Strategy


Which of these players was drafted at a premium?

Sebastian Vollmer, drafted in the seond round in 2009.
Wikimedia image.

Derrick Burgess
Second round choice by Philadelphia in 2001.
Wikimedia image by BrokenSphere.

In my  mind, the answer is “both of them”.

One of the meatier passages in War Room comes in chapter 14, where Bill Belichick discusses the thought processes behind his selection of Sebastian Vollmer in 2009:

“Sebastian Vollmer is a good example”, he says of the Patriots’ starting right tackle, one of the team’s four second-rounders in ’09. “There’s no way he was really a second-round pick. Based on film or really based on the player he was at the end of the ’08 season. You know, East-West game and all  that. We knew there would be an undertow of Vollmer. And it was just a question of, ‘When’s this guy going to  go?’

“He should have been a fourth or fifth-round pick, by the film, by his performance. But  you saw him as an ascending player and he had rare size, and  there were a lot of things that you had to fix and all that. But it was clear the league liked him. Now,  the question is always, “How much do  they like him and where are they willing to buy?’ I’m sure for some teams it was the fourth round. For some teams it was the third round. But we just said, ‘Look we really want this guy. This is too high to pick him, but if we wait  we might not get him, so we’re going to  step up and take him.’

“And sometimes when you do that  you’re right and sometimes when you do  that  you’re wrong and everybody looks at you like, ‘Damn, you could have had him in the fourth.’

The Patriots aren’t the only team that practices the overdraft or the premium draft. If the Eagles really like someone, they tend to take them a round ahead of where he is commonly valued. Odd that teams that maintain plenty of draft picks practice this.  Offhand, I can recall the Eagles doing this for Derrick Burgess (generally viewed as a fourth rounder). The Steelers have done this as well;  they drafted Casey Hampton a full round above his common valuation.

In the 2012 draft class, players who appear to be attracting premium attention (we’re a day before the draft, mind you) are Ryan Tannehill (late first by talent, thought to be going to Miami at #8), Stephon Gilmore (drafted #3 in a mock draft by Greg Cosell), Fletcher Cox (mid first talent, seen as high as #5 in respectable mocks), Kevin Zeitner (mid second round talent, often in mocks with Pittsburgh in the first round), Chandler Jones (appearing in the first in some mocks), and Mark Barron (some people claim he’s the #7 now, often ranked as a mid first rounder).

If you feel you need the player, sometimes you have to just go out and get him.

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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