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.

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.

Playcalling doesn’t have to be difficult

Okay, so here’s a story for you. Kilff Kingsbury was our starter, and he was sort of conservative, you know? B.J. (Symons) knew what I wanted to audible to before I even said it, but Kilff was just careful like that. It was third and long against someone, and their corner was cheating way up. Kind of a cheat back, and then at the last second he’d pop up.”

“Well, we had good technique, and were pretty good getting off the line, so I called “Six,” or our call for four verticals. We had it, and I called it, and Kliff shook me off. Now most of the time I’m fine with quarterbacks shaking me off, but we had this, and I got mad and called time out and said some things to Kliff.”

He spits in the ocean, and continues.

“So Kliff goes out there, and I call “Six” again, and he shakes me off again, and now we get delay of game. It’s fourth down, and we’re on our own forty, but I just call it again and have some words with Kliff. We hit it against that corner cheating up for a touchdown, and Kliff comes up and starts yelling at me angry on the sideline: ‘FINE, FINE, ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? WE DID IT YOUR WAY, AND NOW ARE YOU HAPPY?’ And I was.”

That’s from Spencer Hall’s day on the boat with Mike Leach, who is bordering on overexposed right now. That said, the above anecdote is great, and does more (for me) to illuminate why he’s worth studying than all of the Adam James stuff. I have read his new book and do recommend it, and I plan to have more to say about it in the near future.

You be the offensive coordinator/quarterback: Dealing with the blitz

In my most recent post for Dr Saturday I discussed some of Florida’s struggles on offense. The particular topic was some of Florida’s struggles in pass protection in all phases: accounting for potential rushers, sustaining the blocks, the receivers getting open on time, and the quarterback delivering the ball on time. In the post I showed what went wrong on the play, as the video below shows.

But it’s much easier to show what went wrong than it is to answer: What would you have done differently? Specifically, let’s say you are the OC who can signal a play in or you are the quarterback with a menu of checks and calls at the line. Your squad lines up in five wide, on third and goal (your team is leading), and the other team is showing a man blitz. Here’s what you see (the receivers are all covered down by guys showing man-to-man).

1_empty

You know they have at least a possible six guys to blitz against your five, if not more if they don’t cover down on one of the slots at the snap. Below is a diagram of the play Florida had called — a double smash concept. Note that the rule for the outside receiver’s in man is to convert the route to some kind of pivot route to the outside.

1_EMPTYSMASH

So what do you do here? Here is a non-exhaustive list of options. You make the call.

  1. Stick with the play as called. Although they have one more guy than you can block, your other guys should protect well, the QB should step up in the pocket, and throw the corner route (or another route) before the blitzer gets there. It was an execution problem.
  2. Call timeout. You can’t block all their guys, and have a bad playcall. Try again.
  3. Check to a short, three-step pass. Yes it is third and goal but better to throw a short completion with a chance to run it into the end zone.
  4. Check to a three step fade pass. You need to throw it into the end zone but don’t have time for any other play that gets it into the end zone.
  5. No need for a check, but the play should have a “sight-adjust” built in, where if the QB and receivers both read blitz they break off their route for a slant. Yes this read can get muddied against zone blitzes, but this is the right situation for it. Everyone should read this on the fly.
  6. Check the play to a receiver screen. Same philosophy as the short pass — get it to an athlete with some room to run, though this time with some blockers.
  7. Check to a quarterback trap or draw. You have an excellent runner at quarterback, why not use him? Yes it is third and long but you avoid the dangerous play, and if you block the trap or draw right and their defenders are too aggressive, you might score.
  8. Stay with the same playcall, but make a call to shift one of the split receivers in tight to be an extra blocker. Yes they can always blitz one more than you can block, but might as well put on a full six-man gap scheme and force the extra rusher to come from further away.
  9. Shift a receiver in to act as a runningback for a more advanced run play, like the speed option or a zone read. This is basically a full audible with a change of formation and playcall. Note that the defense could adjust too, given this opportunity.
  10. Some other option I haven’t listed.

Now, no team would give their quarterback this many options at the line, but most teams give their quarterback the ability to get into at least three of these. Some (like the sight-adjust) is either built into the offense or it isn’t.

So what is it? You make the call.

Wild Bill: double coverage and drawing up plays in the dirt

belichickerSome interesting tidbits from the post-game pressers regarding Bill Belichick. First, his defensive tactics against the Falcons and how worried he was about Falcons tight-end Anthony Gonzalez:

Q: Can you talk about the job the defense did on Tony Gonzalez? He was a big topic of conversation this week.

