How do you predict whether someone will be a good college coach?

We looked at the head coaches, offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators for the 66 major-conference schools, plus Notre Dame, and found that with a few high-profile exceptions, NFL experience isn’t a great recipe for success on Saturdays. Most notably, Pittsburgh’s Dave Wannstedt, the former Bears and Dolphins head coach, resigned under pressure in December. Meanwhile, California, Virginia and Oregon State all finished below .500 despite the gaudy NFL résumés of their coaches. The staff that logged the most NFL years was Stanford’s. New 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and his coordinators, David Shaw and Vic Fangio, combined to coach in the NFL for 35 years, and the 12-1 Cardinal were better for it.

But Monday’s BCS championship game was more proof that coaches can do just fine without NFL grooming. Of the game’s two coaches and four coordinators, only Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti made a pit stop in the NFL, while Auburn’s troika was one of 21 that’s never worked on Sundays.

That’s from the Wall Street Journal. I’d like to see what factors do predict winning, preferably by running a regression analysis of BCS conference coaches, with, Y, the dependent variable, being winning percentage (with, say, a minimum of three years coaching). I’m curious what Xs, or independent variables, would be statistically significant. A non-exhaustive list of candidates:

  1. Years of NFL coaching experience.
  2. Years of previous head coaching experience (any level).
  3. Years of coordinator-level experience (college or higher).
  4. Rank of offenses/defenses in scoring, total yards, and yards per play.
  5. Rank of offenses/defenses in rushing or passing, individually, in adjusted yards per attempt.
  6. Years of total college experience (proxy for recruiting experience?).
  7. Winning percentage at prior coaching stops.
  8. Rank of punting and kicking units in net punt averages and kickoff/kickoff return averages.
  9. Red zone touchdown percentage of offenses and defenses at prior coaching stops (use both regardless whether offensive or defensive coach).

I’m sure there are other plausible ones; please add on in the comments. Also, please tell me why the test wouldn’t work if set up this way, and how it could be improved. I’d actually be surprised if any of these factors turned out to be statistically significant, but I’m also not aware of anyone working something like this out.

Smart Notes – Brady Hoke, Belichick, Chip Kelly’s offense next year – 1/12/2011

Hoke-a-mania. Michigan has hired Brady Hoke, prodigal son most recently of San Diego State. I don’t know much about Hoke — seems like a solid guy and he obviously wanted the job. The rumor is he’s bringing Al Borges with him to be offensive coordinator; I’m already getting lots of questions about his so-called “Gulf Coast Offense.” I don’t know where that name came from, but as far as I can tell he’s a pro-style guy: nothing too exotic. But he’s been an offensive coordinator for a long time (close to two decades), in three major conferences (the Pac-10 at Cal, the Big 10 at Indiana, and the SEC at Auburn), and when he’s had first-round NFL talent (Cade McNown at UCLA and Jason Campbell, Ronnie Brown, and Cadillac Williams at Auburn in 2004) he’s had elite offenses.

I think that sounds about right. Michigan’s coaching search was explicitly about someone who wanted to build the program, not hiring the next offensive genius. And I can’t really argue with that — the Rodriguez thing ended badly. That puts on the onus on Hoke, however, as he must recruit and build the program from the ground up; there won’t be any reliance on a decided schematic advantage to win. But is that a bad thing?

Below are some clips of Borges’s offense at San Diego State this year.

- Richard Sandomir takes down Brent Musburger. Ouch. I don’t know if I thought it was as bad as described in the article, but I have to admit that “This is for all the Tostitos” was an unreal comment.

- Pat Dooley apologies for “dumb” tweet. This really is crazy; what made him say that about Frank Beamer?

- Chase has a great article over at the NYT; read it here:

Tom Brady, the presumptive M.V.P. winner this year, was the 199th pick in the 2000 draft. The Patriots’ leading rusher, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, wasn’t drafted. Neither was their leading receiver, Wes Welker. Danny Woodhead ranks just behind Green-Ellis in yards from scrimmage but he wasn’t one of the 23 running backs selected in the 2008 draft. The rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught 10 touchdown passes, qualifies as a superstar by Patriots standards: he was the 42nd pick in last April’s draft. Of New England’s eight most productive offensive skill position players — Brady, Green-Ellis, Woodhead, Welker, Deion Branch, Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Tate — only Gronkowski was a top-60 draft pick.

