Books and Articles


In a previous post, we noted that the “two gap” 3-4 doesn’t extend back to the origin of the 5-2 Oklahoma, as Jones and Wilkinson, 1957, didn’t coach a pure two gap system. It was a hybrid 1 gap 2 gap system, with only the nose guard two gapping.

Looking for post-Wilkinson 5-2 Oklahoma philosophies is difficult. The article by Norris and Harper in Defensive Football Strategies (American Football Coaches Association), dated 1974, already shows the influence of Jimmy Johnson’s “upfield pressure” philosophies. Linemen 1 gap to the play side and purse from the offside. Jimmy Johnson was the Oklahoma defensive line coach from 1970 to 1972. Fogie Fazio’s article on the 50, dated 1980, in the same book, has clear 1 gap responsibilities.

Since we know Parcells coached a two gap 3-4, that’s our starting point. We’ll consider Parcell’s career, using Bill Gutman’s biography as a reference.

The first mention of a defense is on page 36, where they discuss the 52 Invert Defense. Quoting Tom Godfrey

It was a defense that dictated to the offense, not a traditional sit-and-read defense. When the ball was snapped we were moving, and that caught people off guard. All five linemen were moving one way or the other, and the secondary moved opposite to them.

Bill Parcells was an assistant at Wichita State at the time, and he taught this defense to his old high school. But confusing, slanting, pressure 5-2s aren’t read-and-react two gap 3-4s. This isn’t the defense he took to the Giants.

His next stop is at Army, where his old high school coach had assembled a terrific staff, and where he meets Bobby Knight. From there, he goes to Florida State, where he runs into Steve Sloan, whom he follows for some time. There is a stay at Vanderbilt, and then three years at Texas Tech (1975-1977). In discussing the middle of this period, Steve Sloan says

In 1976 he became more creative. He went to an even front, something not many college teams were doing then. He ran a lot of slants and gave the offense different looks.

Needless to say, the 3-4 isn’t an even front.

Parcells then spends a year at the Air Force academy as their head coach, spends a brief period as a linebacker coach with the Giants, gets out of football briefly, and then in 1980 joins Ron Erhardt with the Patriots, where Hank Bullough was the defensive coordinator, and one of the architects of the conversion of the Pats to the 3-4. This moment seems seminal to me.

As Bullough says of the Pats introduction to the professional 3-4,

We were the first. We had gone through a tough season in ’73 and our defensive line wasn’t very good. We had drafted Steve Nelson and Sam Hunt and they were two good-looking kids at linebacker, and I said to Chuck, “Let’s go to the 3-4,” and that’s what we did.

I believe the trail of evidence now moves from Bill himself to something known by the awkward phrase Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defensive system, a kind of gobbledegook that makes “arm talent” seem svelte by comparison. Again, the questions that come to mind are: did it start out as a pure two gap 3-4 or was it a hybrid 1-gap 2-gap system, like Bud Wilkinson’s? If the latter is true, when did it evolve into a two gap 3-4? Could there have been prior art?

If we just Google’s ngram viewer to investigate, we see that the phrase “3-4 defense” first appears in 1970.

The phrase "3-4 defense" enters the corpus of books that Google has scanned  in 1970, and then steadily gains usage.

The phrase “3-4 defense” enters the corpus of books that Google has scanned in 1970, and then steadily gains usage.

There isn’t a lot of time to develop prior 3-4 art, if the ngram is correct. And for all we know, the ngram is initially tracking the discussion of three man lines in prevent defenses.

Bibliography

Cardofo, Nick, “Recurring Scheme“, September 5, 2003, Boston Globe, retrieved July 14, 2013.

Gutman, Bill. “Parcells: A Biography“, Carroll and Graf, 2000.

Dan Daly’s “National Forgotten League”: Just buy it. Read it. If you’re a historian, you’ll like how he tries to put each decade in context. If you’re an analytics guy, then his analysis of scoring patterns over the decades will come as a pleasant surprise. Dan Daly has a Twitter account and it is worth following.

Zone blitzes before the word “blitz” was coined.

In this passage in the Sammy Baugh biography Slingin’ Sam, Baugh recalls the 1935 TCU-SMU game (1):

They did some things I hadn’t seen before. They’d throw up a six-man line with two linebackers, so they had eight guys pretty close to the front. If they all came, they had a pretty good pass rush, but you had to call your blocking for six men coming. Sometimes the linebackers would come, but someone else would drop back. They usually had four men  protecting that short, eight-or nine-yard area, But we never knew which ones.

