I’m supposed to be finishing up work on my Top 100 Games of the College Football Season feature, but I instead fell into a Smart Football rabbit hole this morning. It’s not the first time. My friend Chris Brown has quite the extensive archive and does far too good a job of linking to previous pieces within a given work. One thing leads to another, and I’m suddenly re-reading the transcript of an old Bill Walsh lecture Chris posted in 2007 on his old Blogger site.
The lecture was about game planning and the benefits of scripting your play calls, from the obvious (you can see how they’re reacting to some of your base formations, you can set up other plays for later in the game), to less obvious points like this:
One of the interesting things about Paul Brown Football is that he would always be terribly upset if someone would run a reverse before we did, or a run pass before we did. He would grab the phone and scream in my ear, “They did it before we did!” This was very distressing because it sounded so dated. But you know something, over the years, I found that Paul was 100% right. If you run your reverse first, and you can make 5 yards or more, the other guy won’t run his. If you have a special play of any kind, get it into the game quickly. How many of you have had a ball game and you have practiced two or three things that you thought for sure would work. The game is over and you didn’t try them or you are so far out of it, it doesn’t matter whether you try them or not. Paul was right. Set up your special plays early and run them early. Get them done, it affects your opposition.
All the situational stuff in the second half of the talk is worth your time, too, especially all the ways in which he breaks down ranges in the red zone and whatnot. But one tidbit in particular stuck in my head this time around:
You have to establish in your own mind how you are going to handle a base offense. In other words, you want to have certain plays to start the game in which you take on your opponent physically, man to man, and the coach upstairs as well as the coach on the field, is observing that. You get a better feel which way to run and what kinds of plays work best. Part of your plays are where you attack your opponent physically and find out where your matchups are. You want to find that out early in the game, so that some time later you have an idea of just what you want to do.
I think a lot of what we view as coaching comes back to an old Bum Phillips line that he used to describe both Don Shula and Bear Bryant.
“Don Shula can take his’n and beat your’n,” Bum Phillips, then the Houston Oilers coach, once said in his Texas twang. “Or he can take your’n and beat his’n.”
It wasn’t untrue, but I think a lot of us end up taking that as a way of saying that Shula/Bryant were chess masters, that they could move their chess pieces better than you could move yours. And they could. But in football analysis, we sometimes overlook the part where it’s important to identify which of your pawns is stronger than their pawns and whether your rook can beat the ass of the opponent’s rook.
We talk so much about tendencies, but from a coach’s perspective, you only care so much about what the opponent is doing — you’re also looking to figure out which of their guys can be defeated.
This is a particular problem with my work. Sure, we know which players are good, and we know which teams recruit better players as a whole. But the further we go down the stat road, the further we delve into tendencies, not necessarily matchups. With good charting data, we can see that Receiver A runs Route B 38 percent of the time. And on a more broad level, we can see that Team C runs the ball 72 percent of the time on standard downs. But we don’t really get very far with the why behind the tendencies. What is because of philosophy, and what is because of matchup advantages?
When we look at my advanced box score for the national title game, we see quite a bit of interesting information. (It’s interesting to me, at least, and that’s all that counts. Click to enlarge.)
We see, for instance, that...
- Bama’s second-quarter was as miserable as it seemed. The Crimson Tide had a minus-34 percent success rate margin (43 percent to nine percent), a quarter so bad that it prompted a halftime quarterback change.
- Georgia’s Roquan Smith was every bit as dominant on the stat sheet as our eyes told us. And Bama DB Anthony Averett was a huge source of disruption in key moments.
- The two Alabama quarterbacks — Jalen Hurts in the first half and Tua Tagovailoa in the second and overtime — went just 1-for-10 passing on passing downs. They were 0-for-9 in regulation ... and 1-for-1 for 41 yards and a game-winning TD in OT. (Hey, if you’re only going to complete one, that’s a pretty good one to complete...)