… The Patriots led the N.F.L. in points scored. They threw the most touchdowns passes… They ranked second in rushing touchdowns and in net yards per pass attempt…. So how does Belichick turn an offense that appears marginal on paper into a dominant unit? …Conventional wisdom would suggest that Belichick is both a master of the draft, finding gems with late-round picks, and a fantastic coach in the truest sense of the word, able to turn young men into elite players with his tireless attention to detail.

[I]t goes a step further than that. The Patriots, for the first time in the past few seasons, have regained a level of organizational clarity that few teams can match. When Scott Pioli and Belichick built the championship Patriots teams at the beginning of the decade, New England consistently added “their guys,” players who fit the Patriot profile. With the drafting of Hernandez and Gronkowski, and the re-acquisition of Branch, to go along with Welker and Brady, the Patriots are back to finding players who, first and foremost, fit their system. Green-Ellis, Woodhead and Branch wouldn’t succeeed on a lot of teams, but Belichick knows exactly what he wants out of every roster spot and only looks for players who possess those traits. And that’s a big secret of his success.

- Top Ten Sports Business stories of 2010, by Andrew Brandt.

- Did Chip Kelly not run this year’s offense in the National Championship game, and instead next year’s offense? Bruce Eien thinks so, as they will have three very good backs next season. Here’s Bruce’s visual preview (click to enlarge):

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Thoughts on Auburn’s 22-19 win over Oregon in the BCS title game

Four thoughts on last night’s game:

  • Nick Fairley gets the game ball. As I predicted, the differences in the game were Cam Newton’s ability to do things no one else can do — convert short yardage plays, scramble for big plays on third down, and generally as reader/decoy to open things up for McCalebb and Michael Dyer — and Auburn’s superior defensive line, particularly Nick Fairley. Fairley was incredible throughout. Maybe most importantly, he didn’t tire out like we all expected. Much of this was because Oregon failed to get in their tempo for much of the night, as they couldn’t get consistent first downs and thus couldn’t sustain that tempo, but Fairley deserves a lot of credit for just being able to be on the field and keep his energy at a high level. Not easy for such a larger human. Yet the images that stick out to my mind are those where he completely destroyed Oregon’s attempts to read him on the midline option by blitzkrieging both quarterback and runningback and arriving at the option mesh point before the read could be made. I spoke with some coaches after the game who figured what Chip Kelly obviously did: if we can’t block him, let’s read him, except Fairley, when unblocked, took out everyone. A great performance. (And when Oregon got tired of that and tried to block him and read someone else, he split the double-teams. He’ll be a top five NFL draft pick, if not one or two.)
  • War Daddy

  • Stick to the plan. Oregon and Chip Kelly, however, did themselves no favors by coming out of the gates with a lot of funky stuff they’d never shown this season. I get that you want to do something different for Auburn — and that you’re Chip Kelly, a very bright guy — but that team averaged 49 points a game on the outside zone with a read from spread sets, and the Ducks came out with a bunch of three back sets with a triple option look off the inside zone. Now, Auburn’s defensive coordinator Ted Roof came out with a lot of fire zones and zone blitzes from the field or wide side to take away the stretch plays, but I’m still shocked that those runs weren’t a bigger part of Kelly’s gameplan.  It didn’t help that Darron Thomas, Oregon’s quarterback, struggled with his reads (though for good reason — see above).
  • Malzahn and Cam. Gus Malzahn (oh, I’m sorry, I meant “Guz”) called an effective game, and Cam Newton made some special plays. It wasn’t a Vince Young-esque domination, but Cam did things no one else can do. He also made three very costly mistakes: the shorthopped goalline pass to a wide open receiver on fourth down, the late fumble, and, to my mind, the worst, the overthrow when Gus had called a great double-move and his receiver was wide open. Only the last one really stung because it would have blown the game open in the third quarter while the Tigers led 16-11, but the kid played great. And from the second half on, Malzahn relied on the inside zone with a bubble screen to the opposite side — where Dyer got most of his yards and Cam Newton a lot of simple throws — and of course called that post-dig/wheel route combination for several big plays, including the touchdown. Sometimes you don’t have to be fancy to call a good game; you just have to call the right plays for the situation.
  • Defensive special? A lot of the commentariat claimed this was a defensive game — and most of my points above indicated faults I found with both offenses. But these two teams combined for nearly 1,000 yards of offense — 968 in fact — and featured multiple turnovers and goal line stands. I thought it was pretty entertaining, as it’s more fun to watch good coaches deal with good players and issues than it is to watch one of those steamroller-where-is-the-defense games. Those who tuned out because “there wasn’t enough scoring” can’t be faulted, but you can still appreciate what the teams are trying to do, and thus why a performance like Fairley’s was so unreal (i.e., yes he went unblocked, but that was intentional and it’s what he then did that was so impressive). It was a fascinating — though slightly sloppy and erratic — title game.

