis?

WEIS: I did visit with Mouse Davis back in South Carolina when we had the run and shoot. We talked to Mouse Davis, we talked to John Jenkins not Father John Jenkins, by the way Mouse Davis, John Jenkins, those run and shoot guys. Yes, we went from the veer to the run and shoot at South Carolina. We spent some time with all of those run and shoot guys.

Q: Was influences of that evident on Saturday?

WEIS: No. What you saw Saturday [ND did a lot of 5 wide stuff and quick three step passes], first of all, run and shoot always has a back in the backfield. It’s either a two by two or three by one, which trips are spread; okay, that’s number one. And you always have a run element, so empty (backfield) really doesn’t come into play.

This brief excerpt of his own words is the best summary of Weis that can be given: irascible, somewhat condescending, and incredibly knowledgeable.

Quarterback drills with Missouri’s Dave Yost, guru, dude

Let’s play a little pitch and catch with Mizzou offensive coordinator, Dave Yost (h/t Spreadoffense):

When asked how he felt about losing Blaine Gabbert early to the NFL, Yost shrugged his shoulders and recalled an earlier time in his life when things got tough and how he resiliently bounced back.

In seriousness, I once referred to the title of Missouri quarterback as a “glamour position” in college football, and it’s proven to be that, with each of the past three signal-callers (including potential number one overall pick, Blaine Gabbert), making it to the NFL. Whoever Missouri chooses as quarterback for this fall will do well, not least of all because of Yost’s tutelage. They should just use a little more play-action to boost that average yards per attempt.

Things that are self-recommending – football statistics edition

Bill Connelly — the college football expert for Football Outsiders — has a new SBN Blog, Football Study Hall; such a fact is high on the list of self-recommending things. The idea for the site is to provide a one-stop shop for advanced stats for college football, with a bit more of a fan-flavor than some of the other “stat heavy” sites out there. And Bill’s already got some good stuff up:

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

The idea behind Success Rate is simple: every play is deemed successful or unsuccessful based on down, distance and yardage gained. Plays on first, second and third downs (and fourth, for that matter) all have as close to the same success rate as possible (between 40% and 45%).

To see what Success Rate tells us, exactly, let’s have a look at it in action. Two notes before moving forward:

1. Any reference to Success Rates as it pertains to rankings eliminates garbage time plays. Rankings are derived from plays that took place while the game was “close”: within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 in the second, 21 in the third, or 16 in the fourth.

2. As a frame of reference, the average success rate for FBS teams from 2005-10 was 41.6%. . . .

Ten Best Single-Season Success Rates, 2005-10
1. Hawaii (2006): 60.8%
2. Texas Tech (2008): 56.1%
3. Wisconsin (2010): 55.3%
4. Oklahoma (2008): 55.2%
5. Florida (2007): 55.0%
6. BYU (2008): 54.8%
7. Missouri (2008): 54.7%
8. USC (2005): 54.1%
9. Boise State (2010): 54.0%
10. Texas (2008): 54.0%

One of my favorite things about college football is how there are so many different ways to move the chains. Seeing a team like Wisconsin or Navy on the list above would be no surprise — they’re the prototypical grind-it-out, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust teams. But while Wisconsin locked down the three-spot, a run-and-shoot offense took the top ranking, while spread teams filled out most of the Top 10. Invention in college football derives from trying to find different ways to gain five yards, and in college football, there are many, many different ways.

(Speaking of invention … it really is incredible to see just how far ahead of the curve the Big 12 was when it came to the spread. Of the top ten teams above, four were from the 2008 Big 12 alone. That was truly the perfect confluence of innovation and skill position experience.)

Call it the Mike Leach effect, but he’s right that: other than a few other elite offenses and talent laden Florida and USC squads, the Big 12 had the brightest offenses of the decade. In any event, head over to Bill’s new spot.

Smart Links – grit, brain injuries, football playoffs – 3/15/2011

Blind spots of economists. What are some blind spots for football coaches (and fans)?

