Film Review: "Bad Play Calls" Aren't Really Bad; and You Should Feel Bad About It.

Submitted by Space Coyote on September 6th, 2018 at 2:11 PM

I wrote a new post that piggy-backs a little bit off of Seth's Neck Sharpies (now with stunning re-post technology) and was based on a few tweet threads I've had this week.

I know the "execution" vs "play call" thing is a hot topic around here. I give my two cents on that. And give my general opinion about the "play calling" crutch I see most fans lean on when their team struggles vs what I see as the reality, and give a few examples.

What's this mean for any of you? I don't know. I get why "play calling" is such a crutch. But I also appreciate things like the Neck Sharpies post that say "hey, maybe there's a little something more to this; maybe there's some reason for this; maybe it's not so black and white and simple".

So I dunno. Feel bad. Or don't. Maybe just look at a few plays and see if you can get behind there being a little more to unsuccessful plays than just "play calling" (and hopefully give some optimism that there are correctable errors that could help the offensive improve over the season).


Also, because I don't want to push it off the page more, check out the Film Analysis post as well. 



September 6th, 2018 at 2:13 PM ^

I mean it's pretty simple.  If it got enough yards it was a good play.  If it didn't get enough yards it was a bad play and we should get on the internet and yell about it.


September 6th, 2018 at 3:19 PM ^

I like your post Space Coyote.  The one thing I would like your advice on is (not being snarky or sarcastic...truly curious) wouldn't bad play calling lead to poor execution?  What I mean is this, if our running game is essentially run it straight up the middle, doesn't it eventually fall on bad play calling because the defense is expecting the similar thing over and over thus making it more difficult to execute.  Wouldn't in many instances, bad play calling (predictable, not nuanced or creative) be a direct cause for bad execution?  Maybe it's a "Chicken or the Egg" useless argument.

Space Coyote

September 6th, 2018 at 3:37 PM ^

Certainly, play calling can make execution more difficult. In no way am I saying play calling is not a part of the game that has an impact. But the difference between the best and the worst on a massive bell curve isn't that drastic, and there are so many other inputs that go into "what went wrong" that "play calling" is almost always an over simplification.

In the examples that I presented, that was almost certainly the case. For instance, I don't recall Harbaugh once running speed option in his tenure at Michigan (he did for the 49ers), that wasn't a predictable play call. That play call got exactly what it wanted from the defense and the blocking. Something else had to happen for it to fail, and what happened wasn't necessarily a difficult thing. There are likely reasons for the lack of execution, and it isn't only on players (how much did they rep speed option?), but I keep seeing "it's a bad play call" and never "here's why it was a bad play call"; and if someone did explain why it may not be a good play call, it certainly didn't have anything to do with design, timing of the call, what the call went up against, etc.


September 6th, 2018 at 4:11 PM ^

I would argue no from my experience as a player and a coach...Adrian HS (MI) notoriously ran the same plays every game, every year. We saw it on film, we recognized it on the field, one point I swear their interior linemen practically pointed to the gap they were going to run, called the play out loud for anyone to hear, and proceeded to run it right over the top of us time and time again.  For years Monroe Jefferson (MI) essentially did the same. Point being, you could read, know, predict what was coming but they executed to absolute perfection with simple smash mouth power football, year in and year out. They just flipped in the next 180 pound undersized lineman, he outquicked you, and they smacked you in the mouth. I am sure it is a similar story across the nation at that high school level. And to some extent while collegiate football is on another level, relatively speaking it isn' is football and execution of plays, THE SAME PLAYS, not a new coordinator every two seasons is critical.


September 6th, 2018 at 4:44 PM ^

That’s like asking if poor execution means your boss is bad because you don’t do your jobs b correctly.  

You can lead a talented student (athlete) to water, you can illustrate for them how to do it—you can review all the contingencies for how t may play out—and you can even have them illustrate in class (practice) how they can do it well. 

And even if they have a good practice and are well prepared, the student athlete can still fail to execute even when the play may not be the best. Why? Because they are students—not pros. And in sports, even pros fail.

We outgained Notre Dame, taking all the work into account. The students failed inside the red zone. Was it all their fault? We will see over the course of the season. 

I would love to have seen some different calls because I am a fan and I want to see us use our height mismatches with WR and TEs—so I would’ve called different plays. But im just a fan—I don’t know what plays the student showed they perform well in practice. And I have to believe based on how important Harbaugh sees practicing well that he calls plays based on player execution in practice. He’s not going to call many or any plays that students don’t execute well in practice.

i don’t like to blame players, but the more we keep bringing these debates up, I trust the coaches more and more. And they trust talented players who need to fix in-game mistakes.

