Jul 302015

Check it out here:

“Mazzone’s snag concept is one of the best in the game at achieving such consistency.  The concept is simple, hard to defend, and easy for the quarterback to read.

Essentially, the snag puts the outside linebacker in conflict (as spread offenses so often do), forcing him to either defend the snag route (a route run at a 45  degree towards the middle of the field by the outside receiver, who stops at five yards and looks for the ball) or the swing route by the running back.  The number two receiver (second man from the outside) runs a vertical route (usually a corner), which is difficult for the safety to defend if the cornerback gets involved on either the snag or the swing route.  The middle linebacker, who (in many defenses) opens towards the number three receiver (the running back), has a long way to run to get involved with the play, especially if it is run to the wide side of the field.  The play is not only effective because the quarterback is given easy passing targets, but because forcing the linebackers to vacate the box so often helps the Bruins to establish their prolific run game.”

Jul 132015

I’ve recently been in conversations with californiagoldenblogs.com, and will now be writing posts for them in addition to totalamericanfootball.com. This means that totalamericanfootball.com will become somewhat Cal centric. It does not mean that there will only be posts about Cal.

Aside from being my favorite college team, Cal is also an exciting team to watch from a coaching perspective; Tony Franklin has long at the forefront of the offensive game (his “Tony Franklin System” is used by high schools across the U.S.), and Sonny Dykes is on the path towards a successful (and complete) program makeover/rebuild.

My latest post is up now, and details how talent + execution = probability of success in the context of a key third down conversion for Cal. Check it out here.

“…Colorado, however, does not stay in a two high safety shell.  They tip their hand just before the snap.  One of two high safeties creeps towards the line of scrimmage, while the other walks towards the center of the formation.  They have disguised the coverage for most of the pre snap period, but now their options are more limited.  Realistically, in this one high shell, only one defender will defend the out route by Stephen Anderson: the outside linebacker/nickelback who is aligned just to the inside of Anderson.  This is because Colorado must account for a vertical route by the #1 receiver (the widest receiver); the safety has too far to run from the middle of the field to cover this route by himself (or to help with an out route by #2), thus meaning that the cornerback must cover a vertical route by #1, therefore leaving only one man who can possibly defend an out route by #2: the inside linebacker/nickelback…”

Apr 202015

By now, it is clear to those who follow the draft that the (on the field) evaluation between Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston hinges in large part on whether one believes that Mariota can be accurately evaluated as a professional quarterback, due to his operating Oregon’s “college” offense. Winston, on the other hand, is considered more of a known entity, due to his operating a “professional” offense that allows evaluators to see him make “professional” reads and throws.

I use quotation marks for “college” and “professional” because the line between college and professional offensive systems is increasingly blurry. I find the use of such terms to lack nuance, and believe that “college” is used in an incorrectly negative way. I do not agree with the notion that quarterbacks running “college” offenses will necessarily struggle in the NFL, and I disagree that “college” offenses are lesser than “professional” offenses. I believe that “college” offenses are often smarter and more efficient than “professional” offenses, and that creating a system that is simple to learn and that can defeat any defense takes at least as much intelligence and creativity as does building a complex, gameplan-oriented “professional” offense.

Having said that, evaluating a quarterback who has only operated out of one style of offense is inherently difficult when projecting him to play in another style of offense – and this is the difficulty in evaluating Mariota for teams who do not wish to adopt an offense similar to what Mariota ran at Oregon and what his former coach – Chip Kelly – runs with the Eagles.

Put aside, as well, the debate as to whether professional teams should adopt quarterback friendly offensive schemes to fit the skills of their quarterbacks (see here, here, and here for speculation on the future of quarterback play in the NFL). This post only seeks to clarify why the evaluation is difficult for one who seeks to draft Mariota and use him in a traditional, “professional” offense.

The following videos (produced by draftbreakdown.com, a great resource for studying more than the highlights of college prospects) of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston in the Rose Bowl playing against each other display these differences.

Mariota against Florida State:

Note, from the outset, Oregon’s reliance on quick screens. These passes are not a staple of professional offenses, but make up a significant portion of Oregon’s attack. As you continue to watch, note how many times Mariota takes quick drops from play action fakes. 0:23 is a great example. Mariota executes a play action fake, then snaps his feet and bounces in the pocket. There is no drop, and his pocket is clean. None of these elements are helpful to NFL evaluators. Evaluators want to see a quarterback take a drop from under center (Mariota almost never did so) or – at the least – to make a full read progression, and they want to evaluate him from a collapsing pocket. Oregon’s offensive style and prodigiousness makes finding such plays difficult. Mariota throws on the play to a receiver crossing with room behind the linebacker level. Again, while such a throw does happen in the NFL, it is not considered a timing pass that can accurately display Mariota’s ability to make NFL throws into tighter windows that close faster than in college. Though he misses the throw here, this is the type of concept (crossing routes behind linebackers who are held by run fakes) that Mariota and Oregon thrive on. As you watch the film, keep track of how many times Mariota starts in a similar fashion – play fake, set feet, quick throw (screen or otherwise). Or – three step drop, quick throw. NFL evaluators have fewer plays on which to evaluate Mariota making “professional” throws and reads, and fewer plays equals more uncertainty. Uncertainty is not what many scouts want when drafting a quarterback high in the first round.

Winston against Oregon:

Winston, on the other hand, crosses off many of the boxes (on the field, that is) for a top quarterback prospect. Big, well built, strong arm, good enough athlete, high scholastic intelligence (again, ignoring off the field and maturity issues), and – related to this conversation – makes “professional” throws from a “professional” offense. Though he also operates from the shotgun in spread formations for a high percentage of his plays (much more than the public perception seems to recognize), the evaluator can see him taking drops, setting in the pocket, and reading a full field. A much lower percentage of Winston’s throws are quick, “automatic” reads. A high percentage of Florida State’s passing plays require taking a drop, reading a progression, and delivering with timing. Anyone who watched Tom Brady in the Super Bowl knows that running a large portion of one’s offense from shotgun, spread formations is no longer just a college phenomenon. Starting at 6:51, we see two successive plays that illustrate why evaluators see Winston’s game translating to the NFL. On both throws, Winston takes a drop (albeit from the shotgun), is patient, and completes an anticipation throw to a receiver in a deep middle zone. On both throws, Winston began his throw before the receiver had broken to the inside. These plays illustrate anticipation throws that are so common in the NFL – Winston knows the route, knows where the receiver will be breaking, and knows that the defense will not be in that spot because of their zone drop concepts and their lack of momentum towards that location. Both throws show arm strength, accuracy, coverage recognition, and anticipation, all of which are considered vital to success in a “professional” offense. Evaluators will have more difficulty finding and judging these types of throws in Mariota’s game.

