Recap: Supreme Court hears argument in American Needle v. NFL

The U.S. Supreme Court today heard argument in the American Needle v. NFL case, which proposed the question whether the NFL is a “single-entity” for antitrust purposes and thus immune to antitrust liability. (Read more about it here.) Or does it present that question? The excellent Lyle Denniston attended today’s oral argument (and, unlike most sports outlets, understands the issue), and has his take up on scotusblog.com:

If the National Football League, and other pro sports leagues, want to combine their efforts in commercial activity, they probably are going to have to justify that in federal court, in perhaps prolonged trials focusing on whether any such action is really for the good of the game, or is aimed only at making more money. Just one trip to the Supreme Court to avoid that, it appears, will not be enough. That prospect loomed on Wednesday as the Justices weighed the NFL’s broad claim to antitrust immunity for joint operations, a claim that the other pro sports leagues similarly make.

The Court heard 70 minutes of oral argument in American Needle v. NFL (08-661), a case that supposedly was to focus on a single, simple question: is the NFL, along with its 32 teams, a “single entity” and therefore immune to the Sherman Antitrust Act when they act jointly in a business effort? But Justice after Justice insisted strenuously that that is not really the issue, and that the case probably needs to go back to the lower courts for a potentially penetrating inquiry into what kinds of commerce are closely enough related to pro football that they escape antitrust liability.

In particular, the Justices were unconvinced of the NFL’s sweeping arguments:

The specific kind of activity under legal attack in the case is the joint effort of the NFL and its teams to sell hats, jerseys, and other fan gear displaying the teams’ trademarked logos. While the NFL insists that that is crucial to promoting the popularity of the games on the field, it did not appear that any Justice was firmly convinced — right now — of that. From the bench, for example, came the question of whether the NFL could escape antitrust liability if it decided, jointly, to build houses. While the NFL’s lawyer said that would not promote the game, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., shot back that, maybe, selling trademarked goods was closer to selling houses than it was to promoting football games. And that, it seems, is precisely the issue that would dominate a subsequent trial on the legality of joint selling of fan goods.

That doesn’t mean, however, American Needle would win the case outright — indeed, they probably have a loser. But the sweeping legal ruling that the NFL won at the lower courts preempted further inquiry into the specific facts. A remand to the lower courts would allow the NFL to win the case on narrower grounds that would not have much application in other, future cases beyond this one. Moreover, such a ruling would absolve the Justices of the danger of deciding a case about the NFL that applies to a wide swath of joint business ventures throughout the country. (The NFL’s argument was founded largely on its exceptionalism: We are the NFL and get this treatment, though no other business joint ventures should. That kind of argument is more persuasive on Around the Horn than it is in the Supreme Court building.) As Denniston added:

The content of the entire argument strongly suggested that there was not now a majority either to uphold broad immunity for pro sports leagues’ joint commercial enterprises, or to make everything the league and its teams do jointly open to antitrust challenge. What most of the Justices seemed to be tempted by was a middle-ground approach, with each specific joint effort tested under a “rule of reason” analysis to determine whether it was essentially to the success of the sporting enterprise. Even that, though, would amount to a significant tactical loss for pro sports.

I will post the transcript when it is up.

Update: The Associated Press has an article up titled “Court seems sceptical of NFL antitrust protection.”

Update: The transcript of the oral argument is available here.

Update again: It’s unclear what the Supreme Court will actually do (likely hold that these decisions of the NFL are subject to a “rule of reason” analysis, which means that the NFL could win below but they aren’t automatically immune). But this exchange at the end of the argument explains why I think it is highly unlikely that the NFL will succeed (after the jump; Levy is the NFL’s lawyer):

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Texas vs. ‘Bama: Smart Football in review

Apologies for not posting more about this game (and for lack of posting in general — factors beyond my control), but tonight’s matchup involves two teams that I’ve written much about.

On the one side you have Nick Saban’s Alabama squad. On offense, the run game that propelled Mark Ingram to the Heisman trophy involves basically five or six run plays: inside zone, outside zone, power, counter, and sometimes a draw and sometimes a toss play. But it’s the defense that makes ‘Bama go. Of course, I’ve previously written about Saban and his strategies and philosophy:

Saban has been coaching defense – and coaching it quite well – for decades. But there is no question that the defining period of his coaching career was 1991-1994, when he was Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. Just knowing that tells you a great deal about Saban’s defense: he (primarily) uses the 3-4; he’s very aggressive, especially on passing downs; he wants to stop the run on first and second down; he’s not afraid to mix up schemes, coverages, blitzes, and looks of all kinds; and, most importantly, he is intense and attentive to detail, which is the hallmark of any great defensive coach.

