May 2012


Chris Brown, of Smart Football, has written a book.

I caught wind of it in a blurb by Doug Farrar, and bought it. I, for the most part, recommend the book. It’s an easy long afternoon read, and there is plenty to digest. Chris has forgotten more offensive football than I’ll ever know, but on the other side of the ledger, defense, his acumen isn’t quite as sharp. The essay I have issues with is also posted on Grantland, and the central passages that bother me are as follows. The first is an explanation of the defensive reaction to the T formation.

Defenses needed an answer. The response was the “5-2 Monster” defense, which essentially dominated football for the next two decades. The 5-2 Monster involved five defensive linemen, each playing a 2-gap technique over a specific offensive lineman. This allowed linebackers to roam free and match the offense’s ball carriers. The “Monster” referred to the safety who came down and created one of the first true eight-man front defenses. The combination of five two-gapping defensive linemen with three second-level defenders, each attacking the ball and following the potential runners, helped counteract the T formation offenses’ misdirection.

In the NFL, defenses varied more owing to the need to stop passing teams, but even those variations typically relied on Monster-based principles.

This whole quote is misleading in the extreme. Bud Wilkinson is the father of the 5-4, as he called it, also known as the Oklahoma. As he wasn’t coaching at Oklahoma until 1947, the T had been around for at least 7 years before any sign of the 5-4 ever appeared (there is, for example, no mention of the 5-4 in Dana Bible’s book, copyright 1947, but plenty of mention of the ‘T’). Further, the 5-4 was essentially a college defense, favored in particular by the Big Eight conference.

In the pros, the first move was to Clark Shaughnessy’s 5-3 or perhaps to Earle Neale’s 5-2-4 double eagle. Steve Owen then started experimenting with the 6-1 “Umbrella”, because his team received a windfall of good defensive backs (including one Tom Landry) when the AAFC collapsed (Dr Z, New Thinking Man’s, Chapter 6). This then evolved into the 4-3 defenses that dominated pro football from the middle 1950s into the early 1980s, when the 3-4 became fashionable.

The most common pro 4-3 defenses from the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s were the 4-3 Inside and the 4-3 Outside. Exhaustive coverage of the line positions and linemen responsibilities of these two defenses are a part of the set “Vince Lombardi on Football“, and it doesn’t take good eyesight or the brain of a rocket scientist to note that these are one gap defenses.

The classic Tom Landry 4-3 defenses, which Vince Lombardi used his whole career, were one gap defenses. You either took the solid line or the dotted line gaps.

Therefore, the whole premise of the above quote is flawed. The 4-3 of the 1960s isn’t a 5-2, and doesn’t partake of the two gap tendencies of Bud Wilkinson’s creation.

As we pointed out here, the 4-3 Flex is derived from the Inside and the Outside, and thus is also a one gap defense. The flex can be described as a 4-3 inside on the weak side of the formation, and a 4-3 outside on the strong side of the (offensive) formation.

So, now that Chris has “proven” that professional 4-3 defenses are two gap defenses, he then goes on to claim:

Johnson’s response was to reinvent the 4-3 defense with an almost entirely new underlying framework. And although this new 4-3 began at Oklahoma State, it is now known for the school Johnson brought it to next: the University of Miami. The 4-3 had been around for a long time. Legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry even had his own variant named after him, the “Landry 4-3 Flex”; but Johnson concocted his version as anti-wishbone medicine. Instead of telling defensive linemen to 2-gap and watching them get fooled by the option on every play, he switched entirely to a 1-gap system.

The premise, is, more or less, that 2 gap football is all that existed until Jimmy Johnson invented the 1 gap defense out of the blue. Except, of course, no one else says that, and they don’t say it because 1 gap 4 man line defenses were both popular and in common use since the middle 1950s, as the New York Giants won a championship with one in 1956.

Now, if the context is narrowed to Big Eight football, then all the discussions begin to make sense. The Big Eight was the hotbed of the 5-2, and it was Big Eight coaches that brought the 5-2, in the form of the 3-4, into professional ball. In the Big Eight, two gap approaches were popular, and Jimmy Johnson coming up with a penetrating one gap scheme must have been quite a shock to his opponents.