Space Coyote

September 6th, 2018 at 2:17 PM ^

By the way, this isn't to say bad play calls don't exist. They do. This isn't to say that play calling can't dictate the outcome of games. It can. It's more of a "you shouldn't just assume bad outcomes are bad play calls" sort of thing. Hopefully I make that clear in the post.


September 6th, 2018 at 4:34 PM ^

He's saying play calls amount to educated guesses. There are definitely plays that work better and some that have no shot (why audibles exist) based on what the defense decides to do. The skill of the person choosing the play has an influence on that, but there's a lot of guess work and luck too. You do what you're good at, anticipate what they're going to do and what they're weak at. But the opposing DC at any given moment can thwart that by doing the same thing on the other side. That's why "RPS" exists on this site, it really is like rock paper scissors a lot of times.

What he's saying, basically, is the converse: A play that worked or didn't doesn't mean a play call was good or bad. 


September 6th, 2018 at 3:01 PM ^

Typically I would agree. However, with how bad some of the line was pass blicking, I don't really Blame them in this particular game. 

I do think they should have set up a few screens (not of the bubble variety) and draws to counter the aggressive ND defense. I know The tunnel screen that they did run was stopped in the tracks when runyan didn't get even a chip on the DE before releasing, but I have to believe he wouldn't make that mistake over and over. Maybe I'm wrong there... 


Space Coyote

September 6th, 2018 at 3:16 PM ^

FWIW, on the tunnel, it isn't uncommon for the OL not to chip, especially the OL that releases to get the force defender. That's because he has to get wide quickly, and he wants to most direct and uninterrupted path to get there. The "draw action" from Patterson was supposed to prevent the DE from gaining depth on that play, and combined with Patterson's quick release, was expected to be enough to prevent the ball from getting batted. Didn't work, but that's the intent. That wasn't actually a bust from JRJ.

Here's an example



September 6th, 2018 at 3:37 PM ^

That video is not working. How many teams scheme the play where the tackle doesn't chip the end, compared to teams that chip then release? 

I get that it is not like traditional screens to the bscks, and the tackles have to get out much further for a tunnel screen. However, it appears to me that JRJ does try to get a chip but doesn't do much at all. I could be wrong because my phone is the only way I have rematched the play. I guess a better question would be how confident are you that Michigan runs it without a chip? I honestly don't remember from years past. 

About my original point, are you a bit surprised they didn't run a more non-bubble screens to tske advtake of NDs aggressive defense? 

Space Coyote

September 6th, 2018 at 3:43 PM ^

You gotta click the link to go to youtube for some reason (NFL doesn't let it embed or something or other). 

Like I said, if the OT in that situation has to block the force defender, he typically releases straight out. A lot of teams will align a TE to that side of the ball so the OT can stay in longer and the TE can release, but not always. (Some teams will also adjust this based on typical defensive reaction, formation, etc.)

Here's an example of Michigan running it under Borges. The OT works upfield a bit to sell run, but never engages, and free releases out to the force defender to create the alley. The difference is mostly that the play action to the RB does a better job of holding the DE.

As for the other screens, I think they could have tried a few other RB screens, but generally it's difficult because ND was playing their SS in the box and a lot of man coverage. And the safeties weren't really threatened over the top and were playing flat footed because of the poor protection forcing Michigan to go away from the deep game. So it becomes difficult to run those screens because you don't really get the layers in the defense post snap with the DBs retreating and pressure coming in. Certainly, man is good for most screens, but not typically when the coverage is in the box to help defend it.


September 6th, 2018 at 2:38 PM ^

Great post coyote. Let me ask you this - I was thinking (piggybacking on how to improve offense thread) why doesn't/won't Michigan run more gap scheme or power? They got JBB+Onwenu+Ruiz - thats major beef. Just run that more and mash people? Is this something thats in the arsenal to be revealed later? Thought team was decent running the ball end of last year... 

Space Coyote

September 6th, 2018 at 2:58 PM ^

Hard to say for sure. I really, really think they are trying to simplify things, and zone generally is more simple. It seems, specifically from gun, that they like zone better right now. They did run some gap/man, but from my recollection it was mostly when they got under center.

Given the pass pro issues as well, they may want to be able to simplify the look for play action. If you're gap man, you better be pulling when you run PA as well, otherwise it's not very convincing. I'm not sure Michigan's OL is ready for that.

So those are some thoughts that may or may not be correct.


September 6th, 2018 at 3:00 PM ^

Mathematically, no.

The question is whether to run 3 plays (pass, run, run) or two plays (run, run).

Interceptions happen less than 1% of the time at that down and distance.

