...says Denzel Valentine of Big Ten Tourney favorite MSU, which is 5-7 in its last 12 games. Cumong, man.
|Cleveland, OH - 6'3" 220|
|Scout||3*, #81 OLB|
|Rivals||3*, #30 MLB, #34 OH|
|ESPN||3*, 77, #58 OLB|
|Other Suitors||MAC schools|
|Previously On MGoBlog||Commitment post.|
|Notes||Yes, has same name of love interest in "Sixteen Candles." St. Ignatius also sent the Massey brothers to Michigan.|
I don't usually recommend people watch recruits' highlight films, as they invariably give a distorted impression of the player and are often saddled with songs by Saliva. In Jake Ryan's case an exception should be made. You see, Rudy, St. Ignatius plays a true 3-3-5 on defense and Ryan's tenure as a quarterback-thumping blitzer at OLB gives you an idea of what Michigan will be looking for from Jonas Mouton and Craig Roh this year. Also, watching Ryan obliterate unprepared guard after unprepared guard as the most productive member of the St. Ig's linebacking corps is reassuring given his slim offer list and status as the proverbial sleeper. I'll wait.
All right then: Ryan was a late pickup that Michigan leapt on once it became clear the plan A guys at linebacker were headed elsewhere. This is usually the point at which you start hearing about a senior breakout spurred by a growth spurt and followed by a flood of late mid-level offers, and in this Ryan is much like any other pickup… minus the late offers. Michigan was the first and only BCS school to offer Ryan, though no other schools got a chance since Ryan accepted the Michigan offer on the spot.
At the time, Ryan was virtually unranked by all the sites; since then his stock has climbed dramatically. He got another star on Scout, jumped eleven places in the Ohio state rankings on Rivals, and was actually evaluated by ESPN. He now sits in the range where he's just another three star linebacker, which isn't great but isn't bad for a guy Michigan swooped in on late. Brutal defenses at Iowa and Wisconsin are built on the Jake Ryans of the world.
St. Ignatius is a high school football machine that just picked up its tenth Ohio state title, and Ryan was their best defender last year. That has something to do with an injury to fellow linebacker and Ohio State commit Scott McVey, but Ryan was also the district's defensive player of the year, beating out not only McVey but OSU commit Darryl Baldwin and five-star safety Latwan Anderson. High school awards don't necessarily correspond to collegiate upside but Ryan was the most productive guy in a group of solid to hyped collegiate prospects:
Ryan used his outstanding pass-rushing technique to register a team-leading 104 tackles for the Wildcats with 62 solos, 26 tackles for loss, eight sacks, eight quarterback hurries, four deflected passes and two fumble recoveries.
He did this against a selection of Ohio's top teams, as well: at 2:40 in the highlight film above you can see him make a critical fourth-down stop against Glenville and Ohio State commit Christian Bryant.
As to what kind of player Ryan is, he is a large one suited to attacking vertically with some agility issues that may force a move to the line or removal in passing situations. Rivals on Ryan's game versus Harding:
PERFORMANCE: Had a pair of sacks and a handful of tackles near the line of scrimmage in St. Ignatius' 10-7 win over Warren Harding.
STRENGTHS: A taller linebacker prospect that will continue to get bigger and stronger. Rushes the quarterback well and does a solid job a getting off blocks and finding the ball carrier. Missed much of his junior season due to injury. Ryan would be a major recruit if not for that setback.
WEAKNESSES: Ryan plays outside linebacker right now, but I am not sure he has the speed and agility to play that position at the next level, especially in regards to playing in space and covering running backs or tight ends in the passing game. However, he is simply a good, smart football player that could grow into a monster inside linebacker or a defensive end.
A preseason evaluation from the same guy says his listed 6'3" may be "a bit short," wonders about a move to DE, and praises his size and range.
