Bo Knows Low-Variance Football. So Does Jim.

>> 10.19.2012


Jim Schwartz, on why the Lions have scored more points in the fourth quarter than the first three in all of their games so far:

"We've had to in the fourth. We've been behind and that's put the pressure on us to have to do it. We're trying just as hard in the first quarter. Certainly no design or scheme or anything like that. We have to be efficient all four quarters and it can make a difference for us if we can get a lead and we can hold a lead. But we've got to battle for 60 minutes. You're judged just like a 16 game season, you're judged on all 16 games, you're judged on all 60 minutes. So no matter where you're scoring them they all count."

“We’ve had to in the fourth.”

Schwartz says it’s “no design or scheme or anything like that,” but the Lions’ close games are the result of obvious changes in approach on offense.

The biggest change from last season to this season is the way defenses are playing the Lions—and all of last season’s 5,000-yard passing offenses. The Saints, Patriots and Lions went 36-10 last season; through Week 6 of this season they’re 6-10. NFL defensive coordinators are paid way too much to let teams beat them with the same thing over and over—so they’re taking away the bombs-away offense and forcing these teams to adjust.

The Lions have adjusted by re-emphasizing the run game, drastically cutting back on hopeful shots downfield, and trying to emphasize intermediate routes. Linehan has also been doing a lot of “setting up” defenses with repetitive/predictable playcalls early in games, to subvert them later—or in the case of this play broken down by TuffLynx at Pride of Detroit, use repetitive/predictable playcalls in early games, to subvert them in later games.

By taking fewer risks and being less aggressive on offense, the Lions are pursuing a low-variance strategy.

This concept has been discussed all over the Internet, but it was synthesized best for me by Brian Cook at MGoBlog, in a piece called “Keep it Close and Lose in the Fourth Quarter," and its follow-up, "Mathy Mailbag." Read them both, plus all the links in both if you really want to grok this.

To summarize: low-variance strategies result in fewer possible outcomes. Two equally-matched teams both running more often than they pass and always punting on fourth down regardless of field position and never blitzing on defense won’t produce a 48-0 blowout in either direction.

This is, as discussed by Cook, Chris Brown, and Malcom Gladwell a “Goliath strategy.” When you’ve got a massive talent and skill advantage—as Goliath did over David—you want to eliminate the chance of anything crazy happening. Since the expected outcome is “you win,” you want to maximize the probability of getting the expected outcome.

As Cook notes, this is the strategy used by Bo Schembechler at Michigan: grind it out, play suffocating defense, take few risks, minimize mistakes, and use your massive size and talent advantage to consistently beat opponents with execution. Cook cited a passage from a book called Bo’s Lasting Lessons, wherein Bo, at a coaching clinic, veered dangerously close to schematic enlightenment before reaffirming his fevered belief in fundamentals and “playing Michigan football.” Cook:

This may have been brilliant in 1985, and brilliant against the poor, huddled masses that comprised Michigan's opponents at the time, but it's fundamentally a variance-hating strategy that presumes better talent. In it are the seeds of Michigan's time-honored failure against Rose Bowl foes, and its recent struggles to put away inferior competition.

It’s that old chestnut, attributed to darn near every midwestern football coach of historical note: “Only three things can happen when you pass the ball and two of them are bad.” Passing is a high-risk, high-variance strategy.

No NFL team passed more, or more often, than the Lions did in 2011.

This is why the Lions aren’t  doing it again in 2012: the Lions can assume a talent advantage over most NFL teams. They just beat the Eagles, one of the most talented teams in football, and Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote you could “see” the Lions were “physically dominant.” This is why the Lions passing twice as often as they run would be dumb, and playing things close to the vest is smart.


One of the side effects of playing for low variance by running the ball a lot, making ultra-conservative fourth-down calls and, I don’t know, refusing to try an onside kick when you’re kicking from the opponent’s forty-yard line is that you shorten the game. With more time running off the clock, there are fewer plays and possessions—fewer chances to press your advantage.

