College Football


I was originally looking for as much information on Robert Neyland’s methods of playing football as I could find. The best reference is probably Andy Kozar’s “Football as a War Game” but finding cheap copies these days is next to impossible. Dr Kozar’s book is made of annotated notes of General Neylands, and originally could be had for $75.00. On Amazon these days, one copy is being offered for a bit more than $2800.00. So, that said, I read Dan Gilbert’s book, which is a decent history of the man but a mediocre football book.

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All that said, it became evident that there was an early standout on Robert Neyland’s teams, and that man was Bobby Dodd. Bobby Dodd was a quarterback on 3 of Neyland’s best teams, and later became a coach with the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets. In 1952, Bobby Dodd won a college national championship and in 1954, he wrote a book on football.

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The timing of the book is useful, as it’s between the 1950 publication date of Don Faurot’s book and the 1957 publication of Wilkinson’s tome on defense. Anything that can give me a snapshot in time of what people think is useful, and this gives an opinion of a respected, Neyland educated coach. Interestingly, when Bobby Dodd retired from coaching Georgia Tech, his replacement was Bud Carson, the same Bud Carson who became the well known defensive coordinator for the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers (and where the first versions of the Tampa 2 appeared).

If I had to hazard a guess, from the amount of space devoted to it, then I would say that Bobby understood the 6-2 better than any other defense. It was the first defense he introduces, and in the shifted 6-2, the defense he recommends against the single wing. The next base defenses he introduces are the 5-3-2-1, as he calls it (the 5-3) and the image that follows shows a 5-3 from an offensive context.

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Later he introduces the defense he calls the 5-4-2, and later says the best of them is the 5-4 Oklahoma. For Dodd, it was a defense against the split T.

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His final base defense was his goal line defense. Against spreads, he gives advice that would feel at home with anyone who has read Dana Bible’s book.

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There is a lot in Bobby Dodd’s book, that I haven’t covered, as he gives an enormous amount of drill, and then also his philosophy of football, which was that it had to be fun, or else the students wouldn’t enjoy it. In many of the psychological aspects of football, his approach is very modern, and the book would not hurt any coach to have on his bookshelf.

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Video has become available, in the right places, of the 1950 Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma and LSU, and early in that video, you see LSU line up with a pair of split ends. And interestingly, the defensive ends of Bud Wilkinson’s 5-2 go out with them.

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And this is important because the answer to the question of when did 5-2 defensive ends acquire pass responsibilities is, more or less, right from the start. This isn’t a ad-hoc defense that Bud cooked up. Oklahoma was playing this defense all that year (1). You see the 5-2 all through the video, tight and loose. And to the question of which was an older keying defense, the Oklahoma is absolutely older than the 6-1 Umbrella (Oct of 1950, as opposed to the January bowl game), and so is older than Tom Landry’s 4-3 inside/outside.

So where did these stand up defensive ends come from? As far as I can tell, common practice. In the 1950 game, you’ll see LSU on defense with 4 players in a 3 point stance, flanked by two players in a two point stance. That’s a 6-2 defense, 1940s style.

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And images from the 1945 Sugar Bowl (Alabama – Duke) show it wasn’t unique to LSU.

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I’ve had coaches I respect tell me that Bud’s 5-2 has antecedents in General Neyland’s defenses. I have seen some video of the 1952 TN team but none that quite shows the kind of flexibility shown by Bud on the first image in this article.

Dan Daly has a new blog and I think people should check it out. Doug Farrar is supposedly working on an article about Clark Shaughnessy and I hope it turns out well. It’s not easy to disambiguate facts in Shaughnessy’s time frame and I hope he does his homework on that one.

Notes

1. Keith, p 55.

Bibliography

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

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.

The value of a turnover is a topic addressed in The Hidden Game of Football, noting that the turnover value consists of the loss of value by the team that lost the ball and the gain of value  by the team that recovered the ball. To think in these terms, a scoring model is necessary, one that gives a value to field position. With such a model then, the value is

Turnover = Value gained by team with the ball + Value lost by team without the ball

In  the case of the classic models of THGF, that value is 4 points, and it is 4 points no matter what part of the field the ball is recovered.

That invariance is a product of the invariant slope of the scoring model. The model in THGF is linear, the derivative of a line is a constant, and the slopes, because this model doesn’t take into account any differences between teams, cancel. That’s not true in models such as the Markov chain model of Keith Goldner, the cubic fit to a “nearly linear” model of Aaron Schatz in 2003, and the college expected points model (he calls his model equivalent points, but it’s clearly the same thing as an expected points model)  of Bill Connelly on the site Football Study Hall. Interestingly, Bill’s model and Keith’s model have a quadratic appearance, which guarantees better than constant slope throughout their curves. Aaron’s cubic fit has a clear “better than constant” slope beyond the 50 yard line or so.