One key point, however, is that even though Winston operates an offense that has him making complex, “professional” reads, the offense is not a “traditional” professional offense, as much of the popular dialogue in the media would lead one to believe. In fact, a high percentage of Winston’s throws come from the shotgun. He does not consistently make 5 and 7 step drops from under center. While Mariota’s Oregon offense was certainly further removed from a “professional” offense, Winston’s Florida State offense still requires projection to a traditional “professional” offense.

Either way, the two videos illustrate the challenges for evaluators in comparing Mariota to Winston. Mariota is asked to execute an offense that requires many predetermined throws and creates a multitude of open targets that often do not require a great deal of anticipation to hit. Mariota executes the offense to near perfection, but it requires an evaluator to project his growth in a “professional” offense. Winston is asked to execute an offense that – while often from formations similar to that of Oregon – requires him to make full field reads and anticipation throws that more closely mirror “professional” concepts. Winston’s touchdown to interception ratio is far worse than Mariota’s, but an evaluator has less to project – for better or worse – when analyzing his game.

Jan 312015

Like last year, I’ve been asked to give an hour long presentation at the Brøndby IF Super Bowl party. Rather than attempt to adapt those notes into traditional post, I’ve decided to post them in their original bullet point form, which is probably the quickest way to convey the information. I was asked to start with a discussion of the evaluation process for quarterbacks and the developments of that position. Afterwards, I discuss the matchups between the offensive and defensive units of the Seahawks and Patriots (less lengthy notes, as I will use film for much of that portion of the presentation). As I state in the presentation, I hope that these notes will make the game more interesting by illuminating sometimes hidden aspects of the game:

