March 2011


When I  was a teen, this set of books appeared, and that’s all I put on my Christmas List. My mom asked, “Are you sure this is all you want?” I looked at her and said, “If I put 100 things on a list, I won’t get this.” I ended up with the set, and I’ve kept it ever since.

It’s an after his death compilation of  notes and comments about play, 2 volumes of notes, in two leather bound books. It starts, more or less, with the Lombardi sweep and expands from there. There are pithy comments about Packers players, great photos, and really nice descriptions of when various plays were run. It isn’t just a play or two presented here, but a system of plays, with plays and then counter plays to different defensive adjustments to the first play.

A counter to certain reactions to the sweep.

In the second volume, which starts with defensive play and ends with the passing game, a theory of passing is presented, with adjustable routes. It wasn’t the fast-faster throw to the spot passing introduced by Don Coryell.

The target audience is probably the hard core fan. I’m sure coaches would find plenty in this set as well, as he goes deep into position responsibilities, especially along the line. Checking Amazon, there  are inexpensive used copies of this book out there.

Rating? Absolutely a classic. It reads simply, which is a testament to the man regarded as the best teacher of football the professional game has known.

Matt Bowen is a columnist I first ran into through Rich Tandler’s blog. Rich had a post to a video describing the Redskin’s team needs and there was this guy on the left of the screen speaking. From that I noticed an association with the National Football Post, and later that he had played professional football as a defensive back for seven seasons. Matt also acquired a bachelor’s in journalism at Iowa and then a master’s in writing at DePaul. And most importantly for people looking for more depth in their football analysis, he’s authored a 34 article series called “Inside the Playbook” for the NFP.

I’m sure if you dig through the article set, you’ll find something useful. For example, this article is about the play that led to B. J. Raji’s interception of the Bear’s QB Caleb Hanie and touchdown during the playoffs.  It was a dangerous play, one easily burned if you expect it, but would a replacement quarterback expect this kind of risky gamble and know where to look?

Matt Bowen explaining how B.J. Raji's int happened.

Another article talks about the defensive technique of Tramon Williams, and yet another then analyzes A. J. Green as a pass receiver. Back towards the beginning of the series, he’s talking about base defenses, such as the Cover 2 and 3. In all, there is a lot of meat here, and something for a fan (or a coach) to dwell on.

There is a terrific book available by James Gleick, called “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” and it is a fantastic, if dense read.

For our purposes we’ll be talking about some themes from the first chapter of this book, where James discusses the drum speech of the Africans and how via drumming, people could communicate over long distances. Drumming resembled spoken African words, pared down until the only component left was the change in pitch. Drum language therefore resembled tonal languages such as Mandarin, where the spoken pitch of the phonemes carried as much information as the actual phoneme itself. You can see in English, too, how context can provide information in situations where the words are incomplete, such as in this example:

f y cn rd ths, y r smrt

For a mock draft enthusiast, the information you want, deep down, is the actual ratings of players by the football teams themselves, and their actual needs. Since that information is unavailable, to solve this problem, an estimation of the value of players is needed, and some reasonable inference about each teams needs. I say this because a mock draft where everyone follows your estimation of best players ends up being identical to the estimate (and thus boring), and a mock draft based on need tends more to resemble an actual believable draft.  So a group of pundits has arisen, fan scouting services, bureaus such as Ourlads, or people such as Mel Kiper, who supply scouting information to  fans. Scouting info plus team  needs equals mock draft. It’s a straightforward combination.

Note that Joe Fan,  the guy who doesn’t care about mocks but cares about the results of the draft, is interested in something else entirely. He wants to know who his team is going to draft. Over time, it’s become pretty clear that the best path to the information Joe Fan wants is via traditional reporting skills, of the kind Rick Gosselin displays. Rick has no skills at analyzing football  talent. He simply asks people who team X is going to draft. Once he’s asked enough questions and  gathered enough information, he puts together a list of who will be drafted. His list comes out late in the draft season, and it is notably accurate, because Rick doesn’t pretend to analyze anything. He simply reports what he’s been told.

So, in this arena, there are two bodies of information, both quite different, and both valuable. The  mock draft enthusiast needs in essence, a group of people who perform and behave like scouts, and whose opinions are based on  their ranking of the player’s ability and fitness to play football. Not only the individual opinions, but also the distribution of player estimates is valuable. With that distribution, you can do Monte Carlo simulations (pages 685-686 of this book) of a player’s worth, push those simulations against the set of team needs, and figure out the possible range in which a player can be drafted. Those unadulterated opinions are extremely valuable information.

Diagram from Numerical Recipes. This technique is very powerful in mock draft analysis.

However, people who sell draft information have an issue. In November, December, January or so, the teams themselves have not begun rating players. Once the NFL teams do, even if the scouting services sell themselves as unbiased marketers of information, they can’t help but hear rumors, tips, etc, of teams interest in particular players. By March, top 100 lists are getting adjusted, player rankings are being shuffled in response not to scouting information, but to the news, the reporting of particular  team’s interest. In the  process, the information about player ranking is systematically destroyed, in order to create a list that more closely resembles how players might actually be drafted. And this phenomenon is a consequence of the mixed character of fan oriented scouting services. They aren’t just scouts. The market expects them to act in the role of reporters as well. To someone like Mel Kiper, having an interesting, changing, varying product guarantees interest, and guarantees that people will come  back to his web site, and purchase his draft products.

Now I’m, picking on Mel in this example, but to note, Mel comes closer to being a scout than many.  He’s truer to his valuation, and less interested in slotting a player to a team than most. And in providing real scouting information, he often gets criticized for not being a reporter.

What it means to people like me, is that I don’t trust valuations around late March and April. Scouts become reporters this time of year, so that they can claim accuracy in their “predictions” of the draft. They want to be scouts and the reincarnation of Rick Gosselin as well. And it devalues the product for the mock draft fan.

We’re going to talk about the technique of Monte Carlo simulations in computer generated mock drafts. We’re going to sketch out the algorithm in words, not code. We might make reference to bits of code for  those who might  try to implement what I’m speaking of. To note, my open source C++ code here does exactly that, and has since 2001.

A computer mock draft, in football (there is nothing about these algorithms specific to any particular sport), is nothing more than selecting the top entry from an ordered list. To note,  with each and every team the ordering changes, but the fact it’s a simple selection does not change. Therefore, to compute a mock draft, you need a list, and an ordering rule.

If needs are  taken into consideration then the top element of the list may not be taken. This adds a selection rule to the algorithm, and  therefore, the mock draft becomes the selection of the highest rated player to match the selection rule. We mention all this because such a process is ordinarily deterministic. It doesn’t generate any kind of probability distribution.

Let’s say you have, oh, 5 scouts. For now, we’ll choose the name of a player in this upcoming draft. How about Von Miller? These five scouts have rated Von Miller 2nd, 3rd, 5th,  7th, and 11th best in the draft. Now we have a distribution of opinions about Von Miller, and we can form a model to describe this player’s worth. The model is:

The function that models how Von Miller, or any player would be rated by an infinite number of scouts is the normal distribution (i.e. bell curve).

We’re choosing this model for convenience. A much less restrictive model might be:

The function that models how Von Miller, or any player, would be rated by an infinite number of scouts is a continuous probability distribution.

The latter definition would allow for players that split groups of scouts in two, some rating player X as a second rounder and others as a fourth rounder, perhaps forming a bimodal curve. But that’s a finesse to  the argument we can worry about later.

Now that we have a model, we can apply this  process:

Numerical Recipes in Fortran 77, 2nd ed. Screen capture of part of page 686.

