Smart Links — Strategery Round-Up: GPS tracking, bootleg passes, defending 3×1 — 7/15/2014

GPS tracking to measure exertion, speed and to prevent injuries (see also here):

Four years ago, Erik Korem and Joe Danos, who were FSU assistants at the time, brought the idea to [Jimbo] Fisher after seeing the devices used by an Australian rules football team. The Australian company that makes them, Catapult Sports, had never had an American football client, but Fisher was quickly sold on the possibilities of designing highly specialized training programs for his athletes that promised increased production and fewer injuries. “He knew at some point in time, we were going to be ready to face the best of the best, and we had to be a little bit different,” head strength coach Vic Viloria said. “His little bit different turned out to be really, really impressive.” . . .

The cost is dwarfed by the sheer scope of information the devices provide. Each GPS monitor returns about 1,000 unique data points per second, which for 95 players practicing for a few hours a day amounts to an overwhelming amount of information for coaches to dissect. Florida State now employs two assistants working full-time hours — Jacobs and Kratik Malhotra, a data analyst with a degree in electronics engineering — just to sift through the numbers. . .

Florida State’s run to a national championship last year hinged greatly on an unusually low number of injury casualties, which Fisher hardly chalks up to luck. With information gleaned from the GPS devices, Florida State virtually eliminated soft-tissue injuries — muscle pulls and strains — and Fisher adjusted the team’s practice schedules to reduce midweek workload and ensure his team peaked on Saturdays. The more FSU’s coaches learned about the data delivered by the GPS systems, the more the team’s conditioning and practices could be tailored to the specific needs of each player.

- Defending 3×1 (trips) formations, Part IV:

There are many key items to look at when setting the defense up vs. 3×1, but if your opponent utilizes the bubble as a mainstay, I’d suggest overloading to the trips side of the coverage. Now this may mean rolling a safety down and playing a one-high look in these situations, or playing a version of TCU’s Special coverage, but whatever you do, I’d over play the trips side. First off, when coupled with the run game, the zone read can easily be defended as discussed in a previous post. The LB’s track the RB and the DE gets a two-for-one on the RB and the QB, usually giving the QB a give read. Now, if the QB, or the OC is savvy enough to simply call the bubble, instead of having the QB read it since the OC knows the DE is sitting on the give and the QB keep, he’s now made the DE a three-for-one player, because this gets the DE into pursuit quicker than if the QB were actually reading the play. Likewise the over shift in coverage puts more defenders closer to where the offense is trying to attack. Again, this is a big win for the defense. I recommend rolling into a one-high shell late, or even on the snap to gain a defender with leverage on the bubble.

- NIU’s empty quarterback power and counter combination play:

Northern Illinois has a pretty nifty offense. It seems to be all the rage these days. However, when you watch the film, the vast majority of the offense relies heavily on the old, reliable power blocking scheme. In this case, since they run QB power from an empty formation, they’re kicking out the end with the guard in this specific usage of the power scheme. You may consider this a trap play, but it’s using the power blocking concept (specifically the “counter” play scheme, with the QB’s read acting as the “wrapper” typically filled by the fullback or pulling tackle). They run a lot of QB power, and this article will focus on their combination QB power play with the jailbreak screen.

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Football doesn’t have to be that complicated

Overheard at a coaching clinic:

Coach 1: “We just couldn’t stop you guys from hitting the speed out. We used our Tango technique, then switched to the Dragon Claw alignment, and even whipped out the Lombardi Kung Fu grip and we still couldn’t handle it. What are you guys doing to make that that route so effective for you?”

Coach 2: “Our fast kid runs it.”

The future of football and the wave of brain injuries

We’ve been here before, historians remind us, and we have the pictures to prove it: late-nineteenth-century newspaper and magazine illustrations with captions like “The Modern Gladiators” and “Out of the Game.” The latter of those, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1891, describes a hauntingly familiar scene, with a player kneeling by his downed—and unconscious—comrade, and waving for help, as a medic comes running, water bucket in hand. It accompanied an essay by the Yale coach Walter Camp, the so-called Father of American Football, whose preference for order over chaos led to the primary differentiating element between the new sport and its parent, English rugby: a line of scrimmage, with discrete plays, or downs, instead of scrums.

