New Grantland — The Future of Playcalling: “Packaged plays,” Tecmo Bowl and a revolution in how we define “football play”

It’s now up on Grantland:

Admittedly or not, most fans think of real-world play calling as a slightly more complicated version of this “Tecmo Bowl model.” The offense’s job is to “keep the defense guessing,” and the defense must “guess right” to make a stop. On some level, even with their lengthy play sheets and reams of data, professional coordinators are engaged in a version of this same psychological battle, employing little more than educated guesses about the opponent’s tactics. Until recently, even the best, from Bill Walsh to Bill Belichick, have been playing what amounts to a complex game of Tecmo Bowl, improved only by the marginal differences coming in the form of various checks or audibles by the quarterbacks.

That seemingly straightforward screen pass to Ryan Grant suggests that now things are no longer so simple. There’s a new game, and it takes those time-tested plays and blends them into something new. It blends them so seamlessly that it threatens to upend the very idea of “run” and “pass.” These are the “packaged plays,” and because of them real football is ahead of the video games — both old and new. The answer to “What play was that?” is no longer so simple, because it’s increasingly “All of them.”

Read the whole thing.

Advanced Trends in Packaged Reads and Concepts

This article is by Patrick McCarthy. You can follow him on twitter at @patdmccarthy. Any and all questions are encouraged. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he played and coached in France and Sweden while also coaching at St. Thomas Aquinas HS (KS) and Neenah HS (WI). Since then he has coached at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Southwest Minnesota State University, Culver-Stockton College and most recently as the Head Coach of the Kuwait Gridiron Football National Team.

Decisions, decisions

This spring I had the opportunity to visit the practices of several college programs in the Midwest. My primary focus was on the offensive side of the ball, and a recurring theme with all teams (and has been noted before) was the proliferation of read run plays and how they are packaged with other concepts, whether run or pass. Many of the following plays are in a similar vein as attaching a run play toStick’. The majority of teams also pair these concepts with an up-tempo no huddle while giving their quarterback the freedom to take any of the options or check into another play. Multiplicity within one play call through packaged concepts and the willingness for Coordinators to let the players on the field determine what the defense is giving them for the taking appears to be the direction that offenses are taking in the foreseeable future. Another interesting trend was that an increasing amount of teams are incorporating gun run concepts into non-traditional spread personnel groups (21/12 personnel groups) and out of the Pistol backset.

Many of the advancements of the sport in the last 10-15 years have been based off of the zone read, subsequent adjustments — reading the defensive tackle, or the linebacker (which I will call Key for clarification for the duration of the article) — and the defense’s response in the ever evolving battle of “who-has-the-chalk-last-wins.”

Below are some wrinkles off of the Read/Key concept packaged with other schemes that I encountered this spring.

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Cool “trick” formation empty set series

Via Derek Leonard of Rochester high school. Note that the quarterback for Rochester was Wes Lunt, who is now the starting quarterback at Oklahoma State.

Paragraph of the day, red zone playcalling edition

Red Zone Play-Calling

On a first down Red Zone play, teams are more likely to score if it’s a run than a pass if they are at the 8 yard line or closer. Anything between the 9 and the 20 favors a pass on first down. That doesn’t mean that 100% pass is the optimal strategy, just that the play calling should favor the pass (or run inside the 9). For goal to go situations after first down, second down is the ultimate OC’s choice. From anywhere 10 and in on second and goal running and passing have nearly identical touchdown percents. On third and goal, the run still holds up strongly. A called run is more likely to score a TD on anything from the 6 and in than a pass, which owns 7 and up. Again, not saying the strategy should be 100%, but there is real value to favoring the run inside the 7.

There is more data driven situational analysis here.

Combining quick passes, run plays and screens in the same play

Given that humans lack clairvoyance, there is no such thing as the perfect play-caller and thus much of the development in football strategy has centered on how to get into (or out of) a given play because the defense is well suited to defend the one that was called. Indeed, quarterbacks have called audibles at the line of scrimmage for decades, and a few years ago the hot idea was calling multiple plays in the huddle.

Let's not make this too complicated

Most famously, Peyton Manning was supposedly given three plays to choose from on every down, though this was likely a bit of hyperbole. Calling two plays in the huddle remains very common, however. The method for this is simple: Two plays are called in the huddle, and then at the line the quarterback either confirms the first play (usually by saying a color) or “killing” the first play which indicates that the second will be run (by saying “kill” at the line). For example, the quarterback might call “Red Right [formation] 24 Wham [run to the right] and 70 curl [pass play].” At the line he’ll either say the confirming word (i.e. “Black! Black!”) or will kill that play so they can run the pass play (i.e. “Kill! Kill!”).