Formula with slopes exceeding a constant result  in turnover values that maximize at the end zones and minimize in the middle  of the field, giving plots that Aaron calls the “Happy Turnover Smile Time Hour”. As an example, this is the value of a turnover on first and  ten (ball lost at the LOS) for Keith Goldner’s model

First and ten turnover value from Keith Goldner’s Markov chain model

And this is the piece of code you can use to calculate this curve yourself.

Note also, the models of Bill Connelly and Keith have no negative expected points values. This is unlike the David Romer model and also unlike Brian Burke’s expected points model. I suspect this is a consequence of how drives are scored. Keith is pretty explicit about his extinction “events” for drives in his model, none of which inherit any subsequent scoring by the opposition. In contrast, Brian suggests that a drive for a team that stalls inherits some “responsibility” for points subsequently scored.

A 1st down on an opponent’s 20 is worth 3.7 EP. But a 1st down on an offense’s own 5 yd line (95 yards to the end zone) is worth -0.5 EP. The team on defense is actually more likely to eventually score next.

This is interesting because this “inherited responsibility” tends to linearize the data set except inside  the 10 yard line on either end. A pretty good approximation to the first and ten data of the Brian Burke link above can be had with a line that is valued 5 points at one end,  -1 points at the other. The value of the slope becomes 0.06 points, and the value of the turnover becomes 4 points in this linearization of the Advanced Football Stats model. The value of the touchdown is 7.0 points minus subsequent field position, which is often assumed to be 27 yards. That yields

27*0.06 – 1.0 = 1.62 – 1.0 = 0.62 points,  or approximately 6.4 points for a TD.

This would yield, for a “Brianized” new passer rating formula, a surplus yardage value for the touchdown of 1.4 points / 0.06 = 23.3 yards.

The plot is below:

Eyeball linearization of BB’s EP plots yield this simplified linear scoring model. The surplus value of a TD = 23.3 yards, and a turnover is valued 66.7 yards.

Update 9/29/2011: No matter how much I want to turn the turnover equation into a difference, it’s better represented as a sum. You add the value lost to the value gained.

Ron Vanderlinden is a defensive coach, who was with the Colorado Buffaloes national championship team, then spent time at Northwestern University, coaching for their 1995 Big 10 Champion, before moving on to coach linebackers for Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions. In this book he describes the Eagle and Stack defenses, the Eagle being the 4-3 defensive scheme he learned and developed while at Colorado, the Stack being Ron’s term for a defensive scheme derived from Jimmy Johnson’s Miami 4-3. The defense he describes is thus a melding of  two schemes, one better suited for strong running teams (the Eagle) and another better suited for spread formation passing teams (the Stack). In this, there is an analogy between Tom Landry’s 4-3 inside and 4-3 outside formations, the melding of which led to the 4-3 flex.

In depth detail on a 4-3 defensive scheme, this book is highly recommended.

This book describes in depth a very successful college program and defense, and as befits a book that describes a whole coaching system, it begins with a certain set of drills, pursuit drills in the very first chapter. After describing drills it them proceeds to the player profiles required for the various positions in the Eagle. Once complete he then gets into the Eagle Defense (4 chapters), the Stack (4 chapters), fusions of the two (2 chapters), 3 chapters on positional technique, and then 3 chapters on special situations, such as goal line defense. As such, in the wealth of practical detail, the book resembles a college textbook, and has a level of difficulty akin to a sophomore organic chemistry text, or a junior level biochemistry text.

This is a good coaches book, and for the casual fan, it should be skimmed and used as a reference. There are discussions of schemes I’ve not seen before, such as Cover 7, or Cover 5:

2 safeties close to LOS aid in run defense. 2 deep strong side DBs cover 1/4 of field, while weak side DB covers 1/2. FS has TE (light blue) and post responsibilities.

The Stack defense, though generally an umbrella defense, more easily allowing 4 deep coverage, can easily be converted into a 4-4.

To note, Ron  has his own unique nomenclature for offensive gaps (1 for “A”, 3 for “B” and so on), one that makes the gap assignment align with the defensive technique. His use of 6, 7 and 9 technique I found confusing, but that’s because the standard technique assignments aren’t consistent once you get to tight ends (I would have thought them to be 6, 6i and 7 respectively, but consistency is just a hobgoblin of small minds)..