Give that man a scholarship (just not a football one)

One of the top incoming recruits this fall for Nebraska:

And by “incoming recruit” I mean he’s the video coordinator.

Smart Links 2/27/2010

Without a Single Throw, Tebow Rules the Combine.

At the Combine: Union Will Watch Teams’ Spending.

Is “cellar door” the most beautiful phrase in the English language?

Gus Malzahn has a “secret dossier of Auburn’s most valuable intelligence.” (H/t EDSBS.)

Why the young tend to be more creative than the old. For more on the subject, see this old article by Gladwell.

Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich ‘not at maximum potential’ for spring, but still on his way.

Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett, ridin’ nerdy on broken foot.

170 year old lost letter by Descartes found.

Where’s Chang? (Gated.) For a related article, see Todd Kliman Pursues the Perfect Chef. Also, Tyler Cowen talks up China Star, Chang’s former restaurant. I have eaten there as well, and it is as advertised.

The New Yorker profiles Paul Krugman.

– Tips on writing fiction from some of the world’s best authors, from the Guardian. Read both parts one and two.

Publishing: The Revolutionary Future, from the New York Review of Books.

During Prohibition, the U.S. government poisoned its own citizens.

Tressel’s new calling: Ball control . . . passing?

Buckeye Football Analysis recently broke down Ohio State’s tactics in their Rose Bowl win over Oregon. The verdict? The Tresseller rose above his reputation as football dinosaur and outschemed famed schemer, Chip Kelly. Specifically, Tressel channeled his inner Bill Walsh by having Pryor use a lot of ball control passes, including one play Buckeye Football Analysis highlighted in particular, namely a packaged combination of “snag” to one side and “double-slants” to the other.

Packaged concepts” refers to the fact that Tressel has put different route combinations to either side: To the left he has put the double-slant combination, while to the right he has the snag combo. As BFA points out: “First, it was part of the quick passing game so it allowed Pryor to throw before the blitz came. Second, putting these routes to each side actually provided three coverage beaters.”

One of these was a simple man-blitz beater in the slants: If Oregon blitzed and played man, Pryor could immediately throw the slant. Indeed, he could do this against regular man coverage too, as he did in the clip below.

Against zones, Pryor had a few options. One was to simply hit the slants again if that’s what the defense gave him by its alignment. He does this effectively below:

Another would be to work the “snag” combo. The snag is a variant of the smash, where one point is to get a high-low with the corner route and the flat route (except now the flat is controlled by the runningback), with the added dimension of an outside receiver running the “snag” route — a one-step slant where he settles inside at 5-6 yards. This gives you a “triangle” stretch, where you have both a high/low read (corner to RB in the flat) and a horizontal read from inside to outside (snag route to the RB in the flat).

And the best part for Pryor is that these are all quick, immediate routes that (a) give him options against the blitz, and (b) provide controlled passes against zones too as the receivers settle in the voids. I don’t have any video of OSU throwing the snag side, but here is an example of the Steelers using the play to win the Super Bowl, and some Airraid/Mike Leach based cut-ups of their snag play, Y-corner (which is actually basically the same, with snag to one side and a form of double-slants to the other).

So the final question is, how does Pryor read this and know where to go? I don’t know what keys Tressel is giving Pryor, so I can only say how I would teach it. Note that both the snag combo and the double slants are both designed to attack either (a) man coverage or (b) two-deep zones, so the main key you’d give your quarterback — go one way if there is one deep safety or another if there are two — is out. This doesn’t mean it’s poorly designed, it’s just a different goal. (This is how most pro teams package snag as well.) Instead you probably give the quarterback a pre-snap key along the lines of: “go to the snag side unless…,” where the unless includes (1) a man-blitz or other man coverage where you have a good matchup (see the first video), or where the defense is just giving you the slant by alignment (the second video). From there the QB can make a judgment on whether he likes the snag or the slants based on the alignment of the linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. Another possibility, though one I probably wouldn’t use, would be to read the middle linebacker and choose whether to go to the snag side or the double slant side based on where he went. That would give you a good key on those two routes, but I wouldn’t use it because it doesn’t tell you much about the corner/flat combo or the outside slant to the other side.