Deconstructing: Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses as spread revolution

My breakdown of Oregon’s and Auburn’s offenses in anticipation of tonight’s BCS title game is up over at Yahoo!. Check it out.

Also, hat tips and thanks to Brophy and the Offensive Breakdown site for some great info (especially to Brophy for the image on the power scheme). Check out great info from both sites on Malzahn’s offense here and here.

Limiting possessions key to victory?

Chase, from the comments:

I agree that blitzing is not necessarily a good underdog strategy, because limiting possessions seems to be the biggest underdog key. People talk about controlling the clock, but that doesn’t make any sense in a vacuum. When Miami held the ball for over three times as long as the Colts in that Monday Night game last year, people talked about how brilliant it was to keep Manning off the field for 45 minutes.

But the Colts and Dolphins had the same number of possessions in the game, so who cares? The point isn’t to hold the clock, the point is to minimize variance. That’s the real advantage of controlling TOP, but giving up a ton of big plays on defense and having a methodical offense won’t help you win games no matter how great your TOP is.

So what can an underdog do?

(1) There is one real way to win the all-important possessions battle: control the ball at the end of each half. Combined with other possessions-minimizing techniques, you could end up with 9 possessions to your opponent’s 8 possessions, which is a legitimately valuable edge. If you get the ball with 8 minutes left, it probably makes sense to start thinking about a 2-for-1 with possessions. If you get it with 5 minutes left, figure out if you should go 2-for-1 or if you can drain all 5 minutes. With 3 minutes left, you have to ensure that you have the ball last. Do that in both halves, and you’ve stolen a possession (ideally, scoring a TD with as close to triple zeroes as possible).

(2) Going for it on 4th down is another obvious underdog strategy. In addition to it being a legitimate favorite strategy — going for it on 4th down is the correct play far more often than conventional wisdom dictates, and the correct player is almost always a good favorite strategy — it helps increase variance.

(3) Kicking field goals is almost certainly a loser. Going for it on 4th and G from your opponent’s 10 may not sound like a great idea, but even if you only gain 5 yards, odds are you will prevent the other team from scoring. The more times you can force your opponent to start drives inside their own 10, the better, because research shows that teams are overly conservative in that area. Only in blatantly obvious FG situations should an underdog kick — punting and trying to pin inside the 5 is also a good strategy.

(4) On defense, I think bend but don’t break is the correct strategy. If you can force the opponent to chew up clock and kick a FG, that’s a big win. Chewing up clock conquers all, I think. Once again, the goal should be 9 possessions to 8. Although obviously TOs would be very nice.

(5) On offense, chewing up clock is good but scoring touchdowns is better. I think whatever play is TD-maximizing, whether it’s going for it on 4th down, being run heavy, being pass heavy, being trick-play heavy, whatever, is the goal. A flea-flicker that goes for a 60-yard TD might turn it into a 10-to-9 possessions game, but who cares if you score a TD on that possession?

(6) On offense, I think a modified no-huddle offense following plays where the clock is running is the key. Following a run or completion that lands in bounds (or out of bounds before the clock stops in the final 5 mins), the offense should immediately run up to the LOS to prevent the defense from substituting. Then, they should simply milk the clock for the full 40 seconds (with some variance so defenders can’t time the snap) by doing whatever. Actually calling the play, wasting time, twiddling their thumbs, it doesn’t matter. But preventing defensive substitutions would seem to be a strong underdog strategy.