  • Quarterback Position
    • I’ve been asked to talk about the quarterback position – how do you evaluate it and what do you look for in a quarterback, why are the players drafted where they are drafted, and how has the position developed – through the lens of Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Johnny Manziel
    • Probably the hardest position to evaluate in all of sports – why?
      • My theory is that growth and development are never a sure thing in the NFL.
      • The NFL is so fast and complex that you can almost never know how a player will adjust – it isn’t book smarts/pure intelligence, it is the ability to scan the entire field and anticipate with the correct timing and take in large amounts of information on the fly – you won’t know if they will develop until they do – there are some predictors, like success at the college level, intelligence, accuracy, etc – but a quarterback is never sure to develop beyond where they currently are, and it is hard to now where they are when they are playing in college (so many factors, like the offense they played in, the talent around them, the level of competition, etc).
        • If a QB is 75% of the way there during their rookie season, there is no guarantee that they will even get to 80% – Andy Dalton might be an example
        • Other times, a QB goes from 75% to 85% to 100% – Peyton Manning had a rough rookie season, but kept improving and improving.
        • Colin Kaepernick probably started at 50% pro style offense refinement as far as what he was asked to do in college in a run/option heavy offense, 100/100 potential when he came into the league.         Sat for a year, worked hard, jumped to maybe 80/100 refinement, plus all of that great athleticism, presence, competitiveness, intelligence, etc. But most will say that he stalled in 2014 at 80/100 on the refinement scale. Can he make the leap and bust that plateau? Hard to predict.
      • Tom Brady is a great example of difficulty in evaluation. When he was at Michigan, there was a more physically talented quarterback there – Drew Henson. He threw harder, ran faster, was a better athlete – basketball star and drafted high in baseball. In college, if they were throwing a curl route, the ball might have gotten there at the same time. BUT Brady may have been more aware of other routes and anticipated that throw, and released the ball a split second before Henson would have.         Henson may have been more locked in on that one route, and thrown the ball a split second later – but it got there at the same time because his arm was stronger, and it probably looked more impressive.
        • As a talent evaluator, that makes it tough.         As an NFL coach you look at Brady coming out of Michigan and think – he isn’t a great athlete, he isn’t going to be able to scramble, his arm isn’t amazing, he isn’t very well built…many evaluators thought he fit the mold as a backup at best.
        • But sometimes (and this is what evaluators seem to be shifting their opinion on), being able to do less makes you better.         Brady couldn’t run, he didn’t have the Jay Cutler rocket arm, he couldn’t out muscle guys like Cam Newton can – his only chance was to develop as a true pocket quarterback – so he was forced to, his back was against the wall – either he developed as a pro style QB, or he failed. He had no chance to find success in the NFL because of other physical traits.
        • Henson was kind of the opposite. He could do everything. He got a $17 million baseball contract. His back wasn’t against the wall – he didn’t just have to be a pocket quarterback. He made it to the big leagues in baseball briefly, played a few years in the NFL, but his career never took off. Maybe if he couldn’t play baseball, and if he wasn’t such a good athlete, and if he couldn’t have thrown as hard, he would have been forced to develop like Tom Brady. Or…maybe he wouldn’t have developed in that way, anyways (almost no one develops into a Tom Brady level quarterback).         This is why predicting success is so difficult.
        • Back to that curl route example – The way Brady does it computes better for the NFL, obviously. Arm strength IS very important, but Brady has enough.         In the NFL, all of those other factors play more of a role. In that example, over the course of time, Brady has made the NFL throw – the quarterback who didn’t see the whole field may have missed something else open, or his lack of anticipation may have allowed a faster defender to get in the throwing lane. Over time, the quarterback who can see the field and process the information and throw with the correct anticipation, touch, and accuracy, will far outperform the rocket armed quarterback.
      • Similar evaluation with Aaron Rodgers v Alex Smith
        • Rodgers was kind of skinny, not imposing, not an amazing athlete, arm wasn’t thought to be sensational.
        • Smith was thought to be the entire package by many scouts – bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, easier to coach than Rodgers.
        • I thought it was an obvious choice for Rodgers – quick release, great feel for the game and pocket presence – but the NFL is tempted by the “prototypical quarterback” – which is big, strong, fast, throw hard, etc. Especially with the #1 overall pick.
        • Smith was not a finished/refined product – came from a spread system – took him time to become a solid NFL QB.
        • Rodgers was a finished product in a pro system and had time to sit behind Favre – not many QBs get this anymore
          • But many evaluators thought he would fail because other Tedford quarterbacks failed
          • Similar draft profile in recent years was Teddy Bridgewater – slipped in the draft because of his slight build and lack of great athleticism or arm strength, but showed an accurate arm and the ability to process information in a pro style offense in college, and a good enough athlete to evade pressure.
            • His rookie season was good…but, as stated above, my opinion is that it is almost impossible to predict improvement in a QB.
      • Russell Wilson:
        • First round talent, had everything except for height. It is that simple – if he were a few inches taller, he would have been a top pick.
      • But it is important to note that I am not saying that there is a way to accurately find a great NFL quarterback – my point is that it is nearly impossible to predict and therefore has an enormous failure rate. This is not to downplay the importance of scouts and that some scouts are not great quarterback evaluators – but history has shown that the failure rate is extremely high.
        • If you look at what I said above, you’d be looking for a pocket quarterback with success and refinement in a pro style offense in college – guys who fit that bill include Joey Harrington and Matt Leinart – they just couldn’t do it in the NFL.
      • Best bet to find a QB who is successful: build the team around him, which will give whoever you choose the best chance to succeed.
    • Developments in the position
      • An argument that seems to be gaining steam among NFL evaluators is that an extremely mobile quarterback cannot also be a great pocket passer. The argument is that a pocket passer must have been a pocket passer for all his life, with his back against the wall like Tom Brady, in order to be great. Arguably, there is only one great QB who went from a running quarterback to a GREAT pocket quarterback – Steve Young. Russell Wilson is looking to change that perception – even though he was never exactly a “running” quarterback – he played in pro style offenses prior to the NFL – but the Seahawks currently ask him to run plenty of zone read plays and play action passing – he isn’t yet a great pocket quarterback (even though he executes exactly what Seattle asks of him – the offense just isn’t based on pocket passing to the extent of most NFL offenses).
      • Trend of previous 15 or 16 years: look for the QB who has it all. The player who was thought to revolutionize the position was Michael Vick. Strong arm, as electric as a ball carrier as anyone in the league – the idea was that he could kill you with his legs or from the pocket. This is what the quarterback of the 21st century was going to play like.
      • In most cases, it hasn’t quite worked out. Also important to note that the fail rate for first round quarterbacks was very high overall – so it is not as if drafting a pure pocket quarterback is close to a sure thing (as is probably obvious by this point in the presentation).
      • Here is a list of first round quarterbacks since Michael Vick who were thought to come from that mold – great athlete, great arm, came from a non-pro style offense
        • Michael Vick – “the future” – solid/electric NFL career, but never developed into a consistent/dependable pocket quarterback.
