Smart Links – Strategery round-up – 10/1/2010

Great analysis of the Indy Colts offense from Mile High Report.

- Brophy’s blog (which has really become a group blog) with all kinds of good stuff. Brophy talks defensive trends, while Hemlock discusses “Match Zone or Match Man.” Hemlock:

I would rather face a match zone team as a Run-N-Shoot coach than a pattern reading – spot drop team (more on this formulation in my next post). Why? Pure and simple: match zone teams, especially those that are heavy fire zone ones, by and large, always end up, regardless of shell, in a 1 Hi look. I can thus tell my people to disregard the other 6 generic shells we use to categorize coverage and instruct them to focus their attention on attacking the technique of the defender charged with matching them. So, for all intent purposes, match zone takes the thinking out of things for my receivers because for as far as they’re concerned all they’re facing is man.

- Also at Brophy’s site, check out Chris Vasseur’s bit on the 30 Dime Package. Finally, check out Brophy’s pieces (one and two) on TCU’s “2 Read” defense. (See also RUNCODHIT.)

- Great new site, great new taste. The folks from Buckeye Football Analysis joined the SB Nation mothership and have an excellent site, Along the Olentangy. All the posts are must reads, but check out the breakdowns of Tressel’s offense (including its development over the last season). Check out analysis of OSU’s dropback pass game, run game and run/pass balance, zone runs, the zone read, sprint-draw series, and early season offensive review. Whew. Thank me later.

- RockyTopTalk discusses Florida’s offensive woes. Not mentioned? Playing Kentucky.

- MummePoll is back! So go sign-up now, and read all about it here. Do. Go. Now.

- Not strategy related, but read this article from the NY Times Dealbook about the talented and prolific Aaron Nagler of CheeseheadTV.

Deconstructing: The search for the perfect spread QB

I have a new bit up on Yahoo! (belatedly, after I sent the wrong draft… I owe the good Doctor mightily) comparing how Gus Malzahn uses Cam Newton to how Rich Rodriguez is using Denard Robinson. Hint: Newton’s favorite play is the inverted veer or dash package, while Denard’s is the outside zone.

Check it out. (Make sure the version you read begins with “Sometimes, in college football….” The first version that went up was based on an earlier draft, and was incomplete (my fault).)

Head scratcher of the day

From ESPN’s Big Ten blog:

Adam Rittenberg: So, [Brian] Bennett, we meet again. Good starts for both the Irish and the Wolverines on Saturday, and it should be a great one in South Bend. Let’s talk offense. What do you think Knute Rockne and Fielding Yost would say about these two systems matching up?

Brian Bennett: I think both coaches would have spit in a leather helmet in disgust. What’s the over/under on total number of snaps under center on Saturday? Five?

Er, both Yost and Knute Rockne made extensive use of the shotgun.

Why do people think the shotgun is new?

Breaking down Boise: How the Broncos use leverage, numbers and grass to gash the opposition

[Ed. Note: The following article was written by my friend Mike Kuchar, who, when not writing incredibly informative articles, is the defensive coordinator at North Brunswick Township High School in New Jersey.]

It’s no secret that Boise State knows how to move the football — its 42 points per game last season led the nation — but it’s exactly how Boise moves the ball that makes them unique.  I became privy to this information when I spent a week with the Virginia Tech coaching staff back in early April as they prepared for their opener against the Broncos, a September 6 bout at Fed Ex field pitting two top ten teams against each other.  Indeed, the mere fact that Va Tech’s staff was breaking film down more than five months before gameday tells you something profound about how much respect Boise head coach Chris Petersen’s offense commands. I sat with Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Torrian Gray and defensive graduate assistant Steve Canter (who has since become Norfolk State’s QB coach) as they scouted Boise State’s games against Tulsa, Nevada, Fresno State and finally TCU last season.  Canter was given the important but not-so-glamorous task of charting every snap that Boise took on offense last year.  And after just a few minutes of watching tape with them my head began to spin, but Canter couldn’t spare to take his eyes off the screen.

