After watching part of yet another disastrous Army-Navy Game, I decided to post some suggestions for my alma mater’s (Army) football team.
On 11/26/10, I watched the Arizona-Oregon game on TV. My son is an Arizona football manager. Oregon was behind at halftime, but their high-speed no-huddle wore out Arizona, or so the TV announcers figured and the score by quarter seemed to support, and they won by a large margin.
For several reasons this pissed me off even more about Army football.
1. I am a West Point grad.
2. I invented the “warp-speed” no-huddle in 1993. I called it that. I began writing about it in my various books in 1995.
3. To an extent, I probably invented it because of the engineering mentality instilled in me at West Point.
4. One of the books my warp-speed no-huddle has been in since 1997 is Football Clock Management which was favorably reviewed by Assembly magazine, the alumni magazine of West Point. The reviewer lamented the fact that Army coaches were not using it. That was the 1st edition. As far as I know, they still are not using it in the 4th edition.
5. I put these suggestions for Army football up several years ago and recommended the warp-speed no huddle for Army. See below.
6. I argued that the service academies could run the warp speed better than other colleges because they each have 3,000 men on full scholarship.
Yet here we are in 2010 with Army doing better, but probably already hitting Coach Ellerson’s plateau because his only trick seems to be the option, which is no trick to Air Force and Navy and not that big of a problem for the top half of the FCS. Meanwhile, Oregon is number one in the nation, in part because of their half-assed version of a tempo that my team, assistant coaches and I nearly perfected 15 years ago. Annoying.
I coached 15 football teams at the youth and high school levels so I can imagine the mind sets in the coaches’ meetings at West Point if someone brought up my ideas. (One Army football father wrote to ask me if anyone was listening to them. Not that I know of was my answer.)
We’re supposed to run this team according to alumni suggestions!? From a guy who was not even on the team when he was a cadet!? And one of the players’ parents likes the idea!? Alumni and parents!? Is that what they want here? So what’re they paying us for? [Laughter all around]
Let me tell you about an interesting experience I have had several times with football coaches. I have given clinic speeches at a number of venues on my Football Clock Management book. The audience members have ranged from youth coaches to NFL and top college coaches. It was quite an experience to see famous pro and college coaches at my standing-room-only clinic at “American Football Quarterly University” in Fort Worth in the late 1990s. I had been a columnist on that subject in the magazine for many issues so I was well known to its readership. It is the premier football coaching magazine.
The famous coaches were standing around the edges of the room. Some were sitting on the floor. They were all taking copious notes. One major college coach asked if he could walk back to the hotel with me and ask questions. And he did, furiously writing down my answers. At the hotel, he asked if I had time to talk so more. We sat in the upholstered chairs in the lobby for another half hour to 45 minutes as he asked me one question after another about clock management. I later attended some of his practices.
NFL coach Mike Nolan, then defensive coordinator of the Redskins but ambitious to be a head coach, lamented to me that his two clinic speeches were at the same times as my two clinics. “What’re you doing right now?” “Nothing. Why?”
We were in the lunch room. It was clearing out as the other coaches went to the afternoon sessions. I gave Mike my two clinics right there one-on-one at the lunch table. The next day, I saw him at lunch and he said, “I bought your book!” I joked that next thing he would want me to autograph it. “I do,” he said. And so I did, at his lunch table which he shared with Bill Walsh, Brian Billick, Greg McMackin, Boyd Epley, and others. Nolan later became head coach of my local 49ers.
In 2004, Walsh and I did a special clinic together for minority top college coordinators at NCAA headquarters. After my talk, which he heard, he said “That was really good” and told me I was “The man on football clock management.” True, but not at my alma mater. (Walsh’s book Finding a Winning Edge has a chapter on clock management. I described it as “a bit crude” in my book. I expect he would have agreed after hearing my clinic.)
Now contrast that with another clinic I gave. The audience was mostly high school and youth coaches. One of the examples of a clock situation I spoke about at each clinic was about a youth game I coached in. And I described it just that way in each clinic. When I did that to the NFL and NCAA coaches, they did not bat an eye and took notes. When I said the exact same line to the high school coaches, many instantly stood up and walked out of the room. They apparently complained to the sponsor because I was never invited back to that clinic—apparently for mentioning coaching a youth team. I was invited back to the AFQU clinic the next year. They said my clock clinic the first year had been the talk of the three-day convention.
Isn’t that interesting? The top guys in the field took notes and stayed until the end. The bottom guys in the field walked out.
Which group have the current and recent Army coaches been in with regard to my clock, warp-speed, and other suggestions for Army football? As far as I can tell, the latter group.
People who know what they are doing and who have supreme self-confidence about what they are doing, judge ideas by their merits. The high school coaches, many of them 19-year olds coaching where they played the previous season and carrying fake IDs in their wallets, judge ideas by the resume of the speaker.
Oregon’s high-speed no-huddle has been called a “warp-speed” no-huddle by at least two sports writers and the announcers on the 11/26/10 game.
Bullshit! Like I said, I invented the warp-speed. In the warp-speed, we snap the ball within one or two seconds of the ready-the play signal. Oregon and Oklahoma snap at about ten seconds after the ready-to-play signal. Molasses speed. The effectiveness of the warp-speed at befuddling and fatiguing the opposing defense is inversely proportional to the number of seconds that elapse between the ready-to-pay signal and the snap and geometrically so. (I learned to talk like that in West Point math class. It means there’s a huge difference between snapping the ball one second after the ready-to-play signal and ten seconds. Oregon’s opponents are screwing around with adjusting to Oregon formations and personnel. When I ran my warp speed, the defenses would yell “Base! Base! Base!” all the time. That meant they did not have time to call different defenses, stunts, substitute, or huddle. I mentioned that once when I was having lunch with five former Oakland Raiders who were interested in my real estate investment writings. The group including Chester McGlockton and Steve Wisniewski and three others I do not recall the names of. They all instantly nodded agreement when I said the opposing defenses start yelling “Base!” when you operate at a warp-speed tempo. Base refers to the defenses’ most basic, all-purpose, “jack of all offenses master of none,” defensive alignment and responsibilities. If it a great coup to force your opponent into their base defense because it is not a strong defense against any type of play and if they are in the same defense all the time, your blocking assignments and pass reads become very simple and more likely to be correct.)
Furthermore, when you are using my warp speed to run the opposing team into the ground, you do multiple shifts at a sprint speed between the ready-to-play signal and the snap whenever the game clock is not running and snap at the end of the play clock after having forced the defenses to run those gassers back and forth laterally before you snapped. In other words, Oregon’s players are pikers when it comes to a warp-speed no-huddle. My 8-to-10-year olds ran it far faster than Oregon. Furthermore, I only had about 18 players—the minimum allowed. We once ran Elk Grove into the ground on a hot day and they had 35 players—the maximum allowed. Oregon has 85 scholarships. Army has 3,000 scholarships for men. Army and the other academies could blow Oregon’s 22 blue-chip first-string off the field with a true warp speed and have the best second and third strings in the nation when their own first-string got tired.
But what do I know? I’m just an alum who coached a little youth and high school football. By definition and job title, at least in the minds of many football coaches, they are smarter than everyone else who is not coaching at a higher-ranked team.
Okay. Maybe this thought will catch their attention in the Army football coaches meetings. Oregon is a higher-ranked team.
By the way, when I coached I adopted suggestions from whomever including 10-year-old players. My baseball coaching book tells of a play I got from a player during a game and instantly adopted because it was a great idea. My youth football book tells of the Moyer Move named after Matt Moyer, a ten-year old who invented it and checked with me before he used it in a game. I used it every year after he taught it to me. I adopt suggestions form assistant coaches and parents. Whomever. I also reject even more. But the issue is merit, not age or resume or job title.
The week before I watched OR-AZ, I watched Army Notre Dame. See my comments on that game.
The 9/18/09 Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about left-handed quarterbacks. Although many have had great success in college, few of them have succeeded in the NFL. The experts in the article seemed unsure of why. One logical reason was that the most important offensive lineman is the tackle who protects the quarterback’s blind side—the left tackle in the case of a right-handed quarterback. But left-handed quarterbacks need a top-notch right tackle for that purpose. Those are harder to find.
Another logical reason is football offenses are right-handed. For example, it’s easier for a quarterback to throw to his throwing arm side when rolling out. (I actually think that is barely true. You’re supposed to point your breast bone at the target so there is no handedness to a roll-out pass.) Tight ends probably align on the right side more often than the left, and so on.
The article did not mention it, but left-handed passers also put the opposite spin on the ball. His receivers are used to it. Defenders trying to intercept are not.
In my football coaching books, I have commented that football offenses are right-handed. I also say that contrarianism is a best practice and that being fashionable is coaching malpractice—because it makes it easier for your opponents to defend against you. (my Web article about contrarianism) Left-handed quarterbacks are contrarian. Right-handed quarterbacks are fashionable.
Evidence: the field captain in most defenses makes a strength call: left or right. If the offense has one tight end, the captain is generally told to call that side the strong side. The defensive personnel in “the box,” often have position names like strong-side outside linebacker, strong safety, weak tackle, and so on. When they hear the strength call, they “flip flop” so that the “strong” defenders are on the offense’s strong side and the “weak” ones on the weak side (no tight end) of the offense. Even the nose guard typically aligns on the strong side of the center.
But sometimes the offensive formation is balanced, e.g., two tight ends, ace, double slot, double wing. In that case, defensive captains are instructed to designate the wide side, the side with the most running room, as the strong side. But what if the formation is balanced and the ball is right in the middle of the field? In that case, defensive captains are typically told to call the offense’s right side the strong side because most football team’s are right handed. QED
In the defense that I invented, the Gap-Air-Mirror, we do not designate a strong side. Rather, we go by hash position: wide side and short side (the one closest to a sideline). What if the ball is right in the middle of the field? We designate the offense’s right as the “wide” side.
I recommend that offensive coordinators favor their left side because it’s contrarian. Defenses tend to put weaker players on the offense’s left side. They see fewer formations that are strong left. And so on. In 2004, I had my freshman high school football team in twins left or pro left (if the ball was on the right hash) formation all season. By not varying the formation except to avoid putting two receivers into the near-boundary side, we eliminated any formation tendencies the defense could use to predict what play we were running, eliminated the offensive linemen having to learn how to block both strong and weak side of each play (the varsity head coach would not let me flip-flop the offensive line), and we forced the defense to put their strong and weak box defenders on sides they were less used to playing.
The point here for Army football is two-fold:
• You can probably get better value in recruiting quarterbacks if you are willing to recruit the “left-handed, red-headed, stepchild” of football: the left-handed quarterback (that unfortunate but well-known stepchild phrase is a manifestation of the bias against left-handed people other than in baseball pitching)
• Even if you cannot get better value in recruiting left-handed quarterbacks, they and the left-handed offenses they operate are still contrarian and put the defense in an unaccustomed, less comfortable, less skilled position.
On 9/5/09, Army defeated Eastern Michigan 27-14. Great! That was the first game for new Army coach Rich Ellerson. The offensive stats look like the successful Army teams of the Jim Young-Bob Sutton era: 300 rushing yards; 8, passing.
The Army defense was the star of the game. Also great! As I said below, on paper, Army should have trouble competing on defense because defense is more a function of athletic ability, which is hard for Army to get during the Iraq and Afghan wars, and less a function of the sort of creativity and poetic license available to offensive coaches. Generally, I think Army’s approach to defense should be that the best defense is a good ball control offense that keeps Army’s defense off the field. I wrote a book that covers that called Football Clock Management.
But I remind Army’s coaching staff of what I said below. Although the contrarian option is great for enabling Army to be competitive at the BCS level in spite of its severe recruiting handicaps, it is not enough to defeat Navy or Air Force who are far more adept at running the option and defending the option. Army needs an additional contrarian approach in their offense to defeat the other service academies.
The Congrove Computer Rankings poll ranks Army 120th out of 120 BCS teams; Eastern Michigan, 102nd.
I never played or coached college football. My son Dan played tailback for Ivy League Columbia University. He proof read this. I did coach fifteen football teams including six at the high school level. I also wrote seven books on football coaching. Five are about youth football; one is about high school football; and two; Football Clock Management and The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense, cover all levels. The last two books were reviewed favorably in Assembly magazine, the West Point alumni periodical.
Readers may think youth is ridiculously far from college football. Yes and no. In many respects, they are very similar. Also, as the testimonials at my Web site show, my youth readers have achieved many, many spectacular turnarounds using what I advocate. A spectacular turnaround is what Army needs.
My book Football Clock Management has been purchased and used by all sorts of coaches from youth to NFL. It has also been commented upon favorably by Bill Walsh, Marv Levy, Sports Illustrated’s “Dr. Z” (Paul Zimmerman), and other nationally known coaches. Because of the book, I was a columnist in American Football Quarterly (now American Football Monthly) and a speaker at their 1998 and 1999 American Football Quarterly University conventions.
It got a good review by Scholastic Coach magazine, the premier periodical for high school coaches. Heck, it was even reviewed favorably by Assembly magazine, the magazine of the U.S. Military Academy Association of Graduates. U.S. Military Academy is the official name for West Point, whose football team is nicknamed Army. Indeed, the Contrarian book was reviewed in the July/August, 2008 issue, which was the current issue when I was at West Point for my 40h reunion.
I now regularly see TV games where it appears that they read and are using my clock book. For example, in the 12/16/07 Eagles-Dallas game, Brian Westbrook broke loose on an apparent TD run. But he suddenly stopped and took a knee at the one yard line, then his team took a knee several times until the clock ran out. I advocated that in my book. The book includes tables that show the combination of opponent timeouts left, down, and time remaining when you can take a knee or execute a play I invented called the QB sweep slide which is a take a knee that takes much longer to execute. According to those tables, the Eagles needed one more first down before they could stop trying to advance the ball. One of my Clock Management Rules discusses taking a knee on the fly, that is, after you reach the line to gain for the last first down you need. At that point, you take a knee either just before an enemy player touches you—thereby running off as much clock as possible without risking a fumble—or at the one yard line, whichever comes first. If you score points that you don’t need, the opponent gets the ball from the ensuing kickoff. There have been many examples of the team that scored unnecessarily losing the game as a result.
The Cowboys bought a copy of Football Clock Management from me. An Occidental College coach, Tom Melvin, who tried to recruit my son Dan and who took me to supper in Pasadena, had already purchased and read my clock book back then before he ever heard of Dan. He later moved to the Philadelphia Eagles coaching staff. I am not sure Westbrook got that tactic from someone who got it from my book, but it seems likely. I sure as hell never read about anyone else advocating that before it was in my book.
Tackle Jon Runyan, Westbrook’s teammate on the Eagles, suggested before the play that Westbrook take a knee at the one yard line if he broke free. During the play, Runyan was running down the field behind Westbrook reminding him to take a knee at the one. Runyan previously played for the Titans. Titans head coach Jeff Fisher called me years ago to order my Football Clock Management book. I talked to him for about 40 minutes. It is possible Runyan learned that tactic from Fisher before teaching it to Westbrook. Or he could have learned it from the Eagles coach, Tom Melvin, who came from Occidental.
Several years ago, I wrote a letter about football to the editor of Assembly, the West Point alumni magazine. They published my letter. Other letters to the editor had made various suggestions to improve Army’s football fortunes, like joining the Ivy League. I explained why that would not work [they won’t have us, plus if we recruit as an Ivy League team and compete with eight other Ivy League teams during the season, we are going to get our heads handed to us when we play BCS Division (formerly Division I-A) Air Force and Navy].
Actually, in its original usage in the 1930s, the phrase “Ivy League” referred to seven of the current formal Ivy League members (not Cornell) plus Army and Navy. Back then, there was no formal Ivy League. It was just an informal sportswriters’ phrase that referred to the major older football colleges in the Northeast. Except for a brief term in Conference USA, Army has never been a member of any football league.
In my letter, I suggested they form a “competent” committee to fix Army football. That adjective seemed necessary because it was not going to be the first such committee and the disastrous results were already in on the prior committees.
I suggested that the members of the committee include Mike Krzyzewski, head basketball coach at Duke and West Point class of ’69; Bill Yeoman, Father of the Veer Triple-Option Offense, Hall of Fame former Houston University head coach, and West Point Class of ’50; and Jim Young, the Hall of Fame former Army coach who started the use of the option at the service academies and whose tenure was marked by considerable success which was continued with less success by his assistant Bob Sutton after Young left. [In a letter dated 6/23/08, one of my classmates told our class that Army is bringing back the option starting in the 2008 season. Smart move, but I think that alone will not be enough. They have to be more contrarian than that.]
Shortly after my letter was published, I was horrified to learn that there already was such a committee and that it was headed by my former cadet roommate, Dan Kaufman, who was then Dean of the Academic Board at West Point. I immediately sent Dan an email apologizing for not knowing that there already was such a committee and that he was head of it and told him I withdrew my suggestion and that I was sure his committee would do just fine. Dan’s committee hired Bobby Ross to be head coach. I don’t know who their alternatives were, but that sounded like a reasonable choice to me at the time. After coaching Army for several years, Ross resigned after the 2007 season.
Now there is a new committee, and it includes two of the guys I recommended: Krzyzewski and Young, as well as Pete Dawkins, Class of 1959, West Point’s most notable, cadet scholar-athlete (Heisman Trophy and Rhodes Scholarship). Kaufman moved on to to be the first president of the brand new Georgia Gwinett College. I talked to Dan at some length at our 40th reunion. He said they tried to hire Frank Solich, the then recently fired Nebraska option coach. Solich accepted the Army job, but changed his mind as he was getting on the plane to fly to West Point for his press conference announcing him as the new Army coach.
At our 40th reunion, Dan and I talked about his chairmanship of the committee. He said they did a leave-no-stone-unturned investigation and found at least one surprising fact. Army cadet football players were not getting enough sleep. I can believe it. I flunked out of advanced math into regular math plebe year there. I was falling asleep in tests—literally. On one test my writing just tailed off in mid word because I could not stay awake. The problem was the Academy gave us more work than was possible to do, and they said we would get punished if we did not do it all. So you had to recognize that it was impossible and triage the various priorities. I started going to sleep religiously at 10PM and getting up at 5AM. That fixed the problem. By sophomore year, I was excused from our final math exam because my grades in the subject were so high. I would think football players there might be more susceptible to that than non-athlete cadets because of football practice time, fatigue, and the double pressure of maintaining eligibility and cadet life. I assume they fixed that problem.
A class of ’97 guy has since written me to say he never got enough sleep as a cadet and that was widespread. He said professors repeatedly told cadets they did not need more than five hours. Bull! I needed precisely seven hours, no more no less, when I was a cadet. Getting either more or less than seven hours made me groggy after lunch. I expect most cadets need the seven hours still.
All teams should adhere to my Football Clock Management Rules which are fully listed on pages 259 to 262 of the third edition of my book Football Clock Management. Those rules are thoroughly explained throughout the book as well.
Page 1 of the book says adhering to my clock management rules will cause a competitive college team to win two to three more games per season. That figure was suggested to me by Dana X. Bible, then Stanford offensive coordinator, after he proofread the first edition of the book. Bible had previously coached in the NFL. Several months later, Bible’s then boss, Tyrone Willingham (now head coach at Washington), came to my house to listen to my rehearsal of my first American Football Quarterly University clinic on the subject. Willingham was also a speaker at that clinic.
Those two or three more wins a year would not require any better players or play results. Everything exactly the same except for decisions related to the clock would be all that was necessary to produce the wins.
Could Army use two or three more wins a year?
Does Army have a copy of my book? Not unless Assembly magazine gave them the review copy I sent them. I am the only source of that book and I have never seen an order from Army come through. I got orders from Harvard, the 49ers, the Chicago Bears, etc., etc., but never Army. (When I visited Army’s sprint football practice in September, 2008, head Coach Mark West was kind enough to speak with me for ten or fifteen minutes. I sent him copies of my clock management and contrarian books to show my appreciation for his letting me observe his practice. I was much impressed with his practice and his team.)
Like I said, all teams should adhere to my clock management rules. Army especially should. Why? Because they need all the wins they can get and because they are fortunate enough to have an alum who “wrote the book” on that subject. Or as Bill Walsh said to me on 6/1/04, “You’re the man on football clock management.” I would charge any other team to work with them on clock management, but I would do it for my alma mater gratis. Never heard a peep out of them, not even after the Assembly review, which lamented that Army coaches had not read my book, came out.
Does Army manage the clock correctly? Not that I know of. But then neither does anyone else. Seems like it would be prudent for them to be the first team to do so and thereby pick up those extra wins. I attended the 2008 Army-New Hampshire game. Army generally needed to be in a hurry-up because they were always behind. They were not in a hurry-up as far as I could see. It probably would not have been enough to enable them to win that 28-10 game, but it is simply a best practice, failure to employ which is coaching malpractice.
All football teams should have a contrarian offense. I just wrote a book about that called The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense. It came out 5/7/08. That is an offense that is different from anything their opponents see all season. If possible, different from anything their opponent players and coaches have ever seen. That would enable Army to get better at their unique offense week by week, but their opponents would only get one week to prepare for it.
The option offense comes to mind. You remember the option. That’s the one Jim Young introduced at Army and was continued by his assistant Bob Sutton when he took over for Young. During the Young-Sutton years, Army had a resurgence, often leading the nation in rushing and winning bowl games. Then various pseudo-coach geniuses at West Point decided they did not like the option and that any coach running it was an idiot. A similar thing happened to Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. He won the national championship at Notre Dame in 1988, in part with the option. Broadcaster and Heisman Trophy Winner Notre Dame alum Paul Hornung repeatedly, publicly pronounced his disgust that Notre Dame was running the option. That was the last national championship Notre Dame won.
Running the option, Nebraska won the national championship in 1994, 1995, and 1997 (13-0 and #1 with USA Today/ESPN but #2 with AP behind 12-0 Michigan). Then some geniuses at Nebraska decided the option was stupid. Coach Tom Osborne left to go to Congress. Nebraska subsequently fired coach Frank Solich in 2003. Nebraska has not been in the top ten since. Army tried to hire Solich. Smart move, He turned them down. Unfortunately, that was probably also a smart move for Solich, too. He went to Ohio University where he was 19-18 after three seasons, won one division title, and had one bowl appearance.
Army has since gotten its ass handed to it decade in and decade out by almost everybody and most notably by Air Force and Navy who run—you guessed it—the option.
Clearly, Army cannot recruit the same quality players as other Division I-A college teams. Cadet life, the eight-year military service obligation after graduation, the difficulty of going from Army to the NFL, and the near certainty of going to Iraq and Afghanistan take care of that. So how in the name of God do the coaches at Army figure they can compete against those other teams by running the same offense and defense as they run? And how many decades of disastrous seasons does it take for that fact to sink in? (Apparently it sunk in prior to the 2008 season in which Army went back to the option.)
Mike Leach, the head coach of Texas Tech, is one of my contrarian heroes. I met Mike and talked to him a bit when he and I were both clinic speakers at the American Football Quarterly University conventions in 1998 and 1999. At the time, he was offensive coordinator of Kentucky one year and Oklahoma the next.
I was extremely proud of Mike when his team beat number one Texas in the 2008 season and I cited it as evidence of the value of contrarianism. But he later got slaughtered by Oklahoma and some may have concluded that was proof that contrarianism does not work. Not really. Remember, Oklahoma is where Leach was the offensive coordinator when he was hired away to Texas Tech. Bob Stoops, the Oklahoma head coach then and now, was extremely familiar with Leach’s offense. Indeed, it was Stoops’ offense in the late 90s and early 2000s. In other words, Leach’s offense is contrarian when he is playing Texas and other teams, but not so much when he is playing is own former team: Oklahoma.
I had a similar epiphany when I watched the Army-Navy game in 2008 (I only saw the second half). I and others urged Army to return to the option offense which was what it ran when last the team was successful. Indeed, the reintroduction of the option seemed to enable Army to win three games in 2008 (compared to two in 2007 before the return to the option).
The option is contrarian, but only when Army plays teams others than Air Force and Navy, who themselves run the option.
In 2010, I saw part of the Army-AF game on TV. I was disappointed to see that Ellerson seemed not to have an non-option offense to use against option-conscious AF. He was also using fly motion (back coming sideways just behind the offensive line with the snap synchronized to happen when he arrives at the center).
I believe contrarianism is required not a possible approach to offense. Te opposite of contrarian is fashionable. Fly motion is extremely fashionable in 2010. If you have the best recruiting classes in the nation, you might able to be fashionable and still win. We have the worst recruiting classes in the nation and we’re going to help opposing defenses by giving them some of what they see all year!?
Logic of that please.
Congrats to Army on winning six games in 2010 ad becoming bowl eligible. But I stand by my prior recommendations. Army needs to have the option for non-academy teams and something that is contrarian at AF and Navy,i.e., not the option. Army should be doing nothing that is fashionable like fly motion.
To be contrarian across its entire schedule, Army needs to be contrarian in other ways than just the option, which is actually non-contrarian in Commander-In-Chief Trophy competition. (The Commander-In-Chief Trophy is awarded to the champs of a little sub league composed of the three major service academies. In that “league,” the option is the opposite of contrarian. It is the fashionable offense in that “league.” Fashionable is the opposite of contrarian and is coaching malpractice, albeit widespread malpractice.)
I believe all teams, including Army, still need to have the option at least as part of their offense. Part of the reason is not contrarian at all. It is just mathematics.
When I can run the option effectively, my opponents cannot blitz. They have to go to zone pass coverage. Blitzing (other than the zone blitz that rushes four or five) forces the defense into man pass coverage. Man pass coverage is unsound against the option offense.
The option lets the offense not block two defenders. Those defenders are optioned or forced to tackle a non-ball carrier by the quarterback instead. That gives the offense a one-man blocking advantage (the ball carrier cannot block for himself). Against man pass coverage, receivers can run clearing routes that force the man assigned to cover them to go with them even if he just goes far away from the point of attack. The offense also has to be in the Oklahoma 5-4-2 defense or something similar. My team’s knowing you cannot blitz and that you have to stay in that Oklahoma defense makes our blocking assignments simpler, lets us largely ignore blitz-pickup skills, and tells us to use anti-zone pass tactics like flooding a zone with receivers.
As my book, The Contrarian Edge For Football Offense, explains, there are many other ways to be contrarian than just the option. Army should retain the option but also be able to run other contrarian offensive tactics in Commander-In-Chief competition. Army needs to run an offense that none of its opponents ever sees or runs themselves. That is, Army needs to run an offense that is contrarian to Air Force and Navy and the option ain’t contrarian to those guys. Army should run some option and be ready to run it all the time to keep Air Force and Navy honest or option-sound in their defense for the reasons stated above.
NCAA Division I-A defenses have certain habits and strengths as a result of going up against similar offense all season long and season-after-season. But those habits and strengths become weaknesses if Army is smart enough to use schemes where normal keys take defenders the wrong way, where timing of plays is different so the opponent is trying to read the play too soon or too late, where different tempo, like my warp-speed no-huddle (get my free special report on “How to Turbocharge any Football Offense” at my coaching Web page), totally throws the defense out of whack, and so on.
Using the opponents’ habits and strengths against them, turning their strengths into weaknesses by giving them a completely different situation where the assumptions on which those habits were based are no longer true—all of those are principles of ju jitsu. Army needs to do that because the interior-line shoving matches, skill player track meets, and passing-accuracy and arm-strength contests they have been participating in since after the Young-Sutton era are not going to be won by a team with Army’s recruiting disadvantages.
Air Force and Navy’s experience with the option probably causes them to react in certain ways on defense against a play they think is the option. Accordingly, design plays for one or both of those games that start out looking like the option, but which actually deliver the ball to a very different point of attack than the option does.
