New Grantland: How Will NFL Teams Defend the Read-Option?

It’s now up over at Grantland:

That second player doesn’t even have to be a linebacker. Alabama, which has won three national championships in four years and boasts the best defense in college football, constantly varies the defenders assigned to the quarterback. When Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart gives a “force” call, he explains, that leads to a gap replacement with the defensive end. “The quarterback sees the crashing end and pulls the ball,” Smart says. “We roll the free safety down to the line of scrimmage and he has the quarterback.” And all this varies based on the opponent. “If the quarterback is a better runner, we make him give to the tailback,” said Smart. “If the tailback is the better runner, we give the force call, and the defensive end crashes inside and makes the quarterback pull the ball.”

safety1

Not all the problems with defending these plays last season were tactical. NFL defenders not used to the read-option frequently lacked the mastery of the subtle techniques that made them All-Pros against traditional attacks. Backside defenders — usually the very player the quarterback is reading — have an especially difficult job. “The defensive end gets the shaft because he has to play two aspects: the dive, the bend of the dive to the inside out to the QB,” says Aranda, the Wisconsin defensive coordinator. This fundamental problem is also why the old just-hit-the-quarterback tactic is not optimal, at least as an every-down strategy. If the defensive end or linebacker gets upfield too quickly, that means he is not squeezing the cutback and may be opening up a huge lane for the quarterback.

Read the whole thing.

Smart Notes – Trick passes, Rich Rodriguez, Emory Bellard- 2/12/2011

This has already gone everywhere:

There are two lessons to this: (1) this kind of trickery doesn’t always translate well to actual playing time, and obviously playing quarterback requires a lot of skills beyond this sort of thing and (2) this is still great stuff, but, related to (1), the football being an extension of you is merely necessary rather than sufficient to be a great quarterback. You can see this latter point in basketball: if you ever visit an NBA or even college practice, you can see the players doing unreal things with the ball, but in a game, with the pressure on and defense, it’s much more difficult. That said, you can also take the lesson that it takes more than being able to throw a couple of nice passes in backyard football (or to hit a few shots at the local gym) to be great. The real thing is always harder than it looks.

Emory Bellard has passed away. Bellard, father of the wishbone (he wanted to call it the “Y” offense), was the original from-high-school-to-the-big-leagues-with-a-wacky-offense guy:

Bellard was on Darrell Royal’s staff at Texas in 1968 when the Longhorns developed a formation with three running backs that came to be known as the wishbone.

He coached at Texas high schools for more than two decades and won three state titles. His success landed him on the Texas staff, and while other assistants relaxed during the summer before the 1968 season, Bellard was busy trying to figure out a way to utilize a strong group of running backs after Texas endured three straight mediocre seasons. (more…)

Deconstructing: The search for the perfect spread QB

I have a new bit up on Yahoo! (belatedly, after I sent the wrong draft… I owe the good Doctor mightily) comparing how Gus Malzahn uses Cam Newton to how Rich Rodriguez is using Denard Robinson. Hint: Newton’s favorite play is the inverted veer or dash package, while Denard’s is the outside zone.

Check it out. (Make sure the version you read begins with “Sometimes, in college football….” The first version that went up was based on an earlier draft, and was incomplete (my fault).)

Rich Rodriguez on the spread run game

Nothing revolutionary, but good stuff.

Smart Notes 8/30/09

In his discussion of the Michigan fracas, Dr Saturday steps back:

But the broader implication isn’t about the changing culture at Michigan as much as it is the longstanding culture at all big football schools, where the notion of “voluntary” workouts and hourly limits have been met with winks for years. A survey of Division I athletes last year revealed the reality: Time limits or not, big-time football everywhere is a full-time job that consumes vastly more hours than the NCAA officially sanctions — and has to be, if the competition is putting in the same work. That players will “voluntarily” go above and beyond the proscribed limits is taken for granted. (It hardly seems like a coincidence that at least 20 college players have collapsed and died following offseason workouts in the last decade, which was practically unheard of even under old school sadists like Bear Bryant.) Coaches follow the letter of the law at the peril of their records and their jobs.

