December 25, 2013

Smart Football

by Chris B. Brown

Chris B.Brown collects long form essays from his intriguing web site, Smart Football. These are written for the serious student of football, or perhaps for coaches, but will not be completely impenetrable for fans, and they provide useful perspective on the development of football strategy on both sides of the ball.

The answer to one recurrent puzzle about professional football is, I think, implicit in these pages. Until 2001, most Super Bowls were won by dominant teams. You could easily believe that, most of the time, the year’s best team won the championship, and when the winner was a surprise, that surprise could often be explained by injury or under-appreciated excellence. Since 2001, on the other hand, lots of Super Bowls have been won by teams that seemed mediocre, teams that were given no chance before they won it all. Is this simply a statistical anomaly? If not, what changed?

One change that The Essential Smart Football clearly indicates is that lots of smart high school and college coaches, starting in the 1980s, spent a great deal of work developing strategies that might enable a team to succeed even though its opponents would often have better players. The Air Raid, the spread offense, the 46 defense, the 3-4 defense: they’re all concepts based on hiding weaknesses and utilizing the abilities of whatever good players you do have. Learning to exploit high variance strategies matters a lot if you’re, say, the 2001 Patriots and you’re double-digit underdogs to the Rams, but it matters even more if you’re the coach of a weak high school team. Win a few big games, you could get a college job; win a few big games there, and you could get a good college job. In much of Red State America, the highest-paid public official in the entire state is the coach of the university football team. That’s a lot of incentive. On any given Monday, a lot of coaches are dreaming of winning next week’s game, even though it’s basically hopeless, and only a few coaches of powerhouse teams have the luxury of thinking about using dominant players against inferior opposition. It’s not parity – or it’s not just parity: the entire industry is focused on finding ways for weak teams to thrive.