        • Ben Roethlisberger – played wide receiver until his senior season of high school, was mostly recruited as a tight end, but has developed until a multiple Pro Bowl, Super Bowl winning QB. Not entirely applicable to this list as he was never known as a running quarterback, and also important to note that he – like Russell Wilson – led his team to a Super Bowl championship early in his career on a run heavy team. Roethlisberger eventually developed into a pocket passer with great pocket awareness and similar evasion/improvisation skills to Wilson.
        • Alex Smith (arguably) – not a freak athlete like Vick, but a terrific one who came from Urban Meyer’s spread and had to be molded into a pocket QB – he did develop into a solid quarterback, but it took time.
        • Vince Young – some would argue that he was the most physically dominant quarterback in college football history his senior season and took over a Rose Bowl national championship against a USC team filled with NFL talent – looked promising early in his career, but failed to develop into an NFL caliber quarterback.
        • Tim Tebow – amazing athlete, failed to develop into an NFL caliber quarterback (a complicated issue – there are still people who make the argument that he could have succeeded if the offense had been built around his talents).
        • Andrew Luck – exceptional athlete and star NFL QB was always a pass first pocket QB despite his running ability – not entirely applicable to this group, but is a great athlete who was able to focus on becoming a great pocket QB.
        • Cam Newton – jury is still out on whether he will develop into a true pocket QB (or whether it is necessary). Has been successful and has won while developing into a pocket quarterback in an offense that takes advantage of his athleticism.
        • Jake Locker – great athlete so far has disappointed as a pocket quarterback – injuries have played a role.
        • Robert Griffin III – great rookie season, but fundamentals regressed since then – dropped very low in 2014, but still has a chance to regain form. Needs to rebuild fundamentals to have a chance – intelligence and great accuracy (when fundamentals are there) give him a chance.         Injuries may force him to do so (and thus could be beneficial to his development as a pocket QB – if he makes it).
        • Ryan Tannehill – jury is still out on the former WR, though looks to be a starting caliber QB in offense that takes advantage of his legs (uses the zone read in a similar fashion to Seattle).
        • Johnny Manziel – Incomplete, but did not look good his rookie season. Failed to win starting job and looked overwhelmed in few appearances.         Manic, amazing improvisational quarterback in college, strong arm – but can he fit into an NFL offense? His best chance seems to be to develop the maturity and game of Russell Wilson (their skill set in terms of size, athleticism, and arm strength is similar), or be used in an offense similar to what he ran in college. Manziel’s ratings would probably be: refinement 50/100, “magic/improvisational” potential (this is the argument that most people had for drafting him) 100/100 – unclear if that refinement will increase.
        • Notable non-first round quarterbacks:
          • Colin Kaepernick – similar to Newton, shows star potential and big game winning ability, but the jury is still out on whether he can develop into a traditional pocket QB.           Amazing athletic specimen (speed/arm strength combo among the best ever). Great work ethic, intelligence – but even work ethic and intelligence and talent do not guarantee ability to develop as a pocket passer.
          • Russell Wilson – has thrived and won a Super Bowl while in a run first offense with a dominant defense. Intelligent, smart with the ball, great arm and improvisational qualities – great pocket presence and footwork.           Refined pocket quarterback skills (also, like Luck, developed as a pocket QB) but has not yet been asked to be a high volume NFL pocket passer.
      • Trend that I believe is starting in the NFL: back to traditional pocket QBs. Speed may be seen as a detriment – the thought being that if the QB could run in college and high school, they did not have to develop the same kind of pocket passing/footwork/read the field skills as other QBs.
        • The interesting thing: more and more colleges are using spread systems with dual threat quarterbacks, and thus, while demand for pocket quarterbacks may be increasing, the supply has been decreasing for years.
          • From a college coach’s perspective, it is much easier to find an athlete with a good arm at QB (who may lack traditional pocket skills) than a traditional pocket QB (high schools are also moving away from pocket QBs)
    • Why are they drafted where they are drafted?
      • Take everything I just said into account – the trends in what coaches want to see out of a quarterback, the quarterbacks who are successful in the NFL, etc.
      • NFL teams are looking for a prototype at the top of the draft:
        • Tall, well built, strong arm, accurate arm, smart, competitive, great footwork, evidence of ability to scan entire field, success in an NFL style offense, mobility, maturity
      • This prototype rarely exists. The most prototypical prospect in recent memory was Andrew Luck: he was at least above average in all of those categories.
      • As noted, the trend may shift to placing less value on mobility.
      • Many great quarterbacks do not fit the prototype.         Tom Brady slipped because he was not well built, was not a mobile quarterback, was not considered to have above average arm strength, and to some extent because Drew Henson cut into his playing time.
      • Russell Wilson slipped because he is short. A short QB is not a prototypical QB – if he were 6’3”, he’d have been a high first round pick – he has everything else.
      • Aaron Rodgers slipped because the 49ers thought he was arrogant, and perhaps because he has a slight build. He played for a coach (Jeff Tedford) who had produced several first round QBs who failed in the NFL – Rodgers was penalized for this. Some scouts felt that he was a “system” QB who got flustered under pressure and wasn’t enough of an athlete to evade it.
      • It is an inexact science with a high fail rate.         The Patriots look like geniuses because they drafted Tom Brady, but in reality, they passed on him 6 times in the draft.
      • Which brings us to another issue that we do not have time to fully explore: even in the NFL, is it the system (Wilson in an offense that plays to his strengths and is supported by an all time great defense, Brady in a creative, talented franchise, had time to sit behind a good NFL QB). In other words, the eternal question is: would we be talking about these two players if they had been drafted by the Bills, or Raiders, or Jaguars, Browns, or any of the other number of teams who have struggled to find a quarterback for years – or is the reason why those teams are not relevant because they could not draft a Russell Wilson or Tom Brady caliber QB?         It is a long debate, but something to think about.
      • This upcoming draft, another tough decision.
        • Jameis Winston is very close to the prototype for an NFL quarterback prospect, but he has shown major red flags in immaturity and off field decision making.
        • Mariota has zero off field issues/question marks and has many prototypical features, but did not play in an NFL style offense and thus his ability as an NFL pocket QB is a bigger projection – unless the Eagles trade to get him, where his former college coach (Chip Kelly) will know how to take advantage of what he brings to the table.
  • Seahawks offense
    • Ball control – they’ve made their money by relying on their defense, running the ball, and making a few big plays each game, often at key times.
  • Patriots defense
    • Very good defense. Talent across the board, Revis is probably the best cover cornerback of the past 10 years.
    • Belichick is a versatile coach and therefore difficult to predict, but is consistent in molding his strategy to take away the strength of the opposing offense.
      • For that reason, I suspect that he will seek first to stop the Seahawks zone read, their most potent weapon
      • He has cornerbacks that match up well with Seattle wide receivers, thus freeing more defenders to focus on run defense.
      • Many coaches like a 1 high safety look in this situation, because it frees 8 men in the box to play the run.