ESPN's evaluation conflicts with both itself and the evaluation above, praising Ryan's ability to cover ground while complaining about cutbacks::
Has good height and body length on the outside needed to keep blockers off his body when attacking vertically or stringing out the run to the perimeter. Uses hands well as a shedder. Covers a lot of ground and is difficult to outflank. … Flashes good overall sideline-to-sideline range on run pursuit. A good backside chaser and he plays with a motor and desired toughness. Brings it as a blitzer off the edge; is quick off the snap and closes hard. … shows some lateral stiffness changing direction and playing the cutback. Does not sift real fluidly through the wash and appears to be a much better vertical attacker than lateral. Plays high and can open his whole body up at the point of attack. Pass coverage skills will be tested if matched up versus quicker slots.
ESPN praises his frame and overall physical ability, as well. There is room for "a lot more bulk," again raising the possibility Ryan ends up at defensive end. Touch The Banner disagrees with that but only slightly:
…Ryan is best suited for middle linebacker. He seems to do a good job of diagnosing plays and taking good angles toward the ballcarrier. He has a solid frame and could easily play at 240 or 245. He's reported to run a 4.6 forty yard dash, but I question that time.
Ryan is stiff in the hips. He moves well for a high school linebacker, but he looks like a defensive end who's playing out of position at outside backer. He does not have great lateral speed, and I do question his tackling ability. Despite a couple highlight films I've seen, I haven't seen a single de-cleater. All of his tackles seem to be him falling on a player who's already going down or grabbing a runner and letting his 220-225 lbs. drag down the ball carrier. He doesn't have the aggressiveness I would like to see in a kid that size at the linebacker position, but he was suffering from a wrist injury, so that might have made him a bit tentative.
Ryan certainly has the requisite aggressiveness when impacting stationary quarterbacks—a couple of his hits early in the highlight reel are brutal—and if he can "easily" get to 240 or 245 another 15 pounds will put him in the range of a defensive end.
Finally, take this Ohio State message board guy's opinion for what it's worth:
Jake Ryan is a great kid from a good family. After McVey got injured in the week 1 game against Glenville and Scott tried to play one-armed the rest of the season, Ryan was Ignatius' best defensive player this year by a wide margin. Jake had a great year and has an excellent frame at 6'3 225#, he is a big strong kid that can run in the high 4.5s, he is a very athletic kid. Versatile athlete that played FB this year, some TE in the past and also excelled on KO and PR coverage.
To this point, I have been perplexed by his offer sheet, which is essentially every team in the MAC conference. He is far better than a MAC player, I would have expected his offer sheet would read something like Boston College, Vanderbilt, Indiana, Virginia, Northwestern, Michigan State, Iowa, Pittsburgh, Louisville, etc at this point.
That said, I think this is a stretch offer for UM. Jake is a B10 talent, just but not a Big 4 talent IMO. [Ed: since there are at least three schools on that list that have had killer linebackers the last few years, whateva.]
While he possesses good speed, he doesn't possess the lateral sideline to sideline speed that I would want to see at an elite BCS school. Watch his film, when he is making plays near the sidelines, often times it is after someone has already turned the play back inside. … Kid does have an excellent frame and should have no problem adding weight, maybe they want him to play with his hand down at DE, that would make more sense to me.
There is a fairly weak explanation for Ryan's outsized production compared to McVey: even though McVey's shoulder injury occurred in week one, teams "gameplanned for a healthy McVey" and let Ryan do whatever he want. As I said, take it for what it's worth. To me, that's rationalization. While McVey's injury makes it difficult to judge how he progressed as a senior, one guy is 6'3" or more and the other generously listed at 5'11". Most sites rank them about equal; they're approximately equivalent prospects.
Elsewhere, Ohio high school observer Duane Long said Ryan "plays with great intensity and runs well" in a preseason evaluation that foreshadowed his senior rise; Scout calls him a "very good athlete" with "excellent timing and anticipation on the blitz."
So, I'm confused. Multiple evaluations say he runs well; multiple evaluations question his lateral speed. Hell, multiple evaluations call him "very athletic" and then turn around and question his athleticism within a paragraph. The reports are generally similar to what we're hearing about Craig Roh as a 3-3-5 OLB: superior going forward, iffy when asked to change directions. A big guy who can run fast is not often able to redirect all that momentum; when he can the resulting rankings are rapturous, not generic.