…One thing that distinguishes Saban is that he uses pattern-reading in almost all of his coverages, including the traditional Cover 3, whereas many coaches only let certain defenders pattern read or only use it with certain defenses like Cover 4. Sounds a lot like Belichick, no?**

On the other side is Texas and their great quarterback, Colt McCoy. McCoy, who will deservedly be considered one of the great quarterbacks of all time, did not have an overly impressive year. He had some good games but few of those came against top flight opponents. He’ll have to carry the load for Texas, which is something I think a now relatively pressure free McCoy can do. I have previously written about McCoy’s pass game too:

Colt McCoy, University of Texas’s record-setting triggerman (and Heisman hopeful), is known for one thing above all else: his astounding accuracy. . . .

Texas’s favorite route concept, by far, is something known as the “two-man” game, known in some coaching circles as the “stick concept.” Texas runs their a little different, but they also use it a great deal; it’s their number one concept by far. . . .

This concept has been Texas’s go-to route since Mack Brown and Greg Davis arrived. Everyone from Major Applewhite, to Chris Simms, to Vince Young and now McCoy have been asked to master the play.

The concept itself is simple enough…. It can be run from really any formation — any set with at least two receivers to one side — but Texas favors it from sets with at least three receivers, as the diagram below shows. This way the outside receiver can run deep. He serves both as an option on the fade route against single-coverage, but primarily he draws the defense away. And, from a formation and personnel standpoint, he typically draws the other team’s cornerback, allowing the two inside receivers to work against inferior pass defenders — the linebackers, safeties, and nickel backs.

The “two-man” concept itself has one receiver run immediately to the flat, while another bursts upfield to a depth of about eight yards — slightly deeper than most other teams run the route. He can then turn inside or outside depending on where the coverage is pressuring him. He wants to find the crease in the zone and to find the window that gets created as the flat defender widens for the other receiver on the “shoot” route to the flat. Against man coverage, he can break back to the sideline….

…[I]n watching Colt, I see a lot of parrallels with another guy known for his accuracy: Drew Brees. Both have underrated athleticism, both are smart, and both can stick the ball on the receiver, exactly where they want to. That is something that cannot be taught, and it should continue to serve Colt well.

It will be fascinating to see who comes out on top tonight.

**FN: During the Big 12 title game Jesse Palmer kept saying that Nebraska was “pattern reading” Texas’s routes and therefore defeating them. Some bloggers picked up the trail, but although true that Bo Pellini uses some pattern reading, this was not the reason they lost. They lost because Nebraska could blow up pass and run plays with a couple of linemen (Suh!) and swarm everyone else. Texas’s pass game understands pattern reading and is as well prepared for it as you can reasonably be. There are criticisms of Greg Davis but I’m not sure this is one of them.

More on whether the NFL is a “single-entity” for anti-trust purposes

This question — which is trickier than many give it credit for — is the subject of an upcoming Supreme Court case, American Needle v. NFL. I previously discussed it here, and now Gabriel Feldman of Tulane Law School is chiming in:

[American Needle v. NFL] involves an unremarkable set of facts. For many years, all of the NFL teams jointly licensed their trademarks and logos to a variety of apparel manufacturers. American Needle was one of these licensees, and had sold NFL-logoed hats since the late 1950’s. After retail sales of sports-related merchandise struggled in the 1990’s, the NFL teams decided to grant an exclusive license to Reebok to manufacture all NFL-licensed apparel, thus eliminating American Needle’s ability to continue selling NFL hats. In response, American Needle brought an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL and its teams, claiming that the exclusive license with Reebok eliminated competition in the market for NFL apparel and constituted an illegal “contract, combination…or conspiracy” in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. In American Needle’s brief to the Supreme Court, they note that “a Reebok vice-president hailed the elimination of price competition as ‘a godsend from a profitability standpoint,’ explaining that ‘[b]asic fitted caps that were selling for $19.99 a few years ago because of the price pressures are now selling for $30.'”

…[T]his case is about a lot more than whether the NFL’s exclusive license violates Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Instead, at issue here is whether the NFL is even capable of violating Section 1. Section 1 of the Sherman Act only applies to agreements, and (as Rob Bass and DJ EZ Rock might have put it) it takes two to make an agreement. So, for example, if all of the manufacturers of wool hats in the world got together to make a series of agreements, those agreements would be scrutinized under Section 1 to ensure they were not anticompetitive (e.g., to ensure that the manufacturers were not agreeing to fix prices). The question is, what happens when all of the NFL teams in the world get together and make a series of agreements? Should those agreements be scrutinized under Section 1?

In American Needle, the NFL argued that they are a single entity, and thus incapable of violating Section 1 (because a single entity cannot reach an agreement with itself). The NFL concedes that they do not look like a traditional single entity — that is, a single firm with a single owner. Instead, the NFL argues that they are a single entity because the NFL is a product that can only be created by cooperation among its teams, and none of its teams have any economic value without the league. The NFL’s argument is that the product created by the NFL teams is an interconnected series of games (the regular season) that leads to a playoffs, that eventually produces a Super Bowl champion, and that no individual team can produce this product on its own. Rather, the teams must make a series of agreements with each other–where to play, when to play, under what rules, etc. The NFL believes that this interdependence and need for cooperation renders the league a single entity, and that all of the agreements made by the league and its teams –ranging from scheduling to free agency restrictions to salary cap rules to franchise relocation restrictions –should thus not be subject to scrutiny under Section 1.

This is not a new argument. Sports leagues have been making this same argument for over thirty years, and virtually every court to address the issue has rejected the argument for over thirty years, often finding that agreements made by teams have violated Section 1. . . . I want to quickly touch on three basic points that have either been overlooked or misconstrued by the press covering this story.
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Mike Leach fired “for cause”

Mike_Leach_surrounded_by_microphonesMike Leach, the quirky head coach of Texas Tech, has been fired following a wild few days of accusations, suspension, and a lawsuit over his alleged mistreatment of Craig James’s son, Adam James. Others closer to the program will have to chime in, but my sense is that Adam James was a problem player (see these emails on CBS’s website from former players and various coaches), and that as a result a frustrated Leach set out to embarrass Adam James (who showed up to practice wearing sunglasses) by telling him to stand in the dark during practice rather than skip out completely. It clearly was an error in judgment on Leach’s part: Players may act up, but as long as you’re the head coach, you have to take the higher road. Although I honestly doubt whether this would have happened were it not for the volatile mixture of Leach, Adam and his father Craig James, and the acrimonious state of Leach’s and the athletic director’s relationship, Leach opened the door by making an example of the player.

So that’s how we got to the point where Leach is no longer the head coach. The lingering question is whether Tech had grounds to fire him “for cause,” as is being reported. If Tech fired him without cause, it would be required to pay him $1.6 million ($400,000 for the four remaining years on his contract) as a lump sum. (Leach’s camp claims that he will be entitled to the $800k owed to him if he were still the coach on December 31, citing the language in the contract about 10 days. I’m not so sure: that language allows the coach to “cure” violations that can be cured within 10 days, before firing him. Instead, he has already been fired. But that’s a negotiating point, which I’ll address in a moment.)

Leach’s contract is interesting on a number of levels — it is heavily incentive oriented, and has a variety of non-traditional terms — but it works like most college head coaching contracts in that there are separate outcomes if the coach is fired “for cause” or “without cause.”

“Cause” is defined as “Coach’s violation of any material provision of this Agreement (with specific reference to Article IV.” “Article IV” lays out most of the duties and restrictions put on the coach, and is worded very broadly and vaguely. It directs Leach to “conduct himself at all times in a manner consistent with his position as an instructor of students” (the Mike Price provision), to “follow all applicable University policies and procedures,” and to “devote his entire time, labor, effort and attention, in good faith, to conduct and perform the duties commensurate with the position of Head Football Coach.”

I don’t think the University will focus on those. Instead I anticipate them to focus on this clause: “Coach shall assure the fair and responsible treatment of student-athletes in relation to their health, welfare and discipline.” Did he not give Adam James fair treatment? That’s unclear. Adam James claimed to suffer from a concussion, and, contrary to Craig James’s assertions, there is nothing detrimental to a player’s health about being isolated in a dark equipment shed or media room. Yet it does sound something akin to punishing an injured player, and I expect the University to take the position that Leach was trying to deter injured players from coming forward or not participating. That might have some weight.

The other side of the coin is obviously that Leach seemed not to really believe Adam James; that he was reputed to be lazy; and that Leach’s policy was that if you are injured you must still participate in practice and cannot simply go back to your dorm room. Interestingly (or tellingly, for both sides) I’ve yet to see an official report from a trainer or anyone besides the James family that said James was not cleared to play, and I’ve heard mixed things coming from Texas Tech — both that he was cleared to play and Leach was just playing along, or that he wasn’t and so Leach didn’t make him practice but did make him stand in the shed and media room.