For Von Miller, we calculate the mean and standard deviation of the ratings. That would be a mean of 5.6 and a standard deviation of 3.57. Using this, we can now calculate any number of normally distributed random numbers that represent the ranking  of Von Miller. This could be done in Perl with:
#!/usr/bin/perl
use warnings;
use strict;
use Math::Random qw(:all);

my $Von_Miller_value = 3.57*random_normal() + 5.6;

We can do this for every other player in the mock draft as well. Order  the list by ranking and run the mock draft on that set. Store the results and repeat the process as many times as needed. At the end, you have a probability distribution of where Von Miller might actually fall in the draft, to the extent your draft analysts have given you a reasonable representation of the player’s draft value.

Why go through all this trouble to do what an individual can do? There are a couple reasons. The first is that people are human and let their emotions blind themselves to the needs of other teams. Human mock drafts tend to reflect the human biases of their creators (i.e. how many times are we going to see top 5 players fall to the mid or late first rounds?). The second is that you’re looking for condition in which value could indeed fall. In other words, what players are the Moneyball play? What players could indeed fall  in the draft? Where could your team get the best value overall? For a player or a player agent, it would allow them to understand more accurately where they might actually be picked in the real draft, assuming they were to obtain reasonable scouting data to feed into the process.

This is a brief survey of the NFL.com video highlights of the October 3 game, New York Giants versus the Chicago Bears, in the 2010 season. This is a  game where the vaunted Giants pass rush netted 10 sacks. Both New York and Chicago have distinct preferences for the classic 4 man line, though they’ll add their own unique twists to it, such as linebacker shifts, putting 8 men along the front, blitzing defensive backs, and playing with end and tackle spacing to take advantage of matchups.

A lot of this material is best seen in motion, such as Aaron Ross’s cornerback blitz and sack of Jay Cutler, or Barry Cofield’s really fine inside rush for a sack, from the LDT spot. But a couple things we’ll highlight.

There is a nice sequence where a strong side safety creeps up to a linebacker-esque position, eventually looking like a 4-4.

And  in this screen capture, 1 defensive back and 1 linebacker slipping between the 4 down linemen, giving a pretty clear “A gap” blitz threat (and yes, they did blitz). The original front, just counting players with 50something numbers, appears to have been a 4-1 dime.

Compare the look above to chapter 20 in Tim Layden’s book.

Dallas’s needs are complex to describe. If the goal is for Dallas to become a playoff team, I’d suggest they have no needs at all. Replacing Wade Phillips turned a 1-7 team  into a 5-3 team. That suggests that without any changes at all, the team could  go 10-6. It’s a simple view, as 3 of the top 4 defensive ends are free agents, as is the best safety and so free agency weighs heavily in any overall planning for Dallas.

The simplest description, ignoring free agency holes for a moment, would be to say that Dallas needs a right tackle and a free safety. Please note that neither position are normally manned by first round draft choices. If you pick the Indianapolis Colts as the ideal offensive team of the previous decade and their line as prototypical, then Ryan Diem is the prototypical right tackle, and he was a fourth round draft choice.  You don’t want left tackle talent filling the position, because you don’t want a player with left tackle ambitions and the desire for a left tackle sized paycheck.

Further, this isn’t a class with a standout tackle. Nor is it a draft class with a standout top ten safety. Safeties, unless they are exceptional, are considered second round picks. What this means is that a sober analysis of Dallas’s needs with respect to the talent available means that Dallas has no immediate need to fill with the first round choice.

The take home is, Dallas is positioned to take the best possible athlete at the ninth pick. In a draft thick with defensive talent, and with Dallas’s defense being pretty poor, a player on the defensive side of the ball makes sense. And therefore – not because of need, but because of perceived value – people tend to put Prince Amukamara into Dallas’s slot at nine. These analysts will then talk on about need in a position where Dallas may not have a need. Prince isn’t a safety in size or demeanor; there are arguments enough about his ability as a corner.

More puzzling to me are pundits who have Dallas reach for a left tackle talent to fill a right tackle role. Say what?

