Friday, May 08, 2009

David's hope, David's terror

Warning: long, discursive, JCCW-esque.

I didn't realize how comprehensively I'd drank the Gus Malzahn Kool-Aid until just before spring practice, when I was going over the defensive depth chart and caught myself thinking something like

Man, I hope the starting front seven stays healthy, because if the D can just hang in there, we'll be fine.

This is not a rational analysis of Auburn's 2009 football team. From a rational perspective, virtually all our worry should be directed at the offense. That's the side of the ball without a quarterback who has experienced even moderate success at the collegiate level, without a single wide receiver who has ever been more than a safety valve, with a senior right tackle who has never started a college football game before. That's the side of the ball where the adjustment period to a new system and coordinator will be longer and more difficult, the side of the ball where just last year a similar adjustment period to a broadly similar style of offense resulted in 3-2.

But isn't that where the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" comes from? To put aside all logical thought and trust in the intelligence and superiority of a leadership figure who we unblinkingly believe will make the best decisions for all of us? Watching the GMAC Bowl, looking over his record, hearing Trooper Taylor call him a genius ... well, by now I've got my cup tilted as far up as I can get it, shaking it a bit, trying to loosen and swallow those last few cherry drops.


Malcolm Gladwell makes it difficult to take his analysis of sports as seriously as maybe we should. Yes, he's written some brilliant books, yes, he's on very good terms with Bill Simmons, yes, he's written somewhat incisively about sports before. But, for starters--and even though I'm obviously the last person in the world who should judge someone's sports expertise based on their physical appearance--dude does look like this. More to the point, his otherwise excellent article for this week's New Yorker--entitled "How David Beats Goliath," and detailing how unorthodox strategies can level the playing field in sports, war, or elsewhere--contains the following passage:
The trouble for Redwood City started early in the regular season. The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasn’t playing fair—that it wasn’t right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills. Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuable—that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged. But the coaches on the other side of Redwood City’s lopsided scores were disinclined to be so philosophical.

“There was one guy who wanted to have a fight with me in the parking lot,” Ranadiv√© said. “He was this big guy. He obviously played football and basketball himself, and he saw that skinny, foreign guy beating him at his own game. He wanted to beat me up.”
Ummm ... of course he did. The opposing coaches--who Gladwell tries to portray as hair-trigger troglodytes--are mostly in the right here. The point of a 12-year-old girls' basketball league is (or should be) to learn fundamentals and have fun. Repeatedly failing to get the ball across half-court against a press offers neither the chance to learn fundamentals like shooting, screen-setting, etc., nor any fun. At all. Gladwell mentions that in one game, Redwood City went up 25-0. No offense, but if you're still running a full-court press up 20 points in a 12-year-old girls' basketball game, you're either an asshole or woefully ignorant of basketball's generally accepted standards of sportsmanship. (The latter's a possibility; the coach in question is an Indian immigrant who'd never watched the game before coaching.) That Gladwell misses the point entirely makes me wonder how much credibility he really has here, how much we can really trust his argument that when it comes to sports, the underdogs of the world need to--no, have to-- embrace "socially horrifying" styles and strategies to succeed.

But ah, screw the whole credibility issue--I think he's still deeply convincing about the value of the press. And as an Auburn fan, I needed to be convinced, because his explanation for why the press works so well in hoops sounds utterly similar to why Malzahn's offense worked at Tulsa ... and should work in the SEC. Consider:

1. They both eliminate the unnecessary amount of time the opponent has to prepare.
As Gladwell illustrates, basketball teams that don't press give opposing offenses two-thirds of the court and as much time as the opponent wants to take to set up their offense. Likewise, a football team that takes the entire play clock to snap the ball gives the opposing defense the maximum amount of time to prepare for the play. A press and Malzahn's up-tempo system changes both those equations dramatically. If you can run a play of approximately similar quality and give the defense much, much less time to prepare for it ... why wouldn't you*?

2. The challenges they both present opponents are all the more challenging for their uniqueness. Not many basketball teams--be they youth girls' teams or NCAA D-I--run an all-out full-court press. Which, obviously, makes it more effective; opposing teams don't just have less time on the court to respond to the press's defense, they're not used to responding in that time frame. With only one other team in the country--Oklahoma--approaching Tulsa's speed, it's safe to say the same goes for the Malzahn offense. That it's run out of a spread--an offense, for all the hype, still run by only a handful of SEC teams rather than the majority--will only make Spread Eagle 2.0 more unorthodox for its opponents.