To me, every play seemed like an entirely different scenario — a tiny but perfect little strategic masterpieces carved out by Petersen and his offensive staff for that situation alone.  While I struggled just to follow the ball (apparently the filmer in the press box had the same problem, as the camera often got faked out along with the defensive end or safety Petersen targeted) Canter diligently worked his craft, jotting each down and distance, all the personnel used, every formation, any motion and play. It’s a process he’s engrossed himself in as a former head coach himself: he mentored Vikings receiver Percy Harvin at nearby Landsdown High School (Virginia) and won a state championship in 2004. He’s earned the respect of defensive coordinator Bud Foster, one of the best defensive minds in the game. “[Boise] tr[ies] to do a ton of different things, but there has to be a reason for what they are doing,” said Canter.

Five months and a dozen scratch pads later, I’m not sure that the Hokies have Boise all figured out yet, but knowing Foster, they’ve certainly gotten some insight on them.  I took all the information from that visit and — mainly out of curiosity for my own purposes as a coach to see how a great offense works and how a great defense might prepare — to thoroughly study what Boise State does on the offensive side of the ball.  Once the studying was complete, I compiled a detailed and definitive report on what makes Boise, well…Boise. And more importantly, what the Hokies must do to win.

Personnel

“Maximizing personnel,” one of those football buzzwords that sounds like it was invented by Peter Drucker, is nevertheless essential to making an offense dynamic — and arguably nobody in the college game knows how to do it better than Petersen.  He learned it from his days working as the offensive coordinator under previous head coach Dan Hawkins where his direction thrust little known talents RB Ian Johnson and QB Jared Zabransky onto the college football landscape in 2006. [Ed. Note: Petersen also credits former Southern Cal head coach and longtime NFL offensive coordinator Paul Hackett for his football development, along with the time he spent under Mike Bellotti at Oregon where he worked alongside Dirk Koetter and Jeff Tedford.] Boise doesn’t always have the Tarzan’s on film — they don’t bang heads with the Oklahomas and Floridas in the recruiting wars — but they don’t need to.  Petersen is schooled in the art of allocation: he wants to best utilize the talent he has.  For example, five-foot-nine senior running back James Avery, rushed for 1,151 yards last season for the Broncos.  He’s not the fastest, but he’s elusive with an explosive burst. “He’s not the fastest guy in the world, you rarely see him get long runs” said Virginia Tech’s Gray.  “But like most Boise backs he has terrific start and stop skills; he can change direction quickly and he knows how to read blocks.”

Chris Petersen: smart guy, smart slacks

Avery is a patient, zone style back who looks for creases in defensive fronts. His skills are modeled after guys like Ian Johnson who had a stellar career running the same zone type runs.  Of course, it helps when those blocks are created by an offensive line that only surrendered five sacks last season.  And that success against the pass rush must be attributed to their knowing their protection assignments when picking up various blitz packages that teams throw at them at a weekly basis. In the Fiesta Bowl last season, TCU appeared to be in dial-a-blitz mode for most of the first half but still couldn’t get to Boise quarterback Kellen Moore, before largely giving up that approach as Moore never got flustered.  He knew where the weakness in his protection were and found a way to escape at the right times to avoid losses.

Moore is another anomaly: not scary on paper, frightening on film. Despite being barely six-feet tall, he has tremendous presence in the pocket.  He knows exactly where to escape when the pocket collapses and often finds receivers downfield simply because the defensive backs got tired of covering.  He’s quick and decisive with the ball — he threw only three interceptions in 431 attempts last season. His career completion percentage has been in the mid 60%s, he finished seventh in Heisman voting and was the WAC offensive player of the year.  His main target, senior Austin Pettis, had 63 catches from virtually every spot on the field: flanker, slot, split end and even out of the backfield; Petersen loves moving his chess pieces around.  Referring to Pettis, Virginia Tech’s Gray said: “He’s their tallest guy at 6-3 and they move him around a ton,” adding, “In the red zone, he’s lethal.”  Indeed, Pettis had 14 touchdowns last season, mainly on bootleg schemes — a Boise favorite in that part of the field.

