Thursday, March 24, 2011

Who cares what you call it?

Brady Hoke says "tough" too much.  Whatever that means.

I try not to turn my blog into one of those that calls out competing* blogs in order to establish some sort of superiority.  Because, after all, the blogosphere has been kind to me.  The guys at Maize 'n' Brew asked me to join them, MGoBlog and The Wolverine Blog link to my site on occasion, etc.  My blog is mostly for my pleasure, not because I want to get rich or win any awards.

But Brian over at MGoBlog wrote a post today that bugged me a bit, so I'm responding at length.  He takes issue with Brady Hoke's comments about running the "power play" and makes tongue-in-cheek comments about "manball" and "toughness."  I just don't see the point.

Brian says:
There are consistent reports that Hoke makes condescending comments about the spread at alumni events. Manball? Manball.
He then goes on to suggest that all people who agree with Hoke's offensive and verbal philosophies are old, mustachioed, and averse to change.

Well . . . okay.  So what?  Football's rules have largely been the same since the forward pass was legalized.  Eleven guys on the field, four downs to get ten yards, etc.  The emergence of the single wing offense in recent years blew people's minds.  How can you have a running back taking snaps and gaining yards?!?!?!  Well, it's because football is football.  Blockers need to block, runners need to run, receivers need to catch, tacklers need to tackle.  People didn't figure out how to stop the single wing before it disappeared around the time of Al Capone.  It just got boring.  So teams started running the wishbone triple option.  Then they started running I-formation plays.  Then they took out the fullback and created the run-n-shoot.  Then they put the quarterback in the shotgun formation and gave him five wide receivers.

What's the common theme?  All of them work.  You know, if they're run well.  Paul Johnson is making the triple option work at Georgia Tech, Chip Kelly runs the spread-n-shred at Oregon, and Bret Bielema scored 83 points in one game using good ol' fashioned power running at Wisconsin.

It seems Brian is infuriated that Hoke would be audacious enough to speak condescendingly about the spread (and zone blocking in particular), but this is what coaches do.  Bo Schembechler liked to run the ball and never shied away from his disdain for throwing the ball.  But his teams ran the ball well, so it was okay.  Mike Leach threw the ball all over the place at Oklahoma and Texas Tech and thinks throwing the ball gives him an advantage over teams that run the ball more.  It works.  Why does it matter?  If Brian were asked, I bet he could completely eviscerate other successful blogs.  He could find fault with their advertising, their commenting formats, their content, etc.  In fact, he does this type of thing quite often, at least as far as content goes.  He thinks his blog is superior to others.  If he didn't, he would change.  And that's fine.  But if those blogs are gaining readership and making money, then it's all just useless babble.

Of course, much of his stance is based on the fact that Denard Robinson, a Dodge Viper in a Jeep Wrangler world, is Michigan's quarterback.  Robinson possesses the talent to be perhaps the most electrifying spread option quarterback in the history of the game (however short the history of the spread option is), but now he'll be playing under a coach who eschews zone blocking and likes fullbacks.  And it's true that Robinson was a Heisman frontunner at one point in 2010, a record-breaking signal caller who took the country by storm with his speed, elusiveness, smile, dreadlocks, and failure to tie his shoes.  That's not something that should be completely dismissed.

But when it comes down to it, a coach has to meld a player and a system together.  He shouldn't change the system to fit a player, and he shouldn't abandon a talented player just because the player isn't an ideal fit.

Hoke said . . .
Once we get the power play down, then we'll go to the next phase.  You know, because we're gonna run the power play.
. . .which makes Brian unhappy.  He talks about how Michigan has athletic linemen and a tiny starting running back (Vincent Smith), which doesn't exactly make you think "power run."  Power plays are usually left to mammoth offensive linemen, battering-ram fullbacks, and tailbacks with thighs like tree trunks.

Except Michigan's offensive line was already inching its way toward 300 pounds across the board, Hoke ran plenty of split back sets in 2010 at San Diego State, and running backs coach Fred Jackson has essentially said, "Vincent Smith will probably not be our starter in 2011."

