Madden 11 to scout your games — and sell others the reports

That’s the headline of this piece about the newest entry to the Madden franchise, via an interview the development team did with ESPN. From the article:

Madden NFL 11 will log every play you call online, building a book on your tendencies that will available, in-game, to any multiplayer opponent. While the reports can be earned or unlocked, they can also be bought for cash. . . .

EA Sports’ Madden team revealed the new scouting reports feature today in an extensive discussion with ESPN’s Jon Robinson. Tendencies like your opponent’s run-to-pass playcalling ratio, the side of the field it’s run to, the side of the field his defense targets, will be redeemable through a coin system – one coin per scouting report – and coins may be earned for free by playing online games – and completing them. Coins can also be purchased for cash (or Microsoft Points) for those short on funds but needing intel fast. Finally, every retail copy of Madden 11 comes with access to 50 free scouting reports.

Sounds like a lot, but there are 45 separate tendency reports you can get access to, although you can buy the entire batch for 25 coins pre-game. But yes, that means you have to pay to see the book on yourself – such as the fact you always go to a slot receiver over the middle on third-down (raises hand) and everyone knows it.

There was no mention of how many coins it would take to buy a single report, nor of how much reports would cost in real-world cash or Microsoft points.

Money issues aside, that is pretty interesting. From a behavior/decision standpoint, I’m not sure how useful it will be. I would like a general view of whether a guy is a run guy or a pass guy (and maybe an inside run versus outside, and short passes versus longer), but anyone intelligent will build up tendencies (run right) and then destroy opponents who overcompensate by breaking the tendencies. As always, it’s a game theory thing: I’m less interested in the scouting report than the reactions to the scouting reports.

What I’ve been reading

- 2010 Nike Coach of the Year Manual. Self-recommending. The two articles on Alabama’s defense — one by Kirby Smart, the other by Saban himself — are alone worth the price.

The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home, by Dan Ariely. I just ordered this and it is, of course, self-recommending. The Kindle edition is a bit pricey for an e-version, but I guess we have Steve Jobs and the iPad to thank for that. In any event, Ariely’s new book looks like a worthwhile successor to his earlier great work, Predictably Irrational.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis. Worth the read, as everything by Lewis is. My only complaint was, as someone who had read most of his magazine pieces in Portfolio, Vanity Fair, and so on, that I found a lot of overlap with those earlier pieces. But the overlap stopped around 80 pages in, and at that point the narrative took off — funny, insightful, and easy to read. It’s also quite timely: the trades described in the SEC’s complaint against Goldman Sachs take a very similar form to the trades described in Lewis’s book (though obviously Lewis doesn’t claim to know what Goldman was telling the people they did their trades with). Plus the Kindle edition is finally out.

Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, by Liaquat Ahamed. A wonderful narrative following the world’s most prominent central bankers from the end of World War I up until World War II — from the United States, Germany, France, and Great Britain. Ahamed gracefully mixes history with personality while he describes the blunders these men made, first while operating under the system of post-WWI reparations and second by hewing the gold standard despite all the evidence. (With John Maynard Keynes frequently appearing as gadly, before of course he had actually invented Keynesian economics.) It took me a bit to finish this as I put it down a few times and got busy but I highly recommend it.

12 Modern Philosophers, edited by Christopher Belshaw and Gary Kemp. This is book is not exactly self-recommending: it’s a collection of introductory but nonetheless academic essays about, well, twelve modern philosophers. From the introduction: “There are 12 philosophers represented here, all writing in English, and all of them active in the last third of the twentieth century…. They are all highly important figures in philosophy now: widely read, initiators of debate. Are they the top 12 philosophers of our time? Of course we make no such claim. But were someone to give a list of, say, the 20 key players, then, probably, the 12 here would be among them.” So far so good for me; the essays on Quine, Rawls, and Rorty were good, but I am admittedly deficient in the ways of analytic philosophers, and the non-linear nature of a book of essays by different people is both a good thing (can jump around), and a bad thing (some essays drag, and little incentive to move on to the next one after finishing the last).

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy. Brutal and haunting, McCarthy’s writing is something like if you made Nabokov use Ernest Hemingway’s sentence structures. I’m not sure I want to borrow McCarthy’s dark worldview (or his lack of commas), but it’s a great read. And, if it means anything, Harold Bloom considers it one of the best books of the 20th century and a work of “genius.”