The odds of winning the game are high for Seattle either way, but they're highest when calling the 'free' pass play.

The loss was not due to the playcall, it was due to Malcolm Butler making one hell of a football play.


September 6th, 2018 at 7:01 PM ^

There wasn't enough time on the clock to run beast mode 3 times.

The debate is (pass, run, run) vs (run, run) and between those two options (pass, run, run) is more mathematically likely to lead to a win (both choices are likely to result in a W but attempting the free pass play first increases the odds in your favor further).

A good question is why did Belichick decide not to call the time out?

Space Coyote

September 6th, 2018 at 3:03 PM ^

Depends on who you're asking.

New England had Goal Line personnel in the game against 11 personnel. All strictly X's and O's people will tell you that you pass in that situation.

For how powerful of a runner Lynch is, a bit like D. Smith was for Michigan, he wasn't a great goal line runner (had a high stuff rate in those situations), so some personnel people would tell you, it was the right call.

Seattle needed a TD, a throw on 2nd down should at worst end in a stopped clock, giving you the ability to run or pass on 3rd down with your single TO left. Some clock management people will argue a pass was the right call.

And yet, Seattle had successfully just run the ball. It was 2nd and G from the 1 and they still had a time out with 27 sec to go. A run is safer. And sometimes the "right" play call, isn't the right play call. When you let the defense dictate what you do instead dictating terms yourself, sometimes it bites you. Or leaves you not handing the ball to Zeke Elliot against MSU in a night game that results in the only loss of your season.

So again, it depends on who you're asking. They're all right at least to some degree.


September 6th, 2018 at 2:44 PM ^

This is great stuff, SC. Unfortunately it feels like the Hoke/Borges years all over again. The plays are there to make and Michigan simply doesn't make them. They haven't made them in a decade. These are the types of plays that make teams great instead of mediocre. You have to make the plays that are there. This elite defense saw plenty to make and didn't make them. The offense had plenty and didn't make them. John O'Korn had plenty last year against OSU and didn't.

Its the drips on the tin roof that make a man go crazy and we've all gone crazy.


September 6th, 2018 at 2:52 PM ^

Go back and read the UFR during the Borges era. It was consistently, "play was there but the execution didn't happen", week after week. While the overall team play is much better than the Hoke/Borges era, the lack of execution theme IS the same.

Edit: Also, Hoke was 31-0 but also was 35-31 UM and 41-30 UM. 

Space Coyote

September 6th, 2018 at 3:07 PM ^

Lack of execution was the biggest problem of the Hoke era, in my opinion, but I think the overall coaching was much worse than it is now. The major common theme is that there is an OL weakness. One has weak tackles the other had a weak interior. And the reaction is the opposite; one tried to get chunks all the time in order to overcome what was a lack of efficiency, the other is operating on a high-efficiency plan but lacks big plays. Dealing with a poor OL is tough.

But what we see everywhere except OL is drastically different than the Hoke era. And Warinner is one of the best in the business. But OL fixes don't happen over night, they just don't. If the players don't let things snow ball on them, things will get better. It sucks it's not now, but it is what it is.


September 6th, 2018 at 3:45 PM ^

Agreed.  No fixes happen overnight.  UTL I was a great example of that.  For as much as we laud Greg Mattison for fixing the defense, it was awful in that game.  We gave up 31 points, and ND had 5 turnovers (3 of which were fumbles, including Rees dropping the ball inside the M 10 yard line).  My reaction in the stadium when V. Smith scored with 1:22 left was "shit, we scored too fast," and I know I wasn't the only one.  ND's last touchdown was something like a 30 yard pass, it was blitheringly wide open, and I wasn't even surprised.  

Turning around a defense, or an O line, is like turning around a battleship.  It might happen really slowly, but when it does, watch out.  I think we have the right people in charge of steering, at least, so hopefully by the Nebraska and Northwestern game things will be pointed in the right direction.


September 6th, 2018 at 4:26 PM ^

also noted Mr.Kid...the Hoke Era was year four with RR players, and they were aggressively getting worse year by year. Went from 11 wins to five...Now Harbaugh is in year four with BH kids, and had a shot at winning that game. Recruiting is still suffering, offense change is just about as frequent, yet Harbaugh APPEARS to be getting better, Hoke was clearly losing the program. It's not going back to the 80s in four years. Time for people to accept that fact, ride it out, stay loyal to your program. You won't find a home run coach to replace Harbaugh. If for WHATEVER imaginable circumstance brought Urbz to Ann Arbor, he wouldn't win any more games with what we have. There is a moderate talent gap, there is a development will get better. Just need patience.