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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Smart Links – Strategery round-up – 1/3/2011

Along the Olentangy has some great previews of Arkansas in anticipation of Ohio State’s bowl game. As Ross notes, Petrino’s likes to gash the opposite over the top with big plays, including on the great “Mills” pass Spurrier made famous:

millsy

And when not throwing the deep ball, Petrino’s favorite series is the shallow or drive series. Ross observes that Petrino mixes and matches where the dig will come from as compared with the shallow (i.e. from the same side or opposite the shallow) but that Bobby likes to send the back on a wheel route to clear the way for the shallow:

shallow

Sometimes though — as shown below against Alabama — the defense fails to cover the runner on the wheel route.

Read the whole thing.

I’ll have more to say about this, but Runcodhit has some excellent stuff about Oregon’s run game concepts. Specifically, it combines the outside zone play with the read of the defensive tackle or three-technique. (See also here.)

The upshot of this adjustment is it makes irrelevant the typical games defenses play to counteract “midline-esque” run plays, because if the linebacker scrapes inside to take away the quarterback he is widely out of position for the outside zone to the sideline. (For bonus material, check out this post about zone blitzes with split-safety defenses.)

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Gaining leverage on overhang players and access to the “alley” against odd fronts

[Ed. Note: The piece below is by Mike Kuchar, a defensive coordinator and researcher with the new site, X and O Labs. Mike previously wrote a piece for Smart Football called “Breaking Down Boise,” about Chris Petersen’s Boise State offense.]

Defenses across the college and prep ranks have been forced to adjust to the rise of four receiver spread formations.  Commonly referred to as “sub” personnel, our researchers at X&O Labs have found that many four defensive line teams have shifted to three down linemen structures to match speed with speed.  What started out as nickel packages has grown into an every down defenses.   Coordinators are replacing one of their defensive linemen with linebacker/safety hybrids to combat speed and defend the width of the field.

After surveying over 2,000 college and prep coaches, we’ve found that the most difficult challenge when facing odd front teams is finding a way to occupy the alley defender (usually an outside linebacker or drop safety).  Often taught to be the force player, it’s this overhang player that can cause problems for offenses wishing to push the ball to the perimeter.  Sure, it’s offensive pedagogy to attack the B gap bubbles vs. odd front teams, but it’s only a matter of time until defenses try to take that away by slanting or stemming to a four-down front pre-snap. Eventually, you’ll need to get to the perimeter, so why not save time by getting there immediately?  Our researchers at X&O Labs have sifted through feedback, and we’ll show you how to do just that below.

Case 1: Using Tight End Structures, Particularly 11 or 12 Personnel

Even if you don’t have a tight end in the program, start to develop one.  Over 80 percent of coaches polled by X&O Labs attack odd defenses by using various tight end formations. Whether by using 11 personnel (one tight end, one back), 12 personnel (two tight ends, one backs), or 21 personnel (one tight end, two backs), the tight end is pivotal in the run game.

We’ve all seen how productive spread offenses like Oregon, Boise State and Florida have been within the last three years.  What separates those teams from traditional spread teams is the implementation and execution of the tight end on normal downs.  According to our research, using a tight end in spread personnel accounts for two valuable advantages:

1.      It changes the structure of the defense: No longer can that safety/linebacker play in space, which is exactly what he wants to do.  Now he’s forced to cover down on a bigger, stronger opponent giving you leverage to get to the alley.

2.      It provides for an instant mismatch in the run game: Many of these hybrids don’t like to get their hands dirty.  These types, who usually weigh in the 180-210 pound range, are forced to balance up and fit in the framework against bigger tight ends.

X&O Labs’ Coaching Analyst, Mike Canales, who is also the associate head coach and offensive coordinator at the University of North Texas, contributed heavily to this Coaching Research Report.   Canales has modeled his spread scheme after studying a ton of what Oregon does to attack the perimeter with their speed sweep and option series.  “Anytime we’re going to get odd fronts, like we do when we play Louisiana-Monroe, we need to make some adjustments to our scheme,” said Canales.  “Teams are going to give you a six-man box, regardless of what you’re putting on the line of scrimmage.  Handling that overhang player with a six box is a bitch.  You can’t stay in 10 personnel with no tight ends because those slot receivers aren’t big or strong enough to handle safety types one-on-one, so you need to get into 11 or 12 personnel to force the defensive coordinator’s hand.”

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Smart Notes – Best plays, Manning’s slide, DFW – Dec. 27, 2010

Best college football plays of the year, courtesy of Dr Saturday:

2. Has anyone watched the DVD series on the passing game by Sonny Dykes, former Texas Tech assistant, Arizona offensive coordinator and current Louisiana Tech head coach? I’m tempted to get this as a self-Christmas present, but I’m not sure if it’s worth it, given how much I already know about the Airraid. Indeed, I’m actually somewhat more interested in this tape on teaching QBs and packaging plays with formations from Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst (who is rumored to be Texas’s next offensive coordinator, and who I think would actually be  a good fit there — he could even wind up the new coach-in-waiting). Let me know in the comments if any of you have seen either of these and what your thoughts are.