This would be like the idea behind the play-action pass (fake run then throw pass to a receiver in the area of the defender who is charged with stopping both that run and that pass). It’s also like what I call a pass-action run. A pass-action run is the opposite of a play-action pass. You fake a pass then run where at a defender whose job is to drop back into a zone when he sees pass. The most common pass-action run is a draw play.
Against Air Force and Navy, let’s use some option-action misdirection plays. When a competent option defense sees the option, three defenders on each side of the center are assigned to the dive back, quarterback, and pitch back. As soon as they see an option play developing, those three guys attack those three offensive players. So the option-action play would attack points of attack that have been vacated by those three defenders. For example, if a fourth back were able to receive the ball, the defense would have no one assigned to tackle him. The defense would be in zone pass coverage so the guy who would be assigned to tackle the fourth back would be dropping back into zone pass coverage, that is going the opposite direction from where he would need to be going to make the tackle on that fourth back.
Traditionally, option offenses with full-house backfields (all four backs in the backfield between the tight-end locations) like the wishbone use the fourth back as a lead blocker. That’s sound, but it’s not contrarian. Using him as a fourth possible ball carrier would be contrarian and would require redesign of their option defense as well as radically changing the mind set of the defender assigned to that fourth possible ball carrier. Forcing the defense to make radical changes just to play your team is what gives rise to the contrarian edge.
Army’s Caleb Campbell was picked 218th by the Lions in the 2008 draft. That seemingly got Campbell out of having to do anything military other than recruiting after graduating. His classmates will generally being going to Iraq and Afghanistan after completing stateside training like ranger, airborne, and military specialty training (infantry, artillery, etc.).
This is pursuant to a new Army policy intended to enable West Point to offer possible NFL careers to potential recruits. There can be no question that inability to play NFL football in the past has hurt Army when recruiting against other Division I teams, including Air Force and Navy who reportedly adopted similar policies before Army did.
But it seems to be getting mixed reviews. Campbell says most of the feedback he has gotten is favorable, but some of it is hate mail, like one that asked him how he could look his classmates in the face.
Caleb Campbell is the mirror opposite of Pat Tillman, who is generally regarded as a military near saint. Tillman quit the NFL to go to Afghanistan. Campbell is avoiding Iraq or Afghanistan for the time being by going to the NFL.
Campbell’s story does not fit into the script of the classic 1955 movie The Long Gray Line. In that movie, which was told from the perspective of long-time West Point physical education instructor Martin Maher as he watched class after class graduate, including those who graduated just before or during World War II. It was a tear jerker that celebrated the dedication of these full-of-life young cadets whose names on the KIA lists later were read from the newspaper and marked by Maher placing a black bookmark by their photos in the class yearbooks.
Inability to offer NFL careers to the Army recruits makes it hard for Army to compete against Division I football teams—BCS or non-BCS.
But there is also the issue of what West Point’s purpose is. Many fictional and non-fictional books, movies and TV shows have told various stories about West Point cadets and graduates. West Point has enthusiastically embraced those stories including permitting filmmakers to use West Point cadets, other personnel, and buildings in the filming. (I appeared in a couple of films including a parade filmed by cameras pointing in all directions from the top of a car. To my shock, I was standing in a 360-degree-theater at Disneyland with my family when that scene suddenly came on the screen. “Hey! I was in that parade. I remember the car with all the cameras on the roof.”) No movie or TV show ever had any story remotely resembling a cadet going to the NFL while his classmates went off to war.
West Point has allowed its place in the minds of the American people to deteriorate in many ways since my class entered the Academy in 1964. It has happened in little ways. For example, when I was a cadet, and TV camera pointed at us in the Army-Navy Game, we tried to behave the way the American people would expect of West Point cadets. For the last twenty years or more, cadets who see the red light act like idiots just like high school or civilian college kids. We would have been severely punished for such behavior. The admission of women in 1976, which may or may have been the right decision, eliminated the all-macho nature of the place. Losing wars has done no good. Nor has losing football games.
I think the place is in an identity crisis with no end in sight.
As far as the policy Caleb Campbell is availing himself of is concerned, while offering an opportunity to go play in the NFL is clearly a plus for West Point football recruiters, getting hate mail if you make it to the NFL, or having to go to Iraq or Afghanistan if you don’t, still leaves the Army football package short of, say, USC’s, or even Navy’s, offer.
When I attended Army’s practice in September, 2008, an alumni rep pointed out now Army coach Caleb Campbell and suggested I introduce myself and talk to him. I did not because I have already read his public comments on what happened to him and since he is an active-duty second lieutenant in the Army, I would not expect him to deviate from what he already said.
On 7/23/08, the Department of Defense reneged on the deal. They “revised their interpretation of Department policy.” They now say Campbell has to serve two years on active duty first, then he can apply for “release.”
No apology. No compensation to the Detroit Lions for wasting a seventh round draft pick on a guy they were told could play. Under NFL rules, if the Lions do not sign Campbell before the 2009 NFL draft, they lose their rights to him. That’ll teach NFL teams to draft Army players.
It is hard to imagine how the idiots who run the U.S. Army could have screwed this situation up more. Army’s service academy rivals Air Force and Navy have sent a surprising number of players to professional sports. Apparently, they will continue to do so. But Army has to compete against them for the Commander in Chief’s trophy not only handicapped by the body count in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also by the inability of Army players, perhaps alone among service academy cadets, to play professional football. Is this some kind of colossal joke?
No, the Army brass is some kind of colossal joke. They’ve been fighting wars with similar skill for 50 years.
What about the new football players who just entered West Point on July 1st—the ones who are now enduring the ordeal of the period of most intense hazing called Beast Barracks? They were told about Caleb Campbell when they were recruited. Do they get a refund of the money they spent on uniforms and free transportation back to wherever they came from? Do they get into the colleges that also tried to recruit them, or do they have to sit out a year? How does that affect their eligibility?
What about the Army football coaching staff? What recruits or recruits’ parents will ever believe them again? West Point keeps saying they are going to hire excellent coaches. Only if they receive applications from excellent coaches. I guarantee you that is now less likely because of the Department of Defense pulling the rug out from under Caleb Campbell and their Army coaching staff. Indeed, I expect that if Army currently has any excellent coaches, they are more likely to be recruited to another coaching staff at another college than to recruit for Army in the future.
There is only one way to get supporters of both sides of a decision mad at you: make a decision that one side likes, then reverse it.
There is only one way to do a good job and have people unhappy with you: promise more than you deliver.
The Army made a decision, reversed it, and promised more to Caleb and recruits inspired by his example than the coaches and West Point can now deliver. An incompetence trifecta.
A few days after my 40th reunion at West Point, and the Army loss to New Hampshire, Army’s top 2008 recruit who was named Indiana’s “Mr. Football” in 2007, an option quarterback, and another cadet—Army’s first-string tailback, both announced they were quitting. The Campbell incident was old news to an extent by then, but it may have been a factor. Media accounts indicated that the two players who quit said then Head Coach Brock was their main reason.
Discussing Air Force and Navy reminds me of the dirty little secret of the Army-Navy Game and the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy (which goes to the service academy that has the most football success against the other two service academies). (My Web site includes two articles I wrote about the Army-Navy game: one about inaccurate announcer hype and one about USA Weekend’s 2007 article on memories of the games.)
Only West Point dooms its football players to being ground pounders in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, or wherever our next Draft Dodger in Chief decides to send the troops. (Clinton and George W. Bush were draft dodgers. Obama supports not using the draft and never was in the military. If you think Bush was not because he was in the National Guard, ask a person who was in college in the 1960s what that meant back then. If McCain had won, it would have been the first time a veteran won a presidential election against a draft dodger since 1988.)
When Army, Air Force, and Navy are recruiting football players, the elephant in the room is the body count from our various recent wars and the branch of service attached to the names of the dead. Rarely is it the Air Force or Navy. Marines and SEALs do die there and many Naval grads go into the Marines or SEALs, but I am not aware that it is mandatory for any Navy football players to go into the Marines or SEALs. I can assure you that all Army football players do have to go into the Army after graduation.
In fiscal year that ended in 2008, the Army and Marines had to pay huge enlistment bonuses of up to $40,000 per recruit to meet their annual recruiting quotas. The total for the year was $640 million, up 25% over the prior fiscal year. The Navy and Air Force have not had to pay bonuses. That is a manifestation of the same problem the Army football team has recruiting against the Navy and Air Force football coaching staffs—only the Army coaching staff can’t offer the $40,000.
Here are the actual officer fatality figures from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through 6/29/07: Army, 297; Navy, 15; Marines, 75; Air Force, 13. (Source: Congressional Research Service Report for Congress American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics, Updated 6/29/07)
“Most dead and wounded graduates in combat” is the only “Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy” Army has won lately.
Undefeated-until-their-bowl-game Hawaii’s June Jones, a contrarian coach (run-and-shoot spread) just accepted an offer to coach at Southern Methodist University which has had awful win-loss records since the NCAA imposed their so-called “Death Penalty” on SMU for recruiting violations. Jones said he is good at turning around disastrous programs. He should have gone to Army. Talking to the mom of a prospective blue-chip recruit about her son’s prospects of going to Iraq gives new meaning to the phrase “Death Penalty” in the context of college football recruiting.
You try recruiting football players as the only college, and only service academy, in America who will probably put the kid in the line of fire on the ground in a war after graduation.
This is not something for the coaches to be discussing with the players, but it certainly has to be a part of any discussion behind closed doors about making Army competitive again.
Ironically, Army’s greatest success in football came during World War II for the opposite reason. Army and Navy were the only colleges you could go to and not have to worry about being drafted into the military back then. Army won the national championship in 1944 and 1945 and had two different Heisman Trophy winners in 1945 and 1946: Blanchard and Davis. Some would probably argue that Army is now getting rough justice for “cheating” in the 1940s. Maybe so, but the duration of the recent punishment of Army exceeds by far the duration of Army’s World War II dominance.
Another Army recruiting disadvantage vis a vis Air Force and Navy came to mind during the 2008 Army-Navy Game broadcast when a Navy senior said he had chosen naval aviation as his military branch. Those are the guys who fly fighters and fighter bombers off the decks of aircraft carriers. Naval Academy grads can also choose Marine Air which also has fighter jets. The Air Force also has fighter pilots including those who fly the stealth bomber and other cool toys.
I suspect that current astronauts or at least those who are pilots and co-pilots now come disproportionately from the Navy, Marines, and Air Force. In the early astronauts program, West Point grads were prominent because the Air Force Academy did not open until 1954. Most Air Force experienced pilots were West Point graduates if they went to a service academy until around the 1970s.
West Point still produces pilots who fly helicopters and fixed-wing small planes of the piper cub variety. The Navy, Air Force, and Marines have those, too.
So Army is also at a football recruiting disadvantage because of its inability to match the jet and astronaut pilot opportunities offered by the other service academies.
Is West Point admissions hurting Army football?
Many college football teams have trouble on the football field because their admissions office hates football and makes it un competitively hard to recruit good football players by setting high academic standards for them. The Swarthmore admissions office, for example, appears to have run one of the oldest football teams in America off the campus. Is that going on at Army? Apparently not.
Since I am a member of the Football Writers Association of America, I receive media guides from various colleges (not Army though). The 2008 Notre Dame media guide brags about Notre Dame’s graduation rates by showing where ND is in the top five in various categories. That reveals the other four teams. Navy appears in all five; Air Force in one. Army never appears.
• All student athletes Graduation Success Rate: U.S.N.A 98% (tied for first place with Notre Dame and Northwestern)
• Male student athlete Graduation Success Rate: U.S.N.A. 98% (sole first place team)
• Female student athlete Graduation Success Rate: U.S.N.A. 100% (tied for first place with Notre Dame and Vanderbilt)
• Black student athlete Graduation Success Rate: U.S.N.A. 96% (sole first place team); U.S.A.F.A. 88% (fifth place team)
• Football student athlete Graduation Success Rate: U.S.N.A. 95% (sole first place team)
Let me explain what this means. The bigger pool of potential players a team can choose from, the better the players chosen will be and, typically, the better the team in question will do. If you can only recruit smart players, like Harvard, you only have a relative few to choose from. If you can recruit dumber players, you have far more to choose from—because you can recruit the dumb ones, the smart ones, and the medium ones.
Nationally-ranked teams rarely appear in the top five GSR schools. The others in the top five for the football student athlete GSR are Northwestern, Notre Dame, Boston College, Stanford, and Duke (four-way tie for third place).
To state it starkly, Army has been losing to Navy in spite of having a lower graduation success rate among its football players. I do not know how much lower; only that they did not make the top five.
One possible explanation of that is that academics are harder at West Point than at Navy. But I am not aware of any evidence to support that. The other explanation would be that Army has lower admission standards than Navy for football players—and still cannot win. Again, there are two possible explanations: Army has better athletes than Navy but still loses (not evident if you watched the 2007 Army-Navy game) or, although West Point admissions is not keeping out the dumber, better players, the dumber, better players are still declining to accept the admits extended by Army.
In other words, admissions appears not to be the problem at Army, which suggests whatever is the problem is is a deeper problem than perhaps thought by those of us who did not previously know what role, if any, admissions was playing in the losses.
The first time I coached offense, I adopted the single-wing offense. I figured it was simple enough for that youth team, but proven from many decades of use. The single wing was the most popular offense in football for several decades. Princeton won the national championship with it as recently as 1950. Virtually every national championship won in the late 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s was won by other teams using the single wing. But by 1993 when I used it, it had become quite contrarian. Few of the opposing players or coaches or away-game announcers even knew what to call it. They thought it was a shotgun, which is quite different.
My first attempt at offense outscored every team in our 32 team league against common opponents. In other words, we scored more points against each of our opponents than any other team they played with one exception: Fairfield Suisun scored 21 points against Berkeley. We scored 19 points against them. Suisun ended up the league champion. With regard to Suisun’s other opponents who also played us, we always outscored Suisun.
Many of my readers have had equal or greater success with the single wing that I tell them how to run in my book Single-Wing Offense for Youth Football and in my Coaching Youth Football book. You can see their many success stories at the reader comments section of my Web pages on those books.
