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New York Times: Post-Week 11, 2013

Eight teams fired their head coaches last year. How are those eight coaches doing in 2013? And will there be more firings next year because of the Reid effect? That’s what I’m writing about this week at the New York Times.

Andy Reid may be the worst thing to happen to struggling coaches. In 2012 under Romeo Crennel, the Chiefs appeared to be a talented team but finished 2-14. Even the biggest Kansas City optimists could not have expected the addition of Reid and quarterback Alex Smith to turn the Chiefs into a Super Bowl contender overnight. But Reid has all but locked up the coach of the year award and engineered one of the great turnarounds in league history. If general managers break close calls in favor of replacing their coaches in the off-season, call it the Reid effect.

Chip Kelly, who replaced Reid in Philadelphia, has done a superb job, too. The 2012 Eagles were a 4-12 team that relied on fourth-quarter comebacks to win each of those games. Philadelphia had an inconsistent offense and a terrible defense, which caused ownership to make the splashy hiring of the off-season by bringing in Kelly from Oregon.

The Eagles’ offense has come close to matching the hype that surrounded Kelly’s arrival. Philadelphia is in the top 10 in yards and points per game, and the Eagles are the only team to rank in the top three in both yards per pass attempt and yards per carry. Quarterback Nick Foles has 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions and leads the league in yards per pass attempt, and LeSean McCoy leads the N.F.L. in yards from scrimmage.

You can read the full article here.

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“Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” – John M. Keynes.

Photo via phillymag.com.

Last Thursday night, Chip Kelly was widely criticized for an unconventional decision that turned out to be unsuccessful. Trailing 10-0 in the first quarter against the Chiefs, Michael Vick threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jason Avant. The photo above shows how the Eagles lined up for the point after. Philadelphia’s two-point conversion attempt — a play known as the the Swinging Gate — was stopped, and it was stopped in particularly ugly fashion. That made it easy to point a finger and laugh at the college coach doing something silly.

But without the benefit of hindsight, there was nothing silly or even suboptimal about the decision. Putting aside the specifics of the play — we’ll get to that at the end — the main criticism seems to be that it was “too early” to go for two, or that the Eagles were “chasing points”, or that it was simply “unnecessary.” All of those are buzz words for saying that the Eagles should have behaved conventionally.

At a baseline level, let’s recognize that a team has a roughly 50/50 chance of converting on a two-point conversion. For a good offense with a mobile quarterback, that number may be even higher, but let’s just use the 50/50 number now. If that’s the case, then teams early in the game should be indifferent between kicking the extra point and going for two. Consider this hypothetical example: if a team had the option of kicking the extra point or flipping a coin — and heads gave them two points, tail giving them zero — would choosing to flip the coin be a poor decision?

Late in games, perhaps. But early in the game? I don’t see any reason to think that the difference between having six versus seven points on the board in the first quarter is more significant than the difference between having seven or eight points. Suppose you were told that your favorite team would score first quarter touchdowns in back-to-back games. Option 1 provides that your team would the extra point both times, while Option 2 is that your team would make the two point conversion once and fail on the attempt once. So you get eight points in one game and six points in the other.

Which would you prefer, Option 1 or Option 2? And why? And, if you prefer Option 1 to Option 2, how much more preferable is it? What would you be willing to trade to land in Option 1 — how many yards on the ensuring kickoff?

I would be indifferent between Options 1 and 2, but even if you preferred one, I don’t see how anyone could strongly prefer Option 1 to Option 2. The value to having 8 points is real, which is why it is never “too early” or “unnecessary” to go for two in a world where teams convert on two-point attempts half the time. Those are red herrings, because going for two is only a high-variance strategy; is it not a high-variance, lower-expected value option. Once you understand that, then nearly all the criticism about Kelly’s decision disappears.

As for the actual play call? I think it was a good one. Keep in mind that the Eagles did not pigeon hole themselves into going for two — based on how the Chiefs reacted to that formation prior to the snap, Philadelphia could have switched back to a normal extra point formation or simply taken a delay of game penalty with minimal harm. But Kansas City did not react well to the play pre-snap: The Eagles split two players out wide to the right, and Kansas City countered with two defenders to that side. But in the middle of the field, Philadelphia had the snapper, holder, and kicker, while the Chiefs kept four players in the middle of the field. I’m quite certain the special teams coach was not pleased with how the Chiefs responded to the situation, because that left K.C. with only five defenders to the defense’s right, while the Eagles were able to match up five blockers to that side and Zach Ertz, the eventual ballcarrier.