Schemes

Boise State’s linebacker coach, Jeff Choate, once told me at coaching clinic two years back, “We run plays, we don’t have an offense.  It makes it difficult to defend.”  At that time he was working with the running backs.  Before this project, I wondered how an offense can’t be a system.  Coordinators pride themselves on establishing identities: “It’s what we do” is a common mantra among the coaching profession.  Urban Meyer at Florida has his spread option, Chip Kelly at Oregon has his QB run game, Steve Sarkasian at Washington has his pro-style offense that he developed at USC. Well, apparently Boise was the Seinfeld of college football — their lack of identity is their identity.  Although I may not have understood it then, the method behind this apparent lack of cohesion became much clearer to me after hours of study.

Boise specializes in getting defenses out of position to make plays by utilizing the three major essentials in offensive football:  numbers, leverage and grass.  “Numbers” means outnumbering the defense at the point of attack — i.e. more blockers than defenders on the edge, more receivers than zone defenders, etc.  “Leverage” refers to out-flanking a defense at the point of attack — i.e. you may not have numbers but the angles are on your side.  “Grass” harkens to Willie Keeler’s baseball adage, “hit ‘em where they ain’t.”  Run the ball where there are the fewest defenders.  As it turned out, Choate was right: Boise spends more time on distracting you then developing themselves.  But don’t get confused: the point is that although the Broncos have the talent to be one of the best teams in the country and could simply overrun certain opponents, their modus operandi is to be patient and to take what the defense gives them — a true reflection of Petersen, their coach.  The quintessential underdog philosophy, they wear you down by picking at four and five yard gains until they pop a big one.   Watching them on film, it’s never surprising they score, but to a football junkie, the methodology of how they score is a work of art.  Basically, Boise uses three distinct ways to score: (1) pre-snap leverage by the use of formation, (2) post-snap misdirection and (3) calling the unexpected — the dagger after lulling you to sleep.

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Strategic trends for the next decade? Start with defense

In their tag-teamed auguries for the next decade of college football, Stewart Mandel and Andy Staples reflect on the decade of the spread and look to the option offenses of the ’70s to predict what big things might come next:

8. The spread and pro-style offenses will learn to coexist

College offenses constantly go in and out of vogue, which means the spread-offense craze is bound to plateau (if it hasn’t already). [Ed Note: Yes it has, if the goal is to give underdogs a better chance.] Last season, the spread still thrived for teams like Pac-10 champion Oregon, Big East champion Cincinnati and 13-1 Florida. However, Alabama won the national championship with a more traditional, pro-style offense, Stanford defied the trend of recent upstarts by utilizing an old-school, smash-mouth offense and Nebraska’s disruptive defense showed it’s possible to shut down a wide-open attack like Texas’.

So will the recent influx of NFL-influenced coaches like Washington’s Steve Sarkisian and USC’s Kiffin kill the spread? Not exactly. Spread gurus like Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen keep importing it at new locations, and Arizona State’s Dennis Erickson — a veteran of both levels — is one of several coaches implementing a version of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack this season.

Instead, the future is likely a hybrid of both systems.

“The great thing would be the combination of both — spread it out and throw it, then be able to do it with two tight ends and run the ball with some power,” said Erickson. “It’s just the evolution of football. I really believe if you can have a combination of all that stuff and confuse [defenses] with different personnel groups, that’s what it’s all about.”

. . .

9. Option offense: Ready for a comeback?

The future won’t belong solely to the pro/spread hybrid. As the spread flourished this past decade, defenses adjusted. More teams adopted a 3-4, allowing more flexibility to spy a quarterback who might double as a fullback.

That shift in defensive philosophy means it’s time for a new-old offensive fad. And since bell-bottoms and platform shoes have already enjoyed minor renaissances, it seems only fair that coaches bring back that staple of the ’70s football experience: the option. We’re not talking about the occasional pitch play. We’re talking about the holy trinity of the dive back, quarterback keeper or pitch.

Paul Johnson, who probably has leisure suits and tearaway jerseys in his closet, has proven at Navy and Georgia Tech that the option still works. How well? In Johnson’s second season at Tech, he won the ACC title.

Most people think the option is a boring, grind-it-out scheme. Not true, said Tom Osborne, an option aficionado who coached Nebraska to national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997. “Most of the zone plays you see now, if you block things perfectly, you may make seven, eight, nine yards,” Osborne said. “If somebody misses a tackle, you might go a long way. In option football, if you execute correctly, you’ve got enough people to block everybody and theoretically score a touchdown on most every option play.”