Why Obi Ezeh? Ryan is a big, slightly clunky middle linebacker who will easily reach Ezeh's current 245 pounds and may outgrow the position entirely. As a recruit Ezeh was an anonymous three-star in about the same range Ryan is; he was also a sleeper-type pickup who had not been on anyone's radar before Michigan grabbed him. Ryan is praised for his vertical attacking and dogged for his ability to cut through the trash sideline-to-sideline or effectively cover zones; Ezeh's career is ably summed up by those critiques.
Ryan has some assets Ezeh doesn't: a high school career at linebacker (Ezeh was mostly a running back), a head start on the system he'll be playing in, and Greg Robinson as a position coach. Hopefully he'll have some consistency in coaching as well.
Etc.: Wolverine Tactics extols Ryan's virtues. GBMW is fairly positive but mentions he doesn't use his "flipper" very well, which is either football jargon or an indication Ryan is part dolphin. And now the St. Ignatius linebacker equivalent of that ESPN commercial, except without the making out:
One thing Michigan and Ohio State fans can agree on: this gives everyone the heebie-jeebies.
Guru Reliability: High. Late bloomer but the Michigan commit prompted re-evaluations after his productive senior season. All reports are consistent, and the rankings are in a relatively small range (assumption: the #30 MLB is about the #60 OLB). Apparently no combines, though.
General Excitement Level: Moderate. It seems clear that Ryan's got some agility limitations that put a cap on his upside even if he's got a nice frame. A defensive end move might not be possible given Michigan's depth chart, leaving him as a linebacker who is solid against the run but potentially a liability in pass coverage.
Projection: It's not a lock he redshirts if Michigan is using its linebackers in a fashion identical to St. Igs. He'll actually be the linebacker with the most experience in a true 3-3-5 this fall and he should be pushing 230 by the time the season rolls around. If there's an injury or he's a savant he could press for immediate playing time if the starters do not improve.
More likely, Michigan will redshirt him and pack on 20 pounds, whereupon he'll compete with JB Fitzgerald and Kenny Demens for one of the linebacker jobs left open following the departures of Ezeh and Mouton.
Thursday 6:35pm ET
(4-5, 3.81 ERA)
(4-3, 6.68 ERA)
Notes: Michigan is 34-42 all time,
Last year: 1-2 series loss.
Friday 5:35 ET
(2-6, 5.75 ERA)
Saturday 1:05pm ET
Michigan is on the road for the Big Ten finale. With just a game separating Michigan from first place Minnesota, they'll be giving it all with the Big Ten Title on the line. The Wolverines need just one win to clinch a spot in the Big Ten Tournament, but they'll need quite a bit more to secure a coveted bye, presented to the top two teams in conference.
Brief look at the Ball State game and a Penn State preview after the jump.
Highly touted Michigan hockey recruit Lucas Lessio is scheduled to be the centerpiece of the 2011 recruiting class. Usually after the OHL draft passes and the player has spurned advances from a team that took you seventh overall the window of danger has passed, but Oshawa traded for Lessio and has made enough of a push that he made an appearance at their rookie camp:
The fact he showed up to orientation camp is a positive sign at this point in the game, says Generals coach/GM Chris DePiero.
"I think the fact he came to rookie camp was step one," DePiero said on Tuesday. "My conversations with him over the last three months have been pretty positive in terms of him giving us at least a full shot and chance."
Lessio can attend the camp and maintain his eligibility; still, showing up is an obvious sign the OHL door is not closed.
On the other hand, the USHL's Waterloo franchise just took him eighth overall in their futures draft. That indicates they're confident he'll be with them next year, especially because Lessio would be a one-year player in the USHL. All of this appears to indicate a desire to get away from the CCHL, where Lessio obliterated the competition to the tune of a 30-42-72 line in just 41 games. The USHL is a major step up in competition; hopefully it will be attractive enough to keep him committed.
As always, the 2011 Michigan Football Recruiting Board can be found here.
As he did for junior days earlier this year, Tom has built up a roster of those attending (and not):
- MI OL Anthony Zettel
- OH DE Chris Rock
- MD DT Darian Cooper
- OH OL Ray Ball
- VA LB Corey Marshall
- OH WR AJ Jordan
- MI DE Commit Brennen Beyer
For comments on these guys, a list of those who aren't making it, and all the latest updates, check out Tom's diary. A couple other sources also have updates:
NC LB/WR Kris Frost (pictured above ) says he's trying to make it to the BBQ at the Big House this weekend, but is unsure, due to travel costs. Frost was the subject of this week's Sam Webb profile in the Detroit News. Michigan is trying to stay out front:
"Well, I've always wanted to go to Michigan," admitted Frost. "I've always wanted to attend that school. When I went up to Michigan (for the program's annual summer football camp) I was really excited. It was everything that I really thought it would be."
"I think Michigan is the team to beat because he's liked Michigan his whole life," added [Butler coach Mike] Newsome. "When I told him that they had offered him he almost jumped up and hit his head on the ceiling. He is really excited about Michigan."
Of course, it's not all sunshine and lollipops:
"Unfortunately for them, there's the problem that they are going through with their program right now. I think it is something that Kris is looking at right now and is using that to look at some other schools. "
As long as Michigan has a good season and the coaching staff staves off any threat of losing their jobs, Michigan should remain the team to beat (as we shared last week). For the record, he now says that, while he'd prefer to play wide receiver in college, he's open to playing linebacker.
PA CB Dondi Kirby plans to be there.
Unfortunately, FL RB Demetrius Hart will probably not be making the trip. FL S Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix says his teammate will ultimately pick Alabama. HC-D has been saying things like this for a while, so take it with a grain of salt until Hart himself goes on the record.
New Offers, Present And Future
"No one's in the lead right now. Everything is wide open for me. I'm going to start taking trips in June, or July. After that I'll start all my officials, when I'm allowed to." When asked if Michigan will receive one of those visits, he said, "I'm definitely going to talk to my dad about that one."
Michigan has offered PA Ath Mike Caputo. He's a high school wideout.
The Wolverines have offered OH OL Ray Ball ($, info in header).
Michigan has offered PA DT Delvon Simmons, and the Wolverines currently reside in his top three:
“It would probably be North Carolina, West Virginia and Michigan. They’re all pretty even at this point,” he said.
“I haven’t talked to North Carolina a lot. I’ve maybe talked to them twice. I like how they’ve been open with me. They sound good right now but I’ve got to go up there and get to know them some more before I say too much.
“Michigan is the same thing pretty much. I like their coach—the recruiting coach for around my area. I met him in person and he seems like a real nice dude.”
Michigan looks to be in good shape for his recruitment.
The 5-foot-9.5, 173-pound uber athletic defensive back prospect entered the evaluation period with offers from Arkansas and Houston (his first offer), but has since added written offers from California, Michigan and Baylor along with a verbal offer from Missouri.
Last week, May 5, coaches from Texas (Will Muschamp) and Oklahoma (Willie Martinez) stopped by the 5A school to watch the corner with a 40 1/2-inch vertical leap.
Oklahoma and Texas interest means he's probably a top prospect, but also that he'll be a tough pull for Michigan.
Michigan is interested, but no offer, in PA DE Shawn Oakman.
Happy Trails, Trai Turner. Just a few days after saying he'd take his time and look at a few schools, LA OL Trai Turner committed to Louisiana State ($, info in header). His teammate, LA S Renaldo Thomas did or will do the same. No word yet on the third St. Augustine prospect, LA OL Jonah Austin. Austin does not hold an offer from the Tigers.
Happy trails as well to OH OL/DT Michael Bennett. With a final two of Ohio State and Northwestern, he picked the Buckeyes over the weekend.
We found out last week that Michigan was in the top three for NC QB Marquise Williams, and now he's trimmed his list to consider only five schools ($, info in header). Michigan, Notre Dame, and North Carolina are in that final group.