What is old is new

Camp viewed football as an upper-class training ground, not as a middle-class spectator sport. But the prevalence of skull fractures soon prompted unflattering comparisons with boxing and bullfighting. Another image, which ran in the New York World, depicted a skeleton wearing a banner labelled “Death,” and was titled “The Twelfth Player in Every Football Game.” Campaigns in Chicago and Georgia to outlaw the sport were covered breathlessly in the New York dailies. That was in 1897, “the peak of sensationalized football violence,” as Michael Oriard, a former offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs who is now an associate dean at Oregon State University, explains in “Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle.”

…What was missing from this picture was the effect of all that impact on the brain. You got your “bell rung,” they used to say. You’re “just a little dinged up.” This was not merely macho sideline-speak; it was, as recently as a decade and a half ago, the language of the N.F.L.’s leading doctors. Elliot Pellman, who served until 2007 as the Jets team physician, once told a reporter that veteran players are able to “unscramble their brains a little faster” than rookies are, “maybe because they’re not afraid after being dinged.”

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., is the name for a condition that is believed to result from major collisions—or from the accumulation of subconcussions that are nowhere near as noticeable, including those incurred in practice. It was first diagnosed, in 2002, in the brain of the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who died of a heart attack after living out of his truck for a time. It was next diagnosed in one of Webster’s old teammates on the Steelers’ offensive line, Terry Long, who killed himself by drinking antifreeze. Long overlapped, at the end of his career, with Justin Strzelczyk, who was also found to have C.T.E. after he crashed, fatally, into a tanker truck, while driving the wrong way down the New York Thruway….

…The fastest running on a football field often occurs during kickoffs and punts, when some members of the defending team are able to build up forty or more yards of head-on steam before a possible point of impact…. One proposed reform that I’ve heard about would involve removing this element from the game, through automatic fair catches, or at least neutering it, by shortening the distance travelled by the kicking team. The most frequent head-butting on a football field, meanwhile, occurs at the line of scrimmage, where linemen often begin in what’s known as a three-point stance: crouching and leaning forward on one hand, and then exploding upward in a meeting of crowns. Another suggestion: banning the stance and requiring linemen to squat, sumo style. And then, more important, there’s simply teaching proper tackling technique. As one recently retired player put it to me, “Instead of telling a kid to knock the snot out, you say, ‘Knock the wind out of him.’ ”

“The reality is you’re going to need about twenty fixes that reduce risk by a couple of percentage points each,” Chris Nowinski said. “There’s still going to be four downs. Still going to be a football. Still going to be eleven guys on the field—and touchdowns. Other than that, everything’s in play.” . . .

…How many of the men on the field in the Super Bowl will be playing with incipient dementia? “To me, twenty per cent seems conservative,” Nowinski said. C.T.E., as of now, can be observed only with an autopsy. The ability to detect it with brain scans of living people is at least a couple of years off. “It’s not going to be five per cent,” Nowinski went on. “The reality is we’ve already got three per cent of the brains of people who have died in the last two years confirmed, and that’s not alarming enough to people. What number is going to be the tipping point? People are O.K. with three per cent. They may look sideways at ten per cent. Maybe it needs to be fifty per cent.”

That’s from a piece from this week’s New Yorker, by Ben McGrath. Not much new is covered on this subject; indeed, much of it is giving deserved credit to the New York Times’s Alan Schwartz, who has made this subject his personal question. But it’s a worthy reminder of the serious risks inherent in our favorite sport and which we are only just beginning to understand.

I’ve written about this subject before, and I am still sure that the brain-injury/concussion problem remains the most serious threat to football, and it will not be resolved by tweets from Greg Aiello, the NFL’s spokesman. Yet — and this may sound harsh — I don’t really care about the risks to current NFL players. Like professional boxing, no one can, with a straight face, say that they don’t understand the risk of playing such a dangerous, high speed collision sport, and they are all compensated handsomely for it. (I have more sympathy for older NFL players who played before high salaries and before these risks were well understood.) Indeed, I think the NFL as spectator sport will continue to survive through more “Black and Blue Sundays” or even serious injuries like paralysis, potentially even a live-on-the-field death. Some quick cuts to show Roger Goodell solemnly addressing “the problem” with fines and rule changes will be enough to placate the masses and change the narrative on ESPN back to who will rally for the postseason.