And that’s the flaw of the essay. It starts with a Big Eight centric view and expands it to cover the whole of football. But the whole of defensive football from the 1940s to Jimmy Johnson’s innovative 4-3 is more than Bud Wilkinson’s 5-4, and this essay doesn’t present it in that way.

Consequently, this whole non-discussion could have been better. It could have dug deep into the specific assignments of the Miami 4-3 on a per position basis and shown us just how it differed from previous 4-3s. But the article ducks all that by a sleight of hand, by pretending that if you know the Monster 5-2, you know all you need to know about NFL style 43 defenses.

Just to make it clear, 4 man ‘odd fronts’ predated JJ and Belichick. What kind of scheme did Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs run? Was Buck Buchanon a 1 gap or 2 gap tackle?

Now, back to Belichick’s front: Is it as innovative as Chris claims? I’ll note that odd front 4-3s were often seen in the 1960s, particularly by AFL teams, the Kansas City Chiefs being one of them. How do we know, in the absence of good video study, just what kind of scheme Buck Buchanon was playing? The answer is, we don’t. And I’ll save that thought, as money is tight, and I’m not quite sure where to get a copy of Kansas City Chief highlights just yet.

Further, by the early 2000s, the kind of Tampa 2 style defenses that teams like Dallas, under defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer were running had a odd front. The nose tackle was a 2 gapper, a strong side 3 technique tackle was covering one gap. And whether the ends were 1 gap ends or 2, they’re just one assignment away from the alignment Chris talks about as so brilliant.

And this isn’t to take anything away from Chris’s final diagram of Belichick’s 4-3, which is pretty cool. The symmetry is dynamically pleasing. But the history of football defense he concocts is so mangled as to deserve not only comment, it deserves to be condemned.

Update: Chris’s book is availahle now as a Kindle ebook.

This has been part of an ongoing conversation among Dallas fans, and perhaps among any of the 9 teams, from the Redskins to Patriots to the Vikings, that traded up in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. There are some new tools for the analyst and the fan, and these include: (1) Pro Football Reference’s average AV per draft choice list, (2)  Pro Sports Transactions’ NFL draft trade charts, and (3) The Jonathan Bales’ article on Dallas Cowboys.com where he analyzes a series of first round trades up from 2000 to 2010. He concludes that in general, the trade up does not return as much value as it gives.

I suspect that Jonathan’s conclusion is also evident in the fantasydouche.com plot we reposted here. The classic trade chart of Jimmy Johnson really does overvalue the high end draft choices. You’re not paying for proven value, but rather potential when you trade up. I suspect by the break even metric we chose, comparing relative average AVs, that many draft trades never pay off, in part because people pay too much for the  value they receive. This is most evident in trading a current second or third and a future first for a current first round draft choice. These trades tend almost to be failures by design, and smack ultimately of desperation, true even when the player obtained (e.g. Jason Campbell) actually has some skills.

That said, how many of these players exceed the average abilities of the slot in which they were drafted? Now that we have the PFR chart, this is another question that can be asked of the first round players. Note that Jonathan Bales’ study doesn’t really answer the question of how good the player becomes, in part because the time frame chosen doesn’t allow the player adequate development. I started in the year 2000 1995, ended in the year 2007. I identified 67 players in that time frame, and I compared the AV for each player as given by the weighted average on the PFR player page. I’ll note that the player page and the annual draft pages do not agree on players’ weighted career accumulated value, so I assumed the personal pages were more accurate.

As far as a scale, we’re using the following:

AV relative to average Ranking
-25 AV or more Bust
-24 to -15 AV Poor
-14 to -5 AV Disappointing
-4 to +4 AV Satisfactory
+5 to +14 AV Good
+15 to +24 AV Very Good
+25 AV and up Excellent

 
Note there are some issues with the scale. Plenty of players from 1995 through 2007 are still playing, and their rankings are almost certainly going to change. In particular, Eli Manning at +24 and Jay Cutler at +23 have a great chance to end up scored as Excellent before the next season is over. Jason Campbell is at +19, and if he starts for a team for one season, he will end up with a ranking of Excellent. Santonio Holmes (+19) also has a shot at the Excellent category.