The emphasis in the quote is mine, but it sure sounds like a zone blitz to me.

The Wikipedia and the 5-3 defense.

I’ve been sticking my nose into the Wikipedia, cleaning  up their entry on the 5-2 defense, and also trying to fix situations where statements are outright incorrect (No, Tom Landry did not invent the 4-3 to stop Jim Brown.  Tom used the 4-3 as the Giants’ base defense in 1956. Sam Huff’s bio, “Tough Stuff”, makes it clear that both the 4-3 Inside and 4-3 Outside were in place by 1956 (2).  Jim Brown entered the league in 1957. Let’s just not go there, even if there are sites that claim otherwise).

But as it turns out, the Wikipedia has no entry for the 5-3 defense, which I’d like to add, and I’m faced with a quandry. Who invented it: Steve Owen, or Clark Shaughnessy? I’m not sure. The Wikipedia entry for Clark Shaughnessy claims he did, giving a reference to the book “Wow Boys”. Steve Owen claims he did in his autobiography, and gives dates (first used 1933, in a game against the Bears)(3). I have “Wow Boys” on order, so we’ll see.

5-3-3, circa 1947. Dana Bible described it as the best defense against the T formation.

5-3-3, circa 1947. Dana Bible described it as the best defense against the T formation.

Deal is, by 1947, it was regarded, by Dana Bible no less, as the best defense to the T formation. The Cleveland Browns used it as their base defense at least as late as the year 1951 (4).  Steve Owen refers to the 5-3-3 as the Browns base defense in his 1952 autobiography. The  book “Total Football II” claims the Browns were using the 5-2 as their base defense by 1954, so sometime between 1952 and 1954 they switched.

On the origin of the 5-2 Oklahoma

“Total Football II” has this interesting passage (5):

After their first championship, the Eagles played the annual College All-Star game and won 38-0. The All-Stars’ coach was Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson, who took Neale’s defense back to the Big Eight and tinkered with it. Eventually, Wilkinson’s 5-2 had the ends standing up like linebackers.

The interesting thing about this claim is that it is falsifiable. If Oklahoma played the 5-2 Eagle as late as the 1948 season, they already knew about the defense. If the Oklahoma was played before 1949, then the story above is false. Partial confirmation of the date, though really not indicative of prior knowledge, is this quote from “Forty-Seven Straight” (6):

It was in 1949 that Bud and Gomer devised the Oklahoma Defense, a 5-4 that was a completely new concept. “It has since been used extensively in professional football, and still is today,” says Pop Ivy. “We had been in the Eagle Defense, named for the Philadelphia Eagles. In it the linebackers played on the offensive ends. But it was Bud’s idea that, since linebackers, playing on tight ends, can’t see what’s going on, no key is given. ‘Let’s move our linebackers in on the offensive guards and move our defensive tackles on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles and key on the offensive guards’, Bud proposed. ‘The guard will pull, or double-team, or do something to tell us what the play will be.’ As soon as the offensive guard moved, we know what to do.”

This passage is useful in a lot of ways. It establishes that the Oklahoma is a keying defense that was in use in 1949, 7 years in advance of Landry’s 4-3. It also suggests that reading keys is prior art, something people were already doing at the time. It suggests a way to falsify the claim of Total Football II: find video somewhere of Oklahoma football in 1948, and look for a 5-2 Eagle.

The 5-4 before there was a 5-4.

Bud Wilkinson’s 5-2 is often referred to as a 5-4. Bud himself often called it a 5-4. But in Dana Bible’s book there is this short passage, showing a noticeably different 5-4.

5-4-2, circa 1947. Note the wide spacing of the linebackers, compared to the Oklahoma.

5-4-2, circa 1947. Note the wide spacing of the linebackers, compared to the Oklahoma.

Notes from the book ’63

The book ’63 is an oral history of the 1963 Chicago Bears. Maury Youmans did the interviews, Gary stitched the interviews into a comprehensible narrative. Because it’s largely an oral history from a lot of perspectives, it’s terrifically useful as a snapshot into what was happening at the time.

Mike Ditka on the 46 defense (7):

Buddy Ryan had a system; it was the 46 defense. You basically are coming with eight men up front. You’re playing an 8-3, that’s what you’re playing.

Ritchie Petitbon on George Allen becoming defensive coordinator late in 1962, replacing Clark Shaughnessy (8):

I thought when George Allen took over it was a good move. Clark was a genius, but he was so smart that most of us didn’t know what the hell was going on. George simplified things, and we obviously had a lot of talent on that team. I think it made all the difference in the world.