3. They both ignore talent deficits. Going beyond Gladwell's (multiple) examples of the press's success, look at Mike Anderson's coaching career: UAB from dust into a consistent (and consistently dangerous) NCAA Tournament team; Missouri from broken-down Big 12 mediocrity into a Final Four challenger. And with what? Spare parts, mostly. Meanwhile, how many of the Tulsa players that made up the most explosive offense in the country for two years running have been drafted? None.

So no, Gladwell may not actually be an expert on sports. Doesn't matter: his evidence presents a compelling case for the press. In my opinion it also presents a compelling case for Gus Malzahn.


The funniest part of the reaction to the Limo Gambit--aside from this comically inept post at RollBamaRoll by an embittered Iowa St. fan, which accused Chizik of slacking off for not having "looked the recruit in the eye," the way, you know, he's forbidden to by the NCAA--was hearing it derided by various outlets as a "gimmick." Just a gimmick, the argument went. Inefficient. Not a replacement for hard work.

To which I respond (again): Of course it's a gimmick! It's seven assistant coaches riding around in a rented limousine covered in door magnets and gameday flags like some alternate-world Entourage where the main character grew up in Opelika! It couldn't be more gimmicky if they stuck an ice cream-truck loudspeaker on the hood that screamed GIMMICK HERE! COME SEE THE GIMMICK! CLEAR THE ROAD, GIMMICK APPROACHING!

This is nothing but a good thing. Auburn needs gimmicks. This is the broader point of Gladwell's piece: the frequency with which unconventional thinking triumphs over the conventional, regardless of the resources available to either side; the frequency with which the side with superior resources wins when both sides are using conventional thinking; the frequency, or rather the rarity, of unconventional thinking even when confronted with those first two facts. "Davids win all the time," he writes. They just have to be clever, and brave enough to put that cleverness to work.

A lot of Auburn fans would chafe at describing our team as a "David." But where the Limo Gambit is concerned, in the specific field of in-state recruiting, there's not any question about it. Auburn has become the David. The other team is Goliath. Conventional recruiting strategies and brainless "hard work" are not going to be enough. The other team is the one with the resources of momentum, demographics, and a coachbot. Auburn does not have these things.

That's fine. David wins all the time when he's being smart. And Gene Chizik and his staff are being smart. They have recognized the situation for what it is and are responding accordingly, unconventionally. Chizik likewise recognized Auburn's offensive situation for what it is: a mishmash of underachieving receivers, erratic quarterbacks, enough healthy and productive linemen--maybe--to fill out the first string. The resources here are not sufficient for success on their own. Unconventional thinking was needed. So he hired Gus Malzahn.

Nothing, nothing makes me more optimistic about Gene Chizik's tenure at Auburn than the intelligence and humility behind these decisions, not even the decisions themselves. (Obviously, in the case of a publicity stunt like the Limo Gambit.) Maybe they won't translate into victories. But as long as Saban is at Alabama, Miles is at LSU, and Richt's at Georgia, these teams are going to be closer to being Goliath than Auburn will likely be. Unless that changes, "David" or not, Auburn needs to be thinking like him. And Chizik is, because facing Goliath on his own terms gets us nowhere.

And as for anyone mocking Auburn for Chizik's "gimmicks," well, when Gladwell says these kinds of innovations are seen as "socially horrifying," we don't need to look any further than the Limo Gambit response to see how true that is.


This is the part of the article that terrifies me:
"It makes no sense, unless you think back to that Kentucky-L.S.U. game and to Lawrence’s long march across the desert to Aqaba. It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them march to the sound of a fife-and-drum corps than it is to have them ride six hundred miles through the desert on the back of a camel. It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability--legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms--because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

"I have so many coaches come in every year to learn the press," Pitino said. Louisville was the Mecca for all those Davids trying to learn how to beat Goliaths. "Then they e-mail me. They tell me they can’t do it. They don’t know if they have the bench. They don’t know if the players can last." Pitino shook his head. "We practice every day for two hours straight," he went on. "The players are moving almost ninety-eight per cent of the practice. We spend very little time talking. When we make our corrections"-—that is, when Pitino and his coaches stop play to give instruction--"they are seven-second corrections, so that our heart rate never rests. We are always working." Seven seconds! The coaches who came to Louisville sat in the stands and watched that ceaseless activity and despaired. The prospect of playing by David’s rules was too daunting. They would rather lose.
Could there be a clearer picture of the failure of Tony Franklin at Auburn? Tubby got halfway there--he knew his offense was in trouble and even knew he needed to do something unconventional to get it fixed. But "David's rules," were, indeed, too daunting. It was too hard for his coaching staff to pass to set up the run, too hard not to huddle, too hard to keep working the Wildcat into the offense even when it showed promise. It was easier just to do things the way they had always done them. So they kept doing a lot of them, and when that didn't work, they went back to doing all of them, and the monster at the end of this schedule ate them alive, 36-0.

I remain haunted by something Todd Graham said when Chizik hired Malzahn away:
"Everybody in our building - our strength coach is no-huddle," Graham said. "Our secretaries are (committed) to no-huddle. You can't be a no-huddle offense without being a no-huddle defense. ... We're a no-huddle team. You have to be committed to it to make this work.

"Fundamentally, you can say the no-huddle sounds good. But if you don't believe in it - when we got here, we had the No.1 defense in Conference USA. We went from 21st in the nation to 103rd with the same players. Most guys would see that and say, `the no-huddle has got to go.'"
This is the test for Gene Chizik and the Auburn staff. When the offense has gone three-and-out three straight times and given the defense a total of 2:47 of rest ... when the rest of football is laughing at Auburn, either because they think limos or funny or because Caudle or Burns or a combination of both has thrown four picks in a game ... when a certain portion of Jordan-Hare starts raining down the boos ... what are they going to do?

Playing David is hard. I think Gladwell would agree with me that there was a fleeting moment when he stepped out of the ranks--with the surprising speed of a Malzahn-directed offense, Gladwell notes--and thought to himself A slingshot? What was I thinking? Get me a sword and the thickest armor you've got, and pronto. But he stuck with his plan, and the Philistine fell.

Stick with the plan, Auburn.

*I think there's an argument to be made that NBA players' ball-handling skills are too advanced for the full-court press to work at that level. But it makes no sense to me for any basketball team, anywhere, to forego a certain amount of token backcourt pressure following a made field goal. The breakaway risks of one or two guys going man-up in the backcourt or, say, trapping halfheartedly at quarter-court are basically nil if the team's executing correctly ... but in return, you get four or five seconds burned off the shot clock that many offenses (especially in the NCAA's snail-paced, coach-dominated halfcourt leagues) desperately need to run their sets. Why not do this? Man, I do not get it.


d761 said...

Excellent entry, Jerry.
Hopefully, the "we are a smashmouth football team" was so much hyperbole.

tiger7_88 said...

Not much more I can say outside of "I agree, Jerry."

Well done.

WDEwg said...

This is so well written. compelling points. Thanks so much for this great site.

Stonewall said...

The Continental Army had suffered demoralizing defeats in New York at the hands of the mighty red coats. This rag tag bunch of patriots was in retreat and on the verge of collapse. The revolution was in doubt. Most generals would have either foolishly continued to fight "by the book" and been crushed by the stronger foe or wisely surrendered. George Washington marched is men nine miles on Christmas, crossed the icy Delaware River with only a third of his already outnumbered force, and took the town of Trenton from the shocked Hessians. The rest is history. God bless America. WDE.

Ben said...

Great post. Very Gladwellian (obviously)—in this case a good thing. Being David/ the underdog/ the little guy is more fun anyway.

Auburn v. The World. Stay the course, batten down the hatches, man the cannons, etc.

Loganville Tiger said...

Excellent post Jerry.


Hobbes said...

1 Samuel, chapter 17

"1": Now the Philistines gathered together their armies to battle, and were gathered together at Shochoh, which belongeth to Judah, and pitched between Shochoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim.

"2": And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and pitched by the valley of Elah, and set the battle in array against the Philistines.

"3": And the Philistines stood on a mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on a mountain on the other side: and there was a valley between them.

"4": And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named'> Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.

"5": And he had an helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass.

"6": And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders.

"7": And the staff of his spear was like a weaver's beam; and his spear's head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him.

"8": And he stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, and said unto them, Why are ye come out to set your battle in array? am not I a Philistine, and ye servants to Saul? choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me.

"9": If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us.

"10": And the Philistine said, I defy the armies of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together.

"11": When Saul and all Israel heard those words of the Philistine, they were dismayed, and greatly afraid.

"12": Now David was the son of that Ephrathite of Beth-lehem-judah, whose name was Jesse; and he had eight sons: and the man went among men for an old man in the days of Saul.

"13": And the three eldest sons of Jesse went and followed Saul to the battle: and the names of his three sons that went to the battle were Eliab the firstborn, and next unto him Abinadab, and the third Shammah.

"14": And David was the youngest: and the three eldest followed Saul.

"15": But David went and returned from Saul to feed his father's sheep at Bethlehem.

"16": And the Philistine drew near morning and evening, and presented himself forty days.

"17": And Jesse said unto David his son, Take now for thy brethren an ephah of this parched corn, and these ten loaves, and run to the camp to thy brethren;

"18": And carry these ten cheeses unto the captain of their thousand, and look how thy brethren fare, and take their pledge.

"19": Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines.

"20": And David rose up early in the morning, and left the sheep with a keeper, and took, and went, as Jesse had commanded him; and he came to the trench, as the host was going forth to the fight, and shouted for the battle.

"21": For Israel and the Philistines had put the battle in array, army against army.

"22": And David left his carriage in the hand of the keeper of the carriage, and ran into the army, and came and saluted his brethren.

"23": And as he talked with them, behold, there came up the champion, the Philistine of Gath'>, Goliath by name, out of the armies of the Philistines, and spake according to the same words: and David heard them.

"24": And all the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him, and were sore afraid.

"25": And the men of Israel said, Have ye seen this man that is come up? surely to defy Israel is he come up: and it shall be, that the man who killeth him, the king will enrich him with great riches, and will give him his daughter, and make his father's house free in Israel.

"26": And David spake to the men that stood by him, saying, What shall be done to the man that killeth this Philistine, and taketh away the reproach from Israel? for who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?

"27": And the people answered him after this manner, saying, So shall it be done to the man that killeth him.

"28": And Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spake unto the men; and Eliab's anger was kindled against David, and he said, Why camest thou down hither? and with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know thy pride, and the naughtiness of thine heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle.

"29": And David said, What have I now done? Is there not a cause?

"30": And he turned from him toward another, and spake after the same manner: and the people answered him again after the former manner.

"31": And when the words were heard which David spake, they rehearsed them before Saul: and he sent for him.

"32": And David said to Saul, Let no man's heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine.

"33": And Saul said to David, Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him: for thou art but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.

"34": And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock:

"35": And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him.

"36": Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God.

"37": David said moreover, The LORD that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine. And Saul said unto David, Go, and the LORD be with thee.

"38": And Saul armed David with his armour, and he put an helmet of brass upon his head; also he armed him with a coat of mail.

"39": And David girded his sword upon his armour, and he assayed to go; for he had not proved it. And David said unto Saul, I cannot go with these; for I have not proved them. And David put them off him.

"40": And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd's bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.

"41": And the Philistine came on and drew near unto David; and the man that bare the shield went before him.

"42": And when the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him: for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance.

"43": And the Philistine said unto David, Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves? And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.

"44": And the Philistine said to David, Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field.

"45": Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.

"46": This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.

"47": And all this assembly shall know that the LORD saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give you into our hands.

"48": And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came and drew nigh to meet David, that David hasted, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine.

"49": And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.

"50": So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.

"51": Therefore David ran, and stood upon the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith. And when the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled.

"52": And the men of Israel and of Judah arose, and shouted, and pursued the Philistines, until thou come to the valley, and to the gates of Ekron. And the wounded of the Philistines fell down by the way to Shaaraim, even unto Gath, and unto Ekron.

"53": And the children of Israel returned from chasing after the Philistines, and they spoiled their tents.

"54": And David took the head of the Philistine, and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armour in his tent.

"55": And when Saul saw David go forth against the Philistine, he said unto Abner, the captain of the host, Abner, whose son is this youth? And Abner said, As thy soul liveth, O king, I cannot tell.

"56": And the king said, Inquire thou whose son the stripling is.

"57": And as David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, Abner took him, and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand.

"58": And Saul said to him, Whose son art thou, thou young man? And David answered, I am the son of thy servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.

Rod said...

Nice one, Jerry!

Jesus Hobbes, you could have just posted the the chapter or linked to it.

J.D. said...

Malcolm Gladwell = Christopher Walken, the younger years

At least in that picture...

Hobbes said...

Well before David killed Goliath, he had killed a lion and a bear.

If Auburn is David and the Aubrn's upcoming seasons are Goliath, then the question is:

Who is the lion and who is the bear that Chiznick and Malzahn have killed?

Scott said...

Excellent work here.