Players in the years 2006 and 2007 in lower categories (Manny Lawson at +7, Joe Staley at +4, Anthony Spencer at 0 ) could end up as Very Good, perhaps even Excellent if their careers continue.

The scoring ended up as

Scale Number Percent as Good Percent as Bad
Excellent 14 20.9 100.0
Very Good 9 34.3 79.1
Good 13 53.7 65.7
Satisfactory 10 68.7 46.3
Disappointing 7 79.1 31.3
Poor 5 86.6 20.9
Bust 9 100.0 13.4

 
Data came from the sources above. A PDF of these raw data is here:

NFL Trade Ups

Update: Increased the dates of players considered from 2000-2007 to 1995-2007. Moved Ricky Williams back to 1999.

It all started when Bart Hubbuch @NYPost_Hubbuch started riffing on Pro Football Focus’s exclusion of Tony Romo in  their top 100 (Top 100 shows are popular now. It’s a way to get some buzz after the draft and before training camp). Somehow this became a back and forth between Hubbuch and Clarence Hill (@clarencehilljr) of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. I piped in, mostly because I don’t care much for the Pro Football Focus passer formula (original discussion here, a cleaner narrative here). Later my clutch of fan contacts made it clear to me that the PFF passer formula ranked Romo #6, so that wasn’t the reason for his exclusion from PFF’s top 100.

But  this somehow morphed into a discussion of the whole ‘loss of faith’ narrative, how during crucial situations, Jason Garrett wasn’t letting Tony Romo ‘do his thing’. The notion is that Jason lost faith in Romo and that two circumstances, in particular, demonstrated  that Jason didn’t trust Tony. The first was a shovel pass during the NE game, and the second was the end of regulation in Arizona.

I’ll note these topics are difficult thing to discuss in the limits of Twitter, and not least in that the games that Bart was arguing about I never saw. I had real life issues on those days, and had no eyeball memory of  either game. I followed some of the New England game on NFL.com towards the end, and never saw any of the Arizona game, but looked a bit at some play by play later.

As a term like ‘loss of faith’ implies some understanding of the mind of Jason Garrett, it can’t be disproven. Likewise, it can’t be demonstrated or proven either. Someone with familiar with Jason, someone more like Clarence Hill Jr, has a better chance to infer states of mind, but proof?

Bart writes articles for the blue collar newspaper in NYC, and pushes an emotional  hook in many of his articles.  As an example, I see words like ‘dirtbag’ used to describe the Falcons offensive line. I’m more an analytics guy,  happier when I can let the numbers tell the story. I don’t need charged rhetoric to make the case for me.

So it was interesting. Bart is missing some points in his determination to ‘demonstrate’ his case. Strategically,  the end of the Arizona game is almost a carbon copy of the end of the 2nd Washington game. Same tactics, same strategy, just badly performed. What Bart sees as a loss of confidence in Romo I see as a poor 2 minute drill with Jason Garrett relying too much on kickers.

The odd call in the New England game.. that wasn’t an end of game call, was it? It was late in the second quarter, if I recall. And to note, Jason Garrett is capable of some really odd calls at crucial times of the game: witness his reverses in red zone situations, where it’s pretty obvious the opposing team will be shooting gaps. And a lot of that can be ascribed to Jason’s newness as a head coach — perhaps.

But, to make the important point, was the game on  the line in the second quarter? The NE-DAL game could have been won or lost on single plays at multiple points in the game. The  more appropriate comparison – Arizona for that matter as well – is to the first New York Giants – Dallas game, which turned on the execution of single plays.

In my mind, all three games are too closely played to lend themselves to a dissection of the Romo/Garrett relationship. You might as well ask what Tom Landry thought of Bob Hayes after  the 1966 championship game, when he was left to block David Robinson.

