Me on the Solid Verbal Podcast

Check out the 7/14/2010 Solid Verbal Podcast, “Smart Football,” hosted by Dan Rubenstein and Ty Hildenbrandt. It was a lot of fun and I really appreciate the invite to do the Solid Verbal.

What I’ve been reading

Football Scouting Methods, by Steve Belichick. For a long time, this widely revered tome by Steve Belichick, Bill’s dad, was out of print — and so I never read it. But I recently realized that it had been re-released and thus the price came down from its prior astronomical levels to the very affordable $10. One of the Amazon reviewers helpfully includes the table of contents for curious readers:

1. A case for specialization in scouting
2. Preparations for scouting
3. What is expected of the scout
4. Worksheet forms and terminology
5. How to recognize the defense
6. Scouting the defense
7. Defensive analysis
8. Scouting the offense
9. Offensive analysis
10. The final report
11. Self-scouting and post game analysis
12. Tip offs

Surreptitiously filming your opponents red zone plays is, to my knowledge, not covered, but hopefully the wisdom herein will trickle into my writing here on the site.

- More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite, by Sebastian Mallaby. First things first: Mallaby, who is a former writer for the Economist and whose prior book, The World’s Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations (about Jim Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president), was excellent, has written a full-throated defense of hedge funds and hedge fund managers — a rather unique topic in today’s climate. But whatever your views on this “new elite,” Mallaby’s book is extremely informative and entertaining, as, unsurprisingly, the history of hedge funds is filled with quixotic characters. I thoroughly enjoyed this, even if, at the end, while the financial world was crumbling as a result of the risk taking of many, Mallaby’s book becomes something of a thriller where we wait to see if various hedge funds will blow up or survive. The fact that he can overcome such oddities is a testament to Mallaby’s formidable writing skills. For a sample chapter, check out this piece from the Atlantic, covering George Soros’s successful effort to break the British pound.

- Hitch-22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens. I have a very soft spot for Hitch, as his rhetorical prowess is such that he could say basically anything and, because it sounds so good and is said so well, you fall in for it, even if just a bit. (And sometimes you wonder if he doesn’t set himself up that way on purpose.) But when he’s on your side, there are few better or more forceful advocates. Hitch-22: A Memoir — which is not a memoir at all, but is instead just a roughly chronological series of stories Mr. Hitchens has chosen to tell about himself and his famous friends — is fun, pungent, and elegantly written; a perfect beach read for the Fourth of July, when I read it. It doesn’t do much to explain the man (or maybe it does?), but Hitchens has always been less about bracing complexity for complexity’s sake than acknowledging it (which alone differentiates him from many commentators), then choosing a side (thus differentiating him from the rest), and asserting the moral high ground until you concede or his position is no longer remotely tenable. A sample chapter on his friendship with Martin Amis is available from Vanity Fair.

- American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic, by Joseph Ellis. Ellis is maybe my favorite storyteller/historian on American History (there are historians and storytellers, and for some reason with American History few successfully manage both roles). Ellis charts early American history — post revolutionary war, in particular — through the men that made it and it made famous, though without deifying them in the process. A great text to help fill in the gaps and to give some much needed perspective on a now much discussed time.

Player salaries and economic rents

Brian Burke opines on NFL salaries:

Personally, I think they’re all overpaid, rookies and veterans. If you ask most football players if they would still play football for $80,000 per year instead of $800,000 or $8 million, they’d say yes. It’s almost certainly a better proposition than whatever else they’d be able to do in the labor market. If Sam Bradford had the choice between playing in the NFL for $80k/yr or looking for an entry level job in Oklahoma City, what do you think he’d do? Every dollar above $80k is icing on the cake. Technically, it could be considered economic rent.

In economic terms, rent is a misnomer. It does not refer to money you pay a landlord for your apartment. It refers to the money above the minimum amount required to induce the employment of a resource. There is always rent claimed by both sides of all voluntary transactions, otherwise people wouldn’t agree to the transaction in the first place. . . .

