The most tepid defense of scouting you’ll ever read

The above is the title of my new piece, available over at the NY Times Fifth Down. Thanks to everyone over there for putting it up. Feel free to post comments here, where it is easier for me to respond.

Visual evidence of the evolution of the spread offense

Compare Woody Dantzler running the Clemson Tigers offense under coordinator Rich Rodriguez:

…with the new school spread from Oregon, coached by Chip Kelly:

It’s not quite fair to draw major conclusions off comparing just these two teams, coached by different guys, but I see some themes that emerge:

  1. A wider variety of sets. Clemson uses only a couple of formations — mostly two-by-two with four receivers — while Oregon uses three receivers and a lot of sets with H-backs and tight-ends. Indeed, if there’s one change I can point to about the newest spread offenses is that they are less spread. Guys like Chip Kelly and Gus Malzahn use tight-ends as often as pro-style teams, though they integrate them into their offenses in slightly different fashion.
  2. A wider variety of reads. Much of the development in the spread run game has been to counteract advanced defense reactions to the zone-read, like the “scrape exchange.” A lot of Clemson’s runs aren’t reads at all, and rely on the surprise element of having the quarterback run at all, whereas Oregon employs significantly more deception and movement in the backfield, and the reads go well beyond the old “read the defensive end” of the zone read. Instead, they include reads of the defensive tackle and the outside linebacker for bubble screens built into the play.
  3. Increased polish of footwork and fakes. Chip Kelly does an excellent job of coaching his quarterbacks and runningbacks to carry out their fakes and to emphasize them, whereas with Clemson everything was so new the threat alone was often enough. (Rodriguez’s teams, especially at West Virginia, got very good at this as well.)
  4. Increased emphasis on “power” schemes. In the spread’s nascent days, almost all the runs were based off the inside and outside zones, with a few simple reads. And Rodriguez’s teams still emphasize the zone, much like some pro teams do. But other teams, including Oregon, have meshed spread principles like QB reads and an integration of slot receivers and a focus on angles and leverage in blocking with traditional “power” schemes, like the “Power O” and “Counter Trey.”

Those are the major themes I notice. Feel free to add your own in the comments. One thing I will add though is that the Clemson clip contains my favorite play out of those shown in the videos above — the “play-action” pass from no-back where the quarterback dips down as if it was a QB Draw and instead fires a pass downfield. Call it the predecessor to the “jump pass.

Smart Links 4/16/2010

- Jon Gruden with Tim Tebow: Nothing too dramatic here — and who knows if it will hold up when the lights are on — but Tebow’s throwing motion looks pretty smooth here to me. If nothing else just further evidence that the kid will work to improve anything you tell him is a weakness. Again, we’ll see if he can really fix a motion he’s had since he was at least 16, but he’s clearly worked at it. Footwork looked pretty solid too. (If I was running a team, I’d consider him as a third-to-fourth rounder and get him into camp and make him work on this stuff for the next year.) As a bonus, see here for Gruden tearing Colt McCoy down pretty good. And he’s right — even about the accent stuff — though there’s no reason the NFL playcall should be as long as it is. (McCoy remains a better pro prospect at the moment than Tebow.)

- Do football writers know football? To be fair, reporters need to be experts on different things, and being a beat reporter and Xs and Os guru is not really realistic. That said, one reason I write is to try to provide a window into strategy and analysis, and that is important to the average fan is because so much sports commentary is about assigning credit and blame, if you don’t understand what the coaches were trying to do or you don’t understand what the players were being asked to do, it is hard to know who to praise and who to chide. (Also see this post for Orson Swindle.)

- Can Charlie Strong succeed at Louisville? I say yes, but (a) it will take a few or two to undo the Kragthorping, and (b) Strong will find that he and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford (former Utah OC with Meyer) won’t be able to just run the Florida O at Louisville; it’ll have to evolve.