What traits predict success? Punchline:

The second takeaway involves the growing recognition of “non-cognitive” skills like grit and self-control. While such traits have little or nothing to do with intelligence (as measured by IQ scores), they often explain a larger share of individual variation when it comes to life success. It doesn’t matter if one is looking at retention rates at West Point or teacher performance within the Teach for America program or success in the spelling bee: Factors like grit are often the most predictive variables of real world performance. Thomas Edison was right: even genius is mostly just perspiration.

Taken together, these studies suggest that our most important talent is having a talent for working hard, for practicing even when practice isn’t fun. It’s about putting in the hours when we’d rather be watching TV, or drilling ourselves with notecards filled with obscure words instead of getting quizzed by a friend. Success is never easy. That’s why talent requires grit.

The 2011 Sloan MIT Conference Papers are up. There are no football papers because football is too complicated. Seriously.

Hockey is beginning to come around on head injuries as well.

“It turns out” you read this.

Dr Saturday’s college football playoff proposal. Brian Cook offers some thoughts; my old playoff vs. BCS vs. who knows rumblings can be found here and here.

The day the movies died. Do people buy this? (1) I don’t know if I agree that movies will continue to get worse (the internet provides more avenues for niche audiences, etc) and (2) I’m wearing a bit thin on the after-this-movie-the-movie-industry-changed (Jaws, Star Wars, Top Gun, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Transformers 2, etc.). The movie industry changed a lot when the old contract system died, but other than that I’d guess it’s societal forces and changes in tastes. We’ve had little pockets of artistic flurry before.

And, after the jump, something depressing:

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Smart Notes – Tressel, Triple Inside Fire Zones – 3/15/2011

I’m generally not a fan of sentencing guidelines, but the Jim Tressel, Cam Newton, and other stories indicate to me that some kind of guidelines would be helpful, even if they were entirely advisory. The upshot of what I mean is that it’d be nice if we, as the football populace, knew that if you violated rule or bylaw X or Y, your potential punishment range was between A and B, to be meted out by some NCAA enforcement body. Maybe there is more of this than I’ve noticed, but it all strikes me as so subjective. Pundits whinge and hand-wring, but their postulations are as arbitrary as the ones actually handed down. That said, I don’t want it to be completely rigid — that’s why I said there should be a range and the guidelines should be advisory, to be deviated from in appropriate cases. To do this properly would require the NCAA to research past sentences and to think hard about what punishments should be and to publish those findings. The incentive for such action has to be there now, however, with all these high profile enforcement cases.

Bracket coverage. Runcodhit on bracket coverage.

Understanding the vertical pass set. The most important pass protection technique in football right now (either to use or at least understand), this is a solid primer:

Vertical setting is essentially the OL equivalent of a backpedal.
We retreat backwards away from the LOS , looking for all 5 OL to remain on the same vertical plane. The OL steps should go:

Inside – Out – Inside – Out

basically we always step with the inside foot first, and then the outside foot. for all 90s protection we take 4 steps back before dropping we “Anchor”. Many teams only use this protection but I still use a separate 60s protection, that is the same thing but for 2 steps.

Triple inside fire zone. I have previously discussed Dom Capers’ and Dick LeBeau’s use of the triple inside fire zone, and Coach Hoover has expanded on the topic, and has included some nasty footage here:

The labor dispute: a legal roadmap. Good piece from Michael McCann on SI.com.

Administrative Note: I’ve upgraded the comment system using the Disqus system. Please let me know if there are any problems or issues. I’ve tried to port over all the old comments — it seems to have worked on some subset of old posts but not all of them. Hopefully this comment system will be a little more conducive to discussion. The strength of the readership (from coaches and players to intelligent fans who bring expertise from other backgrounds to football) is one of the best parts of this site, and I thought the old comment system wasn’t interactive or attractive enough. Hopefully I can do a good job providing thought provoking posts to spark discussion.

Tom Brady, et al. v. National Football League, et al.