The contract also states that violations of these provisions must be either “willful or through negligence,” which means two things: Leach did not have to intentionally try to harm or damage James, but they must show that his conduct was actually detrimental to him in some way. I take it that their argument will be that Leach, even if he didn’t think what he was doing was wrong, sent the wrong message to James and the rest of the team that injuries and concussions won’t be taken seriously and that they should rush back to practice. Leach will dispute that and say he did nothing wrong to James at all, and in any event under the circumstances (James’s history and reputation especially), he acted reasonably.

In the end, you assert that you’re firing someone “for cause” because why wouldn’t you? If you say without cause at the outset, you automatically have to pay. (Note too that it sounds like the University tried to get Leach to sign an “apology” letter that quoted from the contract, which would have been used against him as an admission as having violated it and thus giving them permission to fire him for cause.) But that doesn’t mean you always fight it out to the end. My guess is that the University will pay Leach something but it will be less than the $1.6 million they initially said they owed him. This is not a Mark Mangino case where a lot of people came out in favor of firing the coach, nor is it a situation where the coach did something disreputable in his personal life or committed NCAA infractions. If Tech wants Leach gone — and many in the athletic department clearly do — they have a right to, but I’d be surprised if Leach got nothing. He’ll just get a lot less than he was set to make a week ago.

Are recruiting hoaxes the new new thing?

Recruiting Hoax FootballNo doubt we all remember the ridiculous Kevin Hart hoax, where he invented a recruiting race for his services between Cal and Oregon, before “choosing” Cal at a press conference, despite having never spoken to or been contacted by either school.

Well, it appears there’s been another one, this one equally odd as well as student driven. From the Carolina Coast News-Times:

A young man posing as a football recruiter from East Carolina University visited the school offering to help Croatan [High School] players earn preferred walk-on status with the Pirate football team.

Preferred walk-ons are recruited athletes who are invited to join college teams with a guarantee of a roster spot but not a scholarship. Should a player prove himself worthy, he may be offered a scholarship in the future.

“As a school, we are trying to do everything possible to give our kids a chance to attend college,” said Croatan principal Matt Bottoms. “So he was able to play on that over eagerness. Because of this episode, we are now instituting policies to protect against this overzealousness. We called ECU and the NCAA and they didn’t know anything about the guy. It’s the most bizarre thing we’ve ever experienced.”

Kodey Kroger, 18, visited Croatan on Wednesday, Dec. 9, posing as a student-recruiter for the ECU football team. He met with coaches, two student-athletes and their parents over a period of two days, offering the hope that the two could continue their playing days in the purple and gold of the Pirates.

Kroger said he was a student at ECU and played on the football team. He told those in the Croatan athletic department that numerous colleges are beginning to use their student-athletes to recruit high school student-athletes.

“He said he was a student-recruiter,” said Bottoms. “He had the credentials. He had signed papers from coach Skip Holtz, and he looked very official. He talked to our coaches and two of our students about possibly walking on the football team. He was here for a few days, but after some time, things just weren’t adding up.”

[ . . .]

“The father of one of our players is a friend of coach (John) Lancaster (West Carteret football coach), and coach Lancaster told him he was sure the guy wasn’t legit,” said Croatan athletic director and head football coach David Perry. “So I called my friend Harold Robinson (director of high school relations) at ECU, and he said the guy had no association with the school.”

Lancaster also did some investigating when Kroger visited West Carteret.

“I know all the position coaches at ECU, and I know Vernon Hargreaves (defensive ends coach/special teams coordinator) recruits this area,” he said. “So I had one of my coaches call ECU the next day, and they said they didn’t know anything about him. He came back the next day, and our secretary asked for a card and told him that we had called ECU and they didn’t know anything about him. He left and didn’t come back.”

[. . .]

The local high school football coaches wouldn’t normally check the credentials of a recruiter, because it isn’t unusual for recruiters to be walking the halls of high schools this time of year.

“Coaches are here a lot,” said Lancaster. “Jerrick Hall (Campbell assistant coach) was just here yesterday. He said he knew the kid when I asked him about it. He said he had been ruled ineligible. This time of year, recruiters are out and about because their seasons are over and the signing period is in February. A lot of Division II schools, especially, are recruiting now. They are trying to find players who were hoping to go Division I, but it just didn’t work out.”