- The secret of the Airraid: “distilled offense.” (H/t Brophy.) Lede: “Talk to a few players and you’ll get the impression that Louisiana Tech’s old playbook was the college football equivalent of War and Peace. The new playbook? It’s more like a pamphlet. That’s if you could even call it a playbook. The players don’t necessarily refer to what they’re running as plays, but ‘concepts.’ Change a few details and a single concept grows into an offensive attack that looks overwhelming to opposing defenses, but could be executed by the Bulldogs with their eyes closed.”

- The “greatest play in football”?

- Why yes, the NCAA is quite interested in Reggie Bush’s testimony.

- Tips on running the option.

- The West Virginia Mountaineers will honor the 29 coal miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion by wearing helmet decals with a white circle with 29 in the middle. (H/t WizOfOdds.)

- Defending the counter-trey. (You can find a quick primer on the counter trey here.)

- Why blitz?

- Did Ohio State steal Oregon’s signals in the Rose Bowl?

- Doc Sat on Brian Kelly.

- Sorkin vs. Krugman

- And as an addendum, I have a lengthy piece on the NFL for the NY Times online on Monday; I will link to it when it is up. I also have some other topics I’d like to finish this weekend and schedule this week. Once I do I will post a schedule of what to expect on the blog this week.

Paul Johnson usin’ some shotgun

The word coming out of Georgia Tech spring practice is PJ is dabbling in some shotgun. I’m not surprised, especially because one of the biggest issues for Tech last year when they did want to pass was protecting Josh Nesbitt, and the report is that the Jackets “mostly threw” out of it. Indeed, Paul Johnson used some ‘gun back in the Hawai’i days. (H/t EDSBS.)

But don’t think that Paul Johnson can’t run his offense from the gun. As I’ve mentioned previously, it’s perfectly possible to run the same flexbone system from shotgun as from under center. One somewhat well known brand is the “Skee-gun” (or “Ski-gun”), named after Muskegon, MI high school. Below is video of their pistol shotgun based flexbone offense.

Pitches:

QB Keeps:

Give reads: (After the jump)
(more…)

Smart Notes 3/30/2010

West Virginia coach Bill Stewart singing is, well, a, um, sight to behold (h/t EDSBS):

- Nick Saban to use Julio Jones some at safety. Seriously. But I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. As high school coaches have long recognized: your best players have to play.

- How cold are Big Ten football games? The Daily Gopher concludes that “[t]he words “freezing” and “frozen” were completely inappropriate for describing Big Ten football in 2009.”

cold

But — what about a comparison with other conferences? And, as a Big Ten alumnus myself, I can say I’ve been to some very cold football games. Finally, I think one thing that skews the analysis it that in the midwest it simply gets colder sooner than, say, the southeast or west coast. As the chart shows, on October 10th, hardly the dead of winter, there were two games in the low 30s and three more in the 40s. If it’s 65-70 degrees in Georgia or Miami, it’s still fair to say that it’s cold in Big Ten country.

- Speaking of Big Ten country, will Paul Petrino be able to turn around the Illini offense? Last year I speculated about whether former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Schulz, newly hired from TCU, would be able to improve upon or expand on Mike Locksley’s success (I use that term generously) with Juice Williams. It turns out the answer was a resounding no (while TCU seemed to hardly miss Schulz, who was banished to Middle Tennessee State). The Zooker has kept his job, and managed to score what I thought was a pretty good pick as offensive coordinator: Bobby Petrino’s brother, Paul Petrino. This move made more sense to me for Zook than it did Petrino, as another dismal season and Paul’s hopes of joining his brother as a head coach of a BCS school might be seriously derailed. (Though I’d wager there’s always a position open on Bobby’s staff, just as there was for former mentor and Michigan State cast off John L. Smith.)

Petrino brings to Illinois a pro-style offense, and one that actually deserves the name because of the heavy resemblance to the pros and multiple nature. And if outgoing coordinator Schulz’s modus operandi was to “spread the wealth,” the brothers Petrino have summed up their offense as “FTS — Feed the Studs,” something that probably would have worked better with Arrelious Benn around. I have to think Illinois will improve on offense simply because Paul will bring more coherence, but with so many stalwart players gone and the state of the Zooker’s program being so perilous, it’s hard to say.

But who knows, maybe in the Janus-like Big Ten, where teams are either spread-happy or old school grinders, a pro-style, multiple attack can work wonders.