That’s all well and good, but is still cumbersome and, most importantly, the defense can still make the offense wrong after the quarterback has made his decision at the line. Moreover, with the rise of no-huddle offenses, there aren’t as many opportunities to call multiple plays at the line and have the quarterback check into one or another. The name of the game for defenses is confusion and movement, and even at the lower levels you never know how a kid might react. Increasingly, the answer to this has been to package concepts together, such that the quarterback has different options depending on what the defense does after the snap. I previously discussed packaging quick passes with five-step or dropback passes together. This is a great concept, but is quarterback intensive: the quarterback has to look for the quick pass and then reset his feet with depth and then go through another progression — not something every quarterback can do.

The answer has been to combine plays but to simplify the reads for the quarterback. There are three main forms this concept can take: (1) a base run play with a simple pre-snap backside pass concept built in; (2) quick passes combined with a draw play; and (3) quick passes combined with a screen pass. I’ll discuss each in turn.

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Game planning (and game theory) wisdom from . . . Lane Kiffin

From the 2011 Nike Coach of the Year Clinic:

Each year we do a self-scout at the end of the year…. After the review, we could see where we made mistakes of adding plays that we did not have time to perfect. We have decided to stop running plays we add late in the week, and we do not have enough reps where our players feel comfortable running them. We may add a play to take advantage of a team that widens their 3-technique. We work on that all week, and when we get into the game, the opponent does not widen the 3-technique, and we have wasted a lot of time working on something we did not need.

I want to encourage you to stay away from doing that next season…. You will see something you think will work, and you think it will help you in the next game. You get to the game, and you see it does not work. You need to go back and call the plays the players know; just call them from a different formation.

NFL Team to Watch – Sam Bradford’s St. Louis Rams

When it comes to football as stimulating entertainment, not all teams are created equal. This is part of my pre-season series on Teams to Watch, which literally means to “watch their game,” not necessarily to “watch out for” (though it can mean that too)

The St. Louis Rams, who went 7-9 in 2010, were not a great team last season and are unlikely to be a great one this year. But there is reason for optimism. First, Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams’ second-year head coach, has been reshaping the defense in his image, and appears to be the steady hand on the wheel the team lacked under Scott Linehan. Second, the offensive line should improve and the backfield looks better and deeper than it is has been since Marshall Faulk manned it alone in his heyday: The great Steven Jackson returns, this time with some assistance from new additions Cadillac Williams and the quick Jerious Norwood. And, of course, Sam Bradford had a magnificent rookie season, where he undoubtedly showed that he is a future NFL great. Or did he? As Chase explains:

Sam Bradford’s rookie season has been incredibly overrated by nearly every football writer and talking head. . . The problem when it comes to evaluationg Bradford is that too many people are paying too much attention to the wrong stats. Bradford’s 2010 performance wasn’t very good, even for a rookie. Over the past 20 seasons, there have been 37 quarterbacks to throw at least 224 passes in their rookie season. According to the Net Yards per Attempt Index, which grades each quarterback by his average net yards per pass attempt adjusted for era, Bradford ranks just 22nd out of 37 quarterbacks. That puts him just behind Tony Banks and Trent Edwards, and right ahead of Joey Harrington and Matt Stafford. Bradford ranked 31st in NY/A last season, only topping Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen; he ranked just 29th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Does that scream superstar to you?

I am a bit more hopeful, and that is why I’ll be catching Rams games this fall. Specifically, although I agree that Bradford’s rookie season should not be exalted as one of the all-time greats, I am willing to go beyond the stats in this case and apply some of that good ol’ fashioned “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” type of analysis. And what I saw was a smart young quarterback on a bad-to-mediocre team with a horrendous supporting cast, who managed to get himself through a lot of ballgames by taking the conservative option, dumping it off, and picking spots to throw downfield. I saw a quarterback who didn’t fall on his face, but, along with developing those downfield weapons, will have to learn to push the ball downfield. Most telling in this regard was St. Louis’s most important game, against Seattle late in the season. Had the Rams won that game, they would have been in the playoffs, but Bradford struggled against Pete Carroll’s blitz schemes, managing only roughly four yards per pass attempt and an interception. But I saw a guy who, with another year of maturity and a better supporting cast, could develop into a good NFL starter (with the added benefit of a generally weak division).