How did my subsequent attempts at contrarian offense go? I do not yet know. I was later an offensive coordinator for three high school freshman teams, but in each case the varsity head coach dictated that I run his non-contrarian, conventional offense.
Would the single wing work for Army? I don’t know. It would certainly be contrarian, but the offense is a power running offense and uses zero line splits among other contrarian features. The single wing made a big splash in the NFL in 2008 under the name “Wildcat.” I doubt that Army could or should recruit the sumo wrestler types needed to play a zero-line splits line against the 320-pound defensive linemen in the college ranks these days. On the other hand, the single wing is big on double-team and trap blocks which tend to equalize the size differential. An Army double-team block weighing a combined 440 pounds ought to be able to move a single NCAA 320-pound defensive lineman.
Also, I believe all offense nowadays need some option. My single-wing book uses the weak-side speed option as one of its plays because the mere capability of an option play on the opposing offense screws their defense all up. For years, even when I was not allowed to run an option play, I ran them in pre-season scrimmage (almost always for a touchdown or two) and pre-game warm-ups to scare the other team out of blitzing or man pass coverage. One of the varsity head coaches who prohibited me from running the option also, on his own initiative, had his quarterbacks running option drills in full view of the opposing coaches in pre-game warm-ups.
In the past, coaches said if you ran the option, you needed to commit 100% to it. That is now recognized as incorrect. Any use of the option, even just a couple of times a half, fouls up the defense for the whole game. There is a legendary high school team near where I live. De La Salle High School of Concord, CA runs the Houston Veer option (invented by West Pointer Bill Yeoman who helped De La Salle put it in) . They broke the old national record of 72 consecutive wins by winning 151 times in a row. Furthermore, they lost one game in 1991 by a close score or they would have set a new record of 176 consecutive wins. Do you know who is known as the Father of the Veer? That would be Bill Yeoman, former head coach at the University of Houston, member of the NCAA Football Hall of Fame, and West Point graduate (’50). He is still alive and well at the University of Houston. I have spoken to him several times about his offense.
I like the ground-game/infantry story line of Army running the single wing. But I am more interested in winning and I’m not sure it would work for a team with relatively undersized linemen. The notion that the single wing is obsolete is total bull and reveals the ignorance of the accuser. Vince Lombardi, who played in and coached the single wing, and who was a coach at Army before he went on to his NFL Hall of Fame career, said
What would happen if someone came out with a single-wing offense? It would embarrass the hell out of us.
You see remnants of the single wing in almost every TV football game. Pulling linemen, double-teams, snaps to a quarterback who is not under center, unbalanced lines, punt and field-goal formations, traps, wingbacks, a back right behind the interior line at the snap (nowadays as a result of motion), the Green Bay Sweep, and quick kicks are all from the single wing. I was watching a two-point conversion play on Monday Night Football five or six years ago when I suddenly said to my son, “Hey, they just ran a single-wing play!” At which time ABC’s Al Michaels said, “Hey, that was a single-wing play!”
In 2007, there are high school teams all over America running the single wing and some are winning the state championship with it. Go to the annual Single Wing Symposium and you can listen to clinics by their coaches and watch videos of their teams. There is also a resurgence of the single wing at the youth level nationwide primarily because of my youth football books. Again, see the testimonials at the SWOcomments.html and CYFcomments.html pages at my Web site.
Miami defeated New England 38-13 in a game where Miami ran six single-wing plays (which they call “wildcat”), four of which went for touchdowns. This is an example of the power of contrarianism in football offense. My book The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense urges readers to use unusual or unique approaches. They can be either old or new or both. The single wing, which was invented by Pop Warner, is old and out-of-fashion.
Some media accounts refer to what Miami did as a “direct snap.” That means the ball was snapped directly to the running back instead of to a quarterback who then gave it to a running back. That is correct, but the single wing is a more specific way to describe it. I also have written a number of other books about the single wing including:
I am no single wing pusher. There are many ways to be contrarian. I just got from the printers a book of mine called The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense on as many contrarian tactics as I can fit. It has chapters on contrarian line splits, contrarian hand-off techniques, contrarian pass routes, etc., etc.
My message to Army would be do not run any technique, scheme, or tempo that is common among the other opponents of Army’s opponents. Do not let Army opponents get better at stopping Army’s offense when they prepare for and play their other non-Army opponents. Make sure they only have one week to prepare for Army. And make sure that week is frenetic and that Army’s opponents have to totally retool and retrain their defenses just to get ready for the Army game. Some Army opponents would probably take the attitude that U.S. military generals did during Vietnam, i.e., “We’re not going to ruin a perfectly good Army [read defense in football] just to win this lousy little war [read game against Army].” Then, having refused to adjust properly to Army’s contrarian offense, they would get their asses kicked by Army on Saturday.
One of the points in contrarianism is to not only be different, but also to use offensive schemes that the opponent’s scout team has trouble replicating. When Army ran the option, defeated opponents used to say after the games that their scout team could not replicate the speed and precision with which Army ran the option. There are many other contrarian techniques that are also difficult for a scout team to recreate in a week, like the warp-speed no-huddle and the single-wing spin series. You need to pick an offense that takes moths for your players to master. Scout teams, which only get Monday afternoon to master it, will be unable to replicate it adequately. Their first-string defense will kick their scout team’s butt, thereby making them overconfident to play Army.
Army should run the warp-speed, no-huddle tempo when they are on offense. In that tempo, very simply, you snap the ball within one or two seconds of the referee’s ready-to-play signal. In order to do that, you have to eliminate cadence and audibles and such. (Actually, we had “audibles” that were quite successful, but they were silent, visual-only “audibles” to avoid wasting time or giving a wake-up call to the defense whom we often caught in their huddle or looking away from the offense when we snapped the ball.) Eliminating cadence and audible audibles is not a problem because the opponent spends the game yelling “Base! Base!” meaning they are forced to run their base or simplest defense constantly because they do not have time to call variations and stunts or substitute for situations. I also like to run it toward my sideline which makes it easier and faster for me to substitute and communicate with my players and harder for my opponent to do either.
The warp speed approximately doubles the number of plays the offense runs in a game. Normally, each team runs about one offensive play per minute of game clock time or 60 plays per game per team at the college and NFL levels. If one team runs the warp-speed no-huddle, they will run about 120 offensive plays in the game instead of 60. Using the warp-speed, my youth team ran 80 plays once in a 40-minute game in 1993. The high school record average number of plays per game for a season is only about 68 and they have 48-minute games. The high school record ought to be 96 plays per game.
A slower, whole-game, no-huddle was responsible for the Bengals and Bills shooting to the top of their leagues in the NFL. I discussed that one-on-one with Dana Bible, who coached at the Bengals then, and with Marv Levy, the head coach of the Bills during their K-gun, no-huddle days. Bible noted that opponents repeatedly faked injuries in an attempt to slow down the Bengals. Buffalo’s quarterback Jim Kelly said opposing defenders begged him to slow it down because he was “killing” them.
I attended a clinic where a San Diego State coach told us that one of his friends who coached for an opponent told him that their first-string defenders were throwing up on the sideline because of San Diego State’s relatively slow, non-warp-speed, whole-game, no-huddle tempo. After we played Benicia at our warp-speed tempo in 1993, their head coach told me his first-string defenders were begging to be taken out of the game in the first quarter! My players never mentioned any difficulty that day even though the temperature was in the nineties. Actually, my players thought games were easier than our practices because of official’s timeouts, end of quarter, team timeouts, and so forth. We did not do any of that in practice. One of our team’s parents who was on the Benicia sideline as an official told me after the game that the Benicia coaches kept telling their players, “Don’t worry. They can’t keep that up the whole game.” The hell we couldn’t. We did exactly that in the game.
Players and fans love the warp-speed. It freaks out the opponents. They wonder how we can do that because they can’t do it. Their coaches call basketball style timeouts after the first two or three plays of the game to stop our momentum.
Now think about it in the context of Army’s football situation. Army’s non-service-academy opponents have 85 scholarships. Army has 4,000. True, about 600 of those go to women, but that still leaves 3,400 men on scholarships. Seems like Army could focus on recruiting a deep bench—two or three strings depending upon the position—then run their opponents into the ground.
It is fashionable nowadays to recruit fat guys to play line. I know. I know. They can run a 4.7 40 and all that. The fact is, Army can recruit guys who can run faster than that, but they won’t be fat. They would be high school tight ends and fullbacks.
When I went to Airborne (paratrooper) school in December 1968 six months after graduation from West Point, one of my West Point classmates who was a starting linebacker on the Army football team flunked out of Airborne School. You had to do six chin-ups to get in. He could not do any. Since Army cadets all become Army officers after graduation, and Army officers are supposed to be fit and healthy, it is not clear to me how anyone can justify recruiting these unfit guys. Their body mass index is greater than 25, which violates medical advice. And their waist-to-hip ratio is greater than .95, which also violates medical advice.
Army is essentially recruiting some football players who are obese to an unhealthy degree, yet they are not fat enough to compete at the Division I-A level. We are essentially recruiting poor man’s examples of Division I-A linemen and asking them to try to impersonate the rich man’s opposing linemen who outweigh them by 60 pounds a man. Are we also expecting the mess hall to feed the whole Corps of Cadets with five loaves and two fishes?
I got a better idea. Recruit better, healthier athletes, who can not only play football, but also serve as paratroopers after graduation, and line up in spread-out formations (option teams are famous for extremely wide line splits), move the pocket, run away from the lard butts on the opposing lines, etc. It’s the fat guy says, “I’ll kill you” and you answer, “If you can catch me” idea. Army cannot win shoving matches between their small fat guys and the opponents’ big fat guys. But neither can the fashionable fat guys on the lines of Army’s opponents’ lines win foot races with interior linemen who run a 4.5 40 and who were tight ends and fullbacks in high school.
It would require a different style of offense, but then we’d darned well better change something hadn’t we?
The warp-speed, whole-game, no-huddle would be reminiscent of Paul Dietzel’s Chinese Bandits. He was head coach when I was a cadet. The Chinese Bandits were a second-string defensive unit he used at LSU, where he won the national championship, and at Army in the early 60s. The Bandits were very spirited. Like Avis, they had to try harder because they were number two. They were also fresh.
With the warp speed, I am talking about offense not defense as with the Bandits. Although finding fresh troops among our 3,400 scholarships to put in on defense would be helpful to Army as well.
With the warp-speed when you are using it to run the opponent into the ground, you snap the ball immediately after the ready-to-play signal even when the game clock is stopped like after an out-of-bounds play or team timeout. No-huddle offenses typically wait until the end of the play clock, which is a slowdown tempo, to snap the ball, when the game-clock is not running. Screw that! Snap it ASAP every single play. That is how you tire out the opponent fastest and most often.
Can Army’s opponents, none of whom require their players to go to Iraq as a ground pounder after graduation, out-recruit Army? Absolutely. But they can only get about 22 first-string level Division I-A players, only eleven of whom play defense. With the warp-speed no-huddle, we can run those eleven into the ground in the first and third quarters. When that happens, our fresh troops, who have gotten a higher percentage of practice reps than the opponents’ second-string defense, go flying onto the field play after play.
There are some subtle points involved. For example, my 1993 tailback who averaged 8 yards a carry for the whole season, got tired several times a game. When he did, he would cross his forearms across his chest like a corpse in a casket to tell me, “I’m dying out here, coach.” I would then have him hand off to the wing or move to wing for a couple of plays. So you have to learn some new fatigue-management techniques when you run the warp speed. You do not want to take your own first-stringers out until they are so tired that they are less effective than your second-stringers. You learn when that is for each player and position with warp-speed experience.
Also, you can coach stamina but you cannot coach speed. You can only recruit speed, but Army cannot recruit speed, so they’d better coach stamina and learn how to recruit a deep bench, both of which they can do.
By running the warp-speed, you eliminate your opponent’s speed by making their sprinters run a marathon instead of a 20-yard dash and you force them to deal with your players’ superior stamina as well as your deeper bench. Also, it is well known that it is physically harder to play defense than offense because of lack of knowledge of where the play is going. Marv Levy told me his defense was very unhappy about his offense running a whole-game, no-huddle because it shortened their sideline rest time. But he did not run a ball-control offense. His wide-open offense often scored very quickly because of the combination of their no-huddle and deep passing plays.
Army also needs to run some sort of ball-control offense. During the Young-Sutton option era, they did. Back then, I remember hearing a TV announcer say something to the effect that Army’s opponent was not going to get the ball for a while when Army got it deep in their own territory. That was because Army could run the three-yard stuff all day and get one first down after another ad infinitum.
Army must run a ball-control offense so they can keep their opponent’s offense off the field and thereby keep Army’s defense off the field. Again, the problem is recruiting. On offense, Army can run tempos and schemes that are contrarian and equalize their less athletic players with their opponents. But on defense, they must respond to the opponent’s defense. There is very little poetic license on defense and Army needs all the poetic license it can find to compensate for its recruiting disadvantages. Army cannot recruit the athletes to play Division I-A defense. So they need to use the contrarianness they can employ on offense, in part, to keep their offense on the field as long as possible.
To put it as simply as possible, Army cannot recruit players as good as its opponents can recruit, therefore it cannot use the same schemes, tempos, and techniques as those opponents. On the contrary, it must use every trick in the book to force the opponents to play a different game. If Army lets its opponents turn games into track meets, Army loses. Army needs to turn those games into forced marches, in which case, Army has a chance to win. You only have that kind of control in football when you are on offense.
Let me put it one other way. Let’s say the Army coaches were taking bribes from opposing defensive coordinators. In return for the bribes, the Army coaches would run the offense that the opponents most want them to run, namely, the most conventional, fashionable common offense. That would maximize Army’s chances of losing.
Are Army’s coaches taking bribes and deliberately running what the opposing defensive coordinators want them to run in order to lose. No. No bribes. But, prior to 2008 at least, they have been running exactly what the opposing defensive coordinators most want them to run.