In my opinion, George Allen relates to Clark Shaughnessy as a defensive coach in much the same way Joe Gibbs is indebted to Don Coryell. Both showed the systems of their mentors could win big in the NFL.
~~~

Notes and References.

1. Holley, Chapter 4.

2. Huff and Shapiro, p. 50.

3. Owen, p. 178.

4. Brown and Clary, p. 220.

5. Carroll et al., p 463.

6. Keith, p. 55.

7. Youmans and Youmans, p. 209.

8. Youmans and Youmans, p. 11.

Bibliography.

Bible, Dana X., Championship Football, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1947.

Brown, Paul and Clary, Andy, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum, New York, 1979.

Holley, Joe, Slingin’ Sam: The Life and Times of the Greatest Quarterback Ever to Play the Game, University of Texas Press, 2012 [ebook].

Huff, Sam and Shapiro, Leonard, Tough Stuff, St. Martins Press, 1988.

Keith, Harold, Forty-seven Straight: The Wilkinson Era at Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

Lamb, Keith, The Evolution of Strategy, in Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League, Carroll, Bob, Gershman, Michael, Neft, David, and Thorn, John, editors, Total Sports Inc, 1999.

Owen, Steve, My kind of football;, David McKay, 1952.

Youmans, Gary, and Youmans, Maury,’63: The Story of the 1963 World Championship Chicago Bears, Campbell Road Press, 2004.

Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man’s Guide to Professional Football, Harper Collins, 1984.

This is going to be a mixed bag of a post, talking about anything that has caught my eye over the past couple weeks. The first thing I’ll note is that on the recommendation of Tom Gower (you need his Twitter feed), I’ve read Josh Katzowitz’s book: Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game.

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I didn’t know much about Gillman as a young man, though the 1963 AFL Championship was part of a greatest games collection I read through as a teen. The book isn’t a primer on Gillman’s ideas. Instead, it was more a discussion of his life, the issues he faced growing up (it’s clear Sid felt his Judaism affected his marketability as a coach in the college ranks). Not everyone gets the same chances in life, but Sid was a pretty tough guy, in his own right, and clearly the passion he felt for the sport drove him to a lot of personal success.

Worth the read. Be sure to read Tom Gower’s review as well, which is excellent.

ESPN is dealing with the football off season by slowly releasing a list of the “20 Greatest NFL Coaches” (NFL.com does its 100 best players, for much the same reason). I’m pretty sure neither Gillman nor Don Coryell will be on the list. The problem, of course, lies in the difference between the notions of “greatest” and “most influential”. The influence of both these men is undeniable. However, the greatest success for both these coaches has come has part of their respective coaching (and player) trees: Al Davis and Ara Parseghian come to mind when thinking about Gillman, with Don having a direct influence on coaches such as Joe Gibbs, and Ernie Zampese. John Madden was a product of both schools, and folks such as Norv Turner and Mike Martz are clear disciples of the Coryell way of doing things. It’s easy to go on and on here.

What’s harder to see is the separation (or fusion) of Gillman’s and Coryell’s respective coaching trees. Don never coached under or played for Gillman. And when I raised the question on Twitter, Josh Katzowitz responded with these tweets:

Josh Katzowitz : @smartfootball @FoodNSnellville From what I gathered, not much of a connection. Some of Don’s staff used to watch Gillman’s practices, tho.

Josh Katzowitz ‏: @FoodNSnellville @smartfootball Coryell was pretty adament that he didn’t take much from Gillman. Tom Bass, who coached for both, agreed.

Coaching clinics were popular then, and Sid Gillman appeared from Josh’s bio to be a popular clinic speaker. I’m sure these two mixed and heard each other speak. But Coryell had a powerful Southern California connection in Coach John McKay of USC, and I’m not sure how much Coryell and Gillman truly interacted.

Pro Football Weekly is going away, and Mike Tanier has a nice great article discussing the causes of the demise. In the middle of the discussion, a reader who called himself Richie took it upon himself to start trashing “The Hidden Game of Football” (which factors in because Bob Carroll, a coauthor of THGF, was also a contributor to PFW). Richie seems to think, among other things, that everything THGF discussed was “obvious” and that Bill James invented all of football analytics wholesale by inventing baseball analytics. It’s these kinds of assertions I really want to discuss.

I think the issue of baseball analytics encompassing the whole of football analytics can easily be dismissed by pointing out the solitary nature of baseball and its stats, their lack of entanglement issues, and the lack of a notion of field position, in the football sense of the term. Since baseball doesn’t have any such thing, any stat featuring any kind of relationship of field position to anything, or any stat derived from models of relationships of field position to anything, cannot have been created in a baseball world.

Sad to say, that’s almost any football stat of merit.