It seems to me almost all of the economic rent in professional sports goes to the players. It’s hard to imagine any other multi-billion dollar company paying more than 60% of its revenue to a few hundred employees. It’s not that the salaries are high in absolute terms, it’s that the athletes should gladly play for far less.

I tend to agree… or do I? I am conflicted. It is a plausible account, but there is a lot of uncertainty there as well. One, the NFL and other sports leagues are already incredibly distorted markets, aided as they are by exceptions to anti-trade law and a general public (to say nothing of lawmakers and judges) who are fine giving the NFL monopoly power over professional football (which may be a perfectly rational and fine choice). Second, and more importantly, the lifespan of an NFL player is blisteringly short. I’ve heard a variety of estimates, but most often the estimate is put at around 2-3 years; never have I heard even five seasons.

This skews the incentives. Were Sam Bradford to have taken the $80,000 a year job, he would be giving up a lot now, but it’s much more likely that his other career would last far longer, and as a result his income would be much smoother. And of course the number one pick is not really the appropriate metric; it’s not evident that, from a financial perspective at least, making around $400,000 a year for three or even four years and then having no career prospects at all is better than starting in a $70,000/year job with growth potential and stability. (I know in this economy nothing is certain.)

Two points flow from this. The first is that it cannot be accurate to compare an NFL player’s salary with the salary of Joe Schmo, office manager. Their income stream is more like that of an artist, or even an entrepreneur — variable with their success, with great opportunity to be set for life, with also a high likelihood of bust. As I’ve pointed out, 78% of NFL players file for bankruptcy. As this NY Times article points out, it’s not easy to manage your money if it comes in irregular, large chunks, followed by long dry-spells.

And second, if you make your money at once you end up paying more in taxes than someone who earned the same total amount, in smoother fashion, over the same period. To use an example of an entrepreneur, imagine the there are only two tax rates: 40% if you make over $200,000 and 20% if you make over $45,000. If two neighbors both make $500,000 over five years, with neighbor 1 making $100,000 every year while neighbor 2 making $250,000 twice and zero in the other years, neighbor 1 will have paid $100,000 in taxes while neighbor 2 will have paid $200,000.

Is any of this determinative of whether or not football players make too much? No, but I think it all adds a significant layer of uncertainty to their ability to make a living that, particularly when coupled with the well documented health issues that come from playing football, including brain injuries, make high incomes somewhat more understandable, even if they could be characterized as raw economic rents.

Shameless self-promotion – Maple Street Guides

Like last year, I have written a variety of pieces for the wonderful Maple Street Press, which specializes in team-centric preview guides — i.e. preview guides wherein all 128 pages are about your team, rather than having to share your single-page half-and-half with Akron (sorry Akron) or Michigan State (sorry Michigan State). This season, I wrote seven articles for six different publications, and had the collateral benefit of working with some very talented (and extremely patient) publishers and editors. So, obviously, if you like any of these teams, I recommend shelling out the 12 duckets to buy a copy; they can be ordered through Maple Street’s website (see the links below) or found in stores on a regional basis.

And if you’re curious what they look like in print, here is a link to an article I did last season for the Florida guide — I think it came out somewhat better than Tebow’s actual season did. In any event, here are the choices. Without further delay, and in no particular order, are the articles:

- We Are Penn State, edited by Mike Hubbell of BlackShoeDiaries. My article is titled “Inside the Spread HD,” but as I explain, that term is really a misnomer or at least merely serves cosmetic purposes, as at best Penn State’s offense is formed from coach Galen Hall’s two-tight, power approach (similar to the Indianapolis Colts’s core offense), with Jay Paterno’s “be multiple” impulses laid on top. At worst, however, this balancing act can lead the Nittany Lions away from having any particular identity. I discuss this balancing act, along with some of the key concepts, along with how PSU may feature Evan Royster this year.