Nobel Prize winning economist John Maynard Keynes once said,
Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.
Since the Young-Sutton era, that has been a precise description of the Army coaches’ approach. When you use conventional tactics, you can blame the players for the losses. You say things like “The better team won” or “Someone needed to step up and make a play but no one did.” “It could not have been our offensive scheme that was at fault. We ran the same offense as the national champion.”
When you use unconventional tactics like I am advocating above, you, not the players, will be blamed if they fail, but they have a higher probability of succeeding.
Which exactly are we trying to do? Win? Or avoid responsibility for losing?
How’s about we quit being so suicidal.
On 9/4/08, as part of my West Point class’s 40th reunion, my wife and I took a tour of Army athletic facilities. I also attended Army varsity football practice on 9/2/08 and Army Sprint (lightweight) football practice on 9/3/08. Reportedly, in the recent past, Army suffered from relatively lousy facilities compared to other Division I-A football teams. That hurts both recruiting and game preparation.
I can report that those days are over. Army’s facilities were fantastic. I have seen lots of college football facilities when I was a high school football coach attending summer camps and clinics and when my oldest son was being recruited by Ivy League and high academic Division III colleges. Army’s football weight room was as well equipped and spacious as could be justified. Army also had a great indoor football field.
The only thing I saw that I thought was not so great was that the varsity, but not sprint, practiced on real grass. Actually, they practice on the same grass where I played intramural football at West Point, just south of Michie Stadium. Back then, the Army football team practiced behind curtains on a field across the street from the parade grounds.
The high school where I last coached only practiced on real grass the week we were going to play at Livermore. They were one of the last schools to get a Field Turf field. When I visited Army was preparing to play New Hampshire at home and the Army field is Astro Play. (Army lost 28-10.) Indeed, the Army game field in Michie Stadium was about 100 feet away from the grass practice field and unused by anyone but kickers during practice.
When I asked why they were practicing on grass, I was told that Coach Brock wants the Michie Stadium field to be used only for games in order to use that setting as a sacred psyche-up device. Ooookay, but grass is different from Astro Play and you have to move differently to deal with grass. Plus, grass wears out rapidly, especially as the temperatures drop as they do at West Point later in the season.
Recently, most top teams had multiple practice surfaces and would use the one of the upcoming opponent each week. Nowadays, almost every team plays home games on Field Turf or Astro Play so everyone just practices on their game field because it has the same type of turf. Teams that do that include Monte Vista High School in Danville, CA, the last place I coached; the University of California, and Army Sprint Football practicing on their game field at West Point’s Shea Stadium. Army even has an Astro Play practice field—the indoors one that is right next to the grass fields. Virtually all the teams that practice on their game field have better records than Army so the sacred-field theory appears to be invalid.
In short, poor physical facilities are no longer an excuse for losing at Army. They have great facilities.
Army reportedly was going to unveil a radical offense in 2008. They held closed practices indoors in the preseason to keep it secret. Well, now I have seen it in practice and in a game. It looked like the Navy or Air Force flex-bone option with some wide receiver screens. A welcome change from recent Army offenses, but sort of a “me too” compared to the other service academies. Army needs to get more contrarian than that.
In the New Hampshire game, NH, not Army, used the whole-game no huddle and it apparently was a factor in their victory and point margin.
After the NH game, Army starting winning, apparently almost entirely through the running game and the option. To my surprise, they also had some success on defense getting five sacks in each of the 10/18 and 10/25 games. Apparently dramatic progress was made after the NH game because no such future success was evident in that decisive loss to a former Division I-AA team.
Army won the 2008 Army-Navy game—at least as far a long snapping was concerned. Otherwise, they lost 34-0, the first shutout in decades. In other words, a typical recent Army-Navy Game.
Army’s long snapping was flawless. I met their long snapping coach in September at practice and was impressed with him. He has a Web site called www.essentialsoflongsnapping.com.
Navy snapped one 15 feet over their punter’s head into the end zone. Fortunately for Navy, ten of Army’s players ran the other direction to set up a punt return. The one Army player who pursued the loose ball was not even able to prevent a 50-yard punt!! Actually, I saw worse at the Army-Navy game when I was cadet in 1965. Navy snapped the ball to punt and all eleven Army players ran the other way. The Navy punter saw this, shrugged his shoulders and ran for a first down.
Could Army out-coach opponents in all aspects of the game the way they out-coached Navy in long snapping?
No. Long snapping is a one-man skill. There is no competition. You don’t have to beat a man or block anyone.
But it does reveal that recruiting blue chips isn’t everything.
Army needs to figure out whom the best players they can recruit are then design their offense around them. One category of recruits that come to mind is great tweeners. A tweener high school football player is one is not not fast enough for his size or not big enough for his speed to play in college. But the standard is so the kid fits into the fashionable offense.
If you can’t recruit the fashionable kids, stop running the fashionable offense. Design an offense for smaller, but faster, linemen and slower, but bigger backs and receivers. Stop trying to recruit the fashionable blue-chip recruits that all the other teams want and start recruiting the blue-chip tweeners and design a tweener offense for them.
One of the principles of defense is fast on fast and big on big. That is, the defense tries to match up their fast corners with fast wide receivers and their big defensive linemen with big offensive linemen. But what if Army had small but faster offensive linemen and relatively slow but bigger backs and receivers?
The basic principle of defense is strength against strength. That’s why big on big and fast on fast. The basic principle of offense is strength against weakness. So what Army would want in this scenario is fast offensive players on slow defenders and big offensive players on small defenders. Of course, you would have to run a very different style of offense—leaving the slow D linemen in your dust and steam rollering the skinny, fast corners.
Coaches need to recognize the things that are coachable (long snapping, stamina) and those that are not (speed, height, basic body shape). And they need to recognize what they can recruit and what they cannot. Then the offense must be designed to pit the coachable strengths of those recruitable by us against the weakness of the opposing defense.
The current best-selling book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell makes a big point that I previously made in my coaching and Succeeding books: birth dates matter. At my parent meetings for my teams, I pointed out to the parents that there was a wide variety of ages on the team if you counted months instead of years. (See my youth coaching books (http://www.johntreed.com/coachingbooksyouthfootball.html and http://www.johntreed.com/YBC.html). This was even true at the high school level. (See the pertinent discussion in my book Coaching Freshman & Junior Varsity High School Football.)
In my Succeeding book, I told how my West Point classmates who were older had greater success not only at West Point but apparently for years thereafter. (I was very young—17—when I entered West Point. I had classmates who were 22-year-old college graduates or military veterans.) I also talk in the Succeeding book about youth athletes who have a high or low opinion of themselves solely based on birth dates.
My oldest son Dan was born on 6/26. That turned out to be a fabulous swimming birth date. (Competitive youth swimming is extremely big in CA.) The swimming cutoff was June 20. But it was a lousy youth football and baseball birth date. Their cutoff was July 31st. (Me, too. My birthday is 7/5 and there was no such thing as competitive swimming on the east coast when I was a kid.)
Dan set local records that stood for years in swimming; but he struggled in baseball and football. He was great at both, but as Gladwell explains in the first chapter of Outliers, he had to compete with kids who were almost a year older in football and baseball. In swimming, he was one of the oldest kids in his year group in the region. I was so impressed by the birth date phenomenon in youth and high school sports that, in my Succeeding book, I actually recommended redshirting boys out of first grade until they were 7. It would make them more successful socially, athletically, academically, and in terms of leadership—and the effects seem to last a lifetime! I said it would accomplish the same for girls, but some may not want the resulting added size compared to their grademates.
In spite of his youth, Dan was recruited to play tailback by Columbia, Dartmouth, and Yale. He did play tailback all four years at Columbia. He also returned kickoffs and played on other special teams.
The bottom line for this article is that athletes with advantageous birth dates are disproportionately represented in the ranks of youth and high school all-stars and in the ranks of those recruited by college football teams. Are they the most talented football players? No, as Gladwell explains in Outliers, athletic talent is evenly distributed every month of the year as far as birth dates are concerned. So why are the vast majority of top hockey and soccer players born in the first three months of the year? Because youth leagues in those sports use 1/1 as their cutoff date for assignment to a year group. Consequently, the kids born in the first three months of the year, who are older and bigger than the kids born later in the same year, get chosen for all-stars and such and get far more practice and game time by the time they graduate from high school.
So what I am advocating for Army is to look at the high school football players who were honorable mention rather than all-star, and who were younger compared to the players they were competing with who made all-star, all-conference, etc. Probably, the colleges with whom Army is competing for football players are recruiting the oldest players—in terms of number of months rather than years old. Why not recruit the football players who did as well or better for their age in months, but who did not quite make all-region because of their age? This is a Moneyball-ish suggestion. Moneyball is the great book by Michael Lewis—soon to be a major motion picture (really)—that explains how the Oakland A’s consistently out-drafted other Major League Baseball teams by having a better eye for baseball player VALUE than other MLB teams. Coaches too often tend to recruit or assign positions on the depth chart according to what I call “central casting.” That is, they recruit and play the guys who look the part rather than the best players.
Overemphasis on looking the part is a particular flaw of the military. When I was a cadet, Barnard College girls published a book rating the men at U.S. colleges. West Point ranked first only in “best-looking.” I surmise that was a function of our uniforms, physical fitness, and the fact that a disproportionate number of good-looking guys tended to seek and attain admission to our rather theatrical college through the convoluted admission process. There was even an explicit, written, prohibition against ugliness in the physical admissions requirements. I was actually taken aside and photographed during my pre-West Point physical at Fort Dix because I had acne then. I was confident I had passed all the other academic and physical tests to get admitted, so my main fear after the physical while I was waiting to get in was that I flunked the “handsomeness” test. (To get an idea of what the only “cadet candidate” who was taken aside to be photographed at Fort Dix in 1964 looked like, see my adult about-the-author photo.)
I do not know if current Army coaches are making the mistake of trying to recruit high school football players who look the part rather than those who will actually perform well. But it is an almost universal mistake so I would expect they are unless they have made a conscious effort not to. Moneyball told a number of stories of Oakland getting much greater value in the amateur draft each year than other teams because they consistently found excellent players who did not look the part and who were therefore overlooked by other teams.
Walter E. Williams is an economics professor at George Mason University. On pages 18 and 19 of his book Liberty Versus the Tyranny of Socialism, he tells about the success in 2006 of his small school’s basketball team which made it to the NCAA Final Four. George Mason used the Moneyball model of recruitment. Coach Larranaga said he overcame their recruiting obstacles by “hunting for the undervalued players—the ones who everyone else thought were too short, too thin, or too fat—then building them into a team. In its astonishing defeat of UConn, GMU’s players were giving away 4 inches at nearly every position.”
I would add that they also need to design a contrarian scheme that both fits their own players and takes advantages of the assumptions built into opposing teams’ schemes.
All the colleges in America are unwittingly trying to recruit the oldest high school football players, roughly speaking. To a large extent, they are letting state legislators who set high school grade-assignment cutoff dates tell them which players to recruit. And Army is doing lousy, getting recruiting classes that rank in the bottom every year.
The other colleges and the rating services are probably overlooking the age factor. They may be competing with each other for only the best players in the first three birth months after the high school cutoff date (which may vary from state to state). I, and Gladwell, are suggesting, nay, saying, that the people who overlook the ages of prospects are ignoring three-quarters of the talent pool. That can’t be smart. Indeed, the most talented players in the last nine months of the year ought to be three times better than the best same-sized group in the first three months of the year because the last nine months of the year talent pool is three times larger than the first three months of the year talent pool. The players born in the first three months after their state cutoff date would have more practice and game experience than those born in the last nine months, but not more talent. For some instinctual positions, most notably running back and corner back, players who have lower “odometer readings” are actually preferable to more experienced and therefore more worn-out players. Experience is important for quarterbacks and linebackers.
I know that the Army players chosen in accordance with what Gladwell and I are saying will still be young and that will still be a handicap relative to the opponent college players. But they might actually be fundamentally more athletic—because they come from the systematically-overlooked last-nine-after-the-cutoff birth months of the year—and their superior athletic ability could be taken advantage of by Army by using an offense that emphasized youthful athletic ability and stamina rather than size, playing experience, and speed.
In finance, we sometimes talk about “risk-adjusted return.” That is, you cannot compare returns from stock to bond returns without adjusting to reflect the risk difference between them. What I am suggesting is that Army do an adjustment for age of the playing time and stats and honors of the high school seniors when deciding whom to recruit. A boy who just missed all-state, but who is a year and a half younger than the guy who beat him out, may well be a fundamentally better football athlete than the all-state guy that all the colleges want.
It would help if Army could redshirt. I don’t know if they can. The USMA Prep School may enable them to do that if it does not violate NCAA rules.
Here is another recruiting angle Army might consider. I call it covered-up quarterbacks.
Sometimes, a flanker aligns on the line of scrimmage before the snap. That is incorrect. The end man on the line of scrimmage is an eligible receiver. On the flanker side, that is the tight end. If, however, the flanker is too far forward, the tight end becomes “covered up” and therefore ineligible. If the play is a forward pass across the line of scrimmage and the tight end in that situation moves down field, the offense gets a penalty for ineligible receiver down field. If the flanker had stayed one yard off the line of scrimmage, which is the definition of his position, the tight end would not have been covered up.
A covered-up quarterback as I mean it is a great quarterback who happens to be second-string behind an even greater quarterback, or at least one whose head coach thinks the first-string guy is greater. And both of the aforementioned quarterbacks are in the same class.
Great but covered-up high school quarterbacks do not get recruited. Why not? They cannot point to any non-garbage time accomplishments on their high school varsity. They have no non-garbage-time film to send to the college. They have no non-garbage-time stats. They do not get all-league or all-conference or all-whatever honors. College coaches therefore conclude that the quarterback in question must not be as good as the other quarterbacks at other schools who did have such playing time, stats, and honors.