AR QB Kiehl Frazier is still wide open, but it seems as though Arkansas, Auburn, and Notre Dame comprise an unofficial top 3.
"I'm really wide open until I take some visits to see schools," Frazier told Sporting News. "After spring ball, I'm going to go some places and take it in."
A trip to Notre Dame could also mean dropping in on Ann Arbor, so stay tuned.
“I think Michigan will be in the mix without a doubt because those guys have done a great job,” [Chaparral coach Charlie] Ragle said. “Tony (Dews) and those guys that come out here - Tony mainly recruits this area but Coach (Greg) Frey came out - they do a good job, but like I said, the players sell your program.”
Ragle said the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Yruretagoyena is in regular contact with both Lewan and Roh, and that Michigan likely will be in Yruretagoyena’s final five when he cuts his list in the coming month.
So, Oregon probably leads, but Michigan has a chance to get back into it.
FL TE Brandon Fulse is hearing from Rod Smith a lot ($, info in header).
Michigan is a co-leader for MI LB Dwight Trammer. Though the Wolverines haven't offered, Rod Smith got a couple chances to scout Trammer last fall (pictured at right doing just that), as he's a former Inkster teammate of current Wolverines QB Devin Gardner.
According to some Detroit newspaper of no repute, MD DT Vincent Croce has a top three of Michigan, Michigan State, and Virginia.
OH CB Doran Grant says "haha j/k" about his top 6 list also serving as a final 6 ($, info in header).
SoFlaFootball visits Chaminade-Madonne High School in Florida, and breaks down a couple guys we've been talking about recently in S Jonathan Aiken, WR Curt Evans, and QB Jerrard Randall.
The issue that Randall continues to struggle with is the fact he can be erratic with his accuracy, which became apparent during the 7-on-7 portion of the practice.
Evans played a little of everything on the day starting at cornerback, getting some carries as a running back, before finally moving out to wide receiver.
Aiken has good bulk on him and is a good athlete. He did not look to be fluid enough in coverage to move to a corner spot like many have debated; safety is probably his best option.
Aiken posts on BuckeyePlanet, and it seems as though he's favoring Ohio State despite the lack of an offer.
NJ OL Shane Mertz wants to hear from Michigan. Mertz is 6-8, 280lbs, and has great grades. I bet coaches would love to have him in camp to see what he can do.
As for academics, I am interested in mechanical engineering as a major so a school with a strong engineering program is very important. I’m looking into becoming an aerospace engineer. That’s what I want to do. Maybe some day work for NASA.
I am looking for a program that has high quality football facilities and state of the art training. I don’t have anything specific in mind but I’d like to be at a place that has great training facilities.
Samrt kid, would be a good addition.
Schools I would like to hear from are Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Penn State. Definitely Michigan though. My dads mom is actually from Michigan. So my dad has always been a die hard Michigan football fan. It would be a great achievement for me if I could get an offer from them.
He's very interested, hopefully Michigan gives him a look.
Michigan's offer for FL RB Andrew Buie was actually on the other side of the ball:
“Auburn offered me as an athlete and Michigan offered me to play defensive back,” Buie said. “I want to play running back but I’m open to a couple of other positions.”
Doesn't sound like he's interested, and the Wolverines may fade from his recruitment.
Greg Frey and Tony Dews recently stopped into Fort Meyers to visit FL WR Sammy Watkins and his teammate, CB/Ath Dallas Crawford.
Michigan leads for LA CB Daren Kitchen ($, info in header), and he says it would be "hard to turn down" an offer from the Wolverines.
The Distant Future. The Year 2012.
Michigan is already in good position with a number of 2012 prospects. We already knew about MI LB James Ross, but his youth football teammate, MI LB Royce Jenkins-Stone, now at a school called "Cass Tech" (you may have heard of it) considers Michigan among his top schools ($, info in header).
The Wolverines also lead for OH DE Chris Wormley ($, info in header). Wormley should be a top-5 player in Ohio next year.
Keep an eye on another OH DE, LaTroy Lewis, who has a connection to Michigan ($, info in header).