- Cornhusker Kickoff 2010, edited by Jon Johnston of cornnation.com. My two articles, “Shawn Watson and K.I.S.S.” and “Offensive Tendencies,” discuss the man entrusted with steering the other half of Nebraska’s team, the offense, self-proclaimed west coast guru and Mike White disciple, Shawn Watson. Obviously, with how dominant the defense was Nebraska was a few more yards and a few more points away from an even better season, and the Cornhuskers showed flashes worthy of hope in their bowl game against Arizona. I discuss Watson’s evolutions and the team’s options for 2009 in each.

- Yea Alabama, edited by Todd Jones and Joel Gamble of rollbamaroll.com. My article, “The McElwain Way,” sheds some insight into the sarcastic and funny Jim McElwain, whose one-back power offense has in many ways been both the perfect complement to Saban’s defense and the difference between Alabama’s 7-6 record in Saban’s first year (without McElwain) and 26-2 record since. I focus particularly on ‘Bama’s run game.

- Here Comes the Irish, edited by Pat Misch of The Blue-Gray Sky. My article, “A Passing Primer,” is a nuts and bolts introduction to Brian Kelly’s offense and what he might do at Notre Dame. I’ve touched on similar topics previously, but I’d never had the opportunity to pull it all together as I did there. I look at Kelly’s run game, passing concepts (including how he handles pattern read coverages), favorite quirks, and his general approach to offense and especially quarterbacks.

- Hail to the Victors, edited by Brian Cook of mgoblog.com. The buzz coming out of spring camp at Michigan is that the Wolverines are moving to a 3-3-5 (or 3-5-3) look on defense, harkening back to Rich Rodriguez’s preferred defense at West Virginia. In “Back in Time,” I take a look at the origins of the 3-3-5, some of its progenitors (like Charlie Strong, formerly of Florida and now of Louisville, and the quixotic Joe Lee Dunn), how it is similar to and differs from traditional 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, and the ways it has evolved for modern football.

- Packers Annual 2010, edited by Brian Carriveau of the Journal-Sentinel Online and Cheeseheadtv.com. Yes, an NFL article! In “Unleashing Aaron Rodgers,” I discuss Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin’s “pro-spread” attack, how they handle the blitz by deploying more receivers and giving Rodgers more options, and how Rodgers cycles through his progressions on such staple concepts as “smash” and “levels.”

So, feel free to run out and buy a bunch for your friends (note that I don’t get paid based on how many you buy, and I do really think these are quality products). I would say that they’d make great stocking stuffers, but even I must admit that they will be a bit out of date by then.

Walter Payton and the wildcat?

Of course, I’m pretty precise when it comes to referring to something as the wildcat, but these clips of Sweetness playing shotgun QB for the Bears are, well, sweet:

Sean Payton breaks down his Super Bowl script

From the New Orleans Times-Picuyane, via reader Justin. Sean Payton discusses several plays, including four verticals and stick.

Below is a diagram of the second play the Saints run in the video above. The second video in the series (which is the more informative of the two videos) can be found after the jump.

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Good Q&A about the spread with Baylor HC Art Briles

Art Briles, cool customer

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Q&A with Baylor head coach Art Briles, from FoxSports Southwest. (H/t Spreadoffense.com.)

Your spread offense really served as a catalyst in the state of Texas. After they saw the success you were having in the 1990s, dozens of schools changed their offenses and patterned them after yours. Where did you come up with your version of the spread? Did you have any influences when you designed your offense?

I appreciate you saying that, because honestly we were some of the first people to start throwing it around and spreading it out. I just kind of came about it through trial and error. I had my first head coaching job back in 1984 in Hamlin, Texas. That first year, we made it to the quarter-finals and got beat on penetration. So the next year, I understood that if we didn’t spread the field and give our guys space to create plays in, somebody with better talent was going to shut us down and beat us. We started it in 1985, spreading in the ball around. We were in the shotgun, throwing it and running the zone read. It just kind of evolved through the years. We fluctuated with our personnel and with our philosophy, and with the defenses we were facing. I think it’s fun; I like how everything has evolved in the game of football. I’m excited about what the future holds, because it’s been a fun journey watching the way everything has transpired on both sides of the ball.