To ask and answer one last question: if Bart has a more thematic, emotional interest in football, and I have a more analytic interest, why even follow the guy? I’d argue that he’s a worthwhile follow because of his live tweeting of events. His reactions seem genuine, not as emotionally charged as his longer articles or more considered narratives. In moments like those, he’s just a guy, one with .. media credentials, who can get into events I can’t. In those moments, having his feed is like  having another pair of eyes. I’m grateful for the immediacy of his reactions.

Update: late at night on May 5, Bart replied in substance to this post in a series of tweets. We’ll quote the 4 most pertinent of these, reordered so they read like a paragraph:

Saw your blog post. NE play was 5:22 left in 4th — not 2nd. 3rd & 5 from NE 5 in a tie game, JG calls shovel to Choice. Cowboys settle for FG and 16-13 lead, giving Brady more than enough time to produce 20-16 win. Also, “dirtbag” was a quote from Justin Tuck about the Falcons, not my invention. Lastly, I’m from Dallas, used to cover Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News and have known Clarence Hill for 20 years.

Frank Dupont wrote another nice letter again. He has a blog called fantasydouche.com, and on it there are  a pair of links (here and here) useful to draft analysts. In the first, he introduces a value chart based on average number of starts per draft slot. In the second of the pair, he assesses the value of the first round 2012 trades using the new value chart. This is a different metric from the Jimmy Johnson trade value chart or approximate value, and you draw different conclusions with this metric  than through AV analysis  (compare links above with my previous analysis). Worth a read.

Image from Fantasydouche.com. Note the difference in slope in the “games started” curve and the Jimmy Johnson trade value chart.

Chris Brown of Smart Football thinks this article on LonghornDigest.com is well worth a read. It shows the influence of modern analysis on college level defensive coordinators, with exhibit #1 being Manny Diaz of the Texas Longhorns.

For Dallas fans, Jonathan Bales of the Dallas Cowboy Times has an article on DallasCowboys.com assessing the success of first round trade ups.

Update: fixed the J Bales link.

There were, of course, two substantial trades of Ricky Williams. The first netted the Washington Redskins the whole of the Saints 1999 draft, plus the Saint’s first and third round picks of 2000. Three years later, Ricky was traded to the Miami Dolphins for a pair of first rounders, plus change. The first was obviously not paid off. How did the Miami Dolphins fare in their trade, using our new risk metrics?

Risk Ratio no longer makes sense as a term when you’re talking about someone already drafted. The important term becomes the net risk term, 52 AV. That’s 1 more AV than the typical #1 draft choice, and that’s the amount of AV Ricky had to generate in order for this trade to break even. And note, these calculations are derived from weighted career AV, not raw AV. So any raw AV we apply to these numbers is a rough approximation (A typical career summing to, say, 95 AV, might end up around 76 or so WCAV).

That said, Ricky Williams had a great first season with the Dolphins, generating 19 AV in that season alone. His total ended up somewhere around 57 AV. I’d suggest the second trade approximately broke even.

End notes: I’ve seen a lot of discussion around  this set of data, discussing the quality of draft picks on a per pick basis, posted in of all places, a Cav’s board. If this board isn’t the original source of these graphs, please let me know. An excellent resource for high quality NFL draft trade information is here. And finally, a reader named Frank Dupont writes:

I wrote a book about decision making in the NFL.  It’s sort of a pop science book because it seeks to make what happens in the NFL understandable via some work that people like David Romer, Richard Thaler, and Daniel Kahneman have done.  But because all pop science books make their point through narrative, I spend a lot of time looking at why football coaches are so old, but other game players like chess players and poker players are so young (Tom Coughlin is 65 and yet the #1 ranked chess player in the world is 21, the world’s best poker players are 25-ish).

The link for the book is here, if this topic sounds interesting to you. I’ll only note in passing  that while physics prodigies are common, biologists seem to hit their stride in their 60s.  Some areas of knowledge do not easily lend themselves to the teen aged super genius.

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