(7) Special teams would be the overlooked key here. Winning the field position battle, the hidden yardage in football, is an easy way to level the playing field.

My only question: Is it more important for an underdog to limit the overall number of possessions or the relative number of possessions (or both?). This analysis seems to indicate that there are too few onside kicks. For more, see also here and here and here.

But, see this surprising result:

… The team receiving the ball [at the beginning of the first half] consistently lost the half (except in 2008)…. The receiving team will have as many possessions if not one more than the kicking team [during that half]. Yet the data clearly show that the kicking team has won more game halves than the receiving team….

I next ran the data to see how teams receiving the ball at the start of the second half succeeded. The data show the game results of the team receiving the ball in the second half. Again, the team kicking to open the second half won more games than the receiving team.

Coach on the field

Rex Ryan, Jets head coach:

It’s not just a coach on the field. You give the coaching community too much credit. This guy is one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game. He is one of the smartest guys. It’s not just a coach dialing up plays, he dials his own plays up. Each play has three options. He comes up and takes option one, whatever it is. Or “Forget those options, I’m going to go to option four.”

This is who he is. The guy is tremendous. There is no one else like this guy in the league. Nobody studies like him. I know [Tom] Brady thinks he does. I think there’s probably a little more help from [Bill] Belichick with Brady than there is with Peyton Manning. Tom Moore has done a great job with him for forever, and [Jim] Caldwell and Tony Dungy. It’s Peyton Manning. That’s who it is.

Read the rest of the transcript here (h/t Fifth Down).

Smart links – 1/5/2010

Hitchens on Orwell on making proper tea. I agree. Also, there’s nothing wrong with some skim milk in hot tea.

- Rich Rodriguez is not dead… yet. If Rodriguez does go, I think, assuming Harbaugh said no, that RichRod would have been safe if not for the disastrous bowl game. But that happened, and Rich Rod is still likely out. Pete Thamel has a (slightly) premature post mortem on the Michigan program.

- More on risk and variance being the ally of the underdog in sports. Very good link, though see also here and here and here for prior work done on this. The upshot is that big underdogs wants higher variance in outcomes, even if it might reduce their overall expected output — i.e. they need to increase the “fat tails” on their chance of winning, even if they might be more likely to get blown out. The practical application of this in football is tricky, as you both need to shorten the game and increase the variance of your offensive output (i.e. get more aggressive). Due to arbitrary choices in how the game clock works, these two things, to an extent, work against each other. I think the question on defense is much tougher, and I do not think more blitzing is necessarily the answer.

- Gravity and Levity suggests installing “dosimeters” in NFL players’ helmets to measure cumulative blows to the head.

- Ohio State wins a wild one over Arkansas.

- Just fall on it! Or don’t?

Anatomy of a game winner – TCU-Wisconsin

Sometimes you can scheme it up, even execute it up, and then some guy named Tank bats the ball down and you go home a loser. On the final two-point play, TCU had this defensive blitz on:

blitz

On the two-point play, TCU made two errors: the weak safety failed to cover the tight-end/innermost slot to the three receiver side, and had a blitz error:

block

Wisconsin used a 4 man slide to the right to pick up the TCU blitz. This should not be problem for the DOG blitz, because 5 men will be coming with only 4 to protect. (4 From the dog side plus the nose.)

Just looking at the side of the Dog, someone should be free. Even if the Wisconsin center and guard pick up the D-Tackle and Sam Backer (which they did) the tackle should be in a lose-lose with the D-end and SS. The breakdown happens here. Wagner [the right tackle] made a great play by pushing the D-End down to the ground preventing the end from cutting inside of him, and then came off to block the SS #28 Colin Jones. It was impressive.

I have not seen nor think I will ever see an O-Line coach expect one his linemen to block 2 guys like this. It goes to show how good the Wisconsin offensive line is.

And yet….

“I was definitely on the blitz,” Carder said. “We thought they were going to run. Coach [Gary] Patterson put me on the blitz. I got blocked so I stepped back and he [Tolzien] cocked his arm back and I jumped up and swatted it down.”

