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“I’m not sure that such schools take full advantage of the game’s rules.”

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Talent advantages: great. Scheme: also great.

San Francisco 49ers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Toward the end of last week’s PAPN, I talked about how one of my offseason goals is to “go to coaching school.” I’ve spent the last year or so trying to figure out exactly how to tie my stat work with how the game actually functions, and I’m doubling up on that idea for this coming offseason.

For Football Study Hall, that likely means quite a few meandering posts about things I’ve read. That began last week with this piece on matchup advantages and how they do or don’t translate to the stat lines.

It included this line from a Bill Walsh presentation:

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.

That got me on a road of wondering how much of play-calling is scheme and tactics and whatnot, and how much is simply, “Where can my guy beat their guy?”

It’s a complicated subject, especially from a stat perspective. PFF has its player grades, which are useful for purposes of analysis (if not coaching), and that gets at the idea to a degree. But I was almost thinking in terms of straight-up defeats — I’m guessing if we cataloged those cases when one guy definitively beats the guy matched up against him, we’d have some pretty interesting, telling data.

One of my favorite coaches on Twitter, however, reminded me that scheme still matters, though. A lot.

In paragraph form (in case Twitter is blocked for you):

ON offense, I find out if they will move their def player around. If not, I sacrifice my worst on him most of the night if its a db & also run different guys deep if in man. If they keep on my best guy, i single him up and play opposite side of field.

Something to remember. PLAYCALLING HEALS ALMOST ALL WOUNDS and DEFICIENCIES IN FOOTBALL. With a great system, you can put up yards and points. We have been held below 33 points twice in the last 150 games or so I believe.

And finally, one of the dumbest things coaches do is rely on matchups to win. What if you don’t get that matchup? Are you going to lose? And why rely on my man to beat your man? As a coach you should have a better plan than that.

That’s Pulaski Academy’s Kevin Kelley, he of “never punting and winning a metric boatload of football games” fame, attempting to set me straight a bit.

Funny enough, Bill Walsh himself jerked me back in the “scheme” direction, too, in this 1982 Sports Illustrated piece. Read all of it. You won’t regret it. I’ll share a few of my favorite bits below.

Asked whether it is fair to call coaching differences conflicting ideologies, he says, “In the Midwest, there’s a philosophy or approach that people become students of, or parties to, personified by Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, which is based on fundamentals and disciplined play. Individual ability isn’t much of a factor. Not that players are clones, but parts of a unit that functions methodically. Certain precepts control it. In each situation here is what you do. It’s a sound approach, and the drills and appearance and values are similar from school to school. It’s predictable, but they feel comfortable with that. It’s as if one side says, ‘We know where you’re going and we’re going to stop you’ and the other side says, ‘We know you know, but no, you’re not.’ Success then is related to execution, to superior personnel. If you have the best players, you want to create a situation in which the best win, if only marginally. That’s conservative football—siege warfare. The somberness and drudgery can be overstated, of course. Hayes is an intelligent and scholarly man with more feeling for his players than almost anyone I’ve met. The problem is when an Indiana, say, without the personnel, tries again and again to compete that way. I’m not sure that such schools take full advantage of the game’s rules.”

Now, when I was talking about matchups and “defeats,” the idea wasn’t necessarily “siege warfare” and old-school manball, but it’s certainly a nod toward talent advantages over play-calling. Walsh wanted talent advantages wherever possible — it’s really hard to win without them — but at the more parity-heavy pro level, you’re not going to be able to rely on creating a ton of those. And if you’re at Indiana instead of Ohio State, you really won’t be able to rely on those.

This is, of course, a topic we’ve discussed plenty of times through the years. Aside from the wishbone, most football innovations came from teams trying to scheme their way into an advantage that talent won’t create for them. Walsh won a Super Bowl in 1981, his third year at San Francisco, when he didn’t have much talent superiority — he didn’t have Jerry Rice yet, among others, and most of his best players were young. When his talent both added up and matured, he won three more Super Bowls in 1984, 1988, and 1989.

Hell, even with the wishbone, it was Emory Ballard’s desire to maximize Texas’ voluminous backfield talent in a unique way that got the creative juices flowing. And what made the wishbone so devastating was that it not only maximized talent but also created answers for however the defense chose to attack it. It was a system you could succeed in with only marginal talent — a “great system,” indeed — and when you combined it with talent advantages, as Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and others did in the 1970s, you win a lot of football games.

Anyway, take some time to read the Walsh SI profile in full. It’s great. Below are some of my favorite excerpts.

The NFL has always been stodgy and scared of change.

It is certainly natural to be curious about Walsh. For 11 seasons he was an ambitious and brilliant NFL assistant coach but was never judged worthy of being entrusted with his own team. Word got about that there was something different about him, something that unsettled owners and general managers. He had a mind that saw deeply and in detail, they said; he could encompass two or three sides to a question. In the euphemistic world of football, that meant he was indecisive. They said he was a good, humane teacher, and that meant he was soft. They said he was a genius, and that meant he was too abstruse. [...]

To the casual observer, Walsh’s success seemed a rebuke to professional football for not having used him better, for not having understood him. And that is nearly unfathomable, for few men are as capable of making themselves understood as Walsh.

Walsh was never the stereotypical coach, was he?

When a visitor remarks on how the nutmeg-like fragrance of the star jasmine blooming outside evokes memories of childhood trips to the Bay Area, Walsh says, “Oh, yes. Smells can be the most powerful trigger. When we were in Cincinnati [where he was the Bengals’ offensive coach from 1968 to 1975], there was a pine tree a block or two from our house. We’d go stand under it and close our eyes and imagine we were in the Sierras.”

He was really good at throwing shade.

“Now don’t totally glorify him,” says [Sam] Wyche, who as quarterback coach engages in perhaps the most constant dialogue with Walsh. “We’re always irritating each other and making up,” he says. “He’s less tense now, but I can remember yelling, white knuckles. His patience is short with people who can’t keep up.” Indeed, Walsh has said apropos of his assistants, “I picked them because of basic respect for their intelligence. All you need to have anarchy is a dull person who’s aggressive. If you’ve got one of those who thinks he’s intelligent, you’ve got chaos.”

Walsh also maintains that intelligence is related to the moral content of coaching. “You have to live with yourself,” he has said. “If you are a reflective person, things stick in your craw. Misusing, misleading people, every instance affects you until you can’t go on. The most sadistic are often the least intelligent. That’s the extent of their reasoning.

Football wore him out.

Not if Walsh is to be believed. After last season he found himself exhausted. “Sometimes people are suited for things because they don’t feel the full press of a situation,” he says. “It doesn’t seem to quite register what they’ve gotten into. In football, routine people can thrive. They don’t necessarily do well, but it doesn’t break their backs.

”Others become more aware all the time of the enormity of the job. The work expands endlessly, it seems, when they really understand all you can do. And they’re borne down by it. I’m among those, and I’ve felt the press of the years. I’ve been at it 26 seasons without a break.”

Amen:

He ran 10.0 for 100 yards and, more impressive, 22.0 for 220. His speed was cut his senior year, however, by a torn quadriceps muscle, an injury made more lasting by a track coach who did not appear to believe it was real. “It related to my personality,” says Walsh. “I was an easygoing, good-time guy. and I wasn’t writhing in pain.” You can see the scarred muscle in Walsh’s right thigh today, and, as with most things in his life, the lesson has not been lost. “It illustrates the weight of a coach’s responsibility,” he says, “especially in football, where emotions can run to a savage degree. There, it’s not just the danger of a pulled muscle, but of brain injury.”

Walsh would’ve still been ahead of his time had he come along a couple of decades later.