But the more serious threat to football — and the one I care about more than whether a very narrow class of high-profile, high-risk, high-reward professionals are making a bad judgment by playing the game — is whether the evidence shows that amateur football can cause lasting, long-term brain damage. The big stories will come out of the NFL and, to a lesser extent, major college football, but if in ten years it can be demonstrated that four years of high school football significantly increases the risk of brain injuries and long-term disorders, then football really will have no future.

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Strategic trends for the next decade? Start with defense

In their tag-teamed auguries for the next decade of college football, Stewart Mandel and Andy Staples reflect on the decade of the spread and look to the option offenses of the ’70s to predict what big things might come next:

8. The spread and pro-style offenses will learn to coexist

College offenses constantly go in and out of vogue, which means the spread-offense craze is bound to plateau (if it hasn’t already). [Ed Note: Yes it has, if the goal is to give underdogs a better chance.] Last season, the spread still thrived for teams like Pac-10 champion Oregon, Big East champion Cincinnati and 13-1 Florida. However, Alabama won the national championship with a more traditional, pro-style offense, Stanford defied the trend of recent upstarts by utilizing an old-school, smash-mouth offense and Nebraska’s disruptive defense showed it’s possible to shut down a wide-open attack like Texas’.

So will the recent influx of NFL-influenced coaches like Washington’s Steve Sarkisian and USC’s Kiffin kill the spread? Not exactly. Spread gurus like Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen keep importing it at new locations, and Arizona State’s Dennis Erickson — a veteran of both levels — is one of several coaches implementing a version of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack this season.

Instead, the future is likely a hybrid of both systems.

“The great thing would be the combination of both — spread it out and throw it, then be able to do it with two tight ends and run the ball with some power,” said Erickson. “It’s just the evolution of football. I really believe if you can have a combination of all that stuff and confuse [defenses] with different personnel groups, that’s what it’s all about.”

. . .

9. Option offense: Ready for a comeback?

The future won’t belong solely to the pro/spread hybrid. As the spread flourished this past decade, defenses adjusted. More teams adopted a 3-4, allowing more flexibility to spy a quarterback who might double as a fullback.

That shift in defensive philosophy means it’s time for a new-old offensive fad. And since bell-bottoms and platform shoes have already enjoyed minor renaissances, it seems only fair that coaches bring back that staple of the ’70s football experience: the option. We’re not talking about the occasional pitch play. We’re talking about the holy trinity of the dive back, quarterback keeper or pitch.

Paul Johnson, who probably has leisure suits and tearaway jerseys in his closet, has proven at Navy and Georgia Tech that the option still works. How well? In Johnson’s second season at Tech, he won the ACC title.

Most people think the option is a boring, grind-it-out scheme. Not true, said Tom Osborne, an option aficionado who coached Nebraska to national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997. “Most of the zone plays you see now, if you block things perfectly, you may make seven, eight, nine yards,” Osborne said. “If somebody misses a tackle, you might go a long way. In option football, if you execute correctly, you’ve got enough people to block everybody and theoretically score a touchdown on most every option play.”

. . . So what’s the holdup? Johnson already has proven the option can work in a BCS conference. It’s time to bring it back on a grand scale.

I generally agree with everything Andy and Stewart say, especially the point that whatever the dominant offensive strategy of the 2010s ends up being — and there may not be one — it will be a response to the defensive changes being undergone right now. I’m not sure yet that it will be the option, if for no other reason than we don’t yet know what defensive schemes will be dominant either. We are in a very transitory time, and to get a little perspective, it’s helpful to look at the strategic milieu that the modern spread came out of in the 1990s.

The spread developed essentially in response to two defensive phenomena. The first goes back to Buddy Ryan: the ubiquity of the eight-man front defenses. Although his vaunted “46″ defense became famous in the 1980s, in the 1990s teams still used it and, more importantly, they used his philosophies — his eight-man front principles — to overwhelm the run and protection schemes of teams still trying to use traditional personnel, i.e. two runningbacks, one tight-end, and two receivers. Personified by defenses like the one used by Dick Tomey at Arizona, his Under-Shift Double-Eagle Flex — a.k.a. the “Desert Swarm” — these defenses were basically impossible for anyone using traditional sets, personnel and concepts, unless the talent gap was wide enough to overcome the strategic disadvantage. Which is exactly why the small schools led the changes.

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Good paragraphs about Madden

And not just this year’s edition. From ESPN:

Hawkins wanted “Madden” to play out like the NFL. Equivalent stats. Similar play charts. Real football.

By contrast, Lyndon and Knox previously had made a well-received “Monday Night Football” title featuring arcade-style, action-heavy game play. That clicked with Genesis “Madden” producer Rich Hilleman, whose top design priority was fun — a game with more sacks, more bombs, more tackles in the backfield and more 60-yard runs than real-life NFL football. Something akin to an episode of “The Hills,” or what philosopher/author Umberto Eco dubbed the “hyperreal” — seemingly authentic, yet more entertaining than the genuine article.

“I came to the game from making flight simulations,” said Hilleman, who is now EA’s chief creative officer. “If you make an F-16 fighter simulation and it’s very accurate, to fire a single missile takes like 20 procedures. Only that’s not people’s perception of being a pilot. People’s perception is Tom Cruise. Push a button and blow something up. With Genesis ‘Madden,’ we wanted to emphasize what makes football exciting, not perfectly replicate the brutality of a 3.1-yard-per-carry running game.”

And:

“Let me ask,” Madden said. “When we get into the spread, the quarterback in shotgun, do the linemen get in three-point stances?”

“In some sets,” White said. “But largely in two-point.”

“They should all be in two-point stances,” Madden admonished.
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Player salaries and economic rents

Brian Burke opines on NFL salaries:

Personally, I think they’re all overpaid, rookies and veterans. If you ask most football players if they would still play football for $80,000 per year instead of $800,000 or $8 million, they’d say yes. It’s almost certainly a better proposition than whatever else they’d be able to do in the labor market. If Sam Bradford had the choice between playing in the NFL for $80k/yr or looking for an entry level job in Oklahoma City, what do you think he’d do? Every dollar above $80k is icing on the cake. Technically, it could be considered economic rent.

In economic terms, rent is a misnomer. It does not refer to money you pay a landlord for your apartment. It refers to the money above the minimum amount required to induce the employment of a resource. There is always rent claimed by both sides of all voluntary transactions, otherwise people wouldn’t agree to the transaction in the first place. . . .

It seems to me almost all of the economic rent in professional sports goes to the players. It’s hard to imagine any other multi-billion dollar company paying more than 60% of its revenue to a few hundred employees. It’s not that the salaries are high in absolute terms, it’s that the athletes should gladly play for far less.

I tend to agree… or do I? I am conflicted. It is a plausible account, but there is a lot of uncertainty there as well. One, the NFL and other sports leagues are already incredibly distorted markets, aided as they are by exceptions to anti-trade law and a general public (to say nothing of lawmakers and judges) who are fine giving the NFL monopoly power over professional football (which may be a perfectly rational and fine choice). Second, and more importantly, the lifespan of an NFL player is blisteringly short. I’ve heard a variety of estimates, but most often the estimate is put at around 2-3 years; never have I heard even five seasons.

This skews the incentives. Were Sam Bradford to have taken the $80,000 a year job, he would be giving up a lot now, but it’s much more likely that his other career would last far longer, and as a result his income would be much smoother. And of course the number one pick is not really the appropriate metric; it’s not evident that, from a financial perspective at least, making around $400,000 a year for three or even four years and then having no career prospects at all is better than starting in a $70,000/year job with growth potential and stability. (I know in this economy nothing is certain.)

Two points flow from this. The first is that it cannot be accurate to compare an NFL player’s salary with the salary of Joe Schmo, office manager. Their income stream is more like that of an artist, or even an entrepreneur — variable with their success, with great opportunity to be set for life, with also a high likelihood of bust. As I’ve pointed out, 78% of NFL players file for bankruptcy. As this NY Times article points out, it’s not easy to manage your money if it comes in irregular, large chunks, followed by long dry-spells.

And second, if you make your money at once you end up paying more in taxes than someone who earned the same total amount, in smoother fashion, over the same period. To use an example of an entrepreneur, imagine the there are only two tax rates: 40% if you make over $200,000 and 20% if you make over $45,000. If two neighbors both make $500,000 over five years, with neighbor 1 making $100,000 every year while neighbor 2 making $250,000 twice and zero in the other years, neighbor 1 will have paid $100,000 in taxes while neighbor 2 will have paid $200,000.