Two final thoughts. One, unless it is a blitz and the quarterback can’t get it out (hence the slants), the snag is the more versatile combo as, even if the defense is in a three-deep type coverage, the “snag” receiver can usually find an open spot and get you five to six yards as an outlet. And, finally, there is a final advanced technique you could use that I plan on expanding on in the future. It is the packaged three-step and five-step combination. Basically, you put a three step drop combo to one side with a five-step to the other. The QB can look to the three step side first — which should be open versus a particular coverage as well as a blitz, as sort of an automatic hot route — then, if that’s not there, the quarterback would reset his feet for depth and swing his eyes to look for the five-step combo; here, the snag (though whether snag is three-step or five-step depends on what depth you run the receivers’ routes at). In the future I will talk about how to package this and even let the quarterback pick the three-step combination at the line.

But that is all for a later post. For now, viva la Tresselball.

Smart Notes 2/25/2010

The elder Kiffin. Despite the weirdness of his recent career path — due entirely from following his son around — Monte Kiffin remains both one of the most well-respected defensive minds in the game as well as a source of hope for the fans whose team is (currently) coached by Lane. So it is with the excellent Trojan Football Analysis, which adroitly summarizes Monte’s defensive philosophy.

2. Tebow’s motion, cont’d. Tebow is changing his release. I’m fine with this: it needed to be done, it appears (from the few clips I’ve seen) that he’s getting good coaching and things are improving, and if he didn’t the story threatened to derail him from getting drafted at all. And most importantly, if it works, he should be a better quarterback. Two points. One, realistically, Tebow just has three timelines with all this. The first is his pro day. If he can improve enough there to get drafted somewhere, then that’s a major hurdle. And then guess what? He has a long time to work on these mechanics and get better — his next two deadlines would be (a) preseason when he might play a bit, and (b) the eventual day he would get in a regular season game, which might be years hence. So while this overhaul requires a quick turnaround for his pro day, it is just one day and involves throwing in a controlled environment to receivers he knows, like Riley Cooper. (Of course, this fact that Tebow needed to learn to play pro quarterback is why I said he should have gone pro last year and sat the bench working on these mechanics all year.)

Second, the Senator rounds up the minor dust up regarding who is to blame for Tebow’s crappy throwing motion. If there must be blame for this, I blame Tebow, though I don’t think that’s really fair either. Basically, Meyer’s job was to win games, and Tebow is the all-time greatest; yes there was some spin in hiring Scott Loeffler, but Loeffler was basically told not to mess with Tebow’s motion. (And as others have pointed out, they had limited practice time together.) But Tebow regressed during his time at Florida. Here’s what I saw from Tebow, especially as a senior: Instead of trusting his footwork, his release, and his progressions, he would drop back, look for the first receiver, and then simply try to buy time and scan the field. Quite literally from one side to the other, the way you would do in a backyard game where each receiver is just making up his route. This is why he was so often late with passes; he wasn’t throwing on time. And as he became fatigued his footwork regressed and he relied on an increasingly large wind-up to try to deliver the ball with velocity. Remember, it’s much easier to have good form if you’re throwing on rhythm. Can you blame Meyer for this? To an extent, sure. But remember who you’re talking about, the most celebrated and maybe the most successful quarterback ever. A guy who won games on moxie and guile alone. This business about dropping back, scanning the field, looking for Hernandez or Cooper, and then throwing on the move with a huge wind-up became part of his game. In any event, he has time to rectify the problems, and I wish him luck in doing so.

3. HGH testing in the NFL? It’s on the table in current negotiations.

4. How do you evaluate kickers? The WSJ Numbers guy chimes in, as does the Sabermetric Research Blog:

And that just seems wrong to me. League-wide, a 51-yard field goal attempt is successful only about 55% of the time. Admittedly, Stover has been worse than that, but still, when you try something that succeeds only about half the time, and then it winds up failing, all that second-guessing isn’t really called for.

5. Bench the quarterback! It was clear that the Packers of Lombardi’s day could only rise to the top if they did one thing: bench Bart Starr. Or so says a fan letter from 1959, from Pro Football Reference Blog.

6. Fire zones. Brophy with more wisdom (and video).

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What is the proper goal for a professional sports team, profits or championships?

Professor David Zaring asks if “the high-end sports team debt burden [is] a feature of private equity?”:

And plenty of other examples exist, as Americans continue to buy up the English Premier League, as concern grows that debt financing in high end soccer (Real Madrid, AC Barcelona are almost as debt ridden, Arsenal isn’t far behind) is reaching unsustainable levels. I’ll note that the most indebted teams are the ones who have been playing in the Champion’s League finals, of late, and the least indebted ones – those would be the non-private equity owned German teams (often owned by their fans, in fact) – are not. But that too, smacks of the risk-or-insolvency strategy that, fair or not, is almost as associated with private equity strategy as is a love of debt.

