Monday, October 26, 2009

Orthodox Unorthodoxy

Chuck Klosterman previewed his upcoming book Eating The Dinosaur which immediately hit my Christman list. He is a very clever thinker with the skill to see what many don't or can't. This being a football blog and ESPN being a sports site, it should be no surprise that this particular essay is about football.

And while I will mainly let his words speak for themselves I have to say that I am a bit stunned how 'right' he is. Football is not only a sport of innovation, it is the Only sport where innovation is so crucial to success. Sure, there are occasional ripples in other sports, but they are typically ripples within a theme. Doug Moe's motion offense merely took what others were already doing to an extreme. Loyola Marymount's (Hank Gaithers/Bo Kimble) 5 second offense took that extreme to another extreme as a way of leveling the court against tougher opponents. Rick Pitino ran a full-time press while coaching the Knicks, and while it was another ripple it was merely a ripple during a time of increasing attention to defense. If some is good, more is better.

In sports like baseball and hockey, it is even more difficult to find innovation. Both sports go through cycles, but rarely true innovation. Tony LaRussa's bullpen management was the last great strategic change in baseball. Billy Beane's moneyball techniques the last significant change (really in any sport) on player development and selection, and in fact became pervasive across the sporting landscape as the statistical revolution broke down (and continues to break down) how teams value skillsets among their personnel.

But football. Football is the only sport where innovation is purely a survival measure. On the gridiron you never see a player standing still - unlike every other sport - once the ball is in motion. Complacency is death in a sport where the average career lasts only a few years. Teams are in a constant state of rebuild, typically turning over 20% - 30% of their rosters annually.

In this wonderful sport with 22 moving parts, each integral to the outcome of every play, the fight for small edges is great. The masters who are able to find and exploit those edges are usually revered over the players who have to execute the schemes.

From Klosterman's article:

Right now, the most interesting coach in America is Mike Leach of Texas Tech, a former lawyer who's obsessed with pirates and UFOs and grizzly bears. He never played football at the college level and barely played in high school. But his offensive attack at Texas Tech is annually the best in the country, and it seems to be the best no matter who his players happen to be. The Red Raiders play football the way eleven-year-old boys play Xbox

"There's two ways to make it more complex for the defense," Leach told journalist Michael Lewis, writing for The New York Times Magazine. "One is to have a whole bunch of different plays, but that's no good because then the offense experiences as much complexity as the defense. Another is a small number of plays run out of lots of different formations. That way, you don't have to teach a guy a new thing to do. You just have to teach him new places to stand."

It's easy to overlook the significance of this kind of quote, mostly because it seems obvious and casual and reductionist. But it's none of those things. It's an almost perfect description of how thinking slightly differently can have an exponential consequence, particularly when applied to an activity that's assumed to be inflexible.


Sam Wyche, the principal innovator of the no-huddle offense: Wyche was known for having curious ideas about everything, but his theory of a chaotic attack (that ignored the pre-snap huddle in order to generate matchup problems and tire defenses) is now common. In 1989, Wyche's Cincinnati Bengals played the Buffalo Bills in a play-off game. Members of the Bills defense constantly feigned injury in order to stop the Bengals from rushing to the line of scrimmage. Prior to the game, Bills coach Marv Levy had openly questioned the moral credibility of Wyche's approach. The following season, Levy stole the Bengals' no-huddle offense and went on to play in four straight Super Bowls.


These are just a few choice cuts. Klosterman's entire article - and hopefully oncoming book - is well worth the read.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, thanks for linking. I'm sure I want to reply to some of it; that might turn into its own post.


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