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.

What I’ve been reading

Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance, by Perry Mehrling. I was surprsed at how much I enjoyed this book. Black was a unique guy, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised I liked this book as much as I did. Indeed, in many ways it’s the perfect book for me: an intellectual history about someone who believed that the world suffered from too little theory, rather than too much (he used to say that if the evidence contradicted the theory you don’t simply throw the theory out, you get back to work and think about why the evidence didn’t support the theory); who was willing to take wildly idiosyncratic views to see where they led (his options pricing formula was based on his firm belief in the Capital Asset Pricing Model, but it succeeded because once you went down that route you didn’t need CAPM’s assumptions for it to work because they canceled each other out, and he had strange views on the Business Cycle which remain both largely ignored yet fertile ground for provoking thought); and who managed to straddle both the academy and the real world (Black bookended his career by working first for the consulting firm Arthur D. Little and later Goldman Sachs, with stints as a professor at the University of Chicago and MIT inbetween).

Black also is a surprisingly interesting enough guy for someone who enjoyed quietly sitting at his desk for extended periods of time, as evidenced by his four marriages and occasional professional quarrels, though the book takes off after Black leaves graduate school (where he studied under Quine) and enters the real world. And while this book doesn’t immediately appear to offer any lessons for football, I think that depends on how you look at it. In any event, this paper attempts to apply some of Black’s macroeconomic theories to the recent financial crisis, and these blog posts here and here summarize his claims. In the words of Tyler Cowen: “[W]hy did both Milton Friedman and Bob Solow scorn him as a macroeconomist? Well, Fischer pushed two (actually more) controversial claims. First, the Fed cannot influence real or nominal variables, unless traders allow it to. Second, business cycles are caused by mismatches of tastes and production plans. If both of these were correct, Black would be the greatest macroeconomist of the century.”

On finance, the Nobel Press release (which Fischer Black was ineligible for, as he died before the award was given to Myron Scholes and Robert Merton) is informative. It’s worth pointing out, for those into this sort of thing, that Black didn’t look at the Black-Scholes formula as perfect; he wrote a paper in 1989 (which updated findings he’d published over a decade earlier) called “How to Use the Holes in Black-Scholes,” and when his collaborator Myron Scholes asked Black to join his hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management (which infamously blew up after years of never having a losing day, as recounted in Roger Lowenstein’s great book When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management“>When Genius Failed), Black declined, saying their strategies were too risky and that they were borrowing too much money to finance their supposedly surefire bets. Black died before his prophecy could come true.

- Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, by Ward Farnsworth. Although completely different than the book above, I also highly recommend this new tome. It’s essentially a textbook — and even further, a book of examples — but the examples are carefully chosen, and the commentary is both very interesting and appropriately limited. “Rhetoric” in the title is used in the older sense (hence “Classical” in the title), and the book consists of rhetorical devices used by masters of the English language to enhance their prose and communication. One great feature of the book is it is not limited to writers: Farnsworth makes extensive use of the greatest speakers of the English language, from Churchill to Lincoln to Daniel Webster and to Edmund Burke. Here is a (very positive) Wall Street Journal review of the book.

- The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (New Edition), by Bryan Caplan, and Political Parties, by Robert Michels. I’m trying to get up to speed on Public Choice theory, and these both came highly recommended. So far I’m enjoying the Caplan book more, though that may be due to his provocative and idiosyncratic views.

- Not a book — and still, not truly football (apologies) — but the internet is buzzing about A.J. Daulerio’s GQ Profile. I don’t have much to add, though I found this excerpt interesting:

I ask if his persona on Deadspin is who he is in real life.

“I think it’s very close,” he says. “I think that’s part of the problem, too.”

I think that’s all you can really ask of any writer or blogger — is your product true to you? I also think it’s worth comparing the GQ piece with the New Yorker’s bit this week on Aol (yes that is how the company capitalizes it now), which is trying to evolve from a fee-based internet provider to a content generator. An excerpt:

[M]ost of [Aol CEO Tim] Armstrong’s turnaround strategy — make the site cleaner, add local news, create unique content, make AOL a destination portal — is based on ideas from the Internet’s past . . . . But Web advertising rates have decreased in recent years, since demand (the number of Web pages) vastly outpaces supply (the number of advertisers). . . . Other portals offer an array of content. All vie for advertising, talent, and the attention of consumers. While AOL — like Yahoo and the Huffington Post — boasts of the original journalism it produces, it doesn’t employ a single overseas correspondent. . . . Perhaps Tim Armstrong will manage to make AOL rise again, but there’s a much more common path followed by digital companies — like Wang, DEC, Starwave, Excite, and Lycos. They rise, then they sputter, and then they crash.