[. . .]

“It was all very believable,” said McBride. “He was dressed in all purple and had a purple notebook and such. He was offering walk-on vouchers, and they looked legitimate. He was able to defend his authority, and he gave us a lot of credentials. (more…)

Year of the Bull: Documentary about Miami Northwestern high school football

Well worth watching . . .

Thoughts on Brian Kelly as Notre Dame’s next coach

briankellyPeople somewhat rightly criticize Notre Dame and its fans for what they perceive as an outsized view of the team’s importance: In the cable TV/internet age, the NBC contract isn’t anything that special; the so-called “echoes” have slumbered in an ancient sleep for decades; and the Notre Dame head coaching job — now taken on by Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly — is so fraught with pratfalls and these oversized expectations that it’s foolish to even take the job.

But, if the job comes for you, there’s really no way you can turn it down unless you have something pretty special lined up, i.e. Urban Meyer at Florida. Indeed, even if success there, under present circumstances, is elusive, the reward remains among the highest that football can offer: immortality. Even Notre Dame’s failed coaches remain part of the public psyche; I don’t remember many of the names who coached Oklahoma during the lean years, but nearly every football fan can recall Gerry Faust. But, rightly or wrongly, winning a national title at Notre Dame ensures your legend.

So I think Kelly was right to accept the job. The more interesting question is whether Kelly was the right ma

n for it. Given the choices this year, I’d say yes. I liked the “fit” of a Gary Patterson more than Brian Kelly in South Bend, but I think he’ll succeed. A few unconnected thoughts:

  • In terms of recruiting, Kelly has done an excellent job getting talent into Cincy, and will continue to recruit many of the same areas.
  • This might be heresy, but schematically I don’t find Kelly that interesting. Now he’s a spread guy (which plays to my preferences), and he’s been doing it a long time (so he has a pedigree), but I think much of the talk about Kelly as an “offensive genius” is misplaced. He runs a very simple, and even at times simplistic, spread offense. That’s the bad news.
  • The good news is that really doesn’t matter. The Irish just got done with a guy who was pretty convinced of his schematic brilliance, and likely the sooner ND can get beyond just winning the scheme battle and win some actual ones on the field, the better. And with this is the fact that Kelly is an excellent teacher, which is what really matters.
  • And don’t get me wrong here, his scheme isn’t bad. His staff gameplans very well and they put their kids in position to succeed, which is really all that matters. You’ll see some fun stuff from quads — or with four receivers to the same side — but otherwise everything is pretty basic. Yet I liken it to when Holtz arrived at Notre Dame. No one perceived him as an offensive guru, but for what they did at the time, relative to everyone else in college football (and with some very good players), it was sophisticated enough. I think it will be similar for Kelly: If he gets good players in he’ll do a great job of teaching them, and as a result the offense will succeed.
  • Which brings us to probably the scariest similarity with Weis: Kelly needs to find a good defensive coordinator, and I’m not sure who that will be. This need to find an offensive guy to whom that entire side of the ball can be dumped on sort of the Sword of Damocles that hangs over all the offensive obsessed gurus. Charlie Weis never figured it out; Steve Spurrier never won a national title until he got Bob Stoops in as defensive coordinator; Urban Meyer’s first championship at Florida, the championship game last year, and much of his success this year was driven by the great defenses of Charlie Strong (who is now at Louisville); and in the NFL the New Orleans Saints have gone from bubble playoff team to undefeated with the introduction of some new faces on defense and a new defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams.

    So more than any single recruit, I’d want to know who Kelly is going to hire as his DC. Had Weis’s defense been better this year it’s likely that he’d still be in South Bend. (And once you go to the revolving door, it becomes hard to get settled, as it takes awhile to get the program up to speed. It’s hard to transform a defense with a few weeks of spring and fall practice.)

  • All this, however, obscures the bottom line: Brian Kelly has won everywhere he has been. He turned Grand Valley State into a title winning team; he resurrected Central Michigan, where Butch Jones has continued much of that success; and in Cincinnati he has led the team to three of the best seasons in school history — maybe the best — in back-to-back-to-back years. I agree with the commentary that Notre Dame is best off hiring a guy who has succeeded at the college level. With Weis I think the goal was to sort of emulate Pete Carroll’s success at USC, but it didn’t work. And the Notre Dame job is fraught with all the issues that plague all college head coaches, but, often enough, on steroids. A little time in the meat grinder can only help.

