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The Coaching Problem


Let’s take a quick look around professional football, can you tell me who the most important person on the team is? Easy. The quarterback. Every year people get hyped up to see the new draft class, analysts and commentators spend hours pouring over tape, doing interviews and subjecting prospective rookies to various tests, culminbating at the Mecca of testing grounds,  the NFL Combine. Littered throughout history are draft busts like Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf, and Jamarcus Russell, hope NFLers organizations spent first round picks on that never panned out. It’s clear there is great difficulty predicting NFL success, or as Malcolm Gladwell would like to put it, the NFL has a quarterback problem.


This bring me to focus of this piece, it’s clear that there is a problem identifying a good QB, but more importantly the league has an even harder time predicting coaching success. Candidates are often hired with little experience; in 2011 six head coaches totaled 82 seasons worth of experience, which is more than the rest of the remaining 26 coaches experienced combined. In 2012, six new coaches were hired, a turnover rate of just under 20%, with four coaches never having previously held a head coaching position. Candidates are also largely selected from an extremely narrow pool, ex-NFL players, despite some of the most successful coaches having never played a down in the league such as Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan. Basically what I’m trying to say is that the league needs to try some new ideas.


In baseball Sabermetrics is an idea developed by Bill James as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” This was later popularized by Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane and continued with the prominence of “next-level” statistics such as WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). This philosophy has slowly migrated to other sports like basketball, demonstrated by former Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey use of players like Shane Battier and Luis Scola that when analyzed using traditional statistics may seem underwhelming. Right now the best football has to offer is Total Quarterback Rating or QBR, a statistic made by ESPN to replace the laughably bad NFL passer rating stat and whose formula remains a secret to those outside ESPN.


Another issue with modern football coaching is poor game time decision making. Teams regularly walk off the field with upwards of 30 seconds left on the clock before halftime. This is either lazy or scared. Much of football coaching today is an example of unjustified risk-averse behavior. If your offense is 60 yards or less away from the endzone before the end of the half, it would behoove your team to try a Hail Mary instead of just giving up and walking off the field. In the event of an interception, the team would not have the time necessary to march all the way back down the field. A sack loses some yards, but runs out the time in the same manner as walking off the field.. Worst case scenario is an interception leading to a touchdown return, but if you let someone return the ball over 80 yards after beating out a pig pile toss up in the endzone, you have much bigger problems than risky play calling.


In baseball, Earl Weaver, Hall of Fame Manager for the Baltimore Orioles said that "on offense, your most precious possessions are your 27 outs.” In football, your most precious resource would most certainly be your four downs. The regularity with which NFL coaches continue the practice of regular “3 and outs” is frankly appalling. In 2005 David Romer, a professor of political economy at Berkley analyzed NFL games from 1984 to 2004, one of his conclusions from his report was that teams should go for it on 4th down with 4 or less yards to go, every time, regardless of field position.  Brian Burke creator of the website www.advancednflstats.com has created an even greater resource to aid decision making. On his website he produced this graph, making it quite simple to decide whether to punt or play.



But going for it on 4th down is just a start, he has new stats such as Tackle Rate that seek to correct the same issue that troubled baseball with the fielding percentage stat and its inability to distinguish good defense from bad. Their “Required Reading” seeks to open up a whole new look on the decision making behind football. There many examples of innovative coaching, such as Oregon University’s high tempo continuous no huddle offense, or the infamous A-11 formation used in highschool football that utilized two potential quarterbacks and all nine remaining players as eligible receivers. This formation was so effective it was made illegal after two seasons. The only issue preventing its use in the NFL is the fact that certain positions are designated with by specific jersey numbers and are ineligible as receivers unless specifically announced to the referee before the play thereby eliminating any element of surprise.


Most recently Coach David Arseneault and the Grinnell Pioneers crushed the NCAA Division III record for points in a game, and points by one player when guard Jack Taylor scored 138 points on route to a 179-104 victory against Faith Baptist Bible. Before Coach Arsenault’s arrival, Grinnell hadn’t had a winning season in 25 years, so he decided to try a new approach, simple called “The System” in that consists of full court defense where the opposing ball handler is always double teamed, giving up uncontested lay-ups instead of forcing shot clock violations, and offense taking the first good shot, preferably a 3-pointers as often and as quickly as possible. When asked, Coach Arsenault said he developed his idea out of frustration, neither coach nor players were having fun and no one except the coach’s wife and children came to watch their games. In football, our only hope right now is that Andy Reid, highlight Superbowl winning Coach Andy Reid, tries something new in Philadelpia before he inevitably gets fired at the end of the season, due more to lack of quality players than to lack of coaching ability. Even that is wishful thinking. But eventually some coach will be crazy and daring enough to break through the inhibitive and conservative behavior of current NFL coaching and then the flood gates will break. I highly recommend checking out the required reading on www.advancednflstats.com, the information there may really change the way you watch and think about football, maybe even putting you ahead of some of the brightest minds in the NFL today.


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