- Socialized football? Not that football. From The Guardian: The British “is to unveil radical proposals that would give football fans first option to buy their clubs when they were put up for sale and require clubs to hand over a stake of up to 25% to supporters’ groups. The ideas, due to be included in the Labour manifesto with a promise of action in the first year of a new government, are designed to give fans a far greater say in how their football clubs are run and overhaul the way the game is governed.”

- Brian Cook takes neither side in the Tebow-Fowler dust-up, and thus comes out ahead.

- Josh Cribbs is very romantic. And by that I mean, well, not really very romantic.

- David Warsh gets meta about bloggers and journalists. It’s a good piece, though I fear it’s that time of the year when the offseason really hits and everyone wants to write about writing and blog about blogging.

- Go Kentucky: The entire U.S. population in 1790, a bit under 4 million, is less than the 2008 population of Kentucky.

Smart Notes 3/26/2010

More influential books lists:
- Kyle King
- Tom Gower
- Carlin (The Marlin)
- Walter
- Zach

- The NFL’s new overtime rule. So far, opinion is split. The coaches appear the most unhappy. Brian Burke offers some thoughts. For my part, I am mostly confused as to why they went with this complicated system; I’ve yet to wrap my brain around the decisional nuances that will be present with giving teams the chance to “match” and so on. The old sudden death system already skewed the touchdown and field goal numbers, since (a) teams in field goal range usually settled for a field goal, but (b) sometimes a demoralized defense gave up a cheap touchdown when the offense had the ball in obvious field goal range. Now, the team with the ball will face a big decision whether to go for the touchdown, particularly by increasing their odds of scoring a touchdown by going for it on fourth down, or playing conservatively. And the team that gets the ball second will have plenty of incentive to go for the touchdown and be aggressive — but I anticipate most will settle for the field goal.

So I think there are only two things we can, right now, say with certainty about the new plan: (1) almost any statistics you hear on TV about how often the team who gets the ball first or second wins will be misleading because there are so many factors at play, and (2) it will likely succeed in making overtime last a little longer on average, which I take to be the overall goal anyway. Whether the system is any fairer in practice is probably besides the point: if the team that won the toss gets a field goal, you can say the other team “got a shot,” and if they get a touchdown, everyone will use truisms about “stopping them.” The measure ameliorates debate, but it doesn’t solve issues.

- Jump on the Coach Kill bandwagon. Northern Illinois’s football coach loves football, corn cobs, his own face, and THUNDERSTIX, and hates Toledo, Wisconsin, and your kids.

- Nick Saban doesn’t want to hear about “repeats.” Via Doc Sat: “Saban would disagree with that “defending” part. He’d say that last year’s team is no more because so many important elements of that team are gone, and to say this next group of football players is defending anything is incorrect because this particular group hasn’t won anything to defend.”

This is basically an argument of necessity: How do you get 18-21 year olds to handle success, particularly when several if not many of the major contributors are no longer around? Saban is well-known for championing the “process” over the results or even end-goals, and we’ll see if his approach succeeds better than another coach’s recent attempt to deal with the same “entitlement” phenomena.

- St. Mary’s football pedigree. From The Quad:

[T]he most significant victory in St. Mary’s history came in a sport the college no longer plays — football.

In the 1920s and ’30s, the Gaels had one of the best teams in the nation under Edward Madigan, known as Slip, a Knute Rockne protégé….

St. Mary’s, then an all-male college, beat the Rose Bowl champion of the 1927 season, Stanford, and the 1931 season, Southern California, which won the national championship that season. In 1933, the Gaels had the third-largest attendance in the nation.

Their biggest win, though, came in New York in 1930 when they traveled east and ended the 16-game winning streak of Fordham with a 20-12 victory after trailing by 12-0 at halftime.

On the eve of that game, Madigan threw a party in New York that included Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and the politician Al Smith. After the game, the team traveled to Washington, as it had planned, and received an invitation from President Herbert Hoover, a Stanford graduate, to visit the White House — perhaps the first sports team to be celebrated there.