That’s a matchup Philadelphia should win more often than fifty percent of the time, and perhaps significantly more often than that. As it turns out, Lane Johnson blew the block, Tamba Hali made a nice play, and Kelly and the Eagles had egg on their face. Failing unconventionally has its drawbacks.

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Fast and Faster

Fast and Faster.

The number one storyline in the NFL in week one isn’t the health of Robert Griffin III, but the presence of two other men occupying FedEx Field that night. The football world is anxiously awaiting to see how Chip Kelly’s offense, piloted by Michael Vick, will work in the NFL. We don’t know much, but we do know that the coach plans to incorporate the fast-paced, up-tempo style that his teams used at Oregon to obliterate opponents.

In May, I took a stab at discussing tempo in the NFL, and I presented a couple of lists that measured the number of plays run per second of possession in the NFL. Today, I want to revisit the questions of tempo and pace using more precise measurements.  Let’s start with some league-wide data. The table below shows the average number of seconds between snaps for NFL teams last season. I’ve excluded a number of plays from this sample, including all plays at the start of a quarter, all overtime plays, plays after a changes of possession, and plays in the final three minutes of the first half or five minutes of the second half (where teams are less likely to operate at their normal pace).

secs btw plays
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I’m a big fan of Mike Tanier, an excellent writer formerly of Football Outsiders and now with Sports on Earth. Yesterday, Tanier threw cold water on the idea that Chip Kelly is going to be the next great NFL coach. Tanier labeled him him this generation’s Steve Spurrier, and argued that it is lazy and unsophisticated to simply assume that “great NCAA coach = great NFL coach.” Unfortunately, his analysis only required the expenditure of one extra ounce of effort and intelligence:

Kelly is an offensive mastermind. He is guru of the modern college spread option. Marcus Mariota, his current quarterback, fakes a shotgun handoff, stands in the pocket while a file downloads, then floats passes to receivers who are open by five yards. Or, Mariota hands off to Kenjon Barner, who busts off 300-yard games against overtaxed defenses. Or, Mariota keeps the football himself. There are trick plays, wildcat packages, fake field goals, bells, whistles, onion rings and shakes. It’s fun, and the quarterback is always in the gun. Is your SpurriDar beeping yet?

Kelly runs an explosive college offense, but like Spurrier’s fun ‘n’ gun, it is distinctly and uniquely a college offense. It is built on the principle of littering the field with speedy young men who can outrun the opponent’s speedy young men in the wide-open spaces that only exist at a level of play where everyone is a step slower, an inch shorter and 15 pounds lighter.

Kelly’s offense is often mischaracterized as gimmicky, but Chris Brown did an excellent job explaining how traditional football principles are the key to Kelly’s offense at Grantland yesterday. Brown has also written a bit about Kelly’s zone-read running game, the way the Ducks teach reading the defensive tackle, and how Oregon’s attack compares to Nebraska’s old rushing offense over at his website, Smart Football; alternatively, you can read about Kelly’s offense straight from the horse’s mouth.

Can Kelly simply pack his playbook, spend a training camp with an NFL team, and turn them into the pro version of the Ducks? Of course not; even if his running game works perfectly, his runs will mostly go for 8-yard gains, not 40-yard sprints (unless he’s playing the Raiders). But reducing Kelly to an X’s and O’s guru incapable of adaption is unfairly harsh. Tanier credits the great Nike machine with providing Oregon with superior talent, but that’s not a fair criticism. Oregon has never had a top-ten recruiting class under Kelly, and Rivals generally ranks Oregon’s classes in the teens or early twenties. Spurrier, coaching in talent-rich Florida, not remote Oregon, was playing with a decked more favorably stacked than Kelly ever has. But more importantly, Kelly’s offenses were unstoppable when he coached at New Hampshire without any recruiting edge, and his success at Oregon happened immediately, even before Oregon truly became the nouveau riche of college football.
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