      • I like 2 high safeties with press corners – we Monarchs have run the option for a few years with success, and the 2 safety teams give us more schematic problems – it is hard to block the safeties, and the cornerbacks can help build a wall across the front.         We look forward to teams who want to load 8 or 9 players into the box and play man coverage, because (as long as the personnel is relatively equal) we feel that we will create big plays as there is no real 3rd level of defense. That style of defense is more boom or bust – we’ve had times where we exploited it, and other times when it gave us trouble…but when it was the latter, usually because we had injuries or were otherwise outmanned, anyways.
        • Downside of 2 high safeties is fewer players devoted to Marshawn Lynch on traditional runs, which is problematic (and why the zone read and Seattle present problems to opposing defenses)
    • Show examples of Revis making a good play – patience is combined with his elite athleticism, range, and instincts
      • Quarter 3 – interception and pass breakup pretty close together
  • Patriots offense
    • Very good offense, versatile
    • Like their defense, Belichick will mold it to attack the weakness of the opposing defense.
    • The problem is, it is hard to identify the Seahawks weakness
      • They have great DBs and a great front, often with 8 in the box (base cover 3) to take away the run.
    • One thing that is possible, because the Seahawks are a zone heavy team, is to get your players matched up on the defenders that you want them matched up against
      • Seattle rarely swaps cornerbacks (though they did play more man coverage against the Packers)
      • Look for Belichick to use Gronkowski in creative ways to try to isolate him in a favorable matchup – he is always creative with Gronk and Gronk is his most dangerous weapon.
    • The Patriots might look to the Chargers film
      • The Chargers beat the Seahawks by taking advantage of their great tight end – Antonio Gates. They often did this with trips formations. Trips formations force the defense to either compensate to the trips side and leave a favorable matchup on the one receiver side, or help with the one receiver side and give away numbers to the trips side.
        • This is a way that the Patriots may look to get Gronkowski in favorable matchups.
    • Gronkowski quarter 3 touchdown
      • Trips away from him – can get Gronk isolated away from Sherman
      • Simple slant, but Gronk is so big and athletic, the pass is perfect, hard to defend
      • Blount TD 3rd quarter – good solid football, line up and pound you – bodies on bodies up front, Blount finishes with authority – a big back who runs with power
        • Shows that the Patriots are a rare offense that can really shift identities from week to week – one week they are rushing for a ton of yards in an old school power/traditional NFL offense, the next week they are basically running a spread offense.
    • Patriots have versatile players to create personnel problems for defense
      • I.e. with Vereen and Gronkowski in the game, no telling if they will align in a traditional running formation or in a 5 wide spread
        • Though, as further explained below, the Seahawks are a simple defense that doesn’t really care what the opposition does – they will adjust and not be caught off guard.
    • Simplicity of Seahawks defense makes it less likely to be fooled by eligible/ineligible tactics
      • The Seahawks are in base so often that they can focus entirely on any exotic looks
  • Seahawks defense
    • Best unit on the field – an all time great defense
    • Execution defense – they do not run a ton of stuff, they just do what they do really well
      • Quarterbacks like Brady and Manning are so great because they can figure out exactly what a defense is doing – the defense tries to outsmart them and those quarterbacks pick them apart
        • But that doesn’t matter against the Seahawks.         Brady says: “I know what you are doing.” The Seahawks say: “So what? Try to beat us.” That is what happened last year with the Broncos in the Super Bowl and the Seahawks dominated (and people forget, the Broncos were an all time great offense going into that game).
      • It is common to think that more complex is better.         But the simplicity of the Seattle defense allows them to play faster, execute better, and adjust to anything the offense sends at them. They are much less likely to be “caught” in the “wrong” defense than complicated defenses.
    • Brady has, in the past, struggled against teams who can effectively rush the passer with their defensive line (i.e. do not have to bring pressure) – think of Giants teams in the Super Bowl, who were built upon the foundation of their defensive lines.
      • Seahawks are such a team – their defensive line is versatile, fast, and dynamic – and they don’t even have all of their best players – great scheme and talent to meet that scheme.
    • Linebackers are also terrific – tons of speed – Wagner is one of the best in the game.
    • Richard Sherman interception first Packers drive – coach’s film
      • Amazing patience, technique, intelligence, closing speed, meets the ball at the highest point, great body control
        • Quarterbacks need to be kind of machines when processing information, if the receiver has good leverage, the QB is machine-like in processing that information and taking advantage – but Sherman can recover with his rare size/athleticism combination for the position.
        • This is why he is so great and such a great fit for the defense
      • Also shows their base cover 3
    • 1st quarter stop of Eddie Lacy on second drive (4th play)
      • Shows why Earl Thomas is so great – cornerback speed, fills exceptionally fast and hits for keeps – closest player in the NFL these days to Ronnie Lott – Lott started as a cornerback – Thomas has that kind of speed and range as well – not to mention the intensity and hitting ability.
      • Seahawks do not stay blocked and this is why they are great against the run – it isn’t because of a magical scheme – they play fast and don’t stay blocked and fly to the ball (cliché, but true for them)
      • The Packers had a chance to put the game away early, but the Seattle D stood tall and kept the Seahawks in the game
    • If you like defense, this really is one of the best of all time to watch
  • Final notes
    • Miscellaneous factors
      • Deflategate
        • I’m not going to spend much time on it, but yes, throwing and hanging on to a deflated ball can provide an advantage.
        • We do not know the facts of the case, so we can’t know the effect it will have on the Patriots – if they really have been using deflated balls for years, this could hurt them – you never want your first experience with a “new” ball to be in a big game. If this was a one time thing/accidental, it may have zero effect on the Patriots. We do not know the facts
      • Odd statistic: the Seahawks have not beaten a team with a healthy starting quarterback and which ended with a winning record since week three.
        • Very obscure sounding statistic, but also crazy how well their schedule played out – they played some bad teams, played the Cardinals a few times with injured quarterbacks, the 49ers were down this season, Rodgers was hurt in their playoff game. The last time they played against a winning team with a healthy starting QB was the Chiefs – loss. Their record against winning record teams with healthy starting QBs: 2-3 (wins in week 1 v Packers and week 3 v Broncos, losses to Chiefs, Cowboys, and Chargers…also a loss to Rams).
          • They have been dominant on defense, but this is the best argument against them. The Patriots are the best test they’ve faced since those early season games.
          • They are – no doubt – one of the best defenses of all time, and of course had no control over their schedule – they have knocked down everything in front of them down the stretch of the season.
          • If they were to lose, this will probably be a statistic people will point to in hindsight. If they win, it was meaningless.
    • Seahawks have the best unit on the field (defense), but the Patriots have a very good offense and defense. Seahawks offense serves the team well – ball control, great running back, underrated wide receivers (perhaps because of perception because they weren’t drafted high), quarterback who has made many big plays in key moments…but is less consistent than the other units in the game.
      • The great matchup is all time great Brady against all time great Seattle defense…BUT…it is very intriguing to see how Belichick will try to take away the zone read, and if Seattle can either defeat that strategy or generate offense in other ways. I think everyone who came here tonight knew that Brady v the Seattle defense was the all time great matchup, but hopefully now you can see why the Seattle offense v Patriots defense matchup is also intriguing.
Dec 172014