If you flip a coin that’s weighted to land on “heads” 60% of the time 10,000 times, it will land on heads 60% of those 10,000 flips. If you flip that same coin ten times, it’s much more likely to land on heads for some other percentage.

If you reduce the number of ‘trials’, you increase the chance for an unexpected outcome. That is to say, if the Lions have an advantage over their opponent, attempting to control the clock gives them fewer chances to leverage that advantage. Re-stated again: by playing to reduce risk, the Lions can’t blow people out like they used to. They’re also not going to get blown out, but that’s cold comfort when you’re starting 2-3 instead of 5-0.

As a consequence, the Lions are running into the same problem Lloyd Carr did: if you’re going to keep it close for four quarters, you actually have to execute significantly better than the other team. Bo's reliance superior talent and execution left him unarmed against opponents with equal talent. Carr's similar approach with less-superior talent against less-hapless Big Ten opponents guaranteed him at least one embarrassing upset a season.

The Lions let the Rams hang around when Stafford throwing three first-half interceptions, and it almost cost them. The Lions were on track to beat the Titans 27-20 and the Vikings 13-6 except, you know, two punt return touchdowns, two kickoff return touchdowns, and a fumble return touchdown. By playing it close to the vest, the Lions couldn't build up the kind of lead that can withstand these freak occurrences/horrible mistakes. They have to get touchdowns from their early scoring opportunities and not settle for field goals.

Still, throughout these games, the Lions’ advantage has become apparent in the final stanza: Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell punishing bruised defenses, Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill carving up beleaguered secondaries downfield, shellshocked quarterbacks running for their lives and throwing picks.

Over the course of the season, the weird bounces and fluky breaks will even out. Stafford quickly eliminated the terrible picks of the Rams game, and the coverage teams managed to go a whole game without allowing a single return touchdown. The Lions are taking the correct approach—but they’re going to have to improve their offensive execution, or continue dropping games to inferior opponents.


Three Cups Deep: Week 6, Lions at Eagles

>> 10.17.2012



It was neither easy nor pretty. It did not answer questions or inspire confidence. It was much, much, much, much more exciting than it needed to be. But the Detroit Lions went into The Linc with their season on the line and came out victors.

The defensive line won this game. PFF credits the Lions with 3 sacks, 10 QB Hits, and 15 QB Hurries.

Kyle Vanden Bosch had his best game in ages. Avril had two sacks, including one in overtime that essentially won the game. Suh and Fairley were stout inside, especially against the run; LeSean McCoy was held to a laughable 1.57 YpC on 14 attempts. Suh and Fairley also each had a batted pass; Suh’s likely preventing a game-winning TD for the Eagles. LoJack got two hits and two hurries in just 18 pass rush attempts.

The return of Louis Delmas had a big impact, though he gave back his interception with an Eagles touchdown off his blown assignment. Despite a mix of solid play and obvious rust in coverage, Delmas made a huge impact in the run game. He had 9 solo tackles (and 4 stops) with just 2 misses.

The Eagles have been a thorn in the Lions' paw as long as I can remember. Until Sunday, the Lions hadn't beaten the Eagles since 1986; I was five years old. Of course, there was the 1995 first-round playoff rout that ended the Lions' incredible seven-game win streak. Those Lions started 2-5, ran to 10-6, then ran a bunch of smack before facing the Eagles in the first round and were down 51-7 by the middle of the third quarter.

Somehow, the 2008 game was even worse: the Eagles beat the Lions 56-21, an even bigger margin of defeat than the 1995 debacling. I have never, ever felt more helpless watching a football game.

The Eagles offensive dominated the Lions front seven in a way I've never seen before or since. Shaun Rogers and Cory Redding were being driven five yards off the ball even when the Eagles were pass protecting. Brian Westbrook ran for 110 yards on just 14 carries (7.86 YpC!). Donovan McNabb completed 21-of-26 for 381 yards (14.65 YpA!!). Worst of all, receiver Kevin Curtis—who averaged 412 yards per season in his 8-year career—racked up 211 yards and 3 touchdowns on 11 catches.