3. Yes, Dan Dierdorf, that’s smart football, but not for the reasons you think. Peyton Manning’s game-clinching slide at the two against the Raiders was one of the headiest plays of the year, but Dan Dierdorf muffs the analysis. As said on Shutdown Corner:

Dierdorf’s commentary is unbelievable. He goes on and on about how Manning went down because he was going to get caught from behind (he wasn’t) and because he wanted to avoid injury (not that either). It never occurred to him that Manning was ending the game. He’s preaching the merits of smart football while sounding like someone who’s never watched a game. Ladies and gentlemen, your network No. 2 announcing team!

As a bonus, check out Tim Tebow’s day against the Texans. He still has a long ways to go, but I’ve said all along that he can definitely be an NFL quarterback; it’s just a question of when he’ll be ready. So far, so good.

4. I make few promises on this site, but I promise never to write a 13,000 word sentence. There are some pretty famous examples of such efforts, however.

5. Understanding David Foster Wallace through his study of the philosophy of language.

6. I’m a bit late to this story, but UConn will be taking a bath on their BCS bowl appearance.

NCAA enforcement follies and the commentariat

Stewart Mandel recently wrote a piece on NCAA enforcement incoherence. It’s a good piece and gives a nice overview of the problems built right into the system’s framework, and how the NCAA arrived at the recent Ohio State ruling:

We've come a long way

[I]f you’re just a general college football fan, you have every reason to be puzzled, outraged and perhaps even despondent that the NCAA came down harder on Ohio State players for selling rings than it did on Heisman winner Cam Newton, whose father shopped Newton’s signature for $180,000.

Just nine days away from the New Year, this Ohio State mess marks the latest chapter in an unusually busy year for the NCAA’s enforcement division. From the USC/Reggie Bush sanctions to the North Carolina agent suspensions to Bruce Pearl, Tom Izzo and Newton, the headlines have been never-ending.

In the heavily layered NCAA bureaucracy, however, different personnel groups handle infractions cases (USC, Tennessee basketball), agent issues (Georgia, UNC), Basketball Focus Group (Izzo) and athlete eligibility reinstatement (Newton, Ohio State).

It’s no wonder the rules and the punishments seem so wildly inconsistent.

Yet, given the byzantine, inconsistent and incoherent nature of our actual criminal sentencing system — which actually puts people to death, in jail or doles out other, unique punishments — I’m not convinced that everything can be solved by blaming or even reducing “bureaucracy.” “Bureaucracy” has a very negative connotation, but it also is a simple description, meaning “government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority” — a definition that describes any government or regulatory body or really any large organization, from the U.S. military to Apple Computer, Inc. or Google Inc. You can’t wish this stuff away; different penalties and judgments will come from different parts of the NCAA. Mandel’s column is good and it helpfully dispels the popular fan notion of NCAA as monolithic entity (with this perception awkwardly reinforced by the fact that the NFL (a far smaller organization than the NCAA) is ruled by fiat by them whims an imperial Commissioner). There are real problems with the NCAA’s rulemaking and enforcement system, but no one has yet systematically identified what they are and how they can be fixed.

Relatedly, Dan Wetzel’s recent paean to Cam Newton and his Dad as some kind of modern day Robin Hoods — “And yet we demand that Cecil Newton respect [the NCAA] and th[eir] rules?” — is just bizarre. This isn’t Correy Surrency disqualified from athletics on the basis of an overly narrow conception of what it means to be an amateur, but instead someone shopping their kid. Now, I am not saying that Cam should have been ruled ineligible. For purely selfish reasons — i.e. that I love watching him play in Malzahn’s offense — I am happy he’s still playing. And I also endorse anyone who, rightly in my view, criticizes systemic problems with NCAA enforcement, which, while it doesn’t have the effect of distorted criminal sentences that are alternatively too harsh or too lenient, can have seriously deleterious effects on individual student athletes, their families and their communities. But it’s another thing to make the leap Wetzel does from finding fault with the NCAA to absolving the Newtons and essentially encouraging future athletes to break the rules. Wetzel: “Yet Cecil Newton is the bad guy for asking for something close to what the market would bear? [Ed Note: The “market” in illegal payments for student-athletes?] Meanwhile all of the suits who run the game can sip cocktails and enjoy the Heisman ceremony? Why, because one dad did not respect the NCAA, its wobbly rule book and situational ethics? Why, for considering it all a sham and asking for a share?”

The answer of course is that Wetzel simply cannot be serious. Wetzel surely knows that it’s possible to critique one side without condoning the other. To use an extremely overdone analogy, in the past century, you could critique U.S. foreign policy without being an apologist for Stalin or Mao (again: this is just an analogy; Cecil Newton is neither Stalin nor Mao, but you get the idea). But Wetzel also prefers to kick up dirt rather than engage in serious argument. This is, of course, the generous reading of the article. If Wetzel is serious, well, I’m not sure what to say.