That is incorrect. If all high school coaches in the nation pick whom they believe to be the right player from their roster to be first-string quarterback, there is still the possibility that the guy backing up the best high school quarterback in the nation is the second-best quarterback in the nation. If that were true, he still would not get recruited for the reasons stated above.
There is an attempt to make sure the best quarterbacks start WITHIN a particular high school roster. But there is no effort being made by anyone to insure that the best, say, ten quarterbacks in a ten-team league are starters on ten different teams. Indeed, that would usually require some of those top ten quarterbacks in a league to transfer to a different high school for football reasons which is generally illegal in every state.
To put it another way, let’s call the top ten QBs in a given high school league A through J and the teams 1 through 10. College recruiters assume that the best ten QBs, A through J, are equally distributed one per team to the ten teams: 1 through 10. That is unlikely. More likely, 1 has both A and B because of the head coach’s reputation for being a great quarterbacks coach. Team 2 has C and F by chance, Team 3 has D and H by chance, teams 4 through 7 each have one of the remaining top ten QBs, namely E, G, I, and J. That leaves teams 8, 9, and 10 with a starting quarterback who is not one of the top ten in league.
The recruiting implication for Army is to investigate the back-up quarterbacks at the U.S. high school teams with the top 100 or so quarterbacks. The high school teams with the best quarterbacks in the nation do not necessarily have a really good back up for the starter, but they could and some probably do. More important, Army would probably be the only Division I-A team recruiting the back-up.
There are 120 Division I-A football teams in the U.S. Those teams are trying to recruit the top 120 quarterbacks in the nation from among all the starting high school quarterbacks in the nation. But what I’m saying is that the top 120 high school quarterbacks in the country are almost certainly not all starting. There are probably a dozen or more who are good enough to be in the top 120 in the nation, but they are not starting for their high school because another guy who is in the top 50 or so is their classmate at their high school and he is starting for their team. If the second-string guy had moved to another high school, he would be the starter there and rank in the top 120 in the nation. But he did not because it was illegal and/or his parents decided not to find a legal way to do it. (The parents of covered-up quarterbacks generally do not appreciate what is happening. I saw one such situation and told the player and his parents in no uncertain terms that he needed to transfer to another high school where he would be the varsity starter. They did not. He almost never started on the varsity because he was covered up and was not recruited. He was the best QB I was ever around and I was around or coached Sam Keller, Ken Dorsey (my tailback son’s high school teammate and classmate), Drew Bennett, Drew Olson and others. I think my son Dan the Ivy League tail back caught passes from all of them at one time or another. The QB I am talking about probably could have been recruited as a high-academic-standards Division III quarterback, that is, Williams, Amherst, Pomona, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, MIT, etc.)
A couple of people I discussed this with immediately said that Matt Cassel was the prime example of a now successful, formerly covered-up quarterback. Most Fans and even more coaches can name many others they’ve known at all levels of football.
For Army to do this would require that one or more coaches make this their recruiting specialty. They would have to rely on coach recommendations, JV or earlier video, garbage-time video, and probably some other evaluation techniques I have not thought of.
Are there downsides to this? Yep.
1. With less data and film to evaluate, there is an increased chance of picking the wrong guy. That’s both the bad new and the good news. That same problem is why these QBs are not being recruited by Army’s opponents. But then Army has over 3,000 males on scholarships so they can make such mistakes. They could recruit ten such covered-up QBs a year in the hopes that one or two would contribute on the varsity. Hell, Army might be able to recruit every single such QB in the nation. They might become known for it to the point where varsity high school head coaches all over America tell their top-notch backups to talk to Army.
2. Quarterbacks benefit greatly from playing experience and the more competitive the defenses they face, the more they benefit. So even if they have the talent, such quarterbacks are behind the learning curve when they arrive at West Point compared to opposing quarterbacks at Army’s opponents. They would benefit from redshirting and from not being able to leave West Point early to enter the NFL draft like so many top college quarterbacks do. If Army adopts my tiered intramural football idea (see below), the formerly covered-up QBs could make up for lost time there, too.
The idea here is that Army can acquire the unique skills required to evaluate covered-up quarterbacks then use those unique skills to find the gems among the overlooked high school backup quarterbacks around the U.S. They can further use their unique intramural program and not losing top juniors and seniors to the NFL to make up for the experience the covered-up quarterbacks did not get in high school.
It could work. It would make a great story if it did.
Another problem is coaches who let the players decide which position they play. I think that’s insane. I told my players that they were all trying out for everything and that experts would decide which position they would play, namely me and my staff, not 14-yearolds with little or no experience.
At one high school, I was offensive coordinator of the freshman. For my starting quarterback I picked a kid who had never played football. His back up was a guy who had been the local star youth quarterback for seven years, and whose father, the president of the local youth football organization and the local Little League, expected his son to be the starter and expected to get his way.
When I told the new kid he would be the starting quarterback for the first game of the season, he was astonished. He said, “But coach, I never played before. The other guy has been a star quarterback for seven years. When I came out for football, I just figured I would be a second-string something, not even a quarterback at all.”
“So what are you saying? That you think I don’t know what I’m doing?
“Oh, no, coach. I just thought...”
“Enough, you are the starting quarterback of this team because you are the best quarterback on this team. You will do well in this week’s game.”
And so he did. We won the first game 34-12 against a freshman team composed, as it happened, largely of the best youth team I ever coached. We won the second game by a similar score. That rookie quarterback ran a fabulous two-minute drill later in the season that won the game by one point after we stopped the clock with :01 left to kick a field goal. The play-by-play of that drive is on pages 123-4 of my Football Clock Management book. The following year, the JV team went undefeated in a very long series of passing league tournaments in several states.
My point is that the football world is full of coaches who let the kids pick what position they want to play. If I had done that, the kid I just described would never have played a down of quarterback in his life. We can assume that there are many such quarterbacks who never played quarterback out there as a result of the let-the-kids-decide policies. If my son’s freshman coaches had done it the way I did, they very probably would have made Dan the quarterback initially and Ken Dorsey might never have played a down at quarterback in his life. By letting Dan pick his position, Dan ended up never playing a down of quarterback in his life. That might have been a huge blunder.
Some readers may suspect the covered-up QB I described above was my son Dan who played tailback in the Ivy League. Nope. But when I discussed the covered-up QB issue with my son it reminded me of other ways that potential top quarterbacks do get covered up.
My son was a running back. In retrospect, after his coaching with me and playing through college, he and I both think his ideal football position may have been free safety. But we also wonder if his best position might not have been option QB. Here’s the story.
When he as 8 years old and went out for youth football, he got cut from an 8 to 11-year old team. He went to another team that was struggling to get players. They made him a lineman. Who was the quarterback on that team? The head coach’s son. As far as we know, no one who made the 35-man team from which Dan was cut was ever recruited to play college football or played as a walk-on. The head coach’s son was a high school varsity quarterback, but was quite unsuccessful at the position.
During his second year in youth football, Dan was the fullback. Why that position instead of the one he played in college where position competition is about 100 times more than in youth football? The fact that the offensive coordinator’s son was the tailback probably had something to do with it. That boy’s career ended around the eighth game of his high school freshman year when he became academically ineligible and last I heard, stayed that way forever. He was also small for is age. Same thing happened his third year.
For his fourth year in youth football, Dan was moved to tailback. The offensive coordinator’s son was the quarterback. That boy dropped out of all sports at age 13.
By ninth grade, Dan had been a running back for five years. He thought quarterback was a dumb position because the quarterback in youth football almost always handed the ball to a running back. Dan wanted the ball, not the honor of being in a position that is important at higher levels. The quarterback on Dan’s freshman team was a kid who had been a wide receiver on the B team (for kids not good enough for the A team) in his middle-school flag team. It was the only year he had ever played football. He had never played tackle football. The coaches on Dan’s freshman team had great respect for the two or three kids on their team that had youth tackle football experience. They made Dan and the others exercise leaders starting on Day One. Only flag was played in that community. I coached four freshman tackle football teams. Flag football experience is totally useless as preparation for tackle football.
Because of Dan’s tackle experience and strong arm, and the coaches’ great preference for youth tackle veterans, we think he probably would have been the starting freshman quarterback had he tried out for that position, at least initially. The B-team flag wide receiver got the job instead. His name is Ken Dorsey. He later had a Hall of Fame career at the University of Miami (38-2 without redshirting) where he won one national championship, came in second another time, and was a finalist for the Heisman trophy for two years.
Am I saying Dan was a better quarterback than Dorsey? Almost certainly not. But I suspect Dan was a better option quarterback than Kenny. Kenny is pretty clearly a drop-back-only quarterback. Miramonte High School, where Dan and Kenny went, was not an option team. It is still possible that Kenny might have been covered up, at least for a time, by my son if my son had sought the quarterback position freshman year. And if my son had done well enough as the starting quarterback, Dorsey might never have gotten a chance to learn how to play the position and show what he was capable of. He might have become discouraged and switched positions or quit football and focused on his other high school sport: basketball.
Think about that. It is possible that an Ivy League reserve tailback might have prevented a probable Hall of Fame college quarterback from even playing college football at all. If it had happened that way, what would the reason have been? Dan grew up in the San Ramon Valley where youth tackle football was popular and he had a father, me, who urged him to try it. Ken Dorsey grew up in the Lamorinda area where the educated, liberal, white-wine parents were anti-tackle football and only let their sons play flag football. No tackle football teams even exist there. The team that cut my son originally was in Lamorinda and later moved out to the Valley.
The varsity head coach told me he did not see recognize Kenny’s potential until the end of Kenny’s and Dan’s JV season. Kenny then started two years on the varsity. Dan was the running back to whom Kenny handed the ball the most during their four years on high school together. They won the NCS championship both of those final two years. That was the highest you could go in CA, the only state too big for a state championship tournament. Dan was the star of the senior year championship game scoring 26 of the 40 points and gaining 189 yards rushing on the rain-swept field that nullified the team’s excellent passing game.
In a touch passing league game the summer before Dan and Kenny’s senior year in high school, Dan’s tailback assignment in a goal-line play was to go across the goal line in the middle and simply stand still facing Kenny. Kenny rolled out to his right to escape pressure. None of the receivers running moving routes got open. Suddenly, Kenny fired a maximum-velocity, line-drive pass to Dan. Dan made a training-film catch with the fingers of both hands right in front of his face. Touchdown!
When he came over to me after the game, I said, “Nice catch—of course your alternative to catching it was to be decapitated.”
Dan said, “No shit! That scared me so much I was shaking—badly. I immediately went to Dorsey and said, ‘Kenny, don’t EVER do that again.’ He said, ‘Do what?’ ‘Throw a ball at my face that hard when I’m not wearing a face mask!’”
In that passing league, when he could not find an open receiver, Kenny would throw the ball out-of-bounds—through the distant goal posts—because they did not pay attention to intentional grounding in that league and Kenny apparently enjoyed the challenge of airing out his arm.
When he first got to college, I asked Dan how college football was different from high school. “It’s much faster. The worst linebackers on the Columbia depth chart are tougher to run against than the best linebacker I ever faced in high school. Only one thing is not as good in college.”
“Oh, I guess you would not expect Ivy Leaguers to be as good as a Miami quarterback would you?”
One college team, Tufts University, actually considered Dan as an option quarterback. They were willing to recruit him as a running back as well. But they are Division III NESCAC. Dan wanted to accept one of his three Ivy League (Division I-AA) offers instead.
Would Dan have been a good Army option quarterback? I doubt it. He was Ivy League material, not Division I-A material. The option QB at Army probably ought to be a legitimate Division I-A running back or QB who can also do the other skill tolerably. Dan might possibly have been a starting option quarterback in the Ivy League but there was no Ivy League option team per se. Columbia ran some option during Dan’s time there, but he was receiving the pitches, not tossing them.
Why was Dan never a free safety even in college? Tailback is a more important position and Dan was always better at tailback (or back-up tailback in college) than the other guys on the team even though he may have been even better at free safety. But his college team, Columbia, also had an all-league (as a sophomore) free safety who was Dan’s classmate, roommate, and one of his best friends.
The Yale offensive coordinator who recruited Dan for that school told me that almost all the non-linemen in college football were quarterbacks or tailbacks on their high school teams. The reason is those positions are more important than the others and the extremely rare kids who are good enough to play college football are generally too athletic in relation to their high school teammates to be underutilized at positions like free safety or slot back.
In other words, college coaches are used to getting their non-linemen/non-QBs and RBs almost entirely by converting high school quarterbacks and tailbacks to other positions. However, the QB position is unique. College coaches almost never convert a non-high-school-starting quarterback to a college quarterback. Perhaps Army should reconsider that policy if it has been how they operate.
In December of Dan’s senior year in high school, he got a call from Harvard telling him they had just viewed the film he sent them and they were going to fly to Harvard for an official visit. In January, they instead sent a letter saying they had changed their minds. Why? They apparently found a better running back to recruit. But what if Dan had played free safety in high school and had done great at that position? Harvard might have been even more impressed by his film and might not have found a better free safety. In which case Dan would have gone to Harvard and gotten more playing time than he did in his secondary position of running back.
That’s not being covered up. The free safety on Dan’s high school team did not play college football. Rather, it is a case of being needed more elsewhere on the field. True, college teams are used to converting QBs and tailbacks to other positions, but it is easier to recognize a great free safety when he is playing free safety than when he is playing running back.
There may also be some Moneyball opportunities for Army if they can see past skin color. In the past, many good quarterbacks and coaches were overlooked because they were black and blacks were thought to be racially inferior for such cerebral positions.
That notion has generally been discredited with regard to blacks playing quarterbacks. It appears not yet to have been discredited with regard to coaches. There are disproportionately few black college coaches considering that there are disproportionately more black players.
There appear to be more biases now with regard to the right race for various positions. Those biases seem to be roughly:
• whites can play quarterback, free safety, linebacker, fullback, tight end
• blacks play cornerback, wide receiver, tailback
• Latinos are more or less white
• Asians cannot play football unless one of their parents was from the above races
• Samoans play line
The Moneyball strategy would be to look for the best players of the “wrong” race, e.g., black tight ends, white wide receivers, Asians for any position, Samoan running backs, and so on.