How much has your particular brand of the spread changed since you started running it?

Quite a bit. To some extent, we’re a little more screen-oriented now than we were then. We had more of a vertical passing game then, because we got more single [coverage] matchups than you get now. I’ve always liked a real mobile quarterback. We’ve always had our best teams that way. Even having Kevin Kolb at Houston. He’s fixing to be a star quarterback for the Eagles. You know, Kevin’s a mobile guy. He’s one of only three quarterbacks in college football history to throw for 400 yards and rush for 100 yards in a game. He had that capability; we just didn’t pull it out of them that much because he’s such a precise passer and we had other weapons around him. I like a guy who’s mobile. I like a guy who can move around and make things happen, and create plays for other people. Fortunately, we have a guy like that in Robert at Baylor.

The spread really took off in the college game early in the 2000s. Offenses enjoyed a lot of success for several seasons, but last year, it seemed like defenses found a way to at least slow down the spread. Do you think the spread is here to stay in college football, or will it be like the wishbone or West Coast offenses that were en vogue for a while before fading away?

I definitely think it will continue to change, but I also think it’s here to stay. I think the game has become a lot faster from the standpoint of putting people in space and letting them make plays. I don’t think that we’ll consistently see people lining up with a full house backfield, handing the ball to a guy who’s running downfield. I think that part of the game is definitely valuable. You can have some advantages doing that today, because people don’t recruit defensively to stop teams that pound the ball at you. But I don’t think the spread offenses are going anywhere for a while.

You left Stephenville to become running backs coach at Texas Tech. That was the same year Mike Leach arrived in Lubbock. What was it like working with Mike? How similar is your offensive philosophy to his?

We were on the ground floor of the Texas Tech process. Spike [Dykes] had done a great job there for many years. I think at that time, they had been to a bowl nine of the past ten years. That situation has continued there since then. The thing about Leach and his philosophy – like with Hal Mumme at Kentucky, Al Wesland at Valdosta – is it’s set, it’s patternized, and you do what you do. The thing I was impressed about was they had what they had, they believed in it, and it was successful for them.

Did the spread really evolve from the single-wing?

Brian Cook thinks so, but I’m not so sure. The idea that the spread, or, even just Gus Malzahn’s offense in particular, “is a modern-day version of the single wing” is overdone. (To be fair, the Judy Battista’s NY Times piece focuses on the wildcat, which I do think has a great deal in common with the single-wing.)

But Cook’s point is broader and, I think, flawed. He gives several reasons why Malzahn’s O in particular is like the single-wing, saying the single-wing

  • incorporates many possible different ball carriers that head in different directions.
  • uses misdirection as the primary way to acquire big plays. It’s not “keeping the defense honest” so you can run your bread and butter without the opponent cheating, it’s an attempt make the defense confused on every play.
  • often features a primary ball handler who spins wildly to set up playfakes heading in opposite directions.
  • depends on sowing confusion and can be vulnerable to teams that are well-drilled at stopping it.

These reasons assuredly apply to Malzahn’s offense, but do they apply to the single-wing? Not really, or at least they aren’t its foundation. The single wing was primarily (though not always, of course) about using overwhelming force to one side of a formation. So the spread’s major similarity to the single-wing is mostly relegated to the shotgun and the fact that the quarterback is not an irrelevant handoff man, but instead has an active role in the run game. (H/t for the image FootballBabble.)