And one can go further. . . . It’s armchair empiricism at best, but if I were in major league baseball, the one American sport without a salary cap, I would worry about selling another franchise to a private equity firm.

This question runs right to the core of the paradox of big time sports, with a modern financial crisis twist. For traditional businesses, there is (generally) a single primary goal: become and remain profitable, thus ensuring that you survive. Many people assume that all businesses do this well and the only issue is how to fairly distribute their profits, but if you take the longer view you’d be surprised how much turnover there is among the largest companies — many that at one time were among the largest on the planet now no longer exist. A perusal of the companies that historically made up the Dow Jones Industrial Average confirms this. So remaining profitable is a constant struggle.

On the other side, you have the teams’ professed goal: to win games and championships. Of course it’s not clear that these two interests are aligned: sure, more wins tends to result in more ticket sales and sales of merchandise, but putting out such a good product requires expensive players, expensive coaches, and expensive facilities. There’s no guarantee that the “break-even” point from a profit or business standpoint would result in championship level output. It might be to have a winning season but avoid New York Yankees levels of expenses.

This tension is not new, and the two motives have generally been able to coexist. Everyone, at least implicitly, understands that sports teams must at least make some money (just ask the USFL what it is like to have an unprofitable sports franchise), but fans and the sports media tend to turn on owners who are perceived as pursuing profits ahead of wins. The most beloved owners tend to be the ones who establish an image of being willing to spend and even lose money to see their team succeed, even if in practice that is really the case. But things have gotten more interesting in recent years.

There are a number of factors now that have not always been present in major sports. The first factor is the one that underlies them all, which is that, at least in certain sports like professional football, it would be very difficult for a franchise to actually be unprofitable. This is because the league as a whole generates massive revenues, and it redistributes much of that revenue among the various teams, including TV revenues, merchandising, and even some team specific revenues get redistributed to other teams (though that may change). Buttressing this is that, despite the high demand for professional football, the league has an effective monopoly over the sport and limits the numbers of teams.

This sounds like a strange point but think about it: The NFL limits the league to keep the revenues per team artificially high, whereas if you wanted to open up the market for football teams (i.e. if we imagine the NFL didn’t enjoy all the legal exemptions it now does to restrict who can have a team), you’d see a lot of people starting new football teams because each one, even the bad ones, enjoys profits. It’s the old supply and demand argument: if you are making big profits making widgets, eventually — unless there are significant barriers to entry — others will jump in and sell widgets too and get profits too, until the market got saturated. Don’t think others would start teams? I believe they would (though I admit this example is very artificial) as there are many geographic areas of the country without a football team and, further, football, being a sport, would attract many wealthy hobbyists. Think about horse racing: The sport of kings is profitable for very few owners despite the large purses for winning, because, to oversimplify, wealthy people can buy a horse, get it cleared, and begin competing.

The point is that NFL teams effectively make monopoly profits, which allows them more freedom to “go for winning” as opposed to always focusing on profitability. But that’s not always the case with sports leagues, as we’ve seen with European soccer and other leagues, including non-NFL football leagues.

Next, you have the imposition of the salary cap, which is a great deal for owners and a terrible one for players. Of course, that is different than saying it is bad for sports fans, because it might well be good for them (competitive balance and all that). But it’s a terrible deal for players as a whole because it makes competing for salaries a zero sum game: Assuming teams max out the salary cap (as most teams effectively do in football), each additional dollar a player earns is taken from a teammate. On the other hand, for owners it protects them from the hard business versus winning decisions owners in leagues with looser salary caps must make. In Major League Baseball, every team is compared to the Yankees and Red Sox, simply because they tend to outspend everyone else. Sure, when a lesser team wins it’s a great underdog story, and occasionally it gives rise to superior management techniques as with Moneyball, but sports contests are like wars between countries: At the end of the day, the bigger team with more resources is probably going to win.

If you combine the above two points, you have a very owner-friendly system in a league like the NFL: You have guaranteed profits from your restrictions on other entrants into the market and you have alleviated pressure from the fans and media to focus on winning by spending more because of the salary cap.

