Controlled Adversity: Hell Week

One of the main reasons to play football is that it is hard. The defining feature of playing the sport is every person who plays has to do one thing, over and over and over: get back up. And not just get back up right away, but get back up when you’re tired, filthy, and just plain cranky. Compared to other sports, football players spend hours and hours at practice for a payoff of just a handful of plays once a week, a few weeks a year. It’s a grind.

But that’s what makes it great. It’s a cliche that the controlled adversity a football player — and more importantly a football team — faces is preparation for real adversity in life, but it’s a cliche for a reason. Yet, particularly for high school football players who will never play again, it’s also one of the last times in their lives they will face that adversity not alone, but with a team of equals to share the experience with and rely on.

Last night I saw a screening of Hell Week, a short documentary airing tonight (August 22) on ESPN2 at 7:30pm, which captures a slice of that experience by following the Station Camp High School (Tennessee) team during their four night fall camp.


New Grantland: The Cowboys’ Jason Witten: Master of the Option Route

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Despite its backyard beginnings, there are specific coaching points on an option route. The first thing Witten must do is identify the defender over him and attack that defender’s leverage on his release from the line, typically by running directly at him. By running right at that defender — which is usually a linebacker or safety — Witten forces the defense to reveal how it is playing him. There are basically two things that can happen: The defense will either play zone or man-to-man. This does not always mean that what Witten identifies is literally what the defense has called, particularly in an NFL with increasingly complicated coverages, but by classifying them this way Witten is able to cut through the confusion and defeat whatever technique he faces.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: Adrian Peterson and the Lead Draw: The Vikings’ Throwback Play for Their Throwback Runner

It’s now up over at Grantland:

The lead draw has a storied history. Dating at least as far back as the Johnny Unitas–led Baltimore Colts, the play had maybe its greatest renaissance when run by Emmitt Smith for the Dallas Cowboys. To this day, Smith — not commonly known for his rhetorical flourishes — waxes philosophical whenever asked about the play, as he details the subtle ways he played off the blocks of his massive offensive line and fullback Daryl Johnston to wear down, and then break, defenses. The play epitomized the running game of the great 1990s Cowboys teams. Defenses knew it was coming and still couldn’t stop it.

The lead draw works very much the way its name implies: At the snap, the offensive line and quarterback step away from the line just as they would on a pass play, in an effort to make the defense think they are trying to throw the ball — a “draw.” Meanwhile, “lead” refers to the block of the fullback or H-back, who initially looks like a pass blocker before leading the way for the runner. In short, the lead draw combines deception with power, which is also an apt description for Peterson’s running style. One of the best examples of Peterson running the lead draw came in the second quarter against St. Louis last fall.

Read the whole thing.


What I’ve Been Reading: I Wear the Black Hat, The Metaphysical Club, Feynman, Sedaris

I Wear the Black Hat, by Chuck Klosterman. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though I am predisposed to liking it. blackhatRock critic/pop culture writer/contributing editor for Grantland/New York Times Ethicist /read option analyst has a rather distinctive style, and, like several of his other books, I Wear the Black Hat is composed of a series of thematically linked stand alone essays which explore the nature of villainy. The subjects of the essays run the gamut, from the movie Death Wish to Bill Clinton to OJ Simpson to Andrew Dice Clay to (somewhat to Klosterman’s chagrin), Hitler. But like all of Klosterman’s books — and as he repeatedly acknowledges — the meta-subject of the book is himself, and the particular way he processes and turns over cultural figures and ideas is part of an extended self-analysis. So I enjoyed the book, but that probably says as much about me as it does the book itself.

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand. This book, the 2002 Pulitzer winner for History, is nominally the story of the leading thinkers in the school of philosophy (loosely) known as “Pragmatism,” namely William James, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Charles Sanders Peirce. The book does a nice job teasing out and explicating the key features of pragmatism, commonly referred to as the United States’s greatest contribution to philosophy, but its real strength is placing those ideas, and more importantly the men who worked through the philosophical questions and propounded possible solutions, in their historical setting, primarily the era of the Civil War and its aftermath. The book is not so much a contribution to academic philosophy, although it did flesh out some things for me and raises excellent questions along the way, its primary value is as a well-written history of pragmatic thought.


In 2013, Charlie Weis Has It Right

Charlie Weis, in 2005:

Every game, you will have a decided schematic advantage.


Decidedly trying

Charlie Weis, in 2013:

As I sat there and watched the last four or five games of that Austin guy at West Virginia just tearing it up as both a wide receiver and a running back, I think that football sometimes doesn’t have to be as cerebral as some people try to make it, and I think that it’s a copycat business.

Pulling out the infamous “decided schematic advantage” quote is always a bit of a cheap shot at Charlie, but I still think it’s fascinating to see how his thinking has evolved as he went from the mountaintop of Super Bowl wins and ten win seasons at Notre Dame to the “pile of crap” (his words) he’s dealing with Kansas. The 2005 quote is a paean to winning by abstract thought, where chalkboard doodles decide games. It’s stated in the most bold way possible, but it’s not that far from what most coaches at least try to do.