. . . So what’s the holdup? Johnson already has proven the option can work in a BCS conference. It’s time to bring it back on a grand scale.

I generally agree with everything Andy and Stewart say, especially the point that whatever the dominant offensive strategy of the 2010s ends up being — and there may not be one — it will be a response to the defensive changes being undergone right now. I’m not sure yet that it will be the option, if for no other reason than we don’t yet know what defensive schemes will be dominant either. We are in a very transitory time, and to get a little perspective, it’s helpful to look at the strategic milieu that the modern spread came out of in the 1990s.

The spread developed essentially in response to two defensive phenomena. The first goes back to Buddy Ryan: the ubiquity of the eight-man front defenses. Although his vaunted “46″ defense became famous in the 1980s, in the 1990s teams still used it and, more importantly, they used his philosophies — his eight-man front principles — to overwhelm the run and protection schemes of teams still trying to use traditional personnel, i.e. two runningbacks, one tight-end, and two receivers. Personified by defenses like the one used by Dick Tomey at Arizona, his Under-Shift Double-Eagle Flex — a.k.a. the “Desert Swarm” — these defenses were basically impossible for anyone using traditional sets, personnel and concepts, unless the talent gap was wide enough to overcome the strategic disadvantage. Which is exactly why the small schools led the changes.

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Wisdom on how to (try to) defend four verticals with Cover 3

Question: How would you defend the four verticals pass play with Cover 3? Answer from mgoblog contributor (and defensive coach) Steve Sharik:

Four verticals against Cover 3 [is] really a 2-on-1 against the free safety.

The QB is coached to look off the Free Safety and throw to the #2 receiver away from him. Well-coached safeties are instructed to not come out of the exact middle of the field until the ball is in the air. Four verticals against Cover 3 is not designed for the home run. The QB should deliver the ball on a relative line (a la Denard [Robinson] to [Roy] Roundtree in the spring game) at 15-20 yards downfield; i.e., behind the LBs and in front of the Free Safety.

Right where you want them

A properly coached Cover 3 defense will use its LBs to re-route and not give up easy seam throws. For a 3-3-5 defense, the alignment of the #2 reciever changes who is responsible for this. If #2 is a TE or Wing, then one of the Stack Backers (Sam, Will, whatever) is responsible for seam elimination (as we like to call it). If #2 is a wide slot, then either the Spur or Bandit is responsible.

The objectives are threefold:

1. Take away the quick seam throw by jamming and running with #2.
2. Widen the seam route to the Corner’s zone, or outside 1/3. Do not let #2 cross your face.
3. Get your eyes to #1.

Once the jam and re-route is accomplished, the LB will key #1. If #1 continues vertically up the field, the LB will continue to run with #2. If #1 throttles down, the LB will come off #2 and get to his zone. The Stack Backer will hunt a crossing route by #1 while the Spur/Bandit will hunt inside-out; i.e., curl to deep out to quick out. This is an easy read but hard to get to quickly. The Spur/Bandit must be a superior athlete. (This is one of my reservations about Kovacs. I don’t believe he can take away a seam and be able to get to a curl against quality QB/WR combos.) (more…)

Good paragraphs about Madden

And not just this year’s edition. From ESPN:

Hawkins wanted “Madden” to play out like the NFL. Equivalent stats. Similar play charts. Real football.

By contrast, Lyndon and Knox previously had made a well-received “Monday Night Football” title featuring arcade-style, action-heavy game play. That clicked with Genesis “Madden” producer Rich Hilleman, whose top design priority was fun — a game with more sacks, more bombs, more tackles in the backfield and more 60-yard runs than real-life NFL football. Something akin to an episode of “The Hills,” or what philosopher/author Umberto Eco dubbed the “hyperreal” — seemingly authentic, yet more entertaining than the genuine article.

“I came to the game from making flight simulations,” said Hilleman, who is now EA’s chief creative officer. “If you make an F-16 fighter simulation and it’s very accurate, to fire a single missile takes like 20 procedures. Only that’s not people’s perception of being a pilot. People’s perception is Tom Cruise. Push a button and blow something up. With Genesis ‘Madden,’ we wanted to emphasize what makes football exciting, not perfectly replicate the brutality of a 3.1-yard-per-carry running game.”