The power is the base play of Brady Hoke's philosophy.  Just like any intelligent person wouldn't have expected Rich Rodriguez to run many powers and whams from the I-formation in 2008, Brian shouldn't expect Hoke to run loads of quarterback iso's and and zone stretches in 2011.  That's not Hoke's game, or Borges's.  Rodriguez ran the zone read option with two stiffs at quarterback, Nick Sheridan and Steve Threet.  They were game stiffs, but they shouldn't have been in an offense that required them to run so much.  Michigan won three games.  Put those guys in a pro-style offense, and I bet they would have won . . . four (the same three plus Toledo).  The difference is minuscule.  Meanwhile, those running backs, linemen, and receivers gained experience that allowed them to improve in 2009 and then 2010.  The growth of David Molk and Martavious Odoms, for example, would have been stunted if they had to play in a pro-style offense that first year.  Molk wouldn't have had practice with the timing and accuracy of those shotgun snaps, and Odoms might have spent the year sitting on the bench.  After all, who needs a 5'9" freshman receiver when you've got a two-back, I-formation base set?

And why wouldn't the power play be the first thing for Michigan's players to learn?  You don't hire Rich Rodriguez to run the counter trey, you don't hire Mark McGwire to teach your hitters how to bunt for a single, and you don't hire Christina Aguilera to teach you the National Anthem.

Here are the 46 offensive snaps from San Diego State's game against TCU in 2010:

1. Split backs - Power run
2. Split backs - Reverse flea flicker
3. I-formation (on the goal line) - Fullback dive
4. Shotgun spread - Pass
5. I-formation - Iso run
6. Shotgun spread - Pass
7. I-formation - Play action pass
8. Single back, three-wide - Dive
9. Shotgun, split backs - Pass
10. I-formation, three-wide - Power run
11. I-formation - Play action pass
12. Shotgun, three-wide - Pass
13. Split backs - Power run
14. Shotgun, split backs - Screen pass
15. Shotgun, three-wide - Pass
16. Shotgun, three-wide - Zone read option
17. I-formation - Power run
18. Shotgun, three-wide - Pass
19. I-formation - Play action pass
20. Single back, three-wide - Pass
21. Shotgun, three-wide - Pass
22. I-formation - Play action pass
23. I-formation - Power run
24. Shotgun, three-wide - Pass
25. Split backs - Pass
26. I-formation - Naked bootleg pass
27. I-formation - Draw
28. Shotgun, three-wide - Draw
29. Shotgun, four-wide - Pass
30. I-formation - Play action pass
31. I-formation - Iso run
32. Shotgun, split backs - Pass
33. Single back, three-wide - Pass
34. I-formation (on the goal line) - Power run
35. Single back - Dive
36. I-formation - Play action pass
37. I-formation - Zone run
38. I-formation - Play action pass
39. Shotgun, three-wide - Screen pass
40. Split backs - Power run
41. I-formation - Play action pass
42. Split backs - Screen pass
43. I-formation - Pass
44. Split backs - Dive
45. Shotgun, four-wide - Rollout pass
46. Shotgun, four-wide - Pass

I'm using "power run" a little loosely because I don't want to break down every play - this isn't a UFR - but the strategy of using a fullback and a pulling lineman is there.  Fifteen of those plays (or about 33%) are either based on power running or, in the case of play action, the threat of the power run.  These numbers are only based on one game against a very good team, which SDSU trailed for most of the time.  But when roughly one-third of a coach's offense is rooted in a single series of plays, you can't just scrap the whole thing.

I think the mindset regarding Denard has morphed into "Give him the ball every play and don't let anyone else mess it up."  Which is fine until your quarterback carries the ball almost 300 times in one season and misses time in ten out of twelve games due to injury.  As we saw this past season, the threat of Denard Robinson running the ball was practically just as dangerous as him actually running it.  There were all kinds of examples of wide open receivers running free because Denard took a single step toward the line of scrimmage.

There are multiple ways to use his speed, not just as a 300-carry feature back.  He can run the naked bootleg (seen in the above playlist), he can sprint out from the shotgun (seen in the above playlist), he can run a quarterback draw (not seen above, but SDSU's quarterback was s....l....o....w), etc.  Run a play action bootleg and see what defensive end or outside linebacker can handle him out on the edge.  It won't look the same as last year, but it can be effective.

Brian also complains about Hoke's frequent use of some form of the word "toughness."  I agree that it's a platitude, but welcome to coachspeak.  Find me a coach who doesn't use the word "tough" more often than a Ford commercial, I dare you.

Furthermore, watch Michigan's team in 2010.  Third-and-short on offense?  Michigan can't line up and run the ball.  Third-and-short (or third-and-medium, or third-and-long, third-and-a-parsec)?  Michigan can't get a stop.  Need a broken tackle?  You won't get it from Shaw or Smith.  Need a tackler to stop someone in his tracks?  If it's not Jordan Kovacs, it's probably not happening.  I won't question any individual player's toughness, but the team as a whole could use an injection of it.  All coaches preach toughness, but if it takes Brady Hoke repeating the word "tough" until his face turns blue to get his team to actually play like it, then I'm fine with it.

Conclusions and predictions:

  1. Rich Rodriguez's 2010 offense was good.  So was Brady Hoke's.  Brady Hoke is not Rich Rodriguez.  And despite both being somewhere between chunky and fat, Al Borges is not Calvin Magee.
  2. If Brady Hoke can teach his players how to run the system, it will be successful.  If he can't, it won't.
  3. The zone read option won't disappear completely from Michigan's offense, but it doesn't really matter.  Denard Robinson rarely ran it for Rodriguez, and it wasn't very effective when he did.
  4. If Ronnie Hillman can run the power frequently and gain 1,500 yards on the ground, then Michigan can find a running back on its roster to run the ball with some consistency.  That player will not be Vincent Smith.
  5. Coaches will continue to say "tough," coaches will continue to say "execute," but the next time a platitude in March decides the outcome of a game in November will be the first.
  6. My advice to impatient and angry Michigan fans is to wait and see what happens.  I wasn't a huge fan of the Brady Hoke hire when it happened, either, but I am very confident that Michigan will improve defensively.  This offense probably won't be quite as explosive as the 2010 version, but an above average offense combined with an improved defense should improve upon the win total from last season.

*I don't know what else to call them, but we all know they're more popular blogs than mine.


  1. Your Conclusions #2 and #6 are the same thing but I like the vitriol.

  2. Good post, Magnus. I've been reading your blog for a while after finding it from MGoBlog. This whole 'MANBALL' thing is driving me nuts.

  3. "Furthermore, watch Michigan's team in 2010. Third-and-short on offense? Michigan can't line up and run the ball"

    Actually, Michigan ran the ball constantly on 3rd and short last year, and did it successfully the majority of the time. I had more confidence that Denard could pick up 3rd and 1 or 2 out of the shotgun with last year's line than I did with all but one or two of Carr's teams. But the "spread can't gain a first down on 3rd and short" meme persists. We're switching away from what was, by far, the most statistically successful offense in Michigan history, and that was with a sophomore first year starting QB. I agree with Brian pretty much. It's dumb.

  4. I agree with your basic premise but Rich Rod failed at Michigan because he couldn't adjust. It's why Michigan won 3 games year 1 and not 5, it's why the defense regressed and why Rich Rod has never ever been able to win the big game since Georgia in their bowl match. Coaches need to be able to adjust on the fly. No Denard isn't going to run 300 times but he shouldn't hand the ball off more than he runs/passes especially since the talent at RB is minimal compared to Denard and the WRs.

    I have no problem with Michigan having a "go to" play but if we go back to 3 yards a cloud of dust I'm going to have a hard time watching.

    A mix of last years offense with the Lloyd offense from a decade ago will be a nice mix. It'll sort of look like the Patriots offense when they had a decent RB.

  5. Finally I have seen someone call out the great Brian Cook. Based on my experience at MGoBlog, he is a clever writer that voices his opinion on football even though he has probably never played a down of football in his life. I don't know him personally but he seems like a pompous guy that likes the sexy Spread offense and the old staff. His hatred for Hoke has been well documented and its out of line. Yes there were more popular coaches out there but I really like what Brady has done in his brief time as UM's coach. It's been three long seasons under the old regime and it's about time a Michigan Man takes over this traditional powerhouse of a program. Call me optimistic or a big homer but Brady Hoke and his staff are the answer for Michigan football. Just give him the three years RR was allowed and every BLUE fan will be happy.

  6. Dude, come on Magee and Borges are both fat.

  7. @ Anonymous 12:28 a.m.

    I'm not talking about Denard running the ball. He's very good at taking the snap out of shotgun, finding a little crease, and gaining first downs.

    But when it came to handing the ball off to any of the running backs, whether it was shotgun or the I-formation, it didn't go so well. Hoke can still run quarterback draws with Denard. It just won't be 300 times.

  8. @ KB 1:23 a.m.

    If we go back to "3 yards and a cloud of dust" but we win games, I don't think you'll have trouble watching. I'm not saying that mentality will win games, and I don't think that will be our philosophy. But winning teams are fun to watch, regardless of their offensive systems.

  9. Thank God someone finally called out Brian for all of the whiny posts he has been putting up since the hiring of Hoke. It has been getting tiresome.

    I wasn't the biggest fan of the Hoke hire either, but the more I think of how many games we had 300 yards by halftime, but only 14 points to show for it, the more I just want Wins, no matter if we only have 250 yards for the game.

  10. Michigan still scored 28 points against Wisconsin and Iowa, which was impressive at the end of the day. In both of those games, terrible special teams cost us at least another three points. Our problems on offense last year were related to kicking game, bad field position, and turnovers. None of it was scheme. Unless you say that we turned the ball over a lot because we focused too much on Xs and Os and not enough on fundamentals. That's reasonable, but if that's the case, the solution is to simplify the old scheme, not to introduce a new one. I would argue that our turnovers last year were largely due to the pressure put on the offense to score a TD on every single drive. You have to take more risks when you can't kick a field goal and your defense is worthless.

    One thing that Brian did not mention is what a critical year 2011 is going to be. There is a very good senior class this year and a favorable schedule. We desperately need at least a nine-win season and a victory over MSU. Much moreso than 2008, the timing of our last scheme change. This is the worst possible time to be changing schemes.

  11. I'm sure he has some charts to prove that you're wrong.

  12. Personally, I think that Hoke will do fine. He wasn't the sexy choice but sometimes, the not so sexy choice is just what you need. Nor do I think there is any smoke aorund the SDSU program.

  13. Michigan scored 28 points against Wisconsin and Iowa after the score was out of hand and Ferentz started playing Lloyd ball. How come when ever we got within 10 points of those "good teams", they came back at us and ran it down our throats. It was not just the defense, the offense scored 7 points against OSU and we all know what happened in the bowl game. This team was going nowhere with the old coaching staff...

  14. Anonymous at 12:28: do you really want your QB to be your team's short-yardage back? Denard's under 200 pounds. The guy took a terrible beating last year. I'd like to see our OL be stout enough to get a push that allows other backs to get through the line on 3rd and short. This did not happen often enough last year.

    I like Brian, but it seems like he has this mental block about Hoke and can't get past the fact that he served under Carr. Even though his SDSU offenses were quite different from Carr's, he can't seem to grasp this. It's like he assumes that everyone who came out of Carr's system must automatically be a DeBord clone.

  15. Speaking of the offense, we scored 69 offensive points in our last four games last season. A disturbing trend under Rodriguez was that we didn't seem to improve over the course of a season. In each of his three seasons, we arguably played our best game of the season in the opener (2008 - Utah; 2009 - WMU; 2010 - UConn) and then only got worse from there.

  16. It's nice to see some people are able to break free of the Pied Piper's spell over there.

  17. @912jeff
    In 3 (that will be quick) years we will be the laughing stock of college football just like OSU was 3-4 years ago, not because we will suck but because we win our conference every year and then get blown out in BCS bowl games to spread teams. Wait until we get blown out in a couple national championships in a 3-4 years span while going undefeated in our conference and see how UM fans feel after that.

  18. Anon @11:29am

    Wisconsin never backed off on defense (watch the damn game) and we got within a touchdown of Iowa in the 4th quarter. The score was never truly "out of hand" in that game.

    Yeah, that's "going nowhere."

  19. Thanks Bro! This was very good. I too welcome a well thought out, "antithesis" to the Mgoblog staleness. Michigan did not do well against good teams. Period. Hoke understands "real" football and that defense ultimately wins championships. Lets give him time. He also has a firm grasp of Michigan traditions and the OSU rivalry. Go Hoke! Go Blue!

  20. My recollection of our games last year was that when we played the better teams, our offense did not do very well until after the other team had built a substantial lead and that Denard did not run the ball very well against the likes of Iowa, Wisconsin and OSU. So, whoever was saying Brady Hoke's offense might only do well in the Big 10 is overlooking the fact that RR's did not do so well EVEN IN THE BIG 10 against the better teams.