- Despite the second-quarter disaster, Alabama created one more scoring opportunity than Georgia did — at least in part because of a solid field position advantage — and nearly put the game away in regulation because of it.
- If either team had done a good job of finishing scoring chances in the end zone, they could have won semi-comfortably. But both were below average. (Most are against those defenses.)
- Both teams’ No. 1 receivers — the Tide’s Calvin Ridley and UGA’s Javon Wims — were mostly nonexistent, catching a combined five of 14 passes for 48 yards. Granted, Wims’ lone catch was an incredible tiptoe grab, and Ridley caught the fourth-down TD pass in the fourth quarter, but otherwise: 3-for-12.
- The supporting cast, on the other hand, stepped up. Ridley’s UGA brother Riley (6-for-8 for 82) came up big, and Alabama’s trio of freshman WRs (Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, and DeVonta Smith) made vital contributions (combined: 5-for-9 for 90 yards and the aforementioned game-winning score).
I could go on. There’s a lot there! But you have to go to a second level of data to find, for instance, things like who Alabama’s No. 1 receiver actually was: the guy matched up with Malkom Parrish, whoever that was.
Tagovailoa was 4-5, 70 yards, 2 TD when targeting Malkom Parrish in coverage in the 2nd half. Also picked up a PI penalty, which isn't included in those numbers. https://t.co/rwyvn4LvbU— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) January 11, 2018
You can find data like this from the guys at PFF, Sports Info Solutions, or (for selected teams) CFB Film Room. That, plus the measurement of air yards (the distance a pass actually travels) and perhaps blitz and formation data, are why charting stats can be so useful.
But then there’s the next level of data: the matchup data where the ball isn’t involved.
Alabama clearly identified a potential weak link in Parrish and exploited him. The Tide were able to render Georgia’s offense far less efficient than normal, too, by eating up the interior of the Bulldogs’ line.
On multiple occasions throughout the national title game, a coach friend and I would end up texting back and forth — “That Georgia center is getting whooped.” “Georgia center again.” Et cetera. Poor Lamont Gaillard appeared to be pretty regularly getting his lunch eaten by Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne and others.
When the Bama defensive front was creating disruption, it was probably coming from the middle. But Payne finished the game with 4.5 tackles and no TFLs or havoc plays. Our eyes told us Payne was dominant, but we don’t have the stats to back that up. Stuff like this will show up somewhat in PFF grades (which a lot of coaches I’ve spoken with really do not tend to enjoy or trust), but the general point remains: we get far more about Xs and Os from stats than the proverbial Jimmies and Joes..
So here’s an offseason conversation topic for you (and trust me, if this indeed generates conversation, I’ve got plenty of other questions to toss to the field): what do we do about this?
For the fellow nerds:
How might we go about bridging this gap? I mean a couple of different things by this. First, I’m simply talking about better describing matchup advantages (and the tactics derived from them) in things like, say, my upcoming 2018 preview series (tentatively scheduled to start on February 5).
Second, I’m thinking in broader terms. If we were to start from scratch on this question, via charting or other means, how could we go about measuring what I find myself basically calling defeats? For instance, I enjoyed this 2016 piece about “Packing” in soccer — a name given, basically, to describe the number of defeats you put together. It left me with more questions than answers, and it was incredibly subjective by nature, but that’s okay. It went down a road I enjoyed and want to travel down myself.
In the game planning process, how are potential matchup advantages identified, documented, etc.? When you find an advantage, how do you go about crafting ways to take advantage of it? And how does this get communicated to the players? Most of the scouting reports I’ve seen are basically formations, likely plays, bios, etc.
Alternately, and perhaps more interestingly, how do you attempt to account for matchups you feel you’re going to lose?
(My DMs are open.)
So much of football is derived from specific matchup advantages, but our overall data set doesn’t necessarily align with that. You basically win by creating numbers advantages or by having numbers that are better than your opponents’. We’re a lot better at measuring the former than the latter.