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Football Concepts, Schemes, Formations: TDG Football Seminar Week 3

We finish out the Essential Smart Football by talking about how simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

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Welcome to Week 3 of the TDG Football seminar. This week we read two chapters from The Essential Smart Football by Chris Brown. First we looked at "Football and Decision Making." Then we read about how Tom Brady and the New England Patriots showed how and why the No Huddle works. If you're just joining us this week, great! We've had several posts before this. In order

As a reminder, this is our last week of readings in the Essential Smart Football. Next week, we're moving on to The Art of Smart Football. As usual, I'll provide the readings at the end of the post.

Football and Decision Making

Let's back up for a second and think about the actual act of playing football. Even though this is a schemes seminar, understanding how players actually play will go far in ascertaining what went right and what went wrong on a play. To make this exercise especially difficult, let's pretend we're Mitch Leidner on a passing play. Here is a not-exhaustive list of responsibilities Leidner has on each play.

First, we have to make a pre-snap read. This means identifying what coverage the defense is in, who may be blitzing, who may be dropping back into coverage. We need to check for mismatches inherent in the personnel. For example, will the defense be putting a linebacker on KJ Maye in the slot? We must work with the center to ensure that every player on offense is lined up correctly and knows the play. One would hope they do given the huddle before, but this is not a guarantee.

Now, we snap the ball and begins to go through our reads. We have roughly four seconds if our blocking is very good to assess who is open, where to throw the ball, set our feet, and actually throw. We probably have a set schedule of who we look at first on this route, who our next read is, and where to throw to our check down. Perhaps we only look at one read before taking off.

From the snap to the throw, a quarterback is working almost entirely on instinct. Ask any athlete what they were thinking on a play, and the response is likely to be some variation of "do something positive." Most of the actual processes involved are subconscious because the game is too fast to process at a conscious level. The obvious lesson is that coaches should simplify the game as much as possible for their players.

At the college level, this may mean a very small playbook. Dana Holgerson famously takes only three days to install his entire playbook. On Day 4 of spring ball, they start over and practice what they've learned. That's probably true of the entire AirRaid offense, no matter the flavor. On the other end of the spectrum, Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech draws his entire offense onto a piece of legal paper. This is not only because Paul Johnson would rather be fighting a bear than talking to players. It's because the triple option does not require much complexity to be shockingly effective.

Even teams with lots of complexity pre-snap tend to have simple plays behind on the smoke screens. Boise State's offense, which shares more than a passing similarity to the Gophers, uses shifts and motions to identify defensive coverages for the offense to exploit. Each shift is planned to provide the quarterback (usually) information on where he is supposed to throw the ball.

Given the above, it should not be a surprise what my bias is when it comes to college offenses and defenses. Much like the Python programming language, in football simple is better than complex. With limited practice time, trying to install a large playbook with large amounts of verbiage says more about the coach than it does about success. Over the last five seasons, at least 40% of the top 10 Offenses in the country have been offenses that rely on something other than an NFL sized playbook to be successful.

Occam's Razor and the No Huddle

Now, if you're a Gophers fan, the response to the title of this section should be "for everyone but us." The Gophers have been straight up terrible when forced into No Huddle situations under Jerry Kill. Word from Spring and Fall camp is that Minnesota has installed some type of No Huddle, but what that means is unclear. Nevertheless, here are some reasons why the Gophers, and offenses generally, should consider moving towards the No Huddle.

Simplicity only works if players can execute the play, and have the advantage. Defenses want to match offenses' personnel in terms of strength and speed. Furthermore, the defense hopes to confuse the offense into calling the wrong play. A Cover 2 killer is not usually successful if the defense is actually playing Cover 3. Because of substitution rules, defenses in college football can only substitute when they have time, or if the offense has substituted a player.

The No-Huddle Offense, especially when run up-tempo, prevents the defense from doing either. If the defense substitutes, they run the risk of having too many men on the field, or not being in position when the ball is snapped. If the defense tries to disguise a coverage, it runs the risk of having a structural weakness that the offense takes advantage of with a quick snap. Add in the potential for package plays, and hilariously lax enforcement of rules regarding ineligible men downfield, and the No Huddle Offense forces the defense into trying to cover many different options while the offense can simplify their decision making.

So if the No-Huddle provides the offense a built in advantage of forcing the defense to play as base as possible, Why might a team huddle? Quick history lesson. Grabs a fixed gear bike and a plaid shirt to be more like HipsterGopher. When football started, most teams did not huddle. Like any major innovation, there are conflicting stories on where the huddle began. The apocryphal story is that the huddle was invented at Gallaudet University, the premier college for the deaf and hard of hearing, so that other teams would avoid stealing their signs. In addition to Gallaudet, UPenn, Oregon State, the University of Chicago, Lafayette, Auburn and Illinois have laid claim to the invention of the huddle. All of the stories give the reason as telling each other what the play was.

While there are other reasons to slow down, notably changing personnel,  the huddle's existence is dependent on giving out the play call, which is frequently absurdly long. Here is an actual play call from Jon Gruden's offense, "Flip right, double-X jet, 36 counter, naked waggle, X-7, X-quarter." Here is an actual play call from the Patriots No Huddle, "Bama Left." Both communicate the formation, blocking, routes, shifts, snap count, and alerts. One is eight words longer than the other for no reason.

In the sciences, there is a heuristic known as Occam's Razor. If there are competing hypotheses to explain a phenomenon, the hypothesis with fewer variables should be preferred. In prediction, fewer variables mean that a model is less likely to be overfit based on training data, and so more likely to accurately predict new data.

In football, the only real reason for complicated play calls and huddles are inertia. Just to be clear that this is not solely my uninformed opinion, Bill Walsh, the greatest coach of the modern era, wrote in Finding the Winning Edge

"Teams will huddle only when the clock is stopped."

"Teams will use single-word offensive audibles."

Walsh was not the first coach to identify that trend. Paul Brown realized it in the 1950s. Here's hoping that the Gophers take advantage of the principles this season.

Readings For Next Week

We have a new book for next week. Chris Brown's The Art of Smart Football. Chapters 1-4.