the tipping point

>> 5.19.2009

On ESPN.com's excellent Page 2, their columnist Bill Simmons (under the singularly unimaginative moniker "The Sports Guy") conducted a wonderful interview with pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell.  Gladwell has penned several recent bestsellers, including Blink and The Tipping Point.  Gladwell talked quite a bit about basketball and the full-court press--specifically, how underdogs in basketball routinely defeat themselves by conceding half of the court to the superior team.  He then drew a corrollary to football:

"Right now, great teams (such as the Colts and Patriots) use the no-huddle selectively, as a way to maximize their dominance. But why don't bad teams use it? If you were the Lions, why not run the no-huddle this season? Why not put together a lighter, better-conditioned offensive line and a radically simplified playbook and see what happens? It's not as if you are risking a Super Bowl if it backfires. Your offensive line is lousy anyway, so there's no harm in tearing it down, and your fans aren't going to turn on you if you get killed while you work out the kinks. Last I checked, your fans have already turned on you. On the plus side, maybe the no-huddle exhausts the other team's defense so much you slow down their pass rush in the second half. And maybe giving your quarterback a bit more autonomy helps develop his knowledge of the game, and his leadership skills."

This is a very interesting point.  The no-huddle does give a decided tactical advantage to the offense; if they can keep the chains moving without allowing defensive substitutions, very quickly the defense will tire out.  Many reading this blog will remember Jim Kelly running the Buffalo Bills' lethal "K-Gun" no-huddle shotgun-based offense.  The Bills used this offensive attack--and of course, a couple of defensive Hall of Famers--to reach four straight Super Bowls.  Stretching defenses with speedy wideouts like Andre Reed, Don Beebe, and Steve Tasker--then preventing them from substituting--opened up huge holes for multidimensional RB Thurman Thomas.  

Fifteen years after this offense shredded AFC defenses, a 2010 version might be even more terrifying.  While defensive rotations were just coming into vogue back then, today nearly every spot on the defensive side of the ball is highly specialized.  Defensive linemen, in particular, typically roll seven or eight deep on many teams, based highly upon down-and-distance.  On passing downs, bigger DEs will move inside while specialized pass rushers come off the bench--or outside linebackers put a hand down.  Teams play nickel or dime defenses nearly as many snaps as they play their base defenses.  The Patriots-style 3-4/4-3 flex is starting to spread throughout the league--and several teams (Chiefs, Packers, Broncos) are in transition from one alignment to the other.  A no-huddle offense would "trap" these teams in one alignment and personnel package, and force them to stick with it, greatly reducing the defenses' ability to adjust and react.  Trapped in the same alignment and personnel package, while the offense flashes different looks and motions, a defense could be paralyzed for entire series.

So, why don't the Lions try this?  Moreover, why didn't they try this in 2008, while they were staring an 0-16 season in the face?  Oh, wait--they did.  Jim Colletto on incorporating the no-huddle:

"It stinks. It was awful, it was embarrassing - to me and to all of us. And let's leave it at that. It was awful. If I was in the stands, I would've booed, too."

It turns out that the reason that teams like the Colts and Patriots use the no-huddle situationally to maximize their dominance is that they have coaches and players capable of executing it well; the 2008 Lions did not.  If the 2009 Lions were to actually do what Gladwell suggests--say, start Matt Stafford off with a 10-play playbook and work on nothing but execution and conditioning all training camp long--then yes, they might win several more games than if they play strictly conventionally.  The problem is that until they can win by playing conventionally, they'll be nothing more than a gimmick team, and never in serious contention.

In his New Yorker article, Gladwell looks at the dream season of a 12-year-old girls' basketball team from the Silicon Valley.  Despite being almost devoid of talent (and being coached by a software developer from Mumbai, with no background in basketball whatsoever), they advanced to the third round of the national championships--all thanks to a relentless full-court press.  Gladwell then spins that around on the rest of the basketball world--why don't more teams press, especially underdogs?  When you are the sixteen seed going up against a UNC or a Duke, why engage them in halfcourt play?  Why attempt to beat them at their own game?  Why walk up to the executioner's platform and place your neck on the chopping block?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that basketball is a game much more susceptible to streaks, bad breaks, off nights, and David-versus-Goliath upsets to begin with.  This is one of the reasons why basketball seasons involve so many games; it takes a monumental talent and execution advantage to consistently avoid upsets.  One superlative player getting hot--such as Davidson's Stephen Curry--can singlehandedly lift a nobody over powerhouses.  On any given night, whether 'the shots are falling' or not can profoundly influence the style, tempo, confidence, and aggressiveness of any team.  In fact, much of the success of the Redwood City girls' basketball squad was based on confounding and flustering their superior opponents, knocking them off their rhythyms and forcing them to take increasingly riskier shots.  The question is, once David's slayed Goliath once, how does (s)he do it again?