- Rex in the City: The HBO series “Hard Knocks” will follow the New York Jets this fall. But isn’t there a risk of giving away information by having cameras and a film crew troll your practices, while having no editorial control? Not to Jets Coach Rex Ryan:

Would the Jets leak information about players and schemes that opponents might latch onto for future use? Ryan shrugged it off. Giving away a play or a coverage, Ryan said, would not be included in the final version of the show.

“I think, you know — I trust, you know, let’s just throw a guy out there — anybody,” Ryan said, pausing, a gleam in his eye. “Bill Belichick. Let’s just throw him out there.”

The room erupted in laughter at the mention of the New England Patriots’ intelligence-gleaning coach, before Ryan said: “He’s going to do his due diligence. He’s going to do his work, anyway. He’s going to have a huge opinion on our players, one way or the other.”

Indeed, having the brash Ryan as coach had nothing to do with HBO selecting the Jets…

“We have our Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in Rex Ryan,” Ross Greenburg, the president of HBO Sports, said. “Absolutely,” Ryan said.

- The effect of shooting angle in basketball. (more…)

More “influential” book lists

A quick rundown of more book lists, either in response to my list or to others’. The following are lists by:

- Aaron Nagler

- Matt Hinton

- Tyler of The Lions in Winter

- OldSouth

- Dave of Pigskin Punditry

- Trent of Howling with Mirth

- Nathan Matthew

- Kieran Healy

- Ivar Hagendoorn

- Matt Yglesias

And, though it’s not a most influential list, this is Brophy’s recent reading list. And I am still waiting on some other prominent sports bloggers to chime in. Don’t be afraid of being judged, in our little sarcastic, self-referential, self-deprecating world.

Books that have influenced me most

The idea for this came from Marginal Revolution. This list is based on gut, rather than deep thinking, and I will admit that I had to keep in mind that I am writing for a football audience here as I composed it.  These are in no particular order, and, because the idea is “influence,” there is a tilt towards books I read when I was younger. Here is a list of 10 book, with only slight fudging:

1. The Bunch Attack: Using Compressed Formations in the Passing Game by Andrew Coverdale and Dan Robinson, and Coaching Team Defense, by Fritz Shurmur. The book by Coverdale and Robinson showed me what was possible in terms of analyzing football and building a coherent system off a set of concepts and expanding them to whatever the defense throws at you. The Shurmur book, obviously focused on the other side of the ball, showed me how to take a set of very understandable principles and to think about how they can be taught and applied over and over again.

2. The Collected Short Stories of F.Scott Fitzgerald. This one for personal reasons, but, even when the stories occasionally sag or retread old material, the sentences remain among the best you’ll ever read. Fitzgerald is best read when you’re young.

3. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis. I would expect most sports bloggers to include this one. The only sports book I truly love, and, to be honest, it’s only sort of about sports. Undoubtedly Smart Football, like Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats, and many others, owe a lot to Lewis’s book, as my reaction to reading it was probably the same as many others’ (and mine was not cynical): (a) this guy can write brilliantly (I’d already read Liar’s Poker); (b) the lack of a rational, data-driven approach to sports is exactly what is wrong with it, so the book is a breath of fresh air; and (c) I want to expand on these ideas, including by applying them to footbal.? The other thing I appreciated was the intellectual history of ideas from Bill James to being used in clubhouses. This strongly influenced me, as I am generally uninterested in stats for their own sake — thus excluding most discussion — and am primarily interested in decisions and decisionmaking of all sorts, and how that can be improved.

4. The Essential Holmes: Selections from the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., edited by Richard Posner. I think the man influenced me more than the book itself — the sheer largeness and breadth of his thoughts and interests is overwhelming, and his incessant skepticism leaves its impression — but the best evidence we have of the man is in these scattered writings. This also showed me that even the best thinkers can have badly flawed ideas, but also that, by implication, a reticence to share one’s ideas leads nowhere.

5. Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter Bernstein. There are other books about the importance of probability (Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets is another) but this one, by showing how innovations in thinking about probability has improved society throughout history, also shows how the ability to think probabilistically can improve your own decisions.