Supreme Court gives NFL the Terry Tate treatment

The NFL, having convinced both a district court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that it was a “single-entity” for anti-trust purposes and thus exempt from anti-trust liability under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to make that the law of the land for the entire country. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for a unanimous court, said simply:

Actually that was Terry Tate, but the message was basically the same: NFL, you’ve overreached — you can’t transform 32 disparate, separately owned teams into a single-entity simply by setting up a joint venture, National Football League Properties or NFLP. For background, I’ve written about the case several times (where I confidently predicted that the NFL would lose), and the NY Times explains the posture well:

The case was brought by American Needle, an apparel maker from Illinois that lost its contract with the league when the N.F.L. entered into an exclusive 10-year, $250 million deal with Reebok in late 2000 to produce hats, jerseys and other league-branded merchandise.

American Needle argued that the league’s deal with Reebok violated antitrust law because the N.F.L. was a collection of individually owned teams that compete with one another, not a single entity able to negotiate contracts on behalf of its teams. By striking a deal with Reebok, the league effectively conspired to stifle competition, the company argued.

American Needle appealed to the Supreme Court….

In rejecting the position of the NFL (and that of the various other leagues who filed briefs in support of the NFL), the Court explained (I’ve removed the citations):

“Every contract, combination in the form of a trust or otherwise, or, conspiracy, in restraint of trade” is made illegal by §1 of the Sherman Act. The question whether an arrangement is a contract, combination, or conspiracy is different from and antecedent to the question whether it unreasonably restrains trade. This case raises that antecedent question about the business of the 32 teams in the National Football League (NFL) and a corporate entity that they formed to manage their intellectual property…


“[S]ubstance, not form, should determine whether a[n] . . . entity is capable of conspiring under §1.” This inquiry is sometimes described as asking whether the alleged conspirators are a single entity. That is perhaps a misdescription, however, because the question is not whether the defendant is a legally single entity or has a single name; nor is the question whether the parties involved “seem” like one firm or multiple firms in any metaphysical sense… The relevant inquiry, therefore, is whether there is a “contract, combination . . . or conspiracy” amongst “separate economic actors pursuing separate economic interests,” such that the agreement “deprives the marketplace of independent centers of decision-making” and therefore of “diversity of entrepreneurial interests.”

In applying this framework, the Court rejected the NFL and lower courts’ rationale that the NFL is a “single-entity” because the NFL is seems like a single-entity in what it termed a “metaphysical sense,” simply because you need multiple teams and hence cooperation to play a football game:

Each of the teams is a substantial, independently owned, and independently managed business. “[T]heir general corporate actions are guided or determined” by “separate corporate consciousnesses,” and “[t]heir objectives are” not “common.”… Directly relevant to this case, the teams compete in the market for intellectual property. To a firm making hats, the Saints and the Colts are two potentially competing suppliers of valuable trademarks. When each NFL team licenses its intellectual property, it is not pursuing the “common interests of the whole” league but is instead pursuing interests of each “corporation itself”… Decisions by NFL teams to license their separately owned trademarks collectively and to only one vendor are decisions that “depriv[e] the marketplace of independent centers of decision-making,” and therefore of actual or potential competition.

[The NFL and its teams] argue that they constitute a single entity because without their cooperation, there would be no NFL football….But that does not mean that necessity of cooperation transforms concerted action into independent action; a nut and a bolt can only operate together but an agreement between nut and bolt manufacturers is still subject to §1 analysis. Nor does it mean that once a group of firms agree to produce a joint product, cooperation amongst those firms must be treated as independent conduct. The mere fact that the teams operate jointly in some sense does not mean that they are immune.

And in a footnote, the Court summed up its rejection of the “Zen riddle: Who wins when a football team plays itself?” argument the NFL advanced:

Although two teams are needed to play a football game, not all aspects of elaborate inter-league cooperation are necessary to produce a game. Moreover, even if league-wide agreements are necessary to produce football, it does not follow that concerted activity in marketing intellectual property is necessary to produce football.

The Court of Appeals carved out a zone of antitrust immunity for conduct arguably related to league operations by reasoning that coordinated team trademark sales are necessary to produce “NFL football,” a single NFL brand that competes against other forms of entertainment. But defining the product as “NFL football” puts the cart before the horse: Of course the NFL produces NFL football; but that does not mean that cooperation amongst NFL teams is immune from §1 scrutiny. Members of any cartel could insist that their cooperation is necessary to produce the “cartel product” and compete with other products.

