Speed Chess & UM Football

Submitted by StephenRKass on September 16th, 2011 at 9:45 AM

There is an interesting article over at Grantland on college football offenses. (http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6948865/speed-chess) The author suggests that in the NFL, most teams focus on confusing the opposition, and essentially play the same way, because of the extremely high level of athletic ability across the board. However, at the college ranks, particularly as you go to lower levels, there is a huge level of diversity and creativity.

I still am pondering how this applies to Michigan, and some of the angst currently found on the board (and in our fearless leader) over whether to play over center or out of the shotgun. I'm inclinded to think, after reading this, that MIchigan is heading in the right direction. In order to consistently win at the highest levels, against stout and athletic defenses, gimmicry will only get you so far. With a spread and speed offense, against lower level teams (think non-conference and lower tier Big 10 teams in 2010) you can either blow them away or at least compete. Against high level defenses, things fall apart.

In the article, this year's Oregon-LSU game is analyzed as an example. Oregon has been able to shred mediocre to good defenses, and overrun them. But against a solid and great defense like LSU, their advantage is completely negated.

As I apply this to UofM, I am beginning to think that even apart from our turrible defense, our previous offense would only go so far. In other words, we could have had an excellent defense, but our offense would grind to a halt against Ohio and LSU and the like. If this is true, Michigan's current offense will not overwhelm and overrun weaker teams on the schedule the same way they did last year, but will have a better chance against the stronger teams (MSU, Nebraska, Ohio) we face this year. If Mattison and team health and the emergence of BWC all coalesce, we may have a better chance to compete than previously thought.

I'd be interested to hear from better football minds on both the article and how you see it applying to Michigan.



September 16th, 2011 at 10:31 AM ^

Those teams also had top-notch defenses and were loaded with NFL caliber talent on both sides of the ball.  I think that has more to do with their success than the kind of offense they ran.  I don't think any of us can say that their success was attributable specifically to the spread offense.  




September 16th, 2011 at 10:42 AM ^

I agree.  I think it can work against any level of competition -- its just that the schematic advantage is basically neutralized when the D you are playing against has NFL-caliber talent (which would presumably be the case for any type of offense against a talented D, not just the spread).  

However, I do think running a high-tempo spread can hurt you against top notch Ds if you are trying to run a high-tempo offense that doesn't move the chains -- then it just hurts your own D by not giving them time to rest in between series.  This is one of the reasons I like what Borges is doing with our offense to give it more balance, even if it means not maximizing Denard's talents on every play.


September 16th, 2011 at 10:00 AM ^

Oregon shot itself in the foot. They weren't a good enough team to come out and be -3 in turnovers and have LaMichael James have a pretty awful day. If their defense had anywhere near the talent that LSU did, they still would have been in the game. First downs equal at 18, Oregon was better on third down (47% to 40% conversion), but Oregon had more than twice the penalty yards and was -3 in turnovers.

In short, while I think LSU has a very, very good defense, Oregon shot themselves in the foot to an extent, and I think the Oregon offense matches up with the LSU defense. Special teams and LSU offense vs. Oregon defense is another story though, and that's why LSU won by 13.


September 16th, 2011 at 10:06 AM ^

If you would like proof of your theory that "gimmicy" offenses such as the spread or speed offenses will give a massive against lower competition but that advantage completely evaporated against better defenses, just watch 2010.  Our offense dominated the crappy teams and stalled for large periods of the game against better teams.

But, there is one counter-point to make:

talented players = effective offense, regardless of style.  Auburn and Florida ran "gimmicy" offenses and won national championships.  With those teams, it didn't matter what offense they had because they simply out-talented the opposing defenses.  Looking at last year's M team, we were at a talent advantage against the vrappier teams, hence our offensive output.  But, we were at a talent disadvantage against the top teams on our schedule such as Wisco, OSU and MSU (Gator). 