single

And the rest of Brian’s points don’t seem to apply. The single-wing was not a big play offense (have you seen the scores from back then?), instead relying on steady gains from its power runs. Indeed, most plays resembled rugby scrums, which made sense given football’s original roots. Some single-wing teams used a lot of ballcarriers — and I guess everything uses “a lot of ballcarriers” if the comparison is a Woody/Bo I-formation offense where one guy gets 35 carries a game — but it wasn’t a major feature. Playfaking was important but no more so than in other offenses, and certainly not as much as it is to offenses like the Wing-T. (And I don’t know about  the single-wing being known for fakes involving “spinning wildly,” though various forms of the “spin” offense were invented decades later). And, although defensive discipline is helpful against any offense, the cornerstone of the single wing was the “student body right” type play behind the unbalanced line and blocking backs to the “single wing” side. There’s no misdirection to be snuffed out by a disciplined defense there; it’s called bowl your opponent over to get four yards. Below is video of an older school single-wing; I think it’s evident that it’s a little more straightforward than Brian’s four points would imply.

The upshot is that yes, the single-wing was a shotgun formation, yes it used some misdirection (all offenses do), and yes it’s old, but that doesn’t make it the sole inspiration for today’s spread or even Malzahn’s offense. Modern fans, including Brian, have understandably mapped their understanding of the offenses they see on a weekly basis onto the past and see a direct correlation, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Certainly, the coaches who developed today’s modern offenses, like Rodriguez and Malzahn, did not spend their time meticulously studying the single-wing tapes of yesteryear. Instead, if there are similarities it’s because those coaches stumbled onto the same ideas through trial and error.

So where did the spread come from? The basic answer is simple, though to catalogue all the influences would go on for days: the spread is a synthesis of most of the great ideas that came before it. It owes some principles to the single-wing, but it also owes its debts to the double-wing, a few Wing-T principles, the veer option squads, the run and shoot, and modern pro-style passing attacks. This makes sense, given that defenses, once they have countered something, do not forget, though at the same time an offense’s effectiveness is often contingent on how experienced the opponent’s coaches and players are to facing it. The “spread,” which is an overbroad term anyway, puts a new twist on a lot of what came before it.

But to say it is confined to being the “modern day version” of any one of those past offenses ignores too much football history to be a plausible interpretation. Like much football commentary, the analysis isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete.

Strategery round-up – 6/21/2010

Good links all related to football strategy, though we begin with a video of Gus Malzahn’s Auburn O, via Offensive Musings:

- Defending the bunch. If a defense plays a lot of man coverage, you can bet that the offense (if they have any sense, anyway) will quickly start using “bunch” or “compressed” formations. Anyone who has ever played backyard football can give the answer: it’s much easier to get open if your defender can get “screened” by congestion of some sort — either your teammate running a “legal screen” (versus, ahem, an illegal pick which no one ever does, right?) or even some cluster of receivers and defenders. Defenses, not to outdone by such offensive wizardry, have responses, summed up well in posts by RUNCODHIT and Blitzology.

Unsurprisingly, discipline is a key factor. Blitzology covers some mechanics, while RUNCODHIT adds some background:

[Y]ou can’t run press-man on both WRs[;] alignment won’t allow you to. Also, to run straight man against reduced splits is suicide. The offense will pick you off and open-up a WR to the inside or outside. Because of this threat, defenses have to stay in pure-zone or combo-man coverage.

And,

versus the run 3-way [coverage] places the [strong safety] in a position to force the ball inside. The corner is assigned play-pass responsibility, and the [free-safety] is a flat-foot read player . . . . Against the pass the . . . [strong safety] has the first man to the flat. If no one attacks it, he sinks under the first WR outside. The corner[back] has the first deep route outside — he is going to [back]pedal on the pass and read the WRs. The FS has the first man deep inside. His technique is essentially the same as the corners’. If a deep receiver does not show in or out, then they play a “zone it” technique and help their partner.

3-way coverage

Bonus: Check out RUNCODHIT on “Pattern Reading vs. Zone Dropping” and Blitzology’s series on attacking BOB or Big on Big pass protection. (I’ve described the principles of this protection here.) Series parts one, two, three, and BOB vs. the 3-4 defense.