As promised in my 16 team playoff proposal, this is my 8 team playoff proposal. The 8 team playoff is much easier. Nothing changes in the structure and alignment of the conferences. The rule is simple: each of the 5 power conferences get an automatic bid, and there are 3 at large bids.

Though I prefer 16 teams, this scenario is an improvement over 4 teams. Most importantly, the automatic bids encourage better scheduling from power conference schools, because they will never be eliminated from playoff contention due to of a non-conference loss. Also, the 9th team in an 8 team system will not have as good of an argument for inclusion as the 5th team in a 4 team system. This year, for example, there were 6 teams with rock solid playoff resumes. There was large debate over the final 2 spots, with Baylor and TCU ultimately losing out. The final spots in the 8 team tournament would also be a mess, but none of the two and three loss teams vying for those spots had near the claim that one loss Baylor and TCU have this year.

One major problem would still exist: conference scheduling inequality. Simply put, it is not fair that some conferences play 8 conference games, while others play 9 games. Some have conference championship games, while others do not. There is no excuse for this inequality to not be rectified in the future. Along those lines, one of the primary reasons why I prefer a 16 team tournament is that it would allow 10 team conferences where every team plays 9 conference games, with no conference championship games. This would eliminate the issues most often discussed in reference to the 14 team Southeastern Conference. The SEC plays an 8 game conference schedule among those 14 teams, and its members rarely travel outside of the SEC blueprint. This leads to more good records (one less conference game equals 14 fewer conference losses), and can result in a situation like the 2014 Missouri Tigers. Missouri won the SEC East, in large part because they missed playing the top 5 teams in the SEC West (Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Auburn, and LSU). This left them with an impressive record that put them in the running for a spot in an 8 team playoff, with a regular season schedule that featured only one team who would be ranked at the end of the season. Their non-conference schedule featured wins over a lower division opponent and two mid-majors, and a home loss to Indiana, a team that finished with a 4-8 record.

Such inequalities need to be addressed, no matter the playoff format.

I would also recommend playing no conference championship games (which would go hand in hand with smaller conferences). On top of conference scheduling inequality, the situation will arise where teams who deserve to get in the playoffs will have another chance to look worse, while a team who did not win their division could sneak in ahead of such a team, without playing in a conference championship game. Teams that made the playoffs without playing a conference championship game would also have an advantage against teams who did have the extra game to get beaten up and fatigued.

The other primary reason why I prefer a 16 team tournament is equality. In the 8 team tournament, mid-majors still do not have a realistic chance to compete for a championship. A mid-major would need an undefeated record, most likely a good reputation, and good non-conference victories. A good preseason reputation and good non-conference victories is a hard match, however, because major programs are often wary of scheduling strong mid-major programs.

All that being said, my 8 team tournament would be:

  1. Florida State 13-0 (ACC automatic)
  2. Alabama 12-1 (SEC automatic)
  3. Oregon 12-1 (Pac 12 automatic)
  4. Ohio State 12-1 (Big 10 automatic)
  5. Baylor 11-1 (Big 12 automatic [though we don’t actually know who the Big 12 would have chosen for the automatic bid, as they chose co-champions])
  6. TCU 11-1 (Big 12 at large)
  7. Arizona 10-3 (Pac 12 at large)
  8. Michigan State 10-2 (Big 10 at large)

There would be huge debate over the final two spots of the field. I chose Arizona and Michigan State, but the committee (going by their rankings) would have chosen Mississippi State and Michigan State. Georgia Tech was also in the mix for me.

My rationale in choosing Arizona and Michigan State: Arizona and Georgia Tech should not be penalized for losing their conference championship game, while Michigan State and Mississippi State did not play in theirs. Arizona separates themselves from the competition by playing a 9 game conference schedule, and by beating #3 Oregon earlier in the season, the best win among the four competing teams. They also beat post-season ranked Utah and Arizona State.

The other teams each played 8 game conference schedules. Mississippi State beat post-season ranked LSU (22) and Auburn (19). Both of their losses were good, against #2 Alabama and ranked, 9-3 Ole Miss. But, like Missouri, they also missed the top five teams from the opposite division (Missouri, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina), instead drawing Kentucky and Vanderbilt. They also lost two of their last three games. Part of their exclusion is punitive: their out of conference schedule was atrocious. Michigan State’s only two losses were to playoff teams – Oregon and Ohio State, though they only had one win against a post-season ranked opponent – Nebraska. This decision is a nod towards their scheduling Oregon at Oregon, because if they didn’t, they would have been 11-1 and in the mix for a 5 or 6 seed along with Baylor and TCU. Their courage in scheduling should be rewarded.

Georgia Tech also has a strong claim due to their close loss to Florida State in a conference championship game, but are undone by their two losses to unranked opponents (albeit a solid 9-3 Duke team and a not-terrible 6-6 North Carolina).

Either way, the final two seeds are a mess, which illustrates why I believe a 16 team tournament is a better solution.

The bracket would look like this:

(1) Florida State hosts (8) Michigan State
(4) Ohio State hosts (5) Baylor

(3) Oregon hosts (6) TCU
(2) Alabama hosts (7) Arizona

Not surprisingly, every opening matchup is marquee, (which wouldn’t be the case in a 16 team tournament with automatic bids for mid-majors). Florida State, which hasn’t looked overly impressive while staying undefeated, plays one of the most physical teams in the country in Michigan State. Ohio State hosts Baylor in a matchup of wide open, explosive offenses. The same can be said when Oregon hosts TCU. Alabama gets what appears on paper to be the easiest matchup, but Arizona’s prolific offense can give any team fits, and they have already proven that they can beat a top opponent with their victory over Oregon.

What do you think? Do you prefer this over a 16 team tournament?

Dec 092014

While there is much (justified) excitement about the first ever college football playoff, 4 teams is not enough.

This proposal is for a 16 team tournament. While this may seem large, every other division of college football can do it, often with harder academic burdens on the players. The FCS and Division 2 finish with a 24 team tournament, while division 3 finishes with a 32 team tournament.

The benefits: (1) Harder out of conference scheduling is encouraged, because no out of conference defeat will spell the end of playoff hopes. (2) Every team will have a legitimate chance to be champion. There will be no undefeated teams left without a chance.

The basics of the system:

Each conference consists of 10 teams. All teams will play 9 conference games. Each conference must declare a conference champion (via a declared method of their choosing), and there are no conference championship games (to enhance the importance of regular season games).

Each conference champion gets a conditional automatic bid.*

The remaining, at large bids are decided by a committee (much like the one in current use).

The top independent team receives an automatic bid by finishing in the top 10 of the committee rankings. Otherwise, they are eligible for at large bids (the distinction is small and will almost always be moot).

The 4 quarterfinal, 2 semifinal games, and 1 championship game will rotate among traditional bowls (with the “most” traditional rotating among the final 3 games). The first round games are hosted by the better seed. The semifinals will take place on New Year’s day, with the Rose Bowl being the first semifinal.

Outside of the 16 teams in the tournament, the remainder of the bowl games will exist as they always have.

Easy enough, right? Not exactly.