On the notion of obvious, THGF was the granddaddy of the scoring model for the average fan. I’d suggest that scoring models are certainly not obvious, or else every article I have with that tag would have been written up and dismissed years ago. What is not so obvious is that scoring models have a dual nature, akin to that of quantum mechanical objects, and the kinds of logic one needs to best understand scoring models parallels that of the kinds of things a chemistry major might encounter in his junior year of university, in a physical chemistry class (physicists might run into these issues sooner).

Scoring models have a dual nature. They are both deterministic and statistical/probabilistic at the same time.

They are deterministic in that for a typical down, distance, to go, and with a specific play by play data set, you can calculate the odds of scoring down to a hundredth of a point. They are statistical in that they represent the sum of dozens or hundreds of unique events, all compressed into a single measurement. When divorced from the parent data set, the kinds of logic you must use to analyze the meanings of the models, and formulas derived from those models, must take into account the statistical nature of the model involved.

It’s not easy. Most analysts turns models and formulas into something more concrete than they really are.

And this is just one component of the THGF contribution. I haven’t even mentioned the algebraic breakdown of the NFL passer rating they introduced, which dominates discussion of the rating to this day. It’s so influential that to a first approximation, no one can get past it.

Just tell me: how did you get from the formulas shown here to the THGF formula? And if you didn’t figure it out yourself, then how can you claim it is obvious?

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.

I picked up this book after Greg Cosell gave it a big thumbs up on Rob Rang and Doug Farrar‘s radio show for KJR in Seattle, curious what it might actually say about the NFL draft.

Turns out this book is an update and rewrite of his earlier book, Patriot Reign, and for 11 of the chapters of this book, really has almost nothing to do about the draft, other than teasers spiked throughout the work. One interesting comment about the draft ranking system implemented by Belichick goes:

One of the things that made the system different was that it absolutely required a scout to know his college area or region of coverage in addition to each member of the Patriots’ fifth-three man roster. All reports, without exception, were comparative, and were based on what a given prospect could do vs. any current Patriot playing his position.

As a book, it initially has no sense of overarching storyline, content to wander about the narrative landscape the way a 60 year old grandfather would, telling one story in deep depth and then switching abruptly to another. It follows a variety of points of view. They all do not make much sense until you get to the end, where Michael actually starts talking more in depth about the draft in chapter 12. It finally becomes clear that he has three points of view, all intertwined, that of Belichick, that of Thomas Dimitroff, GM of the Atlanta Falcons, and that of Scott Pioli, GM of the Kansas City Chiefs. But to get there, to the three chapters of new material, he has you read about 11 chapters that I suspect were mostly all told in Patriot Reign.

Disturbing is the often myopic point of view of the book. Most notable in this regard is the coverage of Spygate, which can be summarized as (A) It was all Eric Mangini’s fault (B) Everybody does it and (C) People are picking on us needlessly and hurtfully. It’s in these segments where the book descends even from rambling history and becomes a fanboy lament. When you have to complain, in Poor Poor Pitiful Me fashion, about Gregg Easterbrook talking you down – in football terms, a comic, mind you – then you really do need to step out of the narrative a while and reexamine the facts. Tom, of the blog Residual Prolixity, puts it this way:

There are also a couple things Holley doesn’t seem to get, either from a Boston-centric viewpoint or they’re not obvious and nobody actually bothered to explain them to him, with the foremost example in my mind that Spygate (covered only briefly) exacerbated an existing anti-Boston sentiment arising from a belief that the Patriots were willing to push to the edge of the rules and beyond, if they could get away with it, which they could (see increase in illegal contact penalties, 2004, post Colts-Patriots).

All that said, once you get to Chapter 12, there are three chapters of useful insider stuff on how three teams conduct their draft. The background info on Dimitroff and Pioli are good enough to be useful to fans of the Falcons and Chiefs. Just, the new stuff isn’t substantial enough to be a book on its own – more like a long extended article in the New Yorker or the Washington Post. But, book sales being what they are, the new stuff was tacked onto the old stuff and sold as an entirely new product.

Up to you, whether you should read it. It can be interesting given the limitations of the material. Scaled in the measure of a draft pick, this is day two material.