In football, there are 4 preseason games, 16 regular season games, and 4 rounds of playoffs that stretch from August to Februrary.  In between each game is no fewer than four--and as many as 14-- days for a staff of 20-50 coaches, assistants, and interns working 80-hour weeks, poring over game tape, relentlessly strategizing, devising gameplans, preparing them for the players, teaching them to the players, and practicing them with the players.  Over the course of a season, a team or formation or strategy that catches everyone off guard in Week 1 is often nearly useless come the playoffs.  We saw this illustrated dramatically with the 2007 Patriots--their unexpected vertical air attack, enabled by the acquisition of Randy Moss, led them to score points at almost unprecendented rates, without losing anything off of their outstanding defense.  They were beating all opponents by unheard-of margins, and the whispers of a possible perfect season soon began.  Of course, the Patriots did complete their perfect regular season--but by the end of it, their unstoppable air attack had been contained.  Instead of blowing opponents away with Randy Moss, they were ankle-biting with Wes Welker.  They were winning, but no longer unstoppable.  As we know, the Giants ultimately solved the Patriots in the Super Bowl.  Using a relentless pass rush to disrupt the passing game, they exposed the Patriots' inability to control the ball by running.  The lesson here is that in the NFL, nothing works very well for very long--too many people have too many millions of dollars riding on the outcomes of these games for any one unusual strategy or formation to be consistently dominant.

I think a wonderful test of this whole underdog-getting-crafty-in-the-NFL business is going to be the Dolphins' "Wildcat" formation.  The 2007 Dolphins, coming off of an atrocious season where they barely avoided going 0fer themselves, tried something new.  Looking for a way to maximize their talent, they used a formation where RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams could be on the field at the same time.  Sometimes using this formation as the primary offense for a whole game, and sometimes using it for only a play or two, it was wildly successful--and a big part of why the Dolphins went from 1-15 into 11-5 in just one season.  After drafting multidimensional QB/RB/WR Pat White in the second round of the 2009 draft--but with 2008 second-round pocket passer Chad Henne waiting in the wings--it remains to be seen exactly how big of a role in the Dolphins' future the Wildcat formation will play . . . and how successful it is.

5 comments:

Steve May 20, 2009 at 1:19 PM  

When does "out-of-the box" thinking become gimmick? How long would it take for the rest of the league to catch up with the Lions "No-huddle"?

I believe that Gladwell is right in suggesting that the Lions should be willing to consider anything to alter their current course, but establishing a winning milieu, which takes time, is far more important than trying a new idea or scheme.

What does "West Coast" and "Tampa Two" conjure among Lions fans? More "L"'s, plain and simple. Failure.

Finding the means to utilize their strengths and cover for their weaknesses, is a good jumping off point, in my eyes.

Jimmerz,  May 20, 2009 at 2:16 PM  

Just reason number 137 why Malcolm Gladwell is a worthless tool. He's made a career out of stating the obvious...and in this case, not only did he state the obvious, but he didn't even have all the facts.

Ty May 20, 2009 at 2:56 PM  

Steve--

"establishing a winning milieu, which takes time, is far more important than trying a new idea or scheme."

You're exactly right here. The Lions could run out a gimmicky scheme and win seven or eight games this year. Then what? The Lions are trying to reverse decades of institutionalized awful, not bounce back from a really bad season or two.

I think you have to be careful not to deride any scheme with a name as a 'gimmick'. What people call the "West Coast" offense is just a specific philosophy of conventional football: using the power running game to set up quick, high-percentage passes. That differs wildly from the "K-Gun", which was all shotgun and no-huddle, and even more wildly from the "Wildcat", which features direct snaps to the running back out of a wishbone-esque formation.

The thing is that all three of those offenses were created, or utilized, to maximize existing roster strengths and minimize roster weaknesses. It's my opinion that with an elite #1 WR, a steady young workhorse back, a big-but-not-skilled OL, and a pair of strong-armed quarterbacks, a traditional, balanced offense is exactly what the Lions should run in order to maximize their strengths.

Peace
Ty

David M May 20, 2009 at 9:06 PM  

I like the idea of the no-huddle offense. It keeps defenses from gathering themselves, and gives another advantage to the offense. In most cases, offenses have the advantage over the defense, in that offenses are proactive. Only the best defenses are able to change from being reactive to proactive.
For the reason that defenses react to the offense, I see the no-huddle as another big advantage for the offense because it takes away valuable pre-play adjustment time away from the defense.

David M May 20, 2009 at 9:09 PM  

One more thing,

even if you dont use the no-huddle in games, the extreme level of conditioning required is invaluable to the entire team.

The topic of this article reminds me of that movie: Coach Carter ( with Samuel L. Jackson).

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