Moreover, the statistics are not all bad. Bradford’s 5.4 Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt (Pro Football Reference’s vaunted quarterback stat), although not great, was better than the rookie number for another highly touted rookie: Peyton Manning only had a 5.2 AY/A in 1998, his rookie season. My point is not that Bradford was 0.2 better than Manning, but instead simply that with young quarterbacks it’s a guessing game. Remember too that Bradford was coming off a college season where he barely registered any snaps due to injuries, and logic indicates that he’s at least on the right direction.

But the point is well taken: Bradford will not be Tom Brady this season, and his progress will be as dependent on his supporting cast as it will be on himself. Most specifically, Bradford needs his receiving corps to step up and improve. The only sure thing returning is former undrafted received Danny Amendola, referred to as a Welker clone for many reasons, some more obvious than others, but not least of all because they both were slot receivers at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. Amendola will roam the undercoverage, but from there it’s anyone’s guess: rookies Austin Pettis and Greg Salas look promising but are unknowns, Donnie Avery returns from injury, veterans Mike Sims-Walker, Danario Alexander, and Brandon Gibson have done some good things; no one really knows. Yet it’s not necessary in modern football to have two great gamebreakers outside, like Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, to have an effective passing attack. And no one knows this better than new Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

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Why it’s almost always a bad idea to go for a two-point conversion in the first half

The 2000 Outback Bowl, one of the most entertaining games in the ballyhooed “Big 10 vs. SEC” category, featured (at the time) the “largest comeback” in bowl history. Purdue, on the strength of game MVP Drew Brees’s four touchdown passes, built a 25 – 0 lead in the first twenty minutes. But Purdue lost 28-25 after Georgia tied the game at 25 to send it to overtime and then kicked the game winning field goal in the the extra period. Brees would finish with over 370 yards passing (on 60 attempts!) while Bulldogs quarterback Quincy Carter went 20-of-33 for 243 yards, had no picks and ran for one touchdown while throwing for another. But it was Purdue’s Tiller who was the affair’s de facto protagonist: His first-half gameplan’s featured a brilliant aerial assault which blitzkrieged Georgia coach Jim Donnan’s blitz-happy strategy (in an early example of the folly of trying to outblitz the spread), but some of his in-game decisions lacked, uh, rigor.

The score should stick out to you: 25? Purdue got that odd total by scoring four touchdowns but then following them with a missed PAT and two failed two-point conversion attempts. The missed PAT was not what one hopes for, but the problem was that Tiller then fell into the classic two-point conversion trap: The coach thinks that because his team missed a PAT he “must” go for two so that his team can have the “correct” score (i.e., some multiple of 7). This is wrong. Unless going for two is simply a better strategy in general (more on that later), it is almost always a bad idea to go for two in the first half simply to achieve some desired score because in the first-half there are far too many unpredictable end-game scores for it to make any specific score worth the cost of choosing a suboptimal strategy to engineer that desired number — it’s only at the end of the game that some specific score (seven versus eight versus or two versus three) really makes a difference. Indeed, this effect was even more acute here because Georgia had no points at all, so it’s not as if Tiller could envision what combination of scores Georgia would actually get to match his team. Put another way, given the point differential, why did it matter that his team was up 21 versus 20, or 27 versus 26? Indeed, it turned out the key difference was not between getting the two-point conversion and getting the PAT, it was between getting the PAT and getting nothing at all — having 19 instead of 20, and 25 instead of 26.

This is a  very different question from whether going for two is better in general: it’s generally not, otherwise it would be a dominant strategy (in the game theory sense) and teams should go for two all the time. (Note that for this analysis I’ve assumed you have a good PAT kicker. Not having one can dramatically change the approach in, say, high school. For Purdue this shouldn’t have been an issue, however, as despite the fact that Purdue missed its PAT its kicker was actually an All-American placekicker, so it truly was Tiller just trying to recoup the score.) My criticism of Tiller is that his odds of converting didn’t change when he missed the first PAT (and they possibly went down given some game theoretic alterations in the defense’s response), so the fact that he changed his strategy was not rational and in actual fact ended up hurting his team’s chances of winning.