Is any of this determinative of whether or not football players make too much? No, but I think it all adds a significant layer of uncertainty to their ability to make a living that, particularly when coupled with the well documented health issues that come from playing football, including brain injuries, make high incomes somewhat more understandable, even if they could be characterized as raw economic rents.

Tackling a cyclone: Grantland Rice, the internet, and the death (and rebirth) of sports writing

From the poem “Alumnus Football,” by Grantland Rice:

Grantland Rice

Grantland Rice

For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks — not that you won or lost –
But how you played the Game.

This most famous line of famed writer Grantland Rice’s career — “how you played the game” — is frequently invoked but, more often than not, not attributed to him, or anyone else for that matter. It has achieved a status limited to those phrases, aphorisms, or observations, that are so inevitable that, rather than imagine them having been concocted by a writer and made real by pen and paper, typewriter, or computer, instead simply exist somewhere within ourselves. No one can create something so true. The aphorism itself of course refers not just to sports but to life as well, and thus applies to writers who write about athletes as well as the athletes themselves. Anyone with the audacity (or egoism, as Orwell put it) to publish their words in any form will not be judged only by their readership numbers, their entitlement to column space, or any of the old metrics. It’s how they played the game.

And, as Spencer Hall cogently explains for the Sporting Blog, the internet is finally breaking down some of the old barriers.

[Regarding the death of the 800-word columnist at newspapers.] The internet exploded this framework in a few critical ways. First off, it turns out people think in bits both shorter and longer than 800 words. Shocking, but sometimes people could read thousands and thousands of words at a time without passing out due to dehydration. Astounding, I know, but somehow the long distance runners of the reading world made Bill Simmons a very wealthy man, and the sprinters turned Deadspin in the face-eating, thousand-tentacled beast it is today. Like it or not, readers don’t just think in 800-word snippets.

Also, it so happens that sports fans were both far more eclectic and choosy than anticipated. . . . The model for many young bloggers, for instance, is not someone like a Vecsey, a Bill Plaschke, or anyone else you might see aping away on Around The Horn. It is a devoted specialist like Paul Zimmerman, or even a tangent-hopping single-topic writer like Gregg Easterbrook, or heaven forbid, writers who didn’t write about sports at all.

Sportswriting in that sense is dead, and perhaps has been dead for a long time. For that, raise a huzzah: trapped in the column, mobbed by the dueling schools of maudlin sentimentality (call it the “Albom school”) and knee-jerk antipathy generators like Jay Mariotti (creatively referred to here as “the Mariotti school,”) sportswriting on the whole has been uninteresting for a long, long, long time. There’s little point of treating the columnist like he’s something to be missed: good writing is good writing, and good writers will survive any transition between technologies.

. . . .Good ingredients work no matter the treatment, something that may not be true of generalist columnists who learned that single sentence paragraphs and easy moralizing about athletics and their place in society were a great way to stuff column space for paychecks.

The problem for them is that the audience is no longer captive. They can roam the internet looking for whatever they like, and if they’re under 40, they’re not waiting for it to come to them on their doorstep. They are still prisoner to one constant, however: the hunger for quality. If the general columnist dies out, it’s not because the audience lost the taste for something necessary. It is because they were making do all along with what they had, and left the instant they got a better offer.

In sum: Without the structural impediments and bottlenecks that propped up a certain brand of sports writing, it will be, as is true in most endeavors, the combination of ability and industry that will win the prize.

To illustrate how strange this sports writing bottleneck has been, it is helpful to look back to guys like Grantland Rice. He wrote at a different time: Typically, the only people who might read his recap of a game who had actually seen it were people who were in attendance. Maybe they had also listened on the radio, but that’s not certain. The form too was more free-flowing. It was known as the golden age of myth-making in sports, something derided later, but are we not moving back in that direction in the Tebow-era?

But this freedom allowed him to flout convention — or at least he wasn’t constrained by the conventions concocted by the later oligarchy that came to rule the sports writing world. Take his famous “The Four Horsemen,” article, written about a game between Notre Dame and Army in 1924, ostensibly a recap of that game. (This should go without saying, but this article — and this blog post — have little to do with Notre Dame. This is about a game that took place seventy-five years ago, and thus has little to do with whatever Notre Dame, or Army for that matter, has going on now. Were this article written about Syracuse or Michigan it would be just as good.) The article begins:

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