His 2013 quote, by contrast, is a paean to common sense. In it he’s making three points, all of which are undoubtedly true:

Translating Nick Saban: Three Plays from the BCS Championship

Nick Saban did the full ESPN car wash today, and ESPN, to their credit, fit in a brief bit of actual football talk as they looked at three plays from the BCS Championship game against Notre Dame. The segment is definitely worth watching:

Although there was good information here, the segment was also a bit rushed and the hosts didn’t do much to get Saban to more clearly explain some of his technical football jargon. So let’s do that right now.

Eddie Lacy’s Run. This is the most jumbled presentation as they appeared to want to be able to freeze the footage and were unable to, but Saban still gives some insight:


  • Saban: “You picked one of our basic plays, which is a zone play.”Translation: The play is inside zone to the left, which is one of Alabama’s bread and butter plays. I’ve written about the inside zone extensively and Don Kausler had a very good story on this very play before the BCS title game.
  • S: “We’re in an overloaded Y-Y Wing type situation here.”Translation: The formation has two tight-end type players, or “Y” players,” to the same side, which can also be referred to as a a “tight-wing” formation. Remember, Saban is a defensive coach so even when he describes his own team’s offensive concepts, he’s often thinking about them in terms defensive coaches use. Here he ends up using three different descriptions (“Y-Y”, “wing” and “overload”) to describe the same idea: a tight-end with another tight-end or “wing” player to the same side, which presents an “overload” formation which the defense must react to.
  • S: “[It’s] a zone cut play where 31 is going to go back.”Translation: It’s very common on zone running plays to leave the backside defensive end unblocked — teams used to control him with the threat of a bootleg, but nowadays many do it with the zone read — but it’s also common to simply bring another offensive player to the backside to block that defender. The primary purpose is to seal that backside defender to help create a cutback lane, but it also gives a traditional zone play a bit of a misdirection element. Here 31 refers to tight-end Kelly Johnson, who acts as the “block back” player, also known as the “sealer” or “kicker”.
  • S: “Now we point out the MAC… Eddie Lacy does a fantastic job of pressing downhill and making a zone cut… we’re stretching the guard area….”Translation: The video can’t be paused and Saban ends up saying three non-sequiturs and isn’t really able to finish his thoughts, but there’s still real football here. “Pointing out the MAC,” which is another term for the middle linebacker, is something most zone teams do before every snap. The reason is that once the middle linebacker has been identified, all of them linemen will know who they are responsible for, both for defensive linemen and linebackers, typically through a “count” method which counts out from the nose guard or middle linebacker out.


A Better Box Score: Simple Ways to Improve the Basic Game Recap

Box scores are intended to give a snapshot of games, and, for the most part, they work. If I look at the box score for West Virginia’s 70 to 63 victory over Baylor, I have a pretty good inkling of what kind of game it was; similarly if I look at the box score of Auburn’s infamous 3-2 win over Mississippi State. But there’s an awful lot I can’t tell from those box scores. Mississippi State had 38 rushing yards, but was that because their running game was stoned or because they took too many sacks? West Virginia and Baylor combined for over 1,000 yards passing, but were those short passes receivers took the distance or long ones down field?

Run or pass? Or neither?

Run or pass? Or neither?

I’m against overwhelming the classic box score with a variety of so-called advanced statistics. I’m a fan of these and I think they are great, but the box score is not the place for unpronounceable acronyms. So below is a non-exhaustive list of very basic, very simple, hopefully very clear changes I think would greatly improve the quality of the traditional box score.

  • Sack Yards: This is an easy one, and is unique only to college rather than the NFL, but there’s no reason that sacks should count against rushing yards. It makes quarterback rushing yards extremely difficult to decipher, especially in the age of the dual-threat quarterback, and often makes passing look more productive than it is in reality. (It also penalizes quarterbacks who do the smart thing, and throw the ball away instead of taking sacks.)
  • Tackles for Loss: Sack yards should come out of passing but all box scores should also have a simple table of negative plays as its own stand alone category. You can tell a lot about offensive and defensive styles based on the number of negative plays.
  • Completions Behind the Line: Bubble screens, rocket screens, now screens, touch passes and swing passes are an increasingly large part of offenses, and, given that these plays are nominally forward passes but are typically “packaged” with running plays, they really should be their own quasi-run/pass category. (In college and high school in particular, the rules for linemen downfield are entirely different depending on whether the pass is completed behind or past the line of scrimmage, thus further arguing for different treatment.) Call it the Percy Harvin/Tavon Austin category of plays which “all-purpose” players typically thrive on. The other goal is to remove these plays from traditional passing categories (though I think it is fair to count incompletions against the quarterback), to make passing statistics more purely a measure of downfield passing.


Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs Top Passing Concepts (Shallow, Stick, Sail/Flood) With All-22 Film

Very interesting clips showing Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs’ top passing concepts, with all-22 game film; specifically his shallow cross series and the stick and sail/flood concepts.

Of course, Richt has previously done many clinics on his shallow cross series. It was probably the staple concept of the old fast break offenses he was a part of at Florida State. A clip of one of those is below.


Stanford HC David Shaw: Can Football Change the World?

Very interesting TEDx talk by Stanford head coach David Shaw:

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You’ll find lots of good stuff in the shop.