In that sense, assuming that Carr’s staff really were the sticklers they’re widely reputed to be (an assumption backed up by the Free Press’ reports), the exuberance of their successors is just another case of Rodriguez and Barwis bringing the program into the 21st Century. The fact that they’re being singled out may only be because they’re doing it at one of the very few places that knows the difference.

In other words, there is a degree of hypocrisy in singling out Rodriguez, but it is only in the fact that this has become normal, and even expected. It is, in modern big-time football, the cost of winning. Maybe Rodriguez went too far (or maybe not), but it makes little sense to single out Rodriguez and Michigan, at least for most of the allegations. (The Sunday stuff, if true, does seem excessive.)

There is also little point in the NCAA having rules no one can be expected to comply with. The NCAA practice limits are quite stringent, and there are obvious reasons why a school would want their players to practice more than the NCAA limits would allow. Besides improving their overall conditioning and fitness, or their football skills, the large amounts of downtime for student-athletes who only practice about four hours a day and are, in many cases at least, barely even students can lead to a lot of time to get in trouble off-the-field. I’m not singling out football players as miscreants, but instead just pointing out that many 19 year-old males do stupid things, and scholarship football players are given a lot of freedom and privilege — a lot of rope to hang themselves with. Call it the Cesar Millan/Dog whisperer strategy: if you make kids work harder they are less likely to have the time (or energy) to get into trouble. (In high school, many teams schedule an early morning Saturday morning practice where the focus is on the younger guys; for the varsity players, the point is to make them get up early and thus deter them from staying out late after football games on Friday night.)

In any event, the point of the rule seems to be, among other things, to protect the image of players as “student athletes” — they don’t treat their sport as a full-time job. This is of course a classic case of image versus reality, and a conflict that will not go away. For every scholarship football player who spends extra time pursuing their degree, there are countless others for whom it is just a full-time job. And it is not like fans, if they are honest, would have it another way. I have never heard a player come off the field and say, “You know, I’m sorry I didn’t play well this week. I’m taking a lot of really interesting classes and I stayed up late to work on them and I skipped some extra film study so I could go to my professor’s office hours — man it was fascinating. I promise to refocus next week.” The NFL has no such identity crisis, but it’s just another symptom of college football’s dual role as a business that puts out a sports product where the employees are “student athletes” paid (primarily) with a free education. This tension won’t go away.

- Thanatos and football. As the Doc also noted, practicing football has become increasingly deadly. He says,  “It hardly seems like a coincidence that at least 20 college players have collapsed and died following offseason workouts in the last decade, which was practically unheard of even under old school sadists like Bear Bryant.”

Why football players are dying is a tricky question, and theories abound. Are they the same and they were just underreported previously? Are workouts tougher? Are kids less able to handle these workouts because they spend the rest of their time inside, playing video games, etc? Is it the supplement industry, with creatine-influenced cramping, reduced water retention, and sports/redbull/caffeine drink induced increased heart rates causing the injuries? It’s very hard to say.

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The zone-read, gun triple-option . . . and the quadruple-option?

White_readerIt wasn’t long after the zone-read was invented that coaches began dabbling in ways to turn the play into a “triple option” — i.e. with a third possible ballcarrier based on a second quarterback read. Both Rich Rodriguez and Randy Walker started doing it early on, and by the time Urban Meyer was running his spread at Utah, the idea of having a “pitch back” or “pitch phase” for the quarterback if he pulled the ball after reading the defensive end was here to stay.

Now, this enhanced spread run game should not be confused with the true triple-option stuff, as veer offenses, like Paul Johnson’s flexbone, have certain blocking scheme advantages in that the guys being “optioned” are specifically avoided so as to enable double-team blocks on other defenders — an advantage not present with the zone-read. (This is one reason why many spread teams, including Urban Meyers’s and Rich Rodriguez’s, run the veer nowadays.) But there is no question that, as the spread has gotten older and more entrenched, the cat-and-mouse game between offense and defense has also evolved.

The current evolution has us with the zone-read-triple with a pitch back, and its more nascent cousin, the zone-read triple with a bubble screen. But some coaches are working on even more exotic spread permutations, including what can only be described as the “quadruple option.”

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