NSD is over and it's basketball season, so of course I'm going to post a very belated and unprofessional football "analysis". But hey, the basketball team is rebuilding and spring practice is still weeks away so here goes.
I pored over Seth's "Run Fits" column partly because of the Harbaugh hype and partly because I wanted -- confession of selfishness here -- vindication of my indictment of Borges. If I'm right in comparing Borges' "27 for 27" to Black Adder's portrayal of Field Marshal Haig (clip since taken down), then Harbaugh should be the opposite, MANBAUGH be damned. I definitely enjoyed the read and agree with every bit of Seth's analysis, but I kind of saw things a bit differently. Harbaugh has this reputation for being an XXXTREME MANBALL coach, and the reason is far from inexplicable. Just a glance at his formations screams old-school, smash-mouth, 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust SPARTAAAA:
Thing is, these offenses are notorious for being predictable in an era of S&C parity. So why does it work? Granted you can just re-read Seth's tactical breakdown, but I wanted to examine this offense from a more strategic perspective, so I took another look at Stanford's 2011 Orange Bowl. First, the opening five drives:
Naked bootleg LEFT* for 11 yards
Tailback flat route for 6 yards
I-form run stuffed behind LoS
I-form pass blitzed, Luck rolls right and turfs it
I-form play-action blown up, Luck runs OOB
I-form quick pass to TE complete for 6
Pistol, go route caught OOB
Fake punt stuffed
I-form run left for 4
Pistol PA screen pass for 1
Pistol, out route + YAC for 20
I-form DOOM** left for 60-yard TD.
I-form run stuffed
I-form run left stuffed
1-back under center pass derped, safety
I-form run left for 5
I-form run right for 3
1-back under center pass to TE for 4
I-form off-tackle DOOM left for 26
I-form off-tackle left for 4
Wildcat right stuffed
Pistol 4-wide, 25-yard pass TD to TE
*Luck is right-handed, so I think VT was caught flat-footed.
**Seth explain this in detail but it's so much fun I'll say it again: Stanford shifted into an unbalanced formation, motioned the TE and then pulled the RG, launching well over a half ton of meat at VT's back seven.
Here's the rub: A stereotypical "MANBALL" team with a right-handed QB typically has a run-blocking RT and pass-blocking LT, sending the TE, FB, RB and a puller to the right side of the formation to create a meat avalanche. Stanford handed off three times in the first three drives, and while they were technically strongside runs, none of them went right. How is this an "XXXTREME MANBALL" team? The answer is, it isn't. Hoke is MANBALL. DeBord is MANBALL. This is what I refer to as SunTzuBall:
"Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend."
I'm not a coach, but if I was one, this would be my philosophy. Don't settle for predictable. Don't even take what the defense gives you. Make them think, "Ogod I don't know what's coming." (Edit: Got a bit flippant here.) Every OC says they want that, but some are better at poker than others.
This was NOT a bunch of brutes mindlessly slamming into each other, or even coached to "execute" mindlessly slamming into each other. Harbaugh's offense looks like MANBALL but is actually balanced. I don't think Harbaugh does anything to dissuade the perception; he wants people to think they're cavemen. His assistants will blather on about being a "physical" team and show that I-form heavy all day until your safeties are 6 yards off the LoS, but he's not going to give you what you want. If he runs the ball 10 straight times, it's not because he's willing it to work; it's because you're doing the damage to yourself:
"For should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left."
The keys here are misdirection and mismatches. Borges tried to create misdirection but was downright infantile at it; Nuss used constraints but didn't exploit mismatches. In modern offenses overall, the "spread" is such a generic term that it hardly means anything anymore, but to pick on one aspect, the slotback is a mismatch against linebackers and safeties. It's tough for defenders who bulk up against the run to keep pace with a shifty slotbug in space. Combined with the zone read and the O-line splits, the essence of a spread is that heavy guys aren't quick. As Seth points out, MANBALL is the opposite: multiple TEs and a FB put the secondary in a bind because the defense doesn't have enough meat to go around. The defense compensates with speed, getting to the point of attack before the play can develop, but this means they have to act fast and make decisions faster. That's easy when the OC kindly gives you what you want, but MANBAUGH is none of that nonsense.