Advertising note. If you live in Michigan (or, more accurately, if your ISP does) You may have noticed a banner for the Women's Football Academy rotating along the right side of the blog. They've purchased some ad space in support of the blog and I'd encourage anyone who is a qualified for the Academy (read: a woman) to check it out. As with many things related to the football program these days, the proceeds go to an excellent cause.
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon: 'Change is in the wind'
Poem to date:
I create the future
Change is in the wind.
That is all. Oh: peanut gallery request for Dave Brandon Poetry Slam image to go with what promises to be an electric ongoing feature.
CEASE INSANE DIVISIONAL SPLITZ KTHX. If the Big Ten expands, Michigan and Ohio State will be in the same division:
"I think what’s probably most important is that you play them every year,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said Tuesday from the Big Ten spring meetings. “For us, it’s always been at the end and that’s always had a great buildup and excitement to that, so you would think that would be part of the conversation. But there’s a lot of factors in play. I have not put a lot of thought into it.”
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said that issue is “very important” to him.
“At the end of the day when I look at things quantifiably, I’ll determine how hard I jump on the table,” Smith said. “But I can’t say for sure how high a table I’ll jump on. I have to wait and see.”
I have no idea what the hell Smith means by that but I'm sure if it's translated from Buckeye it means "beer fire bad. Michigan-Ohio State rivalry good." Bloggers still creating wildly impractical expansion scenarios—losers—can cut out the ones where Michigan and Ohio State do not play every year.
Getting way ahead of ourselves. Penn State rotates off the schedule next year along with all nonconference road games. (Also Purdue.) Minnesota and Northwestern return. The resulting schedule looks… well, it looks as easy as these things get short of moving to the WAC:
2011 Michigan Football Schedule
|Sept. 3||Western Michigan|
|Sept. 10||Notre Dame|
|Sept. 17||Eastern Michigan|
|Sept. 24||San Diego State|
|Oct. 8||at Wisconsin|
|Oct. 15||Indiana (Homecoming)|
|Oct. 22||at Michigan State|
|Oct. 29||at Iowa|
|Nov. 19||at Northwestern|
|Nov. 26||Ohio State|
Eight home games, no Penn State, OSU and ND at home: that will be a put up or shut up type of schedule.
I don't understand why people keep falling out of the boat when I push more in. Hardcore Michigan recruitniks will have a vague recollection of Star Jackson, the dual-threat quarterback who was briefly on Michigan's radar during Rodriguez's first-month quarterback scramble that landed Justin Feagin and whiffed on Pryor, BJ Daniels, and everyone else. Jackson was committed to Alabama and stayed committed despite the Michigan offer. Today, he's announcing a transfer.
As far as Crimson Tide transfers go this one is near the bottom on the sketchiness scale: Jackson was third-string after spring practice and the Tide have hyped incoming freshman Phillip Sims joining the team this fall. Quarterbacks have a hair trigger these days when it comes to transfers. Even so, it takes a robot to say this with a straight face:
"We hate to see any player leave the program, but quarterback's kind of a unique position where one guy can play, and we have a lot of competition there right now. Greg's the starter coming back, AJ has done a fantastic job of improving, Phillip Sims came in at mid-semester and showed a lot of promise this spring."
Alabama oversigned by ten this February. Yes, again. They have six more guys to go. Jackson battled an academic suspension in spring, and given the state of the depth chart you have to wonder how invested Alabama was in getting him through that.
Now: which offensive lineman who isn't panning out will get a medical scholarship?
This is a problem? Apparently the one person on the planet with both a deep personal animosity towards the San Diego State football program and a connection to Michigan is Tate Forcier:
Honestly, San Diego State is a team right in my backyard and they didn’t show me any love or attention. Coach (Chuck) Long didn’t pay much attention to me, which was surprising because I showed some interest in them.
Son of a bitch. Grab the influenza and burn the boats: there's an indigenous group of homicidal, gold-hoarding polytheists to beat by at least three points.
Actually: maybe David Underwood also hates SDSU. Maybe he blames it all on them.