Players that generate exceptional interest within Dallas fan circles include Robert Quinn.

Looking around the league, and in particular Rich Tandler’s blog, he has a pointer to a video that aptly explains the needs of the Redskins. Quarterback, wide receiver, and then the line, especially nose tackle. Again, there are plenty of ways for the Skins to go at pick ten. There are two great receivers that are potentially top ten talent, and for any team needing a quarterback, getting value out of this hard to evaluate class will be a tricky issue. I’ll note plenty of interest in the draft thread on Extreme Skins in players like Robert Quinn, Von Miller, and also Jake Locker. The mood of fans is such that they’re expecting a play for a QB in perhaps the second round, where value is likely to be greater and the final expectations of a QB less outrageous.

On defense, people like California’s Cameron Jordan are getting a lot of attention.

The New York Giants have an interesting draft philosophy, which seems to be that if they can’t figure out what to draft, they’ll draft a pass rusher. So they’ve been stocking up on defensive ends, or end-linebacker hybrids, and as a consequence, are more capable of filling the positional needs of the modern nickel or psycho fronts than most teams. They place great value on generating a pass rush, and it was this rush, more than any other factor, that led to their 2007 victory in the Super Bowl.

This year, the belief is that New York needs offensive line help and pundits are focusing on that in mock drafts. The team needs chart at CBS Sports has OT ranked as the highest need for the Giants. On Falc Fans, Aaron Freeman has a short analysis that points out that New York has back seven defensive needs as well.

Future Sons of Washington has slotted Gabe Carimi into their mock for New York.

Philadelphia has become a canny exporter of quarterback talent, much in the mold of Ron Wolf when he was the GM of Green Bay, and a lot of speculation this year revolves around whether Kevin Kolb is going to be traded. If choices come Philadelphia’s way, they again are dealing with a surfeit of riches, and they do well in the second and third rounds of the draft. The only need of serious note on the CBS Sports chart is offensive guard, which classically is a position filled in the second round or later.

Someone like Ben Ijalana could potentially fill this need.

Philadelphia in the first round can easily go BPA. Other needs mentioned are outside linebacker and cornerback; these may be needs only because of free agency. I haven’t looked deeply into whether, say, Ernie Simms is measuring up  to expectations. But expect Philadelphia to be a player. They will trade up and down. They are totally capable of taking a player a round above where the consensus places him, if they think that player fits their scheme.

Rich Tandler is a blogger and media personality who has authored two books on the Redskins and one on the Virginia Tech Hokies. This is his second Redskins book, and one I was hoping would be an oral history of Redskins players. Instead, this book turned out to be something quite different.

It’s more a chronology of games, with concise summaries of the game at the end of a box score. Occasionally interesting bits filter into the text between games, and often the bits are of serious historical interest to those who have followed the evolution of the game. For example, this is an excerpt from an insert from the 1961 season, titled McPeak: Poor Drafts at Root of Skin’s Woes:

Players are supposed to make an impact as they enter the third and fourth years in the league. A look at the 1958 draft that just one player — end Bill Anderson — made the team. A year later, the draft class yielded not one player among the top five picks who made the team.

Just to note, how many first or second round picks in the modern era would be given four  years to develop?

To give you an example of the look, this is a photograph of the page that’s currently of most interest to me.

And on it, he again notes a detail that catches the eye, in regards to the 1972 divisional playoff game.

Manny Sistrunk, a 285 pound backup defensive tackle, was the key to the strategy. On obvious rushing downs, which was most plays for the Packers, Sistrunk lined up at nose guard in a five man defensive line…. there was another twist that added to the uncertainty….When Allen was going to make a defensive substitution, he would wait until Green Bay’s messenger had headed towards the huddle, then would send his defensive personnel into the game.

It’s this kind of loving care that makes this an excellent reference book for  the Skins, and I’d say, since the Redskins are so intertwined in the history of the NFL, that it is a useful book regardless what team you might root for.

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