Belichick: Well, he’s good. We devoted a lot of coverage to him. We doubled him a lot and he’s a guy — game plan-wise — that you’ve got to account for. You’ve got to put some coverage on him; he’s really hard to handle. Again, I thought our guys stepped up and did a good job on him. We doubled him plenty of times and he still caught the ball. He’s tough, but then we held up in some other spots as well. Terrence [Wheatley], Shawn [Springs] and Leigh [Bodden] really did a good job out there. We didn’t give them very much help and they stepped up to the challenge on a good group of receivers and did a competitive job. . . .

Q: Can you talk about the job Brandon McGowan did today? It looked like he was part of your coverage on Tony Gonzalez.

Belichick: Oh, he was. Brandon [McGowan], it seems like he does a good job for us every week in the kicking game and on defense. He’s involved in a lot of plays, makes tackles and is a good coverage player and he did. He had a lot of responsibility on Gonzalez today. But we put a lot of coverage on Tony, too, and I’m not taking anything away from the job Brandon did, but we gave him some help. I mean Gonzalez is almost impossible to matchup with. . . .

Q: Were there changes defensively in the second half?

Belichick: No, not really. It was basically the same game plan we went into the game with. The calls matchup differently like they always do. Certainly, a big part of this game was to deal with Gonzalez, which I am not coming in here talking about him being seven [catches] for 110 [yards] with two touchdowns. . . .

And then Tom Brady had some interesting insight into Belichick’s role with the offense, specifically in drawing up plays in the dirt:

Q: On the Chris Baker touchdown, a guy had you in his grasp, but you were able to get away from the defense and deliver the ball well.

Brady: Yeah it was great protection. It wasn’t how we drew that play up. It was pretty much on the sideline, Coach Belichick said, ‘Well, what do you think about this?’ The guys that ran the play didn’t run it all week in practice and they made an adjustment. Chris [Baker] has been really dependable for us since the day he got here, and he made a great catch and run. . . .

Q: You said Bill Belichick drew up the Chris Baker touchdown play on the sideline. Was he more involved in the offensive communication with you and the play calling this week?

Brady: He’s always involved. He’s involved in every play that’s called. That one, like I said, we just kind of drew it up there on the sidelines and made it work.

Spurrier wants balance: Is he asking the right questions? Are his critics?

Steve Spurrier watched the game film of his offense’s horrible performance against NC State and concluded: we weren’t aggressive enough. And people are ridiculing him for it.

Steve Spurrier has watched the entire N.C. State game twice and part of it a third time.

The South Carolina coach reached two conclusions: The Gamecocks were too conservative offensively in their 7-3 win in Raleigh, and such an approach is not going to cut it this weekend at Georgia.

“We had a pretty conservative game plan. I didn’t realize how really conservative it was until I watched the game twice now – almost three times,” Spurrier said Sunday. “We wanted to give the running game a chance, so we did do that. But we obviously need to try for some big plays along the way a little bit more probably.”

USC’s run-pass ratio in the opener was nearly 2-to-1, with the Gamecocks running 42 times and attempting 22 passes (although some of those rushes were scrambles by or sacks of quarterback Stephen Garcia).

Still, the attack looked much too plain for a coach credited with introducing the SEC to an intricate downfield passing attack in the 1990s.

And while Spurrier is not ready to scrap the Gamecocks’ revamped rushing scheme after one game, he made it clear he wants to see a more balanced attack against Georgia.

“We certainly can’t bring that game plan to beat Georgia on offense. I don’t think we can,” Spurrier said. “But we don’t want to send Stephen back there and get sacked and run around all night either. We’ve got to get us a balance between runs and passes that we can hit and look like a good offense.”

The buzz has been that Spurrier must be nuts — hey, he’s already given up on the run game. But look at the numbers. I’ve previously talked about a notion of “balance” that only looks at the number of runs or passes or the total yards with rushing and passing as being misleading, and that a far better metric is comparing the expected — or, in lieu of that, average — yards per attempt of each, though, since passes are riskier than runs, passes should still average more (have a premium). The reason is because the defense will respond to your playcalling; it’s a game theory thing.

So let’s look at the numbers. Overall, the Gamecocks averaged a measly 2.57 yards per rush, and an okay 6.7 yards per attempt, though with an interception. There can be problems at looking at the raw numbers, particularly on third down where the result is binary: convert or fail to convert. So let’s look at first down, where clearly the optimal strategy is to maximize your expected gain.

The sample is small, but on first down South Carolina ran the ball 16 times and averaged a mere 3.06 yards per carry. They threw it nine times for 78 yards (and no INTs), resulting in a very healthy 8.67 yards per attempt. I can safely say that Spurrier should have called more first down passes. The OBC’s instincts are right. His playcalling was too conservative, at least on first down, which is the most important down in football because there are more first downs than any other down.