Read the complaint here. There is more to say about the NFL CBA dispute (here’s a summary of some, but not all, of the legal issues here), but that’s one of the issues here: No one knows what to think or who to listen to. As interesting as the legal issues are (and they are pretty interesting, though not as interesting as, say, the old free agency fight the players won), the fascinating thing to me is the complete breakdown in the quality of media coverage. This is not surprising or even fair to the genuinely diligent reports who have gotten to where they are and spend their days talking to football people about football things — who is hurt this week, will Donovan McNabb be traded, is Bill Belichick videotaping someone, what blitz package will Pittsburgh use — suddenly are forced to understand rather complex anti-trust and labor issues. Indeed, the labor law and anti-trust law are individually extremely complex, and their interaction — with a splash of straight up negotiating bravado — makes this all difficult to wrap your head around, particularly in football, which is built on easy narratives.

As a result, suddenly reliable sources (“Fred Taylor won’t start this week because of his ankle problem, though the team isn’t talking”) is suddenly completely uninformative, even if honest (“I’m not a lawyer but Bob Kraft told me the deal gets done tomorrow”). Nothing that has happened is at all surprising, and yet the media acts like it has been and has consistently failed to bring any coherence. That’s why the people to listen to — and I’ve yet to completely find them, and it’s not necessarily me who has not dived in to the details enough — is someone who knows complex labor negotiations and the state of antitrust law on reasonable restraints of trade, not the guy who accurately broke Spygate.

But again, I can’t fault the Chris Mortensens or Adam Schefters — they are in the same positions that fans, with an extra monetary penalty if there is no season. ESPN isn’t in the tank for either side (at least I don’t think), but instead is in the tank for getting a deal done: if there’s no football ESPN loses money, and if it loses money there might not be a need for Mortensen or Schefter, or certainly not the many people operating on the fringes who want to reach that place. They, like you and me and everyone else, don’t really care what the split of $9 billion in revenue is: in the immortal words of David Cross, we don’t care what else is going on in the world, why won’t somebody pick up the ball and play some damn football.

Update: James Surowiecki sides with the players:

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Michel de Montaigne on bloggers versus journalists versus aggregators versus SEO

It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but comment upon one another. The world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is great scarcity.

From On Experience.

Smart Notes – Bill Simmons, football in 1938, Mark Cuban – 2/19/2011

Football has changed. The New Yorker (yes) writes about one of the handful of most famous football players of the day, in 1938, and this is what it had to say:

Bill Platt is just about what you’d expect the captain of a Yale football team to be — tall, heavy, blond, and offhand. We stopped by to see him in his rooms at Berkeley College, one of the newest of the Yale dormitories, a few nights before the Harvard game and thoughtlessly kept him up an hour past bedtime. Platt played his last game of football Saturday; next year he’ll have to start thinking about a career, which may be either politics, a tradition in his family, or law. He’s not in any hurry to decide. As an undergraduate, he spent his summers fishing in Maine; he said it seemed like no time at all each year before he was reporting to Ducky Pond again for fall practice. …

Once, Platt said as we got up to go, he’d decided idealistically that he needed something besides football as a character builder, and the spring he left Andover he shipped as deckhand on an American freighter to Shanghai and back. It was, he thought, the most interesting experience of his life. “Did it help your character?” we asked. “No,” he said.

How should you split your rent? First read the study, then check out the calculator.

Bill Simmons creating the Bill Simmons sports and literary site, and it actually sounds kind of great. Be sure to check out Quickish/Shanoff on this. (Very happy Klosterman is on board.) Even though this is bankrolled by ESPN, I look at this as similar to Freakonomics going off the NY Times website. For all the hoopla about HuffPo/AOL, etc, I think this is really the model: a multi-platform channel that focuses on web content but offers podcasts, books, ebooks, and other media “consumption,” with an actual editorial voice. Again, read Dan’s take on this, who probably thinks about this stuff more than anyone on planet earth (not a surprise given his Harvard MBA and years in the online media world.

Why is college so expensive? Here’s a dialogue from the Times with David Leonhardt; Matt Yglesias with an old post and a critique of the “Olive Garden Theory of Higher Education.”

Bob Sanders, released. Sad story, but (a) injuries are brutal and (b) in the NFL you must be ruthless.

Don’t worry, Bryant is on the case. Supposedly HBO’s real sports is investigating the Cam Newton drama.

I still don’t buy that Mark Cuban’s playoff idea will go anywhere, even if he did set up some kind of entity.