Sunday, the script was flipped: the Lions dominated in the trenches, on both sides of the ball. The result was never going to be similar domination; 2012 Eagles have as much talent as any team in the NFL and the 2007 Lions would go 0-16 the next season. But the opportunities were there for this game to be a much bigger win.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff MacLane on the Eagles' performance against the Lions:

The same excuses were there following the game, but there didn’t seem to be as much passion behind the Eagles defensive line’s claims that they’re not getting sacks because opposing offenses are max protecting and quarterbacks are making quick throws.

The extra blockers and chip blockers were there on occasion, but Matthew Stafford was taking plenty of chances downfield. The line had its chances to pressure the Lions quarterback. It just didn’t get there. It was dominated by Detroit’s unspectacular, yet workmanlike, offensive line. The Lions’ defensive line, meanwhile, manhandled the Eagles’ o-line. You could see how they were physically superior...

...right guard Danny Watkins struggled against Suh and Nick Fairley. Both Lions crushed Vick after Watkins made very poor blocking attempts. In the first quarter, Suh penetrated and knocked the quarterback to the ground. In the third, Vick threw a short slant but was clobbered by Fairley after he released the ball. The Lions rushed only four but Watkins did little to impede the second-year defensive tackle’s path. The second-year guard wasn’t much better as a run blocker. In the fourth quarter, Fairley blew by Watkins and tackled McCoy for a four-yard loss.

So yeah. How about those other opportunities?

This offense is simply not in sync. Defenses are taking away the easy option—Calvin Johnson—and forcing Stafford to beat them with trickier, intermediate stuff. Titus Young hasn’t been reliably getting open—and, as we saw with that dropped bomb, isn’t as reliable as Johnson and Nate Burleson. Brandon Pettigrew, as a surehanded safety valve, has regressed. And even when everything’s working, Stafford has occasionally misfired like he never seemed to last season.

Stafford made some amazing throws on Sunday, but he also missed some easy stuff. That wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the way his targets are failing him. PFF credits him with 42 “aimed” passes (not spikes or throwaways), and just 22 completions (52.4%). Stafford threw for 311 yards (6.91 raw YpA), a touchdown, and one armpunt of an INT—a case of Calvin stumbling trying to get from from airtight double-coverage, but still.

That throw, as I said on Twitter and in the Fireside Chat, is an example of why I've always railed against the "just throw it up to Calvin" offense that so many Lions fans push for: it simply doesn't win football games. It's great for fantasy owners, but it's awful for consistently scoring points against NFL defenses. Throwing a long ball up to a guy with a defender down both the front and rear of his pants is not a strategy, it's a prayer. There's a time for those, and it's not during a hard-fought, close-scored, crucial road game.

These kinds of throws are part of Stafford's football DNA. Check out Trae Thompson's outstanding SB Nation piece on Stafford, "The Making of a Quarterback." He's been beating teams with prayers like that since middle school.

The Lions need Stafford to have that confidence, that swagger. But it's one thing to read a defense, see weakness and know your guy's going to be able to make a play; it's another thing to read a defense, see they're trying to stop your guy at any cost, and lob it up there anyway because they're stopping everything else and you're out of ideas.

This is part of Stafford's maturation, part of his growth process, part of his evolution into a quarterback who can stand atop Mount Quarterbackmore with Brees and Brady and Manning and Elway and Montana and Unitas. He shouldn't have made that throw, and he should have found a way to get it into the end zone when he had three tries from no distance in the fourth quarter.

Flip those two outcomes, and this a somewhat comfortable win instead of another amazing comeback. Flip those two outcomes, and the story is how a bruising defense and punishing Lions running attack (128 yards on 28 carries! 4.23 YpC!) led the Lions to an inexorable, inevitable win borne of pure physical domination.

That's the challenge for Monday Night: eliminate that pick, make that touchdown happen.


Fireside Chat Week 6: Lions at Eagles

>> 10.14.2012

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