- Think you have what it takes to be an NFL guy? Check out this Slate article on the work ethic of NFL coaches. The answer — it’s about managing people, as much as it is about strategizing and ideas:

What exactly does a head coach do for 23 hours every day? . . . Imagine telling George Halas that he should have worked 20-hour days. He would have laughed you out of his office, then gone back to inventing the T-formation. No matter how many variations on the spread offense you come up with, it’s still the spread offense, not Fermat’s Last Theorem. . . . The guy with the biggest whistle has a fleet of coordinators and position coaches that handle all the grunt work, from conditioning to game-planning to skill-training. . . . Instead, the coach functions as a sort of CEO, coordinating large-scale strategic planning while ensuring all members of his organization perform competently. Viewed through that lens, this endemic insomnia shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, CEOs fetishize waking up early just as much as football coaches. . . .

- Screenery strategery. If you’re going to spread the ball out or throw the ball at all, day one is usually spent working on the basics of passing: timing, quarterback drops, rhythm, catching, and the basic routes. Day two, however, goes to screens, those little gadget plays that, particularly at the lower levels, make being a pass first team really worth it. These impressive little suckers manage a quite impressive trifecta: (1) they are easy to complete (and maybe should be thought of as runs rather than passes), which can build your quarterback’s confidence and allow you to get the ball to your playmakers in space; (2) they are often your best weapon against aggressive, blitzing defenses, which can otherwise overwhelm young players just learning how to throw the ball efficiently; and (3) unlike a lot of passing-related concepts, these make heavy use of misdirection, that great equalizer between teams of greater and lesser talent.

In that vein, two great primers out there are Mike Emendorfer’s UW-Platteville screen presentation and this recent post from Brophy’s blog.

- Football and math, oh my. Good post on the basics of “football math” — i.e. who and where do you attack. Here’s a test: Where would you attack in these two situations?

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How small schools navigate conference realignment

I haven’t yet posted anything on conference realignment yet, which is something I want to correct — though I admit I’m kind of glad I didn’t write a premature excursus on Texas’s and Oklahoma State’s strategic impact on the Pac-10 or how Will Muschamp would defend Oregon’s spread or how Ohio State would deal with Missouri’s. But the obvious (and most useful) angle to the realignment discussion treats the debate as about business decisions by very profitable entities, with the most coveted being the most profitable entities (Notre Dame and Texas, really). This angle has been much considered.

Yet the more interesting and less focused upon question is to think about what you would have done if you were one of these little guys to be left behind? Arguably nobody handled the realignment issue better — at least once factoring in the relative strength of their bargaining position — than Baylor, whose strong lobbying efforts (coupled with a lucrative TV deal for Texas) helped save the Big 12.

Thus, when I caught an item on the WSJ’s Deal Journal blog I was intrigued. The piece was “Football M&A: How One Small School Navigated Conference Realignment, about how Rice dealt with the demise of the old SWC and found itself in the WAC. It’s worth quoting most of it in full:

How do [small schools] play their M&A strategy when terms are being dictated by the bigger, richer, more winning schools?

Deal Journal tracked down Bobby May, the now-retired athletic director at Rice University who shepherded the Owls through the death of the Southwest Conference in the early to mid-90s to the Western Athletic Conference and, finally, to their current home in the Conference USA.

Then, as now, the culprit behind conference realignment was money, though in the SWC’s case it was how difficult and costly it was getting for its private schools (Baylor, Rice, SMU and TCU) to compete with schools subsidized by the state (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Oklahoma), among other factors.

May is a Rice man through and through. He was a student from 1961-65, came back in 1967 as an assistant track coach, ascended through the athletic department and serving as AD from 1989 to 2006. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Deal Journal: When you were caught up in this, was Rice, as one of the smaller schools in the SWC, trying to be proactive, or did you have to wait to see how the chips fall and then make your move?

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