Here's Some Rope, Now Hang Yourself
With that in mind, let's look at a particular play in the second half of the Orange Bowl (jump to 1:33:38). Up 19-12 late in the 3rd quarter, Stanford is pinned on their own 3-yard line and shows their classic I-form. Unlike in the first half, the TE motions to the right side. The situation calls for a conservative play and the formation is MANBALL to end all MANBALL. VT's defense had been torched several times, but also scored on a safety and otherwise kept Stanford in check. So they're wary of strongside runs, but they're not scared of Stanford imposing their will, toughness, physicality, blah blah blah any of that stupid crap we've heard for the last four years. Nope, they're champing at the bit to swarm whatever gap that FB is going. Marecic is going to eat helmet. The ghost of the still-living Borges is blushing with pride. Only problem?
It's the wrong read. In the mic'd up clip at 1:21, Harbaugh's yelling "backdoor". Harbaugh knows VT is overplaying (also mentioned in MGoPodcast 6.15, 9:00-11:00), but I don't think Taylor is even reading this -- they're deliberately running a bait-and-switch. On the snap, the FB runs strongside and VT follows. Marecic is working his way outside and can't find a gap. Even the RB's track is initially to the right, but (I think) this is a feint because after the mesh he immediately cuts around Luck -- no bounce -- and past the edge blocker (LT?) who casually escorts his defender into the mosh pit to create a gap even the legendary Yoh Momma could fit through:
The result is a 56-yard run. The next play Stanford again shows a heavy formation, then tosses the first of three long TD passes to the TE. VT does not have enough defenders to stop everything Stanford's throwing at them, and it's game over.
"If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak. Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against possible attacks; numerical strength, from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us."
Space Coyote will probably be the first to point out that fundamentally, these are all plays available to a conventional "pro-style" offense, and I don't dispute that. The killshot was just a backdoor cut. We can also digress into an argument about execution, and I do have my thoughts on that as well (might post them later). But to stay on point, I don't consider Harbaugh's plays "exotic". The ball still goes in any direction available to a venerable pro-style offense. The important aspect is that, contrary to his MANBALL reputation, he doesn't "impose his will" or use some plays only as constraints to "keep defenses honest", but do him a favor and go right on telling people that. His strategy is physically less stubborn and mentally more vicious. He doesn't pound his head against brick walls or even take what you give him. He gets inside your nightmares, and if MANBALL is your bogeyman then he'll happily wear that mask.
Jamie Moyer is a retired MLB pitcher who reignited his career in his mid-30s by inverting his approach. A formerly washed-up power pitcher, his repertoire wasn't different from his peers -- fastball, curve, changeup. But whereas most "power" pitchers try to blow by hitters with a fastball to set up off-speed "out" pitches, Moyer realized he was terrible at that. So used his changeup to set up his fastball en route to sub-4 ERAs in 7 of 8 of the most home-run happy seasons in MLB history, culminating with a 3.27 ERA and 21-7 record in 2003. That is an elite season, and he did it in the boomstick American League, and he did it at age 40 with an 85mph fastball.
As I've said here and there, "3 yards and a cloud of dust" was not a conservative offense; it was an aggressive approach during a bygone era based on the premise that overwhelming talent can turn a predictable run into a sure thing. There was no need to do anything else. Today, it's the "washed up" power pitcher. Except in rare cases, you can't get away with it. You can't dare everyone with fastballs down the middle any more than you can run into a stacked box over and over again. Stanford didn't. They didn't overpower anyone with their roster of 2- and 3-star recruits. It's not imposing will, toughness, blah blah. Their "MANBALL" was the football equivalent of an 85mph heater thrown from a 40-year-old arm with veteran sagacity and exquisite precision. Harbaugh is the Jamie Moyer of the pro-style offense. That fastball may be 85mph, but you won't be able to hit it because he's smarter than you.