But let’s get back to Zaring’s point about debt. (more…)

That’s what I call a shootout

Back in 1990 — before the spread offense had been invented, so we’re told — Houston beat TCU 56-35 in one of the greatest aerial duels of all time. TCU’s quarterback, Matt Vogler, threw for 690 yards and five touchdowns on 44 of 79 passes. Houston’s David Klingler countered with 563 yards and seven touchdowns on 36 of 53 passing (with four interceptions). Of course, Klingler was running John Jenkins’s brand of the run and shoot. Below are the scoring drives from the first half (hat tip to Football Mastery for the vids):

See below the jump for the second half clips:
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Smart Links 2/22/2010

Last season, despite similar hype, Tennessee’s Eric Berry outshone USC’s Taylor Mays. One oft-cited flaw in Mays’s game was his over-reliance on the kill-shot — his desire to lay huge hits on receivers sometimes results in his getting out of position and either not breaking up the ball or just missing the angle. But oh, those hits were fierce.

The result, however, has been that his draft stock has fallen. As Dr Saturday notes, he went from a likely top 5 or 10 pick last year to a late first-rounder (and possibly even a second rounder) this year. But was this because Mays was freelancing, or was he coached to do it? In his words:

“I think there is some truth to [his reputation for going for too many big hits] but at the same time that is what I was coached to do. At USC, I was coached to deliver knockout shots. I have the potential athletically and mentally to catch the ball and go after the ball. In one week [at the Senior Bowl] I was able to go from only hitting receivers to going after the ball. I just want a chance to work with a coach who can help me do that.”

Doc Sat speculates that maybe this kind of coaching from Carroll is one of the reasons that his teams went from stunningly great turnover margins in his first six seasons to more down to earth levels. I do, however, have never been convinced that you can really coach turnovers. Teams that play a lot of zone defenses (well) tend to get more interceptions because they have more eyes on the ball, but that’s about it, really. Better talent too can help, but fumbling and even interceptions to a lesser extent tends to even out over time. I’m not saying coaches shouldn’t coach turnovers, but it’s not something there is a lot of control over. Six seasons is a lot, but not enough to prove that luck wasn’t a big factor.

2. Blutarsky observes that Auburn has made Gus Malzahn the SEC’s highest paid offensive coordinator at $500k a year. But the Senator also notices that Malzahn’s salary is still significantly less than several other defensive coordinators around the league, and wonders why that is. I think he hits on the most likely answer: Many of the head coaches have offensive backgrounds, and thus hire defensive coaches to complement that. Auburn, with head coach Gene Chizik, a former defensive coordinator, is just the opposite.

3. L.A. Times Reports on Pete Carroll’s and USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett’s meeting with the NCAA on the Reggie Bush/O.J. Mayo fiascoes: “USC representatives spent more than eight hours in a hotel ballroom fielding questions from the 10-member infractions committee.”

4. Offseason football writing often tends to turn into a catalogues of player arrests and petty offenses or injuries, which is more depressing than interesting to me (except when done exceptionally well). But, as Doc Sat (and others) point out, what’s going on at Oregon is worth a closer look, if for no other reason than that it might have very real effects on their football team in the fall.

5. Bill Walsh’s quarterback manual. Seriously. Do I need to say anything else? Just download it, and work your way through it. The best part? It’s not even that advanced or complicated. He used to send a lot of this stuff out to high school coaches he was recruiting or had relationships with. (Thanks to reader Topher for the link.)

6. New rules intended to clean up the game are moving through the system. From the Wiz:

pryor

You might recall Terrelle Pryor’s tribute to Michael Vick in Ohio State’s opener last season against Navy. The words “Mike” and “Vick” were written on his eye black.

Vick wasn’t alone. Tim Tebow got his faith-based message across each game, and countless other players had a message for viewers, from an area code or simple shout-out to mom. Those days are coming to an end.

The Football Rules Committee, meeting in Fort Lauderdale, voted to require players who wear eye black to use solid black with no words, logos, numbers or other symbols. The rule will be in effect for the 2010 season, pending approval by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel. The oversight panel regularly rubber stamps recommendations by the rules committee.

Other rules changes include a crackdown on taunting. Players who draw flags for taunting gestures on their way to a touchdown would have the penalty assessed from the spot of the foul, taking away the score. Penalties that occur in the end zone would continue to be assessed on the extra-point attempt, two-point conversion try or ensuing kickoff. That proposal, which received near-unanimous support, would take effect in 2011.

The committee also agreed to stringent standards on players who have suffered a concussion. Such players will now have to be cleared by a doctor before returning to competition.

TV monitors will be allowed in coaches’ booths in press boxes beginning in 2011. Feeds and equipment for home and visiting teams must be identical.

There will also be a requirement for a 10-yard buffer zone for pregame warmups. A no-player zone will be mandated between the 45-yard lines 60 minutes before kickoff.

