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‘Aggressive’ versus ‘conservative’ play calling in football

Posted by John Reed on

The 5/1/17 Sports Illustrated has a letter to the editor that displays the kind of talk you often hear from fans and coaches. The writer says the losing Falcons coach should not have been so aggressive near the end of the Super Bowl in February. He said, “...playing conservatively offers may ways to win, while playing aggressively offers many ways to lose.”

It’s a relatively rare intellectually-dishonest debate tactic:

8. Sloganeering: Debater uses a slogan rather than using facts or logic. Slogans are vague sentences or phrases that derive their power from rhetorical devices like alliteration, repetition, cadence, or rhyming; Rich Dad Poor Dad’s “Don’t work for money, make money work for you,” is a classic example. Coaches frequently rely on cliches, a less rhetorical form of slogan, to deflect criticism. Jesse Jackson was the champ of this form of dishonesty, e.g., “Up with hope. Down with dope.”’

More importantly, the cadence of the SI letter is its only virtue. It makes no sense in the context of coaching a football game.

The average college or pro football game has 120 scrimmage (started with a snap) plays. So the coaches have that many interludes during which they call plays or defenses.

Each time you call an offensive play you need to know what you are trying to accomplish. Generally, you want to stay on schedule for gaining a first down. This is on-schedule: 1st and 10, 2nd and 6, 3rd and 2. If you need fewer yards on one of those downs, you are AHEAD of schedule. If you need more, you are BEHIND schedule.

Late in the game, if you are behind, you have to gain MORE yards than just those needed to stay on schedule. You are running out of downs so you need to STOP TAKING THREE OR FOUR DOWNS TO GET A FIRST DOWN.

The words “conservative” and “aggressive” are ill-defined in the context of a football game, and their use is ill-advised. They imply play calling is a manhood-proving exercise. It is not.

Unless you are going to call a surprise play, your play call is typically determined to a large extent by the down and distance and the game situation. Some of the rules in my Football Clock Management book say to prefer the run to the pass as long as the play in question is adequate to gain the yards needed to stay on schedule to gain a first down. That is a slowdown rule. In a hurry-up, you need to be more conscious of avoiding turnovers. (…/football-clock-management-5th-e…)

Football Clock Management, 3rd edition bookUsing surprise plays is an art. There are at least several books just on surprise plays. I assume the writer to Sports Illustrated was excluding surprise plays, so I will, too. Generally, they are a bit “aggressive” (less likely to succeed) because you have fewer reps of practicing them in game conditions.

The coach’s goal on every play is to maximize his win probability. Each play has a profile which shows a bar graph of the yards gained or lost every time the play has been run this season and the probability of each amount of yards gained or lost. (explained on page 171 of my Coaching Youth Football book…/products/coaching-youth-football)

Coaching Youth Football, 4th edition bookWhen you are on schedule and not too far behind in the score, the play calling is about what the average fan thinks. For example, on 3rd and 3, you might see a basic inside running play. Why would you be aggressive? Your job is to get the first down. You get no extra credit for gaining the first by way of a double reverse. I like to be somewhat unpredictable in those situations, but any more than that is probably the coach not understanding the game.

If you are behind at the end of a game, you must run plays that have a play profile that indicates they are both capable of gaining the needed yards—generally MORE than needed just to get a first down—and more likely to succeed. In that situation, you are probably using plays that sometimes gain a lot of yards like counters, traps, reverses, or long passes, but their probability of succeeding is relatively low.

You cannot run plays that almost never gain ten yards when you need ten yards. You have to run plays that can possibly gain ten yards even though the probability they will do so is below 50%. You must make a working assumption that it will succeed because that is your only path to victory.

The most famous working assumption is the onside kick. Everyone understands that it is unlikely to succeed, but that nevertheless, it must be run because, although the probability of success is poor, it is still your best choice. Doing an onside kick at the end of a game where you are behind is not being “aggressive;” is it just knowing how to coach a football team.

To me, this is all probability and arithmetic. The writer to SI would likely call it “aggressive” play calling. There is no place for such emotional, psychological words in analyzing a coach’s play call. You call the play that is most likely to get you the yards you need right now, even when has a low probability of succeeding.



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