Hopefully no one takes my criticisms too harshly. As I said, the bottom line is that Kelly is a winner, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be able to do that at Notre Dame. I’ll definitely watch more Irish games next fall.

Brian Kelly it is: UC coach to take over Notre Dame

I will have more to say about this, but, in the end, he’ll be compared to the man below, for better or worse. Strap up.

Smart Links 12/9/2009

1 New coaching blog: Coach Mac’s blog. It’s still in its early stages but there is some very good info here, particularly about the “power shotgun spread” stuff his team uses. Check out part I and part II of his series on their “power” play from shotgun.

2. A week late but, Brophy has a good post showing some of the plays Drew Brees used to carve up the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football.

3. A bunch of people have sent me this link about how Nebraska supposedly bottled up Texas via “pattern reading.” To be honest the article is difficult to understand and the routes shown don’t look like ones that Texas actually uses. And besides, almost every team uses some kind of pattern reading. My biggest issue is — and this could be me misunderstanding the article — is that it appears to confuse two different things. Pattern reading is where zone defenders use sort of “match up zone” principles to identify and attack specific route combinations that they have prepared for, rather than simply react to wherever a receiver happens to run. What is described in the article instead is the idea of “bracket coverage” (also sometimes called banjo coverage), where two defenders account for two possible receivers, and ignore any initial stems or criss-crosses and take the receiver that goes to them — i.e. one goes in and the other out. This is a legitimate technique and you have to be prepared for it, as it is designed to stop basic “you go in; I go out” type routes. But, and I haven’t broken down all the details of the Nebraska-UT game, that didn’t appear to me to be the main issue. And even if was a tactic Nebraska used, much of Texas’s passing game is designed to counteract such schemes. Instead the narrative is the same one you’d think it was: Nebraska’s defensive line dominated the game both for pass protection and the run game (save for a few draws), and that freed up the rest of the Blackshirts to roam and play tough, physical coverage and keep everything in front of them. But it all began up front.

4. Advanced NFL Stats with more on run/pass balance and game theory. I promise to address this topic, even if it’s just to summarize the good stuff coming out, but in the meantime go continue to read what Brian has been putting out.

5. My guess is this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve both seen some outrageous things of this sort first hand (much moreso than what’s described in the article), and in general nothing will compare to what used to go on back in the day. But for now this is another bit of unwelcome light shining onto the recruiting practices of the University of Tennessee.

6. Charlie Strong to Louisville. Tough to have anything negative to say about this hire, though “Emperor Charlie” has his work cut out for him. Obviously on defense he’ll bring his rugged, multiple “4-3 under” scheme that has the ability to shift to a three-three (or even two-man line) against spread sets, but on offense it is anyone’s guess. Will he go the Bo Pellini route, whereby the defensive coach hires a random number generator as his offensive coordinator, or will he try to match his defense with an equally potent offense? (Here’s a hint Charlie: You coached under both Bob Davie and Urban Meyer. Which strategy worked out better? (Until the rise of Addazio, of course.) Time will tell.

7. It’s not a link but, my Heisman vote is for Suh.

Oregon’s zone read of the defensive tackle

During last night’s Oregon victory over Oregon State, the announcers mentioned that Chip Kelly’s squad will vary their zone read by reading defenders besides the backside defensive end — namely, the defensive tackle or “three technique” player.

In the “normal” zone read, the line zone blocks one way while the quarterback reads the backside defender:

zr

There are a variety of counters to this, including the infamous “scrape exchange,” and in response offenses have added third options and bubbles and all manner of other ideas to the outside. But Oregon, along with several other spread teams, have also responded by moving inside, by reading the defensive tackle instead of the defensive end. See the diagram below:

3tech

This does a couple things for you. One, it can confuse the “scrape exchange” response, where the defensive end crashes to force a “pull” read by the quarterback while the linebacker loops outside for him, because the defensive end gets blocked and the QB should have a big gap inside. And, second, it gives you flexibility in who you choose to block versus read. As the old saying goes, if you can’t block them, read them.

For example, when LSU had Glenn Dorsey, Urban Meyer and Florida often used this same tactic to read him instead of trying to block him. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if Florida did this against Alabama’s mountainous defensive tackle, Terrence Cody.)

So what does this look like in practice? Fortunately, Trojan Football Analysis has already broken it down, after the Ducks thrashed Pete Carroll’s USC defense with it. Below is some of the photo evidence, though you should go to TFA to read the whole thing.

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Below is the same play from a sideline angle:

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