And:

“Let me ask,” Madden said. “When we get into the spread, the quarterback in shotgun, do the linemen get in three-point stances?”

“In some sets,” White said. “But largely in two-point.”

“They should all be in two-point stances,” Madden admonished.
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Can the West Coast Offense be taught anywhere besides the NFL?

Is it possible to run the “West Coast Offense” — the offense credited to Bill Walsh and those of his “coaching tree” — at any level other than the NFL? The answer is not necessarily clear. Indeed, despite being the most prevalent offense in the NFL, the WCO seems designed to overwhelm any college or high school team attempting to install it, whether from the voluminous playbook, playcalls that sound like something from NASA, or the difficult throws that only NFL guys can make. Despite its wonderful aspects and results, there’s a reason that many a high school coach with the best of intentions has junked the West Coast Offense after a few miserable games to return to some simpler and more trusted approach that has the advantage of being something his kids can actually do.

west coast

One, two, three, throw

Yet it must be possible to run the west coast offense at the lower levels, isn’t it? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because the most important elements of the offense can definitely be applied to the lower levels, while Jon Gruden’s extensive call sheets can be left aside. The no is just that: you won’t be able to run every formation, motion, and play in Holmgren’s Packers playbook, but fortunately you don’t have to. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about installing the WCO. The wrong way is to download a WCO playbook and try to install Walsh’s verbatim. That approach is also known as suicide. Instead, to use the offense at the lower levels (including college)  — or even to merely understand why the WCO and is such a good offense — it’s necessary to focus on the offense’s core principles.

1. Timing-based, ball control passing game. Routes are timed to match receiver steps and quarterback steps, with a healthy mix between 3-step and 5-step drops. It’s not about long bombs (though it has these too), but instead about efficiency. This is probably Walsh’s defining legacy. Most of Walsh’s plays existed before he came around — you can find Paul Brown and Sid Gillman using them, among others — but Walsh’s passing game exploded because he was essentially the passing game’s first risk manager. Although quarterbacks had long been able to sling the ball — for example, Joe Namath threw for over 4,000 in 1967 — Walsh’s quarterbacks became great by what they didn’t do: they didn’t throw incompletions (Walsh’s quarterbacks consistently completed over 60% of their passes, and occasionally closer to 70%), they didn’t throw interceptions (the interception rate per pass attempt went way down) ; and they didn’t take sacks, owing to Walsh’s meticulousness about their not holding on to the ball too long.

To compare this to the prior generation of signal callers, in 1977 the Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl despite Ken Stabler’s 20 interceptions; in 1978 the Steelers won the Super Bowl despite Terry Bradshaw’s 20 interceptions; and, in 1978, the Steelers won the Super Bowl and won more games … despite the fact that Bradshaw threw 25 interceptions. (In 2009, only three quarterbacks threw 20 or more interceptions: two rookies, Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez, and Jay Cutler, who had some issues in that department.) Moreover, if you roll the relevant passing stats together you get a useful stat called “Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt,” which averages how many yards are achieved per passing attempt (which usefully combines completion percentage and average yards gained per completion), with the adjusted part being the subtraction of yards to account for interceptions. Pro-Football-Reference.com has an in house version of Adj. YPA quite similar to what I’ve described, and the upshot is that Walsh’s quarterbacks, Montana and Young, average between one and a half and two adjusted yards per pass attempt more than Hall of Famers from an older generation, like Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Stabler, Bob Griese, and so on. The difference was the efficiency, the careful approach, and the timing.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying that it’s really important to focus on the details. It’s one thing to say that the WCO “treated short passes like runs” and used a “ball control approach to the passing game,” but it’s another to make pass plays so routine that they really become as second nature to the players as a handoff off-tackle. You do that through intense drill-work and matching routes, reads, and drops.