6. The Essential Dialogues of Plato and Plato’s Republic. I read these when I was fairly young, and, while Plato had some bizarre ideas, I still know of no other works more bound to inspire deeper thinking on the part of the reader than these.

7. Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. Although not easy to describe or explain, I think of this novel more than any other I’ve read, especially as I age.

8. Finding the Winning Edge, by Bill Walsh. It reminds me of Richard Posner’s Economic Analysis of Law, in that in both works the author has one very large, very important idea and he applies it to everything in sight. This is intended as a compliment.

9. A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell. Several of these essays remain among the greatest I’ve ever read, and I continue to refer to them. Like Holmes, Orwell was quite pragmatic and skeptical (though Holmes believed in a Darwinian-esque version of laissez-faire while Orwell was a socialist), but Orwell’s ability to write, mock, amuse, and argue — often all at once — remain, for me, unparalleled.

10. Thus Spake Zarathustra, by Friedrich Nietzsche. Like many of the other books on this list I read this when I was young and, also like many of the other books on this list, it got me very excited about ideas and how to think about them. More than the other thinkers, however, Nietzsche appealed to my (somewhat) adolescent desire to proclaim others else wrong about a great number of things. If I did a careful analysis of my current views they would differ markedly from Nietzsche’s, but I don’t think you read his works simply so you can agree with him. For analysis of Nietzsche, I also remember reading Joan Stambaugh’s The Other Nietzsche and thinking it a excellent, but that was a number of years ago and I don’t currently have a copy of the book. (And of course there is Brian Leiter’s Nietzsche blog.)

I’m sure there are other books I have left out, but this will have to do for now. The list is also light on fiction, which is more a function of having defined the list as “influence” than it is the fact that fiction hasn’t influenced me; it’s likely that the fiction has influenced me more than non-fiction (Invisible Man comes to mind), even if that influence is tougher to pin down. You can read lists by a few others here, here, and here.

I would really like to see the lists of other bloggers, sports bloggers in particular. So I encourage others to offer similar lists. Feel free to post links to them in the comments.

Sentences to ponder

From the Pro-Football Reference Blog:

[Imagine w]e have two teams that both average a whopping 14 yards per attempt. One team completes 100% of its passes; the other 50% (for 28 yards per completion). If I were to model those two, it seems pretty clear that the team that completes 100% would score more. They would score on virtually every possession, only failing to score in limited cases where their 3 consecutive completions net 9 or fewer yards. The 50% team would also score a lot, but string together a few more droughts. I suspect my 100% completion team with 14 yards per attempt would average about 60 points a game, while the 50% completion team would average closer to 50.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have two teams that average 3 yards per [pass] attempt. If one of those teams completed 100% of their passes, they would struggle to maintain drives or even get them started [or would routinely end on 4th and 1...], while a 25% completion team would occasionally string together first downs and get into scoring range. Neither would score much at all, but if I were forced to watch both teams for 24 hours straight as punishment for all my transgressions, I’d take the team with the yards per completion to win in a non-shootout.

slots

And later in the piece:

[I]t is pretty clear that the QB’s in a Don Coryell-based offense (Fouts, all of the Redskins QBs of the 1980′s and early 1990′s, and the Rams and Chiefs recently) are undersold by passer rating relative to adjusted net yards per attempt in terms of the value they provided, and the West Coast passers are oversold, and its because of the different philosophies as they affect completion percentage.

Bill Parcells’ four rules for drafting a quarterback

As announced on Monday Night Football, via Blatant Homerism:

  1. He must be a senior, because you need time and maturity to develop into a good professional quarterback.
  2. He must be a graduate, because you want someone who takes his responsibilities seriously.
  3. He must be a three-year starter, because you need to make sure his success wasn’t ephemeral and that he has lived as “the guy” for some period of time.
  4. He must have at least 23 wins, because the big passing numbers must come in the context of winning games.

Blatant Homerism also notes that, of the seven quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl in the 2000s, five — Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning and Trent Dilfer — met all four requirements when drafted.

So readers, discuss: When drafting a quarterback are these non-negotiables, helpful guideposts, or completely irrelevant?