Here are some experiences of my son as a white college tailback and comments about the subject from others.
Lord help the white running back or wide receiver or, until the early 1990s, the black quarterback.
page 32 of Blind Side by Michael Lewis
As far as I know, there have been absolutely no racial problems among Columbia football players in the four years Dan has been there—or before for all I know. But I think there is a bit of a racial problem of the central-casting variety between the coaches and the players.
First, let me discuss the issue of white guys playing skill positions in football in general, then Ill discuss it with regard to Columbia only.
It used to be that coaches thought blacks were not smart enough or leader enough or something enough to play quarterback. That apparently ended in the last 25 years or so.
There still appears to be a notion that blacks cant be head coaches as evidenced by relatively few of them having the job. I was part of a small group of coaches in 2004 who taught a small group of minority college assistant coaches how to get hired as head coaches. My topic was clock management. The other coaches who taught with me in that small group of about eight instructors included Bill Walsh, Brian Billick, and Bob Stoops. The NCAA organized and sponsored the clinic at their Indianapolis headquarters.
But there has arisen another notion in recent years: that white men cant play skill positions, that is, running back, receiver, and defensive back.
He later became famous now for his commercials, but when Jason Sehorn was first an NFL player he had a racial problem. When someone asked what he did for a living, he said he was an NFL football player. So far so good. Then they asked what position. When he said, “Cornerback,” they laughed in his face. “A white cornerback in the NFL! Sure.” He really was a white NFL cornerback. He was the only one, but he was one.
My middle son and I went to the 49ers summer camp one day when we happened to be driving by that town. About half the players wore white jerseys and half wore red. My son asked why most of the black guys were wearing red. I studied the players for a while and figured out that the red jerseys were defensive playerslike cornerbacks. I guess theyre defense. Probably need more speed on defense and blacks dominate speed sports like the 100-meter dash.
Frequently, when my wife mentioned that her son played college football, men ask, What position? When she said, tailback, they laughed and said, A white college tailback?
Bruce Rollinson is the coach of top-rated Mater Dei High School in the Los Angeles area. He frequently gets complaints from the fathers of white players when he assigns them to skill positions like cornerback. The complaint? Thats an all-black position at the college level. Play my son at a position where he has a chance to play in college.
One of Dans teammates went to a predominantly black high school. Their school colors included black and like most of his high school teammates, he wore black leotards in games. This receiver also wore gloves in games. College recruiters first learn of a player from looking at game videotapes. One Division I-A recruiter liked this receiver on video. He had a high school counselor get him out of class to talk to him. The moment he laid eyes on the player out of uniform, he just said, Thanks anyway. Obviously, he had thought the player was black on video. The moment he learned he was white, he lost all interest in him. The player was astounded that the coach felt no obligation to hide it.
When Columbia flew Dan to Columbia for his official visit, he was introduced to an upperclass player who asked him what position he played. When Dan said, Tailback, the player asked, Aren't you a little white for that?
After he arrived at Columbia and started practicing with the team, a white upperclass teammate was absolutely ecstatic when he saw that Dan was a legitimate tailback. He regarded Dan as some sort of Great White Hope at that position. Until Dan arrived, he had abandoned all hope that one of his race could be a college tailback.
Dan called me his first night in summer camp freshman year. He told me he was fourth-string tailback and that he had a tailback classmate. He also informed me that he was considered by the coaching staff to be distinctly inferior to the tailback classmate. What did you or he do to rank you behind him so fast, I asked. Nothing, Dan replied. They apparently decided he was better before we got here. The classmate was black. There were five tailbacks. Dan was the only white one. He ranked last among the recruited tailbacks. He was only ranked ahead of Kwam Aidoo, the walk-on (unrecruited) tailback.
Dan continued to rank behind that classmate all through the 1999 season. At the J.V. games, the black classmate would always get the first series and the most series. The black freshman tailback made the traveling team of the varsity and played in one game, scoring a touchdown as a freshman. There never really was a moment when the coaches seemed to even consider that Dan might be better than the black classmate. I suggested to Dan that he consider transferring to Pomona or one of the other Division III schools that wanted him. No, he said, Ill show the Columbia coaches what I can do in spring football.
He was right. Shortly after spring football began, Dan was promoted above his black tailback teammate. The need for that change was so stark that the running backs coach, a black, former running back himself, apologized to Dan for his having been ranked behind the black freshman previously. The black classmate tried hard to win his position back during the 2000 season, but could not do so. He later quit the team. I give the coaches credit for correcting the mistake eventually, but I do not appreciate it being made to begin with or that it took almost a year to see past the skin colors of the two players in question.
This racism was not limited to white coaches. At some point, the black strength coach spoke to all the running backs. He addressed each individually. When he finished, he had totally ignored Dan. Dans black classmate asked, Do you think [his ignoring you] was racist? To be fair, that strength coach subsequently seemed to become a fan of Dans playing as time went on and he saw what Dan could do. But, with that coach, Dan appeared to suffer initially from the stereotype that a white guy could not be a legitimate tailback at the college level.
Interestingly, Dans black teammates seemed to have no problem with the concept of a white tailback. At one point, they gave him the name white chocolate, mocking the stereotype. Kirby Mack, a black upperclassman, transferred from Virginia where he was a walk-on tailback. He wanted to play the position at lower-level Columbia and was disappointed when he was put at fullback. He ended up a very successful linebacker and occasional fullback. At one point, he told Dan that he was initially bugged at not being able to play tailback while Dan was allowed to do so, but admitted, Youve got better feet than I do. [meaning Dan was more agilebetter able to cut and make defenders miss]
No doubt, the Columbia coaches will point to the many whites they have had at running back and the many blacks they have not put there to refute this. But the problem is subtle. When the players are close in abilityas with Dan and Rashad Biggers (a Columbia tailback)black wins at tailback (and probably at cornerback, too) with coaches who are slightly racist and who succumb to the central casting approach to filling out the depth chart (list of positions and strings).
If Rashad were named Raymond and had white skin, but had the exact same athletic characteristics, he almost certainly would have been put at fullback. If Dan had been black and named Dashwon, he probably would have been rated ahead of Rashad at tailback because his vision and feet would suddenly have become visible to the coaches who expect such things from black tailbacks, but not white ones.
Lesson for Army: ignore racial stereotypes. You may be able to recruit some overlooked-because-of-race great black coaches and QBs and some great white tailbacks, cornerbacks, and wide receivers.
The main trick in Moneyball’s account of the Oakland A’s success drafting players was their willingness to draft players whose body did not look the part of a star baseball player—at least to the double-digit IQ tobacco chewers who traditionally made such evaluations. If I may paraphrase Emma Lazarus, the Oakland A’s drafting and free agent posture is:
Give us your skinny, your fat,
Your ugly, mishhapen but excellent players yearning to play in the bigs,
The unlikely success stories of your college.
Send these, the draftless, non-All-Americans to us,
We lift our stingy pocketbook beside the green and golden team logo!
The bias against players whose bodies do not look the part for their position is greater in football than in baseball. Indeed, I expect the average baseball fan would have trouble spelling out the way a baseball player is supposed to look (Generally handsome and athletic). But the average football fan is quite aware of the current fashion in football player body shapes. Skinny guys at corner and wide receiver. Stocky guys at fullback, linebacker, and tight end. Squatty powerfully built guys at running back. Tall guys at quarterback.
The main points for Army football are:
• Good quarterbacks can also be covered up by nepotism, a player failing to realize how good he would be at quarterback, etc.
• Good option quarterbacks can also be covered up by head coaches who do not like or know the option and refuse to run it regardless of whether they have a good option quarterback or not
• For the several reasons stated above, many of the best potential college football players do not get to show what they can do on their high school varsity. They are covered up, the “wrong” race, playing a position other than their best position, playing in a system that does not need their talent, coach mistake or bias, etc.
If Army cannot compete for the ostensible, consensus top recruits, and it is clear they have not been able to do so for many years, they’d better master the art of finding the overlooked, misused, ignored, and covered-up high school players that they can get. It appears to me that there are many Moneyball type opportunities because of the less than optimal distribution and use of high school football talent from the perspective of those trying to identify the best college recruits.
I played intramural football at West Point for my company one year, without distinction. (My position was defensive end but the firstie coach would not listen to me about that and made me a tight end.) However, I was impressed with the intramural program there in general. I don’t think it is the best way to produce fit cadets. It is based on the notion of “Every cadet an athlete” which is unfortunately bullshit. But it is probably true to say that there are a hell of a lot more athletes at West Point than at almost any other college of comparable size.
On the other hand, intramural football at West Point had bits and pieces of very high level football. Our C-2 quarterback when I played as a sophomore was a plebe who had been all-state in Florida the previous year! One of our opponent linebackers had been all-state in Wyoming. Other intramural players had never played football before, but one hell of a lot of them had been high school stars who won all-conference, all-region, all-league, and MVP honors. For example, one of my cadet roommates, later Dean of the Academic Board, Dan Kaufman, had been his high school’s football team captain and MVP. (OK, it probably was a small school.)
Here is my modest proposal. Break the intramural football league into battalion rather than company teams. Within the league, have two or three tiers. The top tier gets its pick of the lower tiers and can move a guy up or down any time throughout the season. I presume the Army varsity can also move a guy up from the intramural team to the varsity at any time.
Such a system would enable late bloomers to bloom and be identified.
The coaching would have to be professionalized somehow. The teams would have to be required to run the Army varsity offense and defense. There would need to be film scouting and post-game film sessions. Assignment of players to the intramural football teams should be based on selection by competent adult football coaches who had studied each candidate, not by cadets or tacs or administrators. Players showing the best talent would need to be brought to the attention of the Army varsity coaches for them to consider. They could make intramural football a three-season intramural sport instead of just a Fall sport.
Some readers may think this is a ridiculous suggestion. I don’t think so. When my class was at West Point, one of my classmates, Elwood Cobey, was promoted from the 150-pound football team, as Sprint football was called then, to the varsity. And he was a freaking lineman!
Is it possible no varsity players would come from such an intramural program? Sure.
It is also possible that one to three players a year could come from it. A lot depends on how competently it was carried out. The fundamental principle behind this suggestion is my knowledge and experience that football coaches cannot reliably predict which players will blossom into top varsity college players. 32 players were recruited in my son’s recruiting class at Columbia. Only eight of the 32 were still even on the team senior year, let alone starting.
The more time you have to look at and develop players, the greater the reliability of your depth-chart decisions. Also, the more players you have behind your starter, the more motivated he will become to fight for his job. Another way to put it is that such an intramural program would permit Army coaches to recruit, albeit it in a smaller pool than nationwide, year-round, and with much greater data with regard to the players in the already-on-campus pool.
I and a zillion other experienced coaches can tell you many actual case histories of youth players who were great or lousy only to become the opposite when they got to high school. The same is true of great and lousy high school freshman or even J.V. players who flopped or blossomed when they got to varsity. There are also actual case histories of college kids who came out of the stands to become starters (in 2008 Texas Tech got its place kicker from an on-campus contest during the season). A Penn State manager became their starting long snapper (he long snapped a zillion times to the punters and holders during practice and those players went to Coach Paterno and said the manager was the better snapper. He was promoted and started in a season that included a bowl game.)
We have all seen many a media story about the high school football player who couldn’t miss in college, then did exactly that. We have also all read stories about the walk-on who became All-American. The same thing happens between college and the NFL. Kurt Warner was stocking shelves in a grocery store the year he later became Super Bowl MVP. High draft picks flop. Undrafted free-agents become All-Pro. Etc. Etc. Guys who never played football in high school have become college and pro stars.
I guarantee you one thing, if no such effort is made, the number of Army varsity football players coming from the intramural program will be zero.
I seem to recall reading somewhere that Army actually does something like this intramural farm program in its very successful rugby program.
It’s true that Army has a lot of systemic disadvantages in NCAA football. But in life, you can find excuses for losing or you can find ways to win. West Point’s extensive intramural program may be a way to win. But only if Army recognizes that and utilizes it.
As many expected, Army fired head coach Stan Brock, a holdover from the Bobby Ross staff shortly after the 2008 season ended. The day before I heard that, one of my classmates sent an email to a bunch of classmates calling for the firing of Brock and expressing anger at the fortunes of Army football in recent decades.
I generally agree, but that’s not enough.
Knowledgeable experts need to go over the Army Football program and the exogenous things that influence it from top to bottom. As I said above, I surmise that the coach hiring committee headed by Dan Kaufman did that. Apparently it needs to be done again—including re-reading the Kaufman Committee report.
I have often complained to parents of my football teams that they tend to react to losses like a Taurus owner who sees a warning light on his dash board and immediately sells the car and swears never to buy another Ford. Army alumni and administrators are in danger of doing that.
The correct response to a warning light with a car is to take it to a competent mechanic who diagnoses the problem. In this case, the Army football program does not have a single warning light. Rather it is a decrepit junker. It has multiple problems. To continue the automotive analogy, what needs to be done with Army football today is akin to restoring a classic, but long neglected, car. Experts need to make a punch list of the multiple problems then the powers that be need to prescribe and execute a remedy for each.
I have argued above that Army needs to adopt a contrarian approach to offense. They need the same for special teams. Defense does lend itself to many contrarian approaches. There, we need to keep our defense off the field because of our systemic recruiting disadvantages.
Army seems to be making the same mistake in recruiting coaches that I suspect it does recruiting players. It is trying to get the same ones all the other colleges want. Army’s coach recruiters need to stay within themselves. We need to find value, not fame, a la Moneyball. That super book told the story of the very successful Oakland A’s approach to recruiting and retaining players. They seek the misshapen, don’t-look-the-part guys who have great numbers—but only the non-subjective numbers like strikeouts, on-base percentage, walks, home runs.
Just as we seek to recruit great players that the other colleges overlook, we need to recruit a great head coach that the other colleges overlook. I would ask my contrarian heroes like Mike Leach at Texas Tech and Urban Meyer at Florida and Chris Peterson at Boise State for recommendations. They probably know younger versions of themselves who are being overlooked.