There will need to be massive restructuring of conferences. This seems straightforward at first glance, but there are currently 128 FBS teams. To have the minimum number of independent teams, this would mean 12 conferences of 10 teams. This would mean 12 automatic bids, and only 4 at large bids. I believe that the ideal number would be 11 conferences with 5 auto bids. In order to make the system work, it would be wise for the NCAA to limit the number of teams reaching the FBS level, create a promotion/relegation system, or other ideas that are not the topic for this post. In the meantime, the lack of at large bids convinced me to propose one more key – and controversial – provision:

*To guarantee an auto bid, a team must win at least 9 games. This provision is to guard against the (most likely mid major) conference champion who does not belong in the field. 9 wins and 3 losses ensures that the team is good. Every team in the country can lose every non-conference game on their schedule, and still guarantee a playoff berth with a perfect conference record. What we don’t want is a team who loses 2 or 3 non-conference games, loses a couple of games in conference, and still wins the conference championship. Take 2014 Louisiana Tech. With my conference realignment, they would have won the Big West championship with an 8-4 record. They lost 1 game in conference, 2 games to ranked opponents in non-conference, but also lost to FCS Northwestern State. A team that loses to an FCS school – or which loses to all 3 non-conference opponents, plus a conference loss, or various other combinations – does not deserve to be in a 16 team playoff.

The downside to this provision is that it would discourage mid majors from scheduling difficult out of conference opponents. I believe, however, that the benefit of creating an extra at large bid for a more deserving team outweighs this detriment. The burden of proof, so to speak, would still be in favor of allowing the team to join the tournament. The committee would be required to give express reasoning as to why the team was left out of the field. If, say, the SEC champion lost twice out of conference and twice in conference, the committee could still include them in the field. In this case, the committee would have no trouble pointing to the FCS loss as a reason why Louisiana Tech should be excluded from the field.

Now, on to the conference realignments. The teams are not placed in order, aside from the teams receiving bids to the tournament. I attempted to reorganize the 10 team conferences for historical and/or geographic reasons, reinserting teams to old conferences or ones that make sense, and resurrecting old conferences. It wasn’t always easy, and was sometimes arbitrary. I included notes where I felt necessary.

Florida State – auto bid 12-0
Georgia Tech – 10-2
South Carolina
North Carolina
North Carolina State
Wake Forest

Big East
Louisville – auto bid 9-3
Virginia Tech
Miami (FL)
West Virginia
Boston College
Penn State (an independent until 1992, this time Penn State joins the Big East, rather than being the 11th big 10 team).

Big 8
Missouri – auto bid 10-2 (Missouri gets the nod over 10-2 Colorado State due to a superior conference record)
Kansas State
Oklahoma State
Iowa State
Colorado State (makes geographic sense)
Cincinnati (willing to travel, this would be Cincinnati’s 7th conference)

Big 10
Ohio State – auto bid 11-1
Michigan State – 10-2

Southwest Conference (it feels good to revive the legendary SWC, bringing back Arkansas, and adding newcomer UT San Antonio, a geographic, but mostly arbitrary choice over other “new” Texas schools…)
Baylor – auto bid 11-1 (wins tie breaker due to head-to-head victory over TCU)
TCU – 11-1
Texas A&M
Texas Tech

Southeastern Conference
Alabama – auto bid 11-1
Mississippi State – 10-2
Ole Miss

Pac 10
Oregon – auto bid 11-1
Arizona – 10-2
Oregon State
Washington State
Arizona State

Boise State – auto bid 10-2
Air Force
San Diego State
Fresno State
New Mexico

Big West Conference
Louisiana Tech (continuing an odd tradition of joining a western conference) – auto bid 8-4, but is excluded from the tournament by virtue of not reaching 9 wins.
Utah State
New Mexico State
San Jose State
North Texas
Texas State

Mid-American Conference
Northern Illinois – auto bid 10-2
Miami (Ohio)
Ball State
Western Michigan
Eastern Michigan
Bowling Green
Central Michigan
Kent State

Conference USA
Marshall – auto bid 11-1
Middle Tennessee
Arkansas State
Florida Atlantic
Southern Miss

American Athletic Conference
Georgia Southern – auto 9-3 (perfect 8-0 conference record gives them the nod over Memphis and UCF)
Memphis – 9-3 7-1
UCF – 9-3 7-1
East Carolina
South Florida

Appalachian State
Old Dominion
South Alabama
Georgia State
Notre Dame

The tournament would look like this:

  1. Florida State 12-0 (ACC)
  2. Alabama 11-1 (SEC)
  3. Oregon 11-1 (Pac 10)
  4. Ohio State 11-1 (Big 10)
  5. Baylor 11-1 (SWC)
  6. TCU* 11-1 (SWC at large)
  7. Mississippi State* 10-2 (SEC at large)
  8. Michigan State* 10-2 (Big 10 at large)
  9. Arizona* 10-2 (Pac 10 at large)
  10. Georgia Tech* 10-2 (ACC at large)
  11. Missouri 10-2 (Big 8)
  12. Louisville 9-3 (Big East)
  13. Boise State 10-2 (WAC)
  14. Marshall 11-1 (Conference USA)
  15. Northern Illinois 10-2 (MAC)
  16. Georgia Southern 9-3 (AAC)
  17. Louisiana Tech 8-4 (Big West)

(1) Florida State v (16) Georgia Southern
(8) Michigan State v (9) Arizona

(5) Baylor v (12) Louisville
(4) Ohio State v (13) Boise State

(6) TCU v (11) Missouri
(3) Oregon v (14) Marshall

(7) Mississippi State v (10) Georgia Tech
(2) Alabama v (15) Northern Illinois

A few notes and observations:

Setting up this fictional 16 team tournament was more difficult than I imagined. The basic rules (9 game conference schedules, automatic bids for all conference champions) seem simple, but the 128 teams at the FBS level present a logistical challenge. Still, the 16 team tournament is superior to the 4 team product. This year, the biggest problem with the 4 team tournament was that a reasonable argument could be made that Baylor and TCU deserved to be in the final 4 just as much as the other one loss teams who made the field. In a 16 team tournament, they would get to prove their merit. And it provides justice for a team like Michigan State, who had the courage to travel to eventual #3 Oregon. Under the current 4 team playoff, if Michigan State had scheduled a patsy in place of Oregon (like Baylor or many of the teams from the SEC would have, for example), they would have been in the running for a playoff bid (their only other loss was to eventual #4 Ohio State). In the current system, they were punished for their bravery, despite the committee repeatedly saying that teams would be rewarded for scheduling (note: this isn’t the committee’s fault – 4 teams are simply not enough, and the 2 loss Spartans were rightfully not chosen ahead of the 1 loss teams). The 16 team tournament would have a much more realistic chance of making good on claims that scheduling matters.

Of course, there are (legitimate) arguments that this 16 team tournament is too watered down. True, teams the last 5 or 6 teams are probably not among the top 16 teams in the country. But I believe that it is a good balance, because in the future, one of those teams will be undefeated going into the tournament (Marshall was a two point conversion away from doing so), and there should be – at most – one undefeated champion at the end of each season. But note that I will also release a (shorter) 8 team playoff proposal in a future post (edit: see here for my 8 team playoff proposal).

Florida State is the defending national champion, scheduled well out of conference, has a 29 game winning streak, and is the only undefeated team in the country. They get the #1 seed. Arizona and Georgia Tech get the final at large bids by virtue of their 10 wins, narrowly beating out Wisconsin.

The matchups are intriguing. Florida State faces another option team (which they have struggled to stop this year) in Georgia Southern, a traditional lower division power. The Michigan State v Arizona 8 v 9 game is a battle between two power conference teams. The same goes for Baylor v Louisville and Mississippi State v Georgia Tech. Ohio State is a big favorite over Boise State, who is no stranger to achieving success as an underdog. Oregon is favored over Marshall, one of the few teams with as fast and as prolific on offense as Oregon has. Alabama v Northern Illinois doesn’t look good on paper…but giving Northern Illinois a chance is what the tournament is about.

The potential quarterfinal games would be epic: Florida State v Michigan State or Arizona. Baylor v Ohio State. TCU v Oregon. Mississippi State or Georgia Tech v Alabama.

And, of course, the semifinals would only get better.

What do you think?

Oct 082014

Not long ago, balanced, professional style offensive systems ruled college football. Just 10 years ago, the final 2004 AP Poll read like a randomly assembled list of traditional college football powers: USC, Oklahoma, Georgia, LSU, Florida State, Miami, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, and West Virginia. True, Texas ran a version of the spread offense, but to take advantage of one of the great talents in college football history (Vince Young), not because the coaching staff had a history rooted in a non-traditional offense. The only team running a true “system” offense was – not surprisingly – the only non-traditional power of the bunch: Rich Rodriguez’s spread option West Virginia Mountaineers.

Fast forward to October 4th, 2014. For the first time in the history of the AP Poll, five of the top eight teams lose in the same weekend. Oregon, which became a power on the strength of Chip Kelly’s hurry up spread option system, is cut down by the Arizona Wildcats, with – you guessed it – Rich Rodriquez at the helm. Juggernaut Alabama and their pro style offense are chopped down by traditional also-ran Mississippi and their version of the packaged hurry up spread. Mississippi State – another SEC second thought – dominates Texas A&M. UCLA is edged by former mid-major Utah. TCU – who from 1996-2011 bounced between the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA, and the Mountain West Conference – takes out Oklahoma.

Come Sunday, half of the top 10 was made up of non-traditional powers: Mississippi State, Mississippi, Baylor, TCU, and Arizona.

“System” offenses have a set ideology and method for attacking a defense. It does not mean that they are unbalanced in terms of run/pass ratio (as many people assume), but it does mean that they have a strong identity of plays and formations and a consistent methodology for attacking a defense. The wing t did it with multiple series and an order of playcalling designed to put defenders in conflict. The split t, split back veer, wishbone, and flexbone did it by building around the triple option and taking advantage of defenses designed to stop that play. The run and shoot did it with after the snap option routes designed to defeat any defensive look. The list goes on…

The key to the hurry up spread – the current system du jour – is that any, and almost every, previous system can be adapted to the spread. Many teams couple the spread with the Air Raid, itself a simplified adaptation of the old LaVell Edwards BYU passing offense. Rodriquez, Kelly, and many others base their offense on zone running and option concepts. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn has coupled it with the wing t. Cal’s offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has roots in the Air Raid, but now seeks run/pass balance with a variety of creative runs passes, and packaged concepts.

The beauty of the variety of spread offenses is that most of these offenses do not require a roster loaded with 5 and 4 star recruits in order to succeed. Instead, a good personnel “fits” for the offense are of the utmost importance. An offense can be designed in order to take advantage of lower tier recruits who are hand picked to fill the roles that will make that offense successful. And – because the offenses are adaptable – they can highlight the strengths and hide the weaknesses of a roster that is built with lower tier recruits.

When pro style offenses ruled the day, the traditional powers dominated the recruitment of prototypical players to fit those offenses. With superior talent, the pro style quarterback could hand off to the prototypical running back or throw a play action pass to the future NFL tight end or wide receivers behind an offensive line made up of prototypical maulers.

Rich Rodriguez, with future NFL return man Rasheed Marshall at quarterback, helped changed the status quo. Now, if you couldn’t recruit the towering pocket passer with the rocket arm, you look to recruit the spindly speedster. If you didn’t have any luck finding the 6’3” wide receivers or the pro style tight ends, you put an under recruited, undersized athlete in the slot (Wes Welker at Texas Tech being perhaps the most famous example), and play without a tight end. Can’t find the future NFL road graders in the line? That’s okay – recruit speed and technique, and make it work in your system.

In short, the rise of the “system” offenses in college football has led to more coaches being able to better utilize the talent of more athletes, which has evened the playing field with the traditional elite programs. This evened playing field will continue to lead to more parity, more upsets, and a more exciting product. And it isn’t just the spread offenses that are making waves. Georgia Tech, with their flexbone triple option, which traces roots back to the Don Faurot split t of the early 1940s, lurks undefeated at the bottom of the top 25…