The Stathead blog is now defunct and so, evidently, is the Pro Football Reference blog. I’m not too sure what “business decision” led to that action, but it does mean one of the more neutral and popular meeting grounds for football analytics folks is now gone. It also means that Joe Reader has even less of a chance of understanding any particular change in PFR. Chase Stuart of PFR is now posting on Chris Brown’s blog, Smart Football.

The author of the Armchair Analysis blog, Jeff Cross, has tweeted me telling me that a new play by play data set is available, which he says is larger than that of Brian Burke.

Early T formations, or not?

Currently the Wikipedia is claiming that Bernie Bierman of the University of Minnesota was a T formation aficionado

U Minnesota ran the T in the 1930s? Really?

I’ve been doing my best to confirm or deny that. I ordered a couple books..

No mention of Bernie's T in this book.

I've skimmed this book, and haven't seen any diagrams with the T or any long discussion of the T formation. There are a lot of unbalanced single wing diagrams, though.

I also wrote Coach Hugh Wyatt, who sent me two nice letters, both of which state that Coach Bierman was a true blue single wing guy. In his book, “Winning Football”, I have yet to find any mention of the T, and in Rick Moore’s “University of Minnesota Football Vault”, there is no mention of Bernie’s T either.

I suspect an overzealous Wikipedia editor had a hand in that one. Given that Bud Wilkinson was one of Bernie’s players, a biography of Bud Wilkinson could be checked to see if the T formation was really the University of Minnesota’s major weapon.

In Brian Burke’s recent roundup, he references a Fifth Down blog article on Rex Ryan’s philosophy of offense, one where running is heavily emphasized and the yardage? Not so much. He then says that as an offensive philosophy, it seems to be “ridiculous”, except in the metaphoric sense of a boxer, with a jab, using the run to keep an opponent off balance, so that he can lay out the “killing blow”.

I tend to think that Brian’s boxing metaphor is, at best, an incomplete picture. For one, he doesn’t see the jab as a knockout punch, but for Muhammad Ali, it was. Another point is the jab is fast, elusive, confusing. By contrast, the run is a slow play, and there is nothing particularly elusive or confusing about the run. Rex-like coaches often run when it is most expected.

The way Rex is using the run, in my opinion, is closely tied to the way Bill Parcells used to use the run, especially in the context of Super Bowl 25. This New York Times article, about Super Bowl 25, details Parcells’ view of the philosophy neatly.

Parcells' starting running backs averaged about 3.7 ypc throughout his NFL coaching career.

To quote Bill:

“I don’t know what the time of possession was,” the Giants’ coach would say after the Giants’ 20-19 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. “But the whole plan was try to shorten the game for them.”

The purpose, of course, is time control, optimizing time of possession, and thus reducing the opportunity of the opposing offense to have big plays. It’s a classic reaction to an opponent’s big play offense, to their ability to create those terrific net yards per attempt stats [1].

Note also Rex is primarily a defensive coach. If the game changing, explosive component of a football team is the defense, doing everything to suppress the opponent’s offense only hands more tools to the defensive team. It forces the opponent’s offense to take risks to score at all. It makes them go down the field in the least amount of time possible. It takes the opponents out of their comfort zone, especially if they are used to large, early leads.

The value of time, though, is hard to quantify.  Successful time control is folded into stats like WPA, and thus is highly situation dependent. The value of such a strategy is very hard to determine with our current set of analytic tools. Total time of possession no more captures the real value of time any more than total running yards captures the real value of the running game in an offense.

Chris, from Smart Football, says that the classic tactic for a less talented team (a “David”) facing a more talented team (a “Goliath”) is to use plenty of risky plays, to throw the outcome into a high risk, high reward, high  variance regime. The opposite approach, to minimize the scoring chances of the opposition, is a bit neglected in Chris’s original analysis, because he assumed huge differences in talent. However, he explicitly includes it here, as a potential high variance “David” strategy.

It’s ironic to think of running as the strategy of an underdog, but that’s what it is in this instance. New England is the 500 pound gorilla in the AFC East, ranked #1 on offense 2 of the last 4 years, and that’s the team he has to beat. And think about it more, just a college analogy for now: what teams do you know, undersized and undermanned,  that use a ground game to keep them in the mix? It’s the military academies, teams like Army, Navy, and the Air Force, using ground based option football.

[1] The down side of a loose attitude towards first and second down yardage is that it places an emphasis on third down success rate, and thus execution in tough situations.

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