I recall a time in my early teens when I participated in a judo club, a small one whose regular competition was one of the largest and most proficient judo clubs of its era. Our competition, in a period when no one had a black belt higher than sixth degree, had a fourth degree black belt, and whose club officers tended to be officers at the national level in the United States Judo Association. Having come to my full height, but not my build, I was tall and awkward, and in matches, tended to be paired with younger members of the better club. Those men were smaller, lighter, faster, more skilled and more nimble. I lost a lot of matches before I ever won one.

When I finally won, it was because my opponent was clearly out of balance. He was afraid of my legs, and was leaning into me as we took hold of each other. It was over in seconds. I executed a clean sacrifice throw. I slipped under him, the arch of my right food cut off his left ankle and he rolled across the mat. It wouldn’t have been possible if my opponent hadn’t been out of position.

An ancient “packaged play”. You run if the cornerback follows the flanker. You pass if the cornerback forces the run.

Oversimplifiying a little, skill in judo is being able to recognize what an opponent is doing and using what he is doing against him. In a real match, seldom is it as easy as beating an opponent off the bat. You have to recognize what the opponent is doing in the match and counter appropriately. Counters in football are old, and perhaps the most accessible explanation of an offensive system and the appropriate counter responses is the set “Vince Lombardi on Football.” In it, they mention the halfback option, a single wing play carried over into the strong side offense of Vince Lombardi’s Giants and Packers teams. We’re going through this long introduction to add a nuance to Chris Brown’s phenomenal discussion of packaged plays, which take the essential idea of judo, and also the halfback pass option, and shows how using an opponent’s own reactions against him are now at the forefront of modern football.

Understand, in an traditional option, as in the modern packaged plays, which way the play goes depends on how the play turns out. There are keys and the offense is reading (keying) on the defense. This isn’t the same thing as an audible. When trying to explain packaged plays to folks who have never read Chris’s article, the most common mistake is to think these plays are audibles. An audible is a pre-snap adjustment of a play. A “packaged play” is a play with 2 or 3 options with built in reads after the play begins.

The thing that makes these plays interesting, is the imaginative combination of run and pass options, with passes to isolate and pick on the reactions of specific defenders. To imagine one combination, think of a strong side run combined with a curl in by X in a pro split T, strong right. The quarterback reads the outside linebacker and left cornerback to see which way to go. It’s potentially a way to exploit an overpursuing linebacker.

I find these notions pretty exciting, another rachet up in the cat and mouse game that dominates offense and defense. I can’t help but feel that better play design is a substantial component of the offensive explosion of the past few years. The idea that “players are getting bigger” can’t entirely account for this; they’re getting bigger on both sides of the ball. Game video should benefit both sides. But if we’re in the middle of a new kind of play design, one that can isolate players at will and make their own natural reactions the enemy, then that kind of play design could in fact be “the thing” that’s powering the offenses of the 2010s.

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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.

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.

The first is Smart Football, the second is Blitzology. No, I haven’t explored them very deeply. I’m just happy to have found something a little more cutting edge than the books I have been reading. Going through the diagrams here, I’ve been able to update my Dom Capers post and move on from there. But just to give you an idea of the look: