Thursday, May 14, 2009

Davids and Malzahn, continued

That Malcolm Gladwell article I discussed the other day? It's been everywhere in the sports bloggitysphere the past several days, including the front page of ESPN, where you probably noticed that Bill Simmons brought it up while exchanging e-mails with ... Malcolm Gladwell.

We got another worthwhile response today when Chris Brown of Smart Football, easily one of the smartest and flat best bloggers out there, wrote at length about how Gladwell's piece might be interpreted in the terms of college football. Brown had already written a brief--and logical--note regarding my post and why just because we might cast Malzahn as one of Gladwell's shrewd Davids, Auburn fans shouldn't greenlight those bronze statue plans for him just yet--which, optimistic as I am, I totally agree with.

But today's post (which incorporates arguments from mine and Year2's Gladwell response at TSK), while educational as always, makes an argument regarding the Malzahn offense I think could be a little misleading. Brown writes:
I'm not convinced that going no-huddle is a dominant strategy, better for all teams. A team definitely gains the advantage of endurance, and there is a psychological advantage and all that, but, overall it seems fairly value neutral: it's just the repetition of the same trials over and over again.

Except that it isn't, but in the exact opposite way you'd think. Going extreme hurry-up to get as many plays as possible -- other than endurance, I suppose -- is a Goliath strategy: it decreases variance by increasing the number of trials. The chance of getting only heads and no tails in five coin flips is much higher than it is in a hundred -- i.e. the impact of the law of large numbers or regression to the mean. If Oklahoma has significantly more talent, better schemes, and everything else than the underdog, then the more plays it run the more likely it is to exhibit its raw dominance over the underdog; the underdog is less likely to "steal" a few good plays and get the heck out of dodge. The principle is the same as the difference between an underdog winning a game in a single-elimination tournament and trying to win a seven-game series: the seven-game series is far less likely to produce upsets.

So mere up-tempo, no-huddle is not an underdog strategy (and may in fact be a better strategy for Goliaths).
The mathematics here are sound: to put it in concrete football terms, if you fix the result of a given possession of two opposing teams at a particular point--say, one gains 60 yards and an average of 4 points a possession, the other 30 yards and 2 point--and then multiply the difference in those fixed points over the course of a game, that difference is obviously going to grow wider and wider the more possessions are used. Brown is correct that if the pace of the Malzahn offense had no effect on the success of the Auburn offense--if it would be equally successful at a normal pace, just slower--using it against more talented teams who have more to gain on each exchange of possessions is suicide.

But we have plenty of evidence to suggest that Malzahn's no-huddle pace does have an effect on his offense's success. The value of a Malzahn possession isn't a fixed value that can be multiplied: it increases as the number of possessions increases. So I don't know if describing it as "value neutral" is accurate; it's not "the repetition of the same trials over and over again" when those trials start producing the kind of results Malzahn had at Tulsa. If there wasn't a correlation between his offense's tempo and its success, we'd expect the Golden Hurricane's gaudy offensive numbers to be merely the result of increased possessions and more plays, and their results on a per-play or per-possession basis to be unexceptional. But instead Tulsa finished last season with the best per-play average in the nation. You could argue that it's not the pace that's produced those results but Malzahn's brilliant scheming, but as Brown himself wrote in his December examination of Malzahn:
If done correctly, the tempo and formations really are what eats the defense up. The schemes themselves are simple.
This is why I'm guessing that Brown wouldn't actually disagree with any of the above--there's no way around the importance of pace to Tulsa. In both posts, Brown cites 2008 Oklahoma's success to "talent" or "athletes" first, "scheme" second, and their similarly hyperspeed pace third. The combination of the three is a perfectly logical explanation for the Sooners' offensive output, but it doesn't seem to apply to the Golden Hurricane's: Malzahn's formation trickery helps, but it doesn't seem to account for this level of production, and Tulsa hasn't enjoyed much of a talent advantage, if any. Their 2005 recruiting class was ranked first in C-USA, but by an insignificant margin, while their 2004, 2006, and 2007 classes were all middle-of-the-pack or worse by C-USA standards.

Further, if the no-huddle was merely an amplifier of existing talent/scheme rather than an equalizer, we would expect Tulsa to have struggled more than expected against teams with the better athletes. The opposite, in fact, has been, the case. Tulsa's faced four teams "up a weight class" the past two seasons--BYU and Oklahoma in 2007, New Mexico and Arkansas in 2008. The Sooners were the only one of the four to outgain Tulsa per-play as the Golden Hurricane beat the two Mountain West teams and only fell to the Hogs by virtue of a fourth-quarter kickoff return.

Add all that up and I think it's fair to argue that the Malzahn no-huddle is not "fairly value neutral," and that its "endurance" and "psychological" advantages are greater than Brown seems to be giving them credit for.

However: again, while I have issues with the language Brown is using, I don't think he'd argue with any of that. The question he's trying to answer is: even if we acknowledge that a Malzahnian no-huddle could help Davids likes Tulsa, is it really a David strategy? Because of the math involved, wouldn't it be a bigger help to Goliaths?

It's debatable, but I don't think so. Brown is correct that in most cases, Davids should pick a high-variance strategy like a full-court press over a lower-variance strategy like the Malzahn no-huddle. (In my original post I drew up a series of similarities between the Malzahn no-huddle and the full-court press that didn't take the differences in variance into account; it probably should have been acknowledged.) But I think the endurance factor maybe deserves a fuller examination than it's been getting--and makes the no-huddle legitimately more underdog-friendly than favorite.

Why? Because while increasing the number of possessions and plays in a game increases the effect of a potential talent advantage for Goliath--as Brown describes with Oklahoma--I would argue it does even more to help neutralize a talent gap for David. Any team can get into incredible shape, but that's always going to be harder the larger the players in question are--particularly, I would say, along the defensive line. It's never going to be in Alabama's best interests to either a) spend the necessary energy and time to get Terrence Cody into the kind of shape where his endurance is an asset b) run an offense that gives him the least amount of time on the bench to rest and recover--as the Tide found out first-hand when Utah no-huddled them to death. It's a broad, broad statement to make with all kinds of exceptions, but generally speaking, Goliath really will be larger than David--and when both sides are looking to maximize their advantages of the other, the issue of size is naturally going to drive the latter towards a strategy that emphasizes speed and fitness and the former towards brute force and individual mismatches.

So: is Brown correct when he points out that high-variance strategies like trick plays, big blitzes, game-shortening play-calls, and passes might be closer to David's heart--and maybe more effective--than the no-huddle? Certainly. Is he right when implying (though not stating straight out) that the primary value of the no-huddle to Auburn is that it's simply different, rather than anything specific it brings to underdogs? Yes.

But what we can all agree on--Brown, Year2, me, Gladwell, everyone--is that Davids can't afford to not be different, whatever strategy they decide on. Viewed in that light, I don't think you can argue that while Malzahn might not the best possible thing for Auburn, he is, most definitely, a good thing.

(One other brief parenthetical: Brown spends the first half of his post arguing against Gladwell's assumption that "Goliaths should all be using these David strategies as well." I'll be honest: I've read the thing a dozen times and I can't find where Gladwell offers any advice for Goliaths at all. He says more basketball teams ought to run the press, sure, but he never says they all should ... as he's pointed out himself. But maybe I'm missing it.)


Marcus said...

Wait, so AU is now a David? After one bad year? Don't we still have one of the highest winning percentage against SEC teams this decade?

Hmmm, AU does usually play better when they are underdogs, so maybe this mentality is a good thing.

Jerry Hinnen said...

marcus, covered that in the first post, but basically as long as the Tide/LSU/UGA are at their current level of success, Auburn has to think like a David to stay with them. So, sort of.

Marcus said...

Ah, you did indeed. My bad. Still, I just don't see it. Sure, Saban raking in #1 recruiting classes is a bit unsettling to me, but mainly because it's our hated rival. UF, UT, and LSU have raked in similar classes consistently for years and AU still held their own against them. We even went undefeated in a year that included playing against a Saban coached team and a Richt coached team, and both teams were pretty good that year (unlike the teams that "the team that shall not be named" played in 2008).
Of course, this has little to do with the main theme of your excellent posts, other than to point out that we AU fans need not throw in the towel (mentally that is) just because the axis of evil has had a few victories.