I’m certain that there is a relationship between the New Yorker and GQ pieces and the Public Choice books above.

Smart Notes – Venn Diagrams, Bowl Ratings, Kragthorpe – 1/20/2011

On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings, via Google Books. (Click to enlarge.)

- Bowl Ratings drop 9%, via WizOfOdds:

A lot of this was predictable since so many bowls were moved to being on ESPN (and thus not on network television), but still an interesting datapoint.

- The Fulmer Cup lives, over at EDSBS.

- Kragthorpe to LSU? The word is that Louisville’s former head man is LSU’s new offensive coordinator. Believe it or not, this could actually work. Kragthorpe didn’t have much success at Louisville, but he (like Crowton?) is a smart guy, as I’ve written about previously here and here. Miles will take care of the program, so we’ll see if Kragthorpe has more success as just the OC.

- Posnanski on the playoffs. Check it out here. Joe wonders:

The question, I think, is this: What’s the competitive point of an NFL season? Is it to determine the BEST team in the NFL? Or is it to give us a fun and easy-to-follow trail on the way to our Super Bowl party?

- Journal of not-at-all-surprising. Jonah Lehrer on the importance of vacation:

And this is why vacation is so helpful: When we escape from the places where we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities — corn can fuel cars! — that never would have occurred to us if we’d checked in with the office everyday.

Too often, we fail to consider the ways in which our surroundings constrain our creativity. When we are always “close” to the problems of work, when we never silence our phones or stop responding to e-mail, we get trapped into certain mental habits. We assume that there is no other way to think about things, that this is how it must always be done. It’s not until we’re napping by the pool with a pina colada in hand — when work seems a million miles away — that we suddenly find the answer we’ve needed all along.

- Quick game. Joe Paterno to return to Penn State . . . Packers’ Ted Thompson vindicated for picking Rodgers over Favre . . . Eleven Warriors points out that Adam Rittenberg was wrong about the “Tat 5″ . . . Auburn’s place among BCS Champions, by the numbers.

Crowton to Maryland – What happened?

Gary Crowton will become the Maryland offensive coordinator. At one time Crowton was on the cutting edge of offense, namely back in 1997 and 1998 when he was at Louisiana Tech. Famously, Tim Rattay threw for over 3,900 and then for over 4,900 yards in ’97 and ’98, respectively, while leading receiver Troy Edwards had over 400 (400!) yards receiving at Nebraska, at a time before Bill Callahan became the coach. But somehow Crowton went from this:

To this:

Too much Crowton?

The hint, however, may have come from back in his LaTech days, as described in this Sports Illustrated profile of Tim Rattay:

Rattay also liked Crowton, the mastermind behind what some people in football call a “global offense” for its anything-goes approach to moving the ball. As a journeyman assistant, Crowton studied under LaVell Edwards, Mike Holmgren and Tom Coughlin, among others, and at Tech he has established his reputation as a formation geek who really likes to chuck the ball. Having run out of numbers with which to label his plays, Crowton, who became head coach in 1996, turned to the heavens for inspiration. “We’ve got formations called Moon, Sun, Stars and Mars,” he says. “Something we did looked like a star, so I called it that. I know our offense is unique, and people are starting to take notice. We had about 200 college coaches come visit last year to learn what we’re doing.”

That’s all well and good, but when Auburn’s Gus Malzahn talks about having only ten base plays — four runs and six passes — maybe less is more. Indeed, when it comes to installing more offense (and defense), there is such a thing as subtraction by addition. But Crowton remains a bright guy, so hopefully he can streamline his system for that Maryland team. Remember, the Maryland fans almost had Mike Leach, and he only has about twenty plays and four or five formations. It worked for him.