Zinger. Rodriguez speaking about the ACC's Big East raid, which happened while he was the coach at WVU:
“I think it caught a few institutions off guard and it probably institutionally taught a few lessons that, hey, we better be prepared for that the next time,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know all the factors, but I’m sure there’s a few more buy-ins and buy-outs and things like that. I know all about buy-outs."
Zing! Wait, he zinged himself. Someone at this to the list of Rodriguez Humiliations that will be read over the loudspeaker before every game this fall.
Etc.: Even more python parsing of MGoBlog reveals that the words "Harbaugh," "mom," and "penetration" have each been deployed exactly 128 times. Isn't that was the Les Miles rumor? So much for python. Maize n Blue Nation gets detailed on the new turf. Beilein is heading overseas with the team if they can work something out.
[Ed: This week's Mathlete column expands on fourth down decision-making. I haven't seen a graph anywhere near as clear as those included below about how shifting the parameters of the offenses and defenses in question makes major impact on what a correct decision is. This is not a situation where you can just read the decision off a chart. Feel and personal preference will always play a role. It's a complex decision.]
Last week I wrote on the value of special teams but a very interesting side topic arose: fourth down decision making. It started with this chart:
About which I remarked:
The going for it actually peaks between 30 and 35 as more coaches don’t really know what to do so they just go for it.
So I decided to look and see what the decision chart should look like on an expected points basis.
Anything close to two different colors is a virtual toss-up. Any gains near a color transition are negligible and not worth noting, but there are very real gains to be made in the heart of the yellow section, where coaches are taking their offenses off of the field far too quickly.
A couple of quick rules of thumb:
- Don’t punt on the opponent’s side of the field.
- Really consider going for it on 4th down after crossing your own 40.
- Field goals only make sense if there are more than 5 yards to go and you are between the 10 and 30 yard lines. If you’re in opponent territory and these two criteria aren’t true, you should be going for it.
I know this is not the first time a topic like this has been presented, David Romer was mostly criticized for his paper on the topic a couple years back (thanks for the reminder Colin). [Ed: Not around here.] Of course there was the great Patriot debate last season when the Patriots elected to go for it on 4th and 2 with the lead in their own territory. Even though the majority of the arguments against this work amount to "people like David Romer and The Mathlete don’t know anything about football and just live in their parent’s basement" I did want to look at the main objections and see if they had any validity.
Objection 1: Does not account for “quick change” momentum
Below you’ll see a chart of the expected points on a drive based on field position, and how teams have actually fared. I also included drives obtained by turnover as comparison to the other “quick change” drive source.
There could be a case that drives started on a short field due to a 4th down stop generate more points than normal drives, but the small sample size reduces how strongly that argument can be made. From 2007-2009, the total points accounted for on drives obtained by 4th down stops (2523) is less than the projected points would be for any drives starting at the same field position (2580). This difference is meaningless statistically, something very damaging to the idea "momentum" helps the opposing offense after their defense gets a fourth down stop.
Adding in the turnovers does nothing to build a case for momentum after big defensive stops or turnovers. The turnover-started drive line tightly hugs the average line. As a whole, the turnover expected points line is slightly higher than the average line, but only by enough to generate an extra touchdown every 50 drives. That's about one every two years or so.
Although it can often feel like there is a big momentum swing after a big stop or turnover, there is scant evidence that it is more than our memories selecting the most traumatic or exhilarating scenes to hold onto. [Ed: for an example of this human tendency to ascribe meaning to unusual events where there is none, see any of the zillion "hot hand" studies.]
Objection 2: It assumes all offenses and defenses are average
To get a gauge on what “good” can mean in comparison to average, I plotted the best offense and best defense of the last three years against the average team’s expected points per drive.
As a rough approximation, the best offense is about a 1 point per drive better than average and the best defense makes offenses about a point worse per drive.
Scenario 1: Good offense
If your offense is as good as Florida, you should never punt against an average defense. Maybe if you are deep in your own territory, but only in the most extreme situations. This assumes that a new first down gives the Florida offense an extra point over an average team in expected value and a 10 percentage point increase in the likelihood that they convert.