Wisconsin had, really, the perfect playcall, but it didn’t matter, because TCU made the play. Credit for the above to Runcodhit. Read the whole thing.

Smart Links – 1/4/2010

Spencer Hall eats with Charlie Weis and discusses whether it was a good hire for Florida. I think no one really knows. The minus is that he’s Charlie Weis and all that entails in terms of personality, baggage and the fit of his pro-style attack with Florida’s players. The big plus is that Charlie will get to focus on exactly what he wants to focus on: developing his decided schematic advantage and calling those plays. His job isn’t to be the head guy, an administrator, a schmoozer with the booster, but instead he’ll have his face buried in that Denny’s menu of the playcall sheet and just call plays. We’ll see how it works.

- Virginia Tech got beat, but Tyrod Taylor had the play of the game:

- Oregon working on trick plays. Chip Kelly? Shocker.

- Andrew Gelman on statistics, over at FiveBooks. Interesting choices.

- Brian speculates on Michigan, Harbaugh, etc. I have no idea what Harbaugh or Michigan will do, but if Rich Rodriguez goes I think the epitaph is that it’s no longer enough to be simply have a very good offense (of course it took Rodriguez awhile to get to that point, too). Rodriguez’s offense underperformed in the last few weeks of the year, but it was still an elite unit, especially if you discount turnovers (leaving aside whether you should). But Rodriguez is undone by organization, special teams, the general mood around the program and, most of all, defense. My takeaway is that if you want to be an offensive minded head coach and still call the plays, you need to make up your mind about your defense. You either hire someone who runs exactly what you want (a 3-3-5, in Rich Rod’s case) or you hire a guy and let him run his defense. Rodriguez’s approach was far too schizophrenic: switching to his preferred defense midseason or in the offseason, switching coaches, meddling here and there while not fully committing to that side of the ball. In 2004, 2005, when the spread was still ascendant, it may have been enough to call some really good plays and rely on talent on defense to carry you through. But in 2010, at Michigan, with a depleted roster, that’s not enough. Head coaches have to be head coaches, and coordinators must be coordinators. There will be counterexamples, but see my point above about Weis.

- Is the iPad destroying the future of magazines?

Teaching a quarterback where to throw the football

If your quarterback can’t deliver the ball to the open receiver, it doesn’t matter how well designed, well protected, or otherwise well executed your pass plays are. Surprisingly, however, this supposedly natural skill — the ability to locate and throw the ball to an open receiver — is taught in a variety of ways, some more effective than others. To my mind, there are really essentially two legitimate methods: the progression read and the coverage read. (The illegitimate way is to simply “scan” across — the most common tactic when a quarterback who gets in trouble — but this should never be taught to a young quarterback as an every down technique.)

Progression Reads: A progression read is designed to have two, three, four, or five sequential choices of where to throw the ball. It is important for the quarterback to pre-read the coverage to get an indication of the coverage, but, more importantly, a progression read requires the quarterback to know where each of the receivers will be given the pattern called. This kind of read calls for throwing the ball with rhythm drops — i.e. on a five-step drop, the ball is thrown to the first receiver when the fifth step hits (the “rhythm” throw), the second receiver after a hitch-up or gather step (the “read” or “gather” throw), and the third receiver after resetting the feet.

Limitations of progression reads:

  • A tendency to stare at the receiver that is first in the progression, which attracts other defenders.
  • It is frustrating for coaches to watch because they can see that a receiver who is later in the progression is wide open. Thus coaches need to know the progression as well as the quarterback — the QB’s job is to throw it to the first open receiver in the progression.
  • Quarterbacks will lose patience or think that because the first receiver in the progression was thrown to the first time that he won’t be there when the play is called again. Progression reads require the coach/quarterback not have their mind made up ahead of time.

Coverage reads: The simple form of this requires that a pass concept be called and the quarterback is told to “throw it to this guy if the defender does this; throw it to that guy if the defender does that.” To make this work, the coaches and quarterback must understand the exact coverage called; there might be five receivers deployed but the coverage determines which two or three are “live” for the quarterback. In essence, the quarterback reads defenders, who dictate where the ball will go.
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