2. Meticulous gameplanning. If his legacy is not about reducing the risks of throwing the ball through a disciplined approach, it is by revolutionizing how coaches prepare for games through simple organization: scripting plays, analyzing tendencies, self-scouting, probing defenses to look for weaknesses, and so on. As with his plays, none of Walsh’s innovations here were truly new, but his approach obviously worked because not only was his success outsized but so has been the success of those who coached with him — those that were able to observe his methods.  Applied to the lower levels, it is about having a plan for gameplanning, designing practices around what actually happens in games and using as many “situational” or “game-like” scenarios as possible, and treating the creation of the scripted plan and playcall sheet as tools to be organized during the game (when you have the least time to think and things are craziest). You don’t need to produce 200 page scouting reports (like this one which Mike Shanahan and co. made for the Denver Broncos as they prepared for the Indy Colts in 2002) but the creation of a thorough plan will make you a better coach and will make your practices more focused on the things that matter.

3. “Balance” between running versus passing. Now, I have written a lot about notions of balance but and how I don’t think traditional notions — an equal number of runs or passes or an equal amount of passing and rushing yardage — is a useful way to think about the concept. But there is no doubt that the West Coast Offense wants to be balanced in a meaningful way: the defense must fear both the run and the pass. Now, again, the WCO is a pass-first offense, so I think the best way to think about whether your team has sufficient balance is to contrast the offense with offenses that don’t care about balance, like the Airraid teams or run-heavy option squads. And the best way I know of to determine that is to ask whether the play-action pass is a legitimate threat. For many pass-first spreads, the play-action pass is a non-starter because the run is an afterthought. But it is also the main source of the West Coast Offense’s explosive plays.

Indeed, Walsh as Walsh explained:

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Running the “6-3 deep post”

If you want to throw a deep post, particularly when there is an inside route designed to draw the safety away from the outside receiver, I suggest using a technique called the “6-3 post.”

The numbers refer to the number of steps the receiver takes: six vertically, attacking the defender’s outside hip, then three quick ones at 45 degrees to the sideline (sometimes with a head turn but not necessarily), with the break to the post made at full speed on the ninth step, or the third of the “6-3.” The idea is that you will take away the safeties either through play action or some kind of inside route — like in the Mills or double-post concepts — while the 6-3 technique will enable the outside receiver to get plenty of leverage as he bursts inside.

See the video linked here for a great example of Kez McCorvey from FSU (remember him?) running the route near-perfectly. (For some reason embedding is disabled, so you’ll just have to click the link.)

Smart Notes – Learning defensive coverages, Bear Bryant’s 1958 D playbook – 8/8/2010

Via Ron Jenkins, learning defensive coverages:

- Because I can. Check out Bear Bryant’s 1958 Alabama playbook. Note that playbook designing technology did not advance beyond this pen and typewriter method until apparently around 2006.

- Good morning, Dave. Buckeye Football Analysis breaks down Tressel’s favorite play — the “Dave” play, which is what he calls his variation of the “Power O” which he has been running since at least his Youngstown State days. Well worth the read.

- The most important thing a college football fan can read: This fall’s ESPN announcer pairings, complete with commentary from EDSBS.

- Watch Mark Sanchez make figure eights. This kind of drill reinforces my advice to all young quarterbacks: jump rope.

- Good article from Billy Witz of the Times about Dick Enberg. Enberg has gone back to doing play-by-play for the San Diego padres:

But the reason Enberg was here became apparent on a recent afternoon as he entered his small office at Petco Park, arriving four and a half hours before the first pitch with a news release in his hand describing the Padres’ trade-deadline deal for St. Louis outfielder Ryan Ludwick.

Picking out pertinent statistics, Enberg fretted that he did not know much about the prospects San Diego had dealt, but he said that he liked the gumption the Padres, the surprise leaders of the National League West, had to acquire Miguel Tejada the day before.

“We’re getting serious,” Enberg said seriously. It was clear, at that moment and for the rest of the night, that baseball stirred him.

- How badly do you love football? If you’d be happy playing through this, then you probably qualify.

- Study on NFL field goal “choking.” From the Sabermetric Research Blog: Upshot is that a study found evidence of choking, but it’s also possible that there are other conclusions to draw regarding difficulty rather than pure mental breakdowns.

- Football Outsiders on Rookie Cap Salary Considerations (say that three-times fast). Check it out here. Learn all about the 25-percent rule.

- Bleg. In the comments, please feel free to request topics for future coverage on the blog. I’ve got some projects I’m working on but I am always looking for new ideas.