Those are the universal reasons why I recommend against going for two except as part of an endgame strategy. But another complaint applies to Tiller’s choice to go for two in this particular game when he had such a big lead. Remember, the probability of winning a football game is not only about expected values but also about the variance of those returns. Risky strategies are better for underdogs not necessarily because they increase their expected offensive or defensive prowess, but because the variance is good in and of itself: risky strategies flatten the bell curve; the risky strategies cause a wider disparity in the outcomes, even if the average outcome is the exact same, thus increasing the “tails”, or the underdog’s chance of winning the game. The Citadel is not going to beat Alabama with a strategy of three-yards and a cloud of dust, punts, and “let’s play for field position.” And the phenomenon works the other way too: if you’re expected to win, uncompensated risk (i.e. that doesn’t carry a higher expected return, like Purdue’s excellent passing attack with Drew Brees) is not your friend. And there is no question that going for two is riskier than going for one.

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How do NFL players memorize all those plays?

Dilfer said it’s a three-year process to own a particular playbook. Owning a play is different from memorizing it, Dilfer explained. “Owning it to me goes from knowing it to understanding it to it becoming instinctive,” Dilfer said.

How does one own the plays? “If you’re not spending an hour every day in your playbook, you’re cheating your teammates,” Dilfer said. He stated quarterbacks should study three hours per day, given their extra responsibilities in commanding an offense.

It can take a while just to lock down a playbook’s language. “A lot of coaches use numbering systems,” Dilfer added. He said odd numbers are typically used for plays to the right, even numbers for plays to the left. Many offenses use T and D words for formations: T for Trips, where three receivers are lined up on one side, and D for double sets, such as double tight ends.

Dilfer cited an example of one play with a different meaning in two systems. “Red Right 22 Texas is a West Coast play,” Dilfer explained. “In another system, it’s Split Right Scat Right 639 F Angle. What some players will do when they go to a new team, is when it’s Split Right Scat Right, they go, ‘Oh, that’s 22 Texas.’ They hear one thing and they put old language on it; you have to learn the new language.” Leinart admitted as much in his transition from the Cardinals to the Texans.

[…]

Dhani Jones, a middle linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, said memorizing plays isn’t as difficult as understanding their philosophy. “I don’t drop the language (from previous systems),” said Jones, who’s also been on the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles during his 10-year career. “It’s just different words that are used. Quarters coverage is the same as Cloud coverage is the same as strong-side rotated coverage. They’re just named differently.”
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Why every team should install its offense in three days (and other political theories on coaching offense)

Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia’s new offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting, has frequently said that his entire record breaking offense can be installed “in three days.” And, now that his three days of spring practice are up, he said on day four his team will simply “start over,” and will run through this install period three or four times during the spring. Wait, what? Hasn’t Holgorsen been a part of record breaking offenses for more than a decade, including the last three (at Houston and then Oklahoma State) as head orchestrator? Doesn’t saying you can install your entire top tier Division-I men’s college football offense in three lousy days seem a little bit like, I don’t know, bullshit?

Entire offense, three days -- power through

It does, but only because “complexity” is too often accepted as an end in and of itself and because we undervalue gains from specialization. As Holgorsen says, “no one” in his offense will play more than one position; he doesn’t even want someone to play both “inside and outside receiver.” The idea is a simple one: with limited practice time and, to be honest, limited skills, kids need to focus on a few things and to get better at them — the jack of all trades is incredibly overrated. While Urban Meyer’s Florida offense thrived for a time with Tebow and his omnipositional teammate, Percy Harvin, I’d argue that this reliance on a “Percy Position” — a guy that can play most every skill position on offense — eventually does more harm than good. I’m all for getting the ball to playmakers in different ways, but I am not — and neither is Holgorsen — a fan of doing it to the detriment of repetitions and becoming a master at your given position. It’s nature versus nurture on the football practice field, and I side with nurture.

Put another way, if your offense is well designed you don’t need to move a guy around to get him the ball. As one of Holgorsen’s assistants at West Virginia explains:

“Wes Welker at Texas Tech caught over 100 balls two years in a row and he played ‘H,” Dawson said. Michael Crabtree caught over 100 (at Texas Tech) and he play ‘Z.’ I had two receivers back to back that caught over 100 and that played ‘X.’ Then I had a guy catch 119 that played ‘Y.’

“It just depends on where that guy lines up,” Dawson continued. “The ball finds the play makers. Regardless of where you line them up. The ball finds the play makers. That is just the way it works out.”

If you’re looking for the guiding principle here, it is not one specific to football. Instead, it is (at least) as old as the opening of the Wealth of Nations:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.
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