Blue-chip recruits do not want to come to Army to play. Neither do established blue-chip coaches want to come to Army to coach. Are all excellent football coaches established blue chippers? Hell no! Army needs to stop trying to recruit the best-known top coaches and recruit an up-and-coming relatively unknown coach. What does Army have to offer? A bully pulpit or a stage on which to showcase what the up-and-comer can do. Army has a long and great football tradition in the New York City area. As a result, it gives a young coach more visibility than, say, Coastal Carolina University, which has a relatively new, out-in-the-boondocks program. There are probably a number of other attractions for a coach at West Point like the citizenship and self-discipline of the players, the excellent physical plant, the far-flung and loyal alumni and student body support, the 3,000 male full scholarships. In a number of ways, West Point is relatively more attractive than many other colleges as a place to coach football.
We also need a coach who is full of confidence and too ignorant to recognize how tough the Army challenge is. Many a successful head coach has commented that it was far harder than he thought to turn it around after doing so. Of course, the full-of-confidence coach must not also be full of shit. Many are. He needs to be competent as well as confident. We can withstand some overconfidence, and probably need it, at this point. But we do not need any more incompetence.
I suspect an honest punch list will include important factors beyond the control of any official at West Point including:
• the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the near certainty that all Army football recruits will eventually end up in as ground pounders in those wars
• the gaping disparity between the extremely attractive lives college football players lead at civilian colleges and the spartan ordeal that is West Point
• the widespread hope among the best high school football players that they will play in the NFL and the inability of West Point football players to do that
So another thing we need to do it stop beating up our coaches and players for their failure to overcome these important exogenous challenges. No other college is overcoming them either—not even Navy and Air Force. Those academies have no mandatory ground pounding in our current wars. Both are more civilian and less spartan than West Point. Both have had lots of their graduates play NFL football in recent decades. The standard cannot be just winning. The standard we set for our coaches and players has to reflect these systemic problems that are outside the control of the Academy.
The Cal Poly coach was named the new Army coach. He runs the triple option at Cal Poly and has a strong winning record. Running the option now seems to be a prerequisite for getting the Army job. I think the option should be run at least a little bit by every team because of the problems it causes for the defense. The Service Academies need it more because they are outmanned. But as I said above, the option is not going to do a team much good in the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy competition. It is not contrarian against the other academies. Ellerson is going to have to add at least one more layer of contrarianism to succeed against both civilian and military opponents.
I am hopeful because of Ellerson’s option orientation and success at Cal Poly. His resume looks much like Paul Johnson’s did before Navy hired him. He and Johnson were on the same Hawaii staff for five years, although on different sides of the ball.
Ellerson has the unusual qualifications of having been successful both as an offensive coordinator and as a defensive coordinator (inventor of the Arizona “Desert Swarm” defense). I think all coaches should manage their careers that way, but Ellerson is the only one I ever heard of who actually did. Virtually all other coaches remain on one side of the ball for their entire careers until they become head coaches. In my far more meager football coaching career, I made sure I was a defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, special teams coordinator, and head coach during my first four years. I was not seeking “higher office.” I just wanted to know what I was doing across the board as a head coach. I do not see how any other career path aimed at becoming a head coach makes any sense.
But neither the option nor Cal Poly success will be enough by itself at Army. Army is in the Bowl Division; Cal Poly, the Championship Division. So Ellerson is going to have to step it up a notch simply because he’s moving to a higher division. He’s going to have to step it up another notch because of Army’s recent football history and the recruiting disadvantages even vis a vis other service academies.
I was slightly discouraged by West Point making a big deal out of Ellerson’s “ties to West Point,” namely some relatives who went there and briefly being on the same staff as the last two successful Army coaches: Jim Young and Bob Sutton. One line of argument seems to be that Army hired Ellerson because his brother John was captain of the 1962 Army team that went 6-4. That’s not even much of an argument for hiring brother John. 1962 was 46 years ago, back when giants roamed the earth, ships were made of wood, men were men and women were glad of it! (your tax dollars at work teaching me and my fellow cadets bullshit lines like that.)
Ellerson’s ties to West Point and a dime will get you a cup of coffee as we used to say before Starbucks. (Coffee was a dime back then.)
The guy is also an Annapolis drop out. Whether that’s a good thing depends on whether he quit because Navy was beneath him or because he could not meet their “high” standards.
We have to give the new guy a chance, although I think Army fans are growing weary of that sentiment after—what?—five new guys in a row who flopped. It’s possible for a team to lose a couple of dozen games because of the coach, singular. But when your team loses a hundred games because of a succession of coaches, plural, it’s time to fire not the coach but the SOB who has been hiring those coaches Or the SOB who has been hiring the series of SOBs who hire the coaches.
Maybe the coach position should be placed under the jurisdiction of the Association of Graduates or the Army Football Booster Club (if there is one). The government bureaucrats who have been picking the coaches seem to have proven that they, as a group, are unable to do so effectively. See my article on process versus results orientation in government in general and the military in particular.
Whether Ellerson will succeed at Army remains to be seen, but he appears, on paper, to be a better choice than any of his predecessors since Bob Sutton. His hiring is cause for optimism.
Above, I said that Florida head football coach Urban Meyer was one of my contrarian heroes and that Army should seek advice from him (I said that before Ellerson was hired) on whom to hire so they can perhaps get a contrarian coach. On 1/8/09, Meyer’s Florida team won the national championship. In part, he did it with contrarian tactics.
Florida uses some option. Fox Sports post-BCS championship analyst Barry Switzer attributed Florida’s victory in part to Meyer’s combining the spread offense with the option. (Barry Switzer is the most successful living option coach. In the 1970s, his Oklahoma wishbone set offensive records that still stand.) I would add that Florida uses a quadruple option rather than the traditional triple option.
In the traditional triple option, there are three potential ball carriers: a dive back, the quarterback, and a pitch back. In Meyer’s quadruple option, there is a fourth potential ball carrier: a tight end to whom a forward option can be pitched. That forward pitch is actually a forward pass. So if it hits the ground, it is an incomplete pass. If the traditional pitch back to the pitch back hits the ground, it is a live fumble. Also, if the forward pitch touches an ineligible receiver (center, guard, or tackle), it is illegal first touching and a penalty.
To a layman, this may all seem subtle or trivial. Not to a defensive coordinator. To be sound, a defense has to stop runs in all gaps. Typically a lineman or linebacker is assigned to each gap. To stop the pass, there must be a defender assigned to each possible receiver (man-pass coverage) or a defender assigned to each possible zone (zone pass coverage of five big zones or six smaller ones).
With the option, the defense must assign a defender to the dive back, one to the quarterback, one to the forward pitch receiver, and one to the backward pitch back. Furthermore, you need to do that on each side of the center because the option play can go to either side and it is too far for the defenders to travel to try to use the same defenders to stop the dive or pitch on both sides. Also, the counter option play is available to attack defenses that react too quickly to the start of a normal option play. The counter option looks like it is going to one side, then suddenly hits back to the other side. Try diagramming the run and pass defense up against a quadruple-option play. Even if you are a layman you will start to get an appreciation of the difficulty it presents a defense. Make sure you cover each potential ball carrier and each potential passing zone on every play. (It is unsound per se for a defense to use man pass coverage against an option team.)
One of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow’s touchdown passes in the championship game was a jump pass. Jump passes are an old-time single-wing play. It is trickier than it probably seemed. It is a play-action pass where the ball carrier who seems to be diving into the line suddenly jumps up in the air and throws a pass to where the defenders who have to stop the dive have departed biting on the dive fake. Tebow’s frequent and unusual-for-a-quarterback running with the ball was necessary to set up the jump pass which is a fake of the quarterback draw play Tebow often runs..
The jump passer must jump off a particular foot in relation to his throwing arm. He must have a Plan B if, when he gets up in the air, he finds his receiver is covered, and he must practice both Plan A and Plan B, i.e., return to earth and continue the dive into the line.
The volleyball spike is one of the most difficult feats in the athletic world because they spiker must violently and accurately throw his spiking arm forward while having nothing to push off of. (I coached high school volleyball team that finished second in the league in 1995.) Spikers cock both their spiking arm and their lower legs back then snap all three forward at the same time, while also snapping their non-throwing arm down, to create velocity without having the ground to push off of. The jump pass is not as hard as the volleyball spike, but is is comparable. It is much harder than throwing from a set-and-balanced position on the ground.
One of the chapters in my book The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense is titled “11-man offense.” Most offenses since the 1940s and 1950s have been 10-man offense. How so? The quarterback receives the snap then either hands off or passes then goes off duty while the play continues without him.
As a result of that change to the T formation, defenses have switched to alignments and responsibilities that assume the quarterback goes off duty. To state it in football terminology, the quarterback is “not accounted for.” That is, no one is assigned to him because he never does anything but give the ball to someone else.
Have there been any 11-man offenses since the 1940s and 1950s?
Yes. The triple-option wishbone, veer, and split-T. Did those succeed? I already told you about Switzer’s wishbone. Bud Wilkinson’s 1950’s split-T triple option teams set a consecutive wins record that still stands. The veer, was invented by West Point grad Bill Yeoman and helped him get into the college Hall of Fame. It is the offense used by De La Salle High School in Concord, CA (12 miles from my house). De La Salle is the most successful football team in history at any level.
Another 11-man offense is the indirect-snap double wing. Its main play is super power off-tackle which features the quarterback pitching to the running back then lead blocking for him. That offense has had spectacular success at numerous levels and teams including coaches Don Markham, Hugh Wyatt, and Tim Murphy at Clovis (CA) East High School.
The so-called “wildcat” offense used by the Miami Dolphins and other NFL teams during the 2008 season is a single wing, roughly speaking. The various direct-snap offenses, namely single wing, direct-snap double wing (see the 1971 book The New Doublewing Attack by Tierney and Gray), and short punt (see the books Smorgasbord Offense for Winning High School Football by Joe Blount and the Modern Short Punt by Lou Howard) work is they are all 11-man offenses.
If you’ve ever seen a team employ the indirect-snap double wing (QB under center) or the single wing, direct-snap double wing (no QB), or the short-punt, you probably had the impression that the defense was being trampled by a herd of buffalo. The defenders at the point of attack have that exact same perception. Why would having just one more blocker do that? Because for 50 years defensive coordinators have assumed the offense only has nine blockers. The other two guys are the ball carrier and the QB who is adjusting his dress during the latter part of the play. When you remove the guy in the dress and replace him with a real blocker, the defense is outnumbered at the point of attack and it looks like the offense has about three extra guys. You often read comments to that effect from players and coaches on both teams. Go to a game in your area where one team is running one of those four offenses and you’ll see what I mean. To find one, call your local high school varsity head coach and ask him if he knows of any such teams in your area. He probably does.
Other 11-man offenses also outnumber the defense, but they are more spread out so you do not see the herd-of-buffalo effect. Either type of 11-man offense works.
There are also plenty of plays that inject an occasional 11-man offense into an offense that is normally 10-men like the quarterback sneak, other quarterback keeper plays, and the quarterback throwback pass (in which the quarterback passes or pitches backward then goes out for a pass (common against man coverage goal-line defense—illegal in NFL unless the quarterback is at least one yard back from the center for the snap). Any play in which the quarterback makes a real block (sometimes seen in reverses) or does a fake so good that one or more defenders pursue him until late in the play, or a fake so good that no one pursues him even though he has the ball. (I recall an Army-Navy game in the Young-Sutton era where the Army QB did two fabulous naked bootlegs for touchdowns. Army won.)
The Florida offense seen in the 2008 national championship game was an 11-man offense through the use of the option and the many quarterback draw plays. I do not recall much intentional 11-man offense on the part of Oklahoma in that game.
You don’t have to run an 11-man offense every play, just often enough to force the defense to “account for him” on every play. See my discussion of game theory in the Contrarian book. (By the way, I see no advantage of ever running a 10-man offense play. I expect my quarterbacks to at least attract defenders who think they have the ball on every play they are not blocking or carrying the ball.)
Army can do each of the things I just discussed that Florida did. I doubt Army can run the spread offense, though. Both Oklahoma and Florida did. Their quarterbacks, both Heisman winners, threw passes that threaded needles amazingly again and again. I recall no Army quarterback who could ever do that and, given our recruiting disadvantages, I would not hold my breath until a Tim Tebow of the future chooses Army.
Army cannot do all the contrarian things there are. The spread has been contrarian, although it is about to become fashionable—the opposite of contrarian. But the Florida 2008 national championship season shows that there are many effective, contrarian things that can be done by Army. And there a lot more that Army can do that were not in that game.
It might occur to some readers that this article could be as helpful to Navy and Air Force—both option service academies—as to my alma mater Army.
Indeed, I expect there is a greater chance of that than of Army benefiting from it. Why?
Familiarity breeds contempt
An expert is someone who is more than 50 miles from home and carrying a briefcase
No man is a prophet in his own land
To Air Force and Navy I am a football coaching writer who happens to be a West Point graduate. To Army, I am familiar, one of tens of thousands of living graduates and not one they would have expected to have anything useful to say about football coaching. West Point is “home” to me, it is “my land.” Navy and Air Force are not. To them, I am an unfamiliar, foreign expert. They would be more likely to judge my ideas strictly on their merits.
One of my readers once told me that he started buying my football coaching books because a college coach highly recommended them to him.
Which college coach?
Fisher DeBerry was the long-time head coach at Air Force and he was there when he recommended my books.
It is possible that Navy or Air Force might adopt some of my suggestions, that the suggestions in question might work, including in games against Army, and that someone might notice?
Yes. Indeed, I expect a Navy or Air Force coach who got a good idea from this article or one of my books, and used it effectively against Army, would enjoy razzing Army about it.
The 5/11/09 New Yorker had a great article about applying contrarianism to basketball and warfare. It also applies to football. I highly recommend Army football supporters read it.
I wrote other articles about Contrarianism at:
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John T. Reed