A punt is conceding any chance of scoring and an offense this good should not give up that right so easily. This is the basic philosophy behind the vaunted no punting HS coach in Arkansas. His team isn’t necessary good because he doesn’t punt. He doesn’t punt because his offense is good. Why waste another scoring opportunity?
Scenario 2: Going against a good defense
Playing against a good defense changes the dynamic extensively but it does not mean forgoing the fourth down attempt altogether. With a reduced likelihood of success on 4th down and a reduced payout if the conversion is successful, the 4th down attempt still is an optimal strategy more than is currently utilized. Even against a top national defense, you should still not punt in opponent territory. The field goal becomes a more viable option against the stronger defense and punting becomes a much better idea all the way out to midfield.
[Ed: I think this is moving towards correct strategy since it takes a caveman or a seriously long-yardage situation for someone to punt from inside the opponent's 40 these days. That range from midfield to the opponent 40 is a spot we might see move towards fourth-down aggression in the next few years.
Also note that coventional current strategy gets way less wrong once you ramp up the ability of the defense. If we jacked it up even farther, it might get to the point where punting from the 36 (or even on third down) is a good idea. The flaws in strategy here are leftovers from an era when punting was actually the best option. Thinking has not kept pace with scoring since.]
Scenarios 3/4: Good defense or opponent good offense
The conventional wisdom is that if you trust your defense, you don’t go for it on fourth down. [Ed: In my experience the conventional wisdom is remarkably malleable on this point. If you have a good D and the announcer agrees with the call, the good D will be cited as a reason why.] In reality, the strength of your own defense (or the strength of the opposing offense) is largely irrelevant to the decision. Fourth down decisions are all about offensive opportunity. A 4th down decision to punt is the decision to take the ball out of your offense’s hand, leaving the relative impacts on your defense to negate each other. A 4th down failure puts your defense in a worse situation, but it doesn’t guarantee points for the other team; a good defense is still a major asset in stopping or limiting the other team with good field position. A punt doesn’t guarantee that the other team is going to be stopped, but a good defense makes it more likely. In the end, it’s still all about the offense.
Objection 3: Does not account for game specific situations
This objection does ring true, but its application is much narrower than most people believe. The main flaw with the expected points model is that for most of the game all points are largely equal but at the end of the game, a field goal or even time can become crucially important. If a field goal can tie a game, take the lead, or move said lead from one possession to two (or vice-versa), the decision-making process suggested above can shift radically. This could mean punting near midfield to prevent a short field goal drive for the other team or taking a field goal instead going for it on fourth in field goal range.
These situations are rare, however, and only come into effect in the fourth quarter. When there are likely to be even 2-3 additional possessions, the expected points model still holds up.
Another potential game situation not accounted for above is the presence of a high quality field goal kicker. A very accurate field goal kicker will move the blue field goal “bubble” in the above charts down, making fields more practical in short yardage situations. An above average kicker from long range will move the bubble left. Even a great kicker won’t make kicking inside the 5 practical in very many situations.
Conclusion: In Which Romer Is Re-Iterated
Teams need to be using kickers and punters less and their offenses more. Especially teams with good offenses. If you have a good offense, bringing out the punter should only be done in long distance situations or when deep in your own territory. Scoring touchdowns is the valuable thing in football and giving away a quarter of your plays to kick on fourth down greatly reduces your ability to score them, the gain in field position from a punt is worth less than it is currently perceived to be and the idea that momentum is obtained from a quick change of possession is to be slight at best and most likely non-existent.
One final thought I haven’t been able to quantify yet: if you switch to a fourth down mindset, what opportunities does it open up in play calling during the first three downs of a series. Planning on four plays for a first down instead of three would surely have some value for an offense to adjust and re-optimize their play calling, and the total offensive value could become even greater.
Note: apparently Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats and I have been having some of the same offseason thoughts as he just put up another piece on 4th down decision making, and this after we both introduced similar defensive player evaluation metrics within a month of each other.