  21. David and everyone else that is all over the internet saying how impressive it is to average 500 yards of offense and 20 points, and how awesome it is to win 3 then 5 then 7 games....please stop. We get it, you liked Rich Rod, so did I. He's gone and so is the spread. Deal with it and move on.

  22. David said...
    Wisconsin never backed off on defense (watch the damn game)

    Perhaps you should also watch the game again. It's much more difficult to distinguish backing off on D and backing off on O. They backed off on D though, and ran 30 times in a row on O. Wisc, Iowa, MSU, PSU, OSU all had their way with Michigan whenever they wanted the last 3 years.

  23. Cook will find his feet once the season is underway, but this transition is going to be hard for him. His biggest failure as a smart guy watching football (that's what he is -- people who don't want to read that kind of thing should really go elsewhere -- it is what it is and it doesn't pretend to be something it's not) was the failure to adequately place blame for the struggling defense on Rodriguez. I think former defensive players (think Dhani Jones) knew as soon as Purdue 2008 that there might be a problem.

    Another thing I would question is the CW that Rodriguez will succeed as a head coach elsewhere, as much as I want him to. I'm not convinced that he understands why he was fired, and thus it seems possible he'll repeat the same mistakes at his next stop. It's possible WVU, not Michigan, is the anomaly, due to Casteel emerging as a defensive leader from within Rodriguez's staff (he began as the defensive-line coach). Without a stroke of luck like that, Rich is always going to struggle on defense.

  24. Anon @2:54pm

    "Wisc, Iowa, MSU, PSU, OSU all had their way with Michigan whenever they wanted the last 3 years."

    This just might be the most ignorant statement I've read or heard all week.

  25. I'm not sure theres an actual argument here. Brian says "Michigan should start running power schemes more frequently" but doesn't want to see 65% power run plays. You say Hoke is power because he ran power plays (kinda, sorta, or play-action off of them) 33% of the time at SDSU. Where's the dispute?

    Calling out or making fun of stupid coachspeak is what fans do if they aren't idiots. Yeah, its a reality and you deal with it, but if you start believing the inanity, you deserve to be mocked.

    The strongest dispute I hear and take a side with is with Anon 1:38 AM. He's right and you are wrong on that MT.


    P.S. Smith is the toughest RB we have - just saying.

  26. @ Lankownia 6:46 p.m.

    That's not the message I got from Brian's post.

    P.S. Nobody has questioned Smith's toughness.

  27. Lank,

    What's your definition of "toughness?"

  28. New layout is good - much easier to read the text

  29. I think Brian's frustration partially stems from certain people's persistence that Rodriguez's offensive philosophy was the problem. As you state, different philosophies can be successful given execution. These mustached fans that Brian speaks of (not cool to stereotype even if only joking) do aggravate me due to the simplicity of their arguments and their belief that tired football cliche's are the ticket to winning football games.

  30. White Pony Rocks: let me get this straight. Winning the conference title on a regular basis would be somehow worse than going 15-22 over three years? On what planet does that make sense?

  31. I am going to be reading this blog more frequently. I appreciate the straight forward analysis and opinion, without the obscure references and not-funny jokes of other blogs. Keep up the good work.

  32. David said...
    Anon @2:54pm

    "Wisc, Iowa, MSU, PSU, OSU all had their way with Michigan whenever they wanted the last 3 years."

    This just might be the most ignorant statement I've read or heard all week.

    Confirmed: David is a troll.

    What the hell would you call getting our asses handed to us? I guess UM wanted to lose those games?

  33. I just think we're over correcting from the Rich Rod experience. After Carr we knew we needed a change and it went horribly wrong record wise with Rich Rod so a lot of people are clinging for "the good old days". But they don't remember booing Lloyd for running up the middle 40 times a game and having 1 creative play that they pull out once a year (across field pass back to the QB).

    The spread offense can work in the Big 10. The problem was small technical stuff but I don't think Rich Rod would have been able to fix them. However, blowing up the scheme is a total mistake.

    And people who are commenting to just bash on Brian Cook need to shut up. Unlike this article, some of the comments seem to be personal attacks on a guy because they disagree about his view on the new staff. I happen to be one Brian's side and honestly if people have a hard time reading his newest articles they can go read other material. It's not like the interwebs is lacking in opinions and standpoints.