Smart Football Super Bowl Preview: Manning vs. Brees

Give the media two weeks before the Super Bowl and they will find every weird angle to take to fill the void: Who has the best food (uh, not Indianapolis); what U.S. Presidents are like what Super Bowl (In a matchup between Super Bowl III, with Broadway Joe, against Thomas Jefferson, the third President, Jefferson won because he “wanted it more.”); and opinion from every blustery ex-player and coach that can be found. But now that the game is here, there’s one aspect that absolutely is at the top of my list: The game features arguably the two best quarterbacks in the league who run undoubtedly the best — and most interesting offenses.

Colts

The show Peyton runs is amazing not only because of its effectiveness, but also because of its simplicity. Indeed, in all but specialty situations they have basically two personnel groups — two wide receivers, two tight-ends, and one running back and three wide receivers, one tight-end and one running back — and they have run the same few plays for the last decade. They rarely shift and instead rely on Peyton to get them to the line and find the appropriate play.

The theory for all this is simple. Although a defense has some options and disguise some things, there are only so many things a defense can do: they might be able to disguise press or loose coverage, or rotate the secondary or send an unexpected blitzer, but they can’t move a cornerback from one side of the field to the other after the snap, and there might be blitzers but there are only so many candidates. As a result Peyton gets his team to the line and surveys the defense. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore typically sends in three plays: two passes and a run or two runs and a pass, and Peyton makes his choice among those three options. Typically, Manning gets the ball snapped with under six seconds left on the play clock; he both wants to take his time surveying the defense and limit late shifts before the snap.

And Manning’s menu of plays are both simple and have been constant for a decade. For runs, he basically has three choices: outside zone (the most common), inside zone, and draw (there are a few others mixed in as well). Believe it or not, the run game comes basically verbatim from what the University of Colorado did in the early 1990s (except for the option runs, of course) — football is not as complicated as people think.

For the passing game, on early downs they run a lot of play-action, where the goal is either to beat the defense deep (through post routes and go routes) or to hit a deep void with a deep crossing route or corner. (The deep crossing route concept is described here.) Another go-to concept is three-verticals, though Manning likes to look for the inside slight off play-action as a quick throw right behind the linebackers. (Video below courtesy of Brophy.)

Play-action from under center:

Play-action from shotgun:

On passing downs and when Peyton is in the shotgun, you’ll see most of the traditional routes that other teams run, but far and away his favorite is the “levels” play. It’s almost idiotically simple — the inside receiver runs a ten-yard in route (often Dallas Clark) while the outside receiver (Reggie Wayne, most typically) runs a five yard in-route. Typically the linebacker runs with the slot and the quick five yarder is open, but once he’s hit that a few times Manning will hit the inside square-in for an easy first down.

levels

I’ve described the “levels” concept (with video) previously here. Below is another diagram showing what typically happens with the coverage:

ds
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Montana Magic

Stumbled across these great videos of Joe Montana, grand executor of Bill Walsh’s precision offense. There are many great things to notice from these clips, but in particularly focus on Montana’s footwork. This is one area where quarterbacks as a whole have regressed.


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Smart Notes 1/18/2010

1 Is it possible for a defense to be “good against the run” or “good against the pass,” or is it merely good, mediocre, or bad? Chase Stuart, in two excellent posts heavy on the game theory (available here and here), shows that, at the very minimum, it’s difficult to say anything meaningful about a defense other than to comment on its general effectiveness; the two phases are too inextricably intertwined. For fans and commentators I think this is correct, though from a gameplanning perspective it remains possible to identify which defenders are most dangerous and what is most difficult to accomplish, not to mention whether the defense is tilting to the pass or run — i.e. extra defensive backs or guys in coverage, or extra run defenders.

2. Survivor bias on the gridiron. From the Freakonomics blog.

3. Tim Tebow’s loping release. During the broadcast of Florida’s bowl game, Brian Billick showed exactly what is wrong with Tebow’s release: It’s long, he brings the ball down too low (this motion generates no additional power or accuracy), and it exposes the ball both to a fumble and to a defender who might break on the ball. See it here (h/t Doc Sat):

The word I had gotten was that Scott Loeffler, Florida’s quarterback coach, had made significant progress with Tim on this but that come gametime, well, a player’s gotta play how he knows how. And Tebow had earned the right to play his way. Yet it is troubling to the lack of progress, and it will hurt him in the draft. But what if it was worse, than a lack of progress — what if Tebow actually regressed on this point? Check out this video which charts Tebow’s release over time, and you be the judge.

4. “Football Island”:
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