(Emphasis mine.) This is correct: the NFL’s position was really too bizarre to stand (hence the unanimity in rejecting it). But it’s also true that this case is not that significant: it merely overturned the ruling of one outlier lower court, and otherwise it was a narrow opinion. It did not rule out that the NFL could ultimately win the case — indeed, it sent fairly clear signals that the NFL ought to win under the “rule of reason” analysis (which again speaks to why it was so weird that the NFL wanted pure immunity in the first place). All the Court determined was that the NFL could be liable.

So it was a narrow case, likely to soon be forgotten other than as a real but relatively minor humiliation of the NFL’s upper management and legal counsel for asking the Supreme Court to take the case in the first place (a rare thing for a party that wins in a lower court). Lyle Denniston of Scotusblog explains the ho-hum nature of the case:


Smart Links and Notes 5/24/2010

Apologies to all for not posting much recently — the usual confluence of other commitments intervened, as did several commitments to write for Maple Street Press publications. Those are (mostly) done, and I have a variety of ideas for the site, and I hope to write those up and get them on the site. But for now, linkage:

Two very important posts on fourth downs. First, the Mathlete’s breakdown (available at mgoblog) of fourth down decision making is worth it for the graphs alone (see below). Also Brian at Advanced NFL Stats reposts his powerpoints about when to go for it on fourth down.

Fourth down decisionmaking chart

NFL players channel MC Hammer. I may have previously linked to this, but I recently stumbled on it again. It remains shocking:

The 78 percent number (i.e., 78% of NFL players go bankrupt within two years of retirement) is buoyed by the fact that the average NFL career lasts just three years. So, figure a player gets drafted in 2009, signs for the minimum and lasts three years in the league: He will have earned about $1.2 million in salary. Factor in taxes, cost of living and the misguided belief that there will be more years and bigger paydays down the road, and it becomes a lot easier to see how so many players struggle with money after their careers end.

Runningback by committee? TheDoc notes the apparent end of Southern Cal’s “runningback by committee” system. He quotes Lane Kiffin saying:

“We would rather not be in a big committee thing,” Kiffin said. “As a running back, you get better throughout the game because you get used to what’s going on, how is the defense playing, are we able to get the backside cuts, how are the D-tackles playing the different blocks.

“You have to get a rhythm, and so I would rather find one or two guys. So that’s our job, to figure out this fall who are those guys going to be.”

I don’t really agree; I’ve always been fine with the runningback by committee (though, admittedly, I was never a runningback forced to play in such a committee). I think different backs have different talents; wear and tear on backs adds up; I don’t believe there’s much evidence proving that runningbacks actually “improve as the game goes on” (though I’d love to see contrary evidence); and you don’t hear much complaining about a “committee approach” to rotations at other positions, especially defensive line. Moreover, I think freshness is underrated, but, in the end, at long as the backs are close in talent I don’t think it makes much of a difference (except to the players, as in a single-starter system one will reap all the benefits while the others will be relegated to back-up status). Finally, as evidenced by this post from the Mathlete, not having a returning starter at runningback doesn’t seem to hurt your chances of success at all, thus one can fairly say that, holding talent equal, the difference between using one back or another is small (though that comparison is a bit of apples to oranges).

The Wolfpistols. Holly previews the Nevada Wolfpack over at Dr Saturday.

High school athletes and concussions. From the NY Times.

- Do you know who the all-time leaders in receiving yards per game are? From the Pro-Football reference blog.

Charles Goodell: Senator, opponent of Vietnam, father to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The worst run defenses in NFL history, by the numbers.

Why do colleges have football teams? This debate rages, but I’m still waiting for hard evidence of the good (or bad) reasons for it. One view: “The evidence is mixed, but some papers find a connection between athletic achievement and student quality, or athletic achievement and alumni donations. I suspect the donor connection is the key, but we also must ask what exactly colleges and universities seek to maximize.” I suppose, having already graduated, I shouldn’t really care anymore because, even if it is bad business or scholastics (not saying that is so), I enjoy football (obviously) and get to be a free rider on whomever is paying for the team, like fans, students (many universities now require students to automatically buy in to a ticket program), donors, etc.

On those awful advertisements for colleges played unnecessarily though out football broadcasts: “If you like our football team, you’ll love our chem labs full of Asian students.”

- Is watching football worthwhile? You know, metaphysically speaking: “Dissatisfied with the academy’s somewhat elitist dismissal of sport as just another capitalist banality, Gumbrecht wants to argue that there is more to the roar of the crowd than mere tribalism. To Gumbrecht, the current mass appeal of sports represents more than the manipulation of the masses by advertising corporates. There is something almost transcendental about sport; some aesthetic quality that unites us with the Greeks, the Romans, even with the gods themselves as we admire the movement of a body, or revel in the million to one victory.” Plus, you know, you get to watch people get hit.

How QB-like does Michigan’s Denard Robinson look to you? I, like many, think that for Michigan’s offense to score like Rodriguez wants it to against in-conference foes it will have to be Denard Robinson that becomes a real quarterback. So, behold, every snap of his from Michigan’s spring game. Is he there yet? I’m not sure, though I did like the pass off the bootleg action from the under-center I at around the .40 second mark — turned his shoulders nicely on that one. (H/t mgoblog.)

Football and religion: Is the hand of God evident in a well designed screen pass?

Tebow goes in the first round to the Broncos

I like Tim Tebow as a player and I have always thought he will one day start at quarterback in the NFL — the only variables are how long it takes and how long he stays there.

What makes the discussion interesting really gets to the nature of quarterback, as opposed to almost all other positions in sports. Namely, that usually when you see these debates you’ll see them regarding whether to take a guy with great character and questionable talent, or great talent and questionable character. The thing about Tebow is that he not only has great character he actually has a great deal of talent, at least in terms of his big frame, good feet, and overall arm strength. Instead what he needs to work on is technique. Now, all rookies must work on technique, but there’s no question that quarterback is different, and at the end of the day it is throwing technique and the skill to put the ball where it must be that separates quarterbacks from citizens.

In other words, this isn’t the flipside of whether you’re drafting Lawrence Phillips or Randy Moss, two great talents who came in with character issues, or whether Tebow is another Graham Harrell or Danny Wuerffel, two guys with great character and drive but questionable ability. Instead Tebow has some design flaws in what he’s doing — which, it must be noted, have never actually done much to deter him from winning games or setting passing records — and the question is whether, given a year or two on the bench as all but the most highly drafted rookies have, he can improve his technique and marry it with his other great qualities.

So I throw it out to the readers: Don’t just tell me whether you think this was a good pick, tell me whether it’s possible to draft a guy with both talent and great character who needs to be molded into a better quarterback. And also tell me whether, if it is possible, if Denver can be that place for Tebow.

Eliminating “daylight” from the axiom “run to daylight”

[Ed. Note: This post is by Jerry Gordon, a defensive guru (and good friend of mine). He recently authored a book on the 4-3 under, Coaching the Under Front Defense.]

The only way to stop backs like Herschel Walker is to eliminate their daylight by filling all the gaps.

The term “run to daylight,” made famous by Vince Lombardi through a book named just that, became a mantra for running back coaches across the country. It is also (unsurprisingly) exactly what defensive coaches fear the most — a runningback who can see the hole and run to daylight.

I was a college running back coach for six years in the early and mid 1990s and coached a kid, Rene Ingoglia, who did a bit more than simply havet a cup of coffee with the Buffalo Bills.** I asked him what he saw when he ran the ball and how he always seemed to find the hole. He told me that all he saw were flashes of color and he simply went to the hole where there was no color.

From us defensive coaches, it is up to us to provide a solid wall of color that encompassing every possible hole or gap. Although this seems simple in theory, it is much harder than it appears. Defensive coordinators are confronted with a number of problems.

First lets take a look at the I-formation, the formation of the great running teams of yesteryear. Over the decades the I has produced some of football’s most prolific rushers, including Archie Griffin of Ohio State, O.J. Simpson of Southern Cal, and Herschel Walker of Georgia. Any defensive coordinator worth his salt has to have a plan for the I.

As you can see in the image below, an offense in the I presents seven gaps to defend.

As stated above our goal is to put a player in each gap. The problem is that the gaps are not stationary. Let’s take a look as the offensive lineman come off the ball to our left .All the gaps have moved. Each defensive player must move and still fit into his proper gap. Remember the offense know the snap count, we don’t.

In the diagram below, all our gaps have moved to our left.

In the next figure, we are aligned an under defense, which a common front against teams that have a tight end and two backs in the backfield. Under defense is generally characterized by a linebacker over the tight end, defensive ends aligned in an outside shade on the offensive tackles, a nose shaded on the center to the tight end and a defensive tackle in an outside shade away from the tight end.

The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter what front we present to the offense — all gaps must be filled with color. A motto that I picked up from is to “play defense, not defenses.” It’s more important that we play well as team than to present a ton of different defensive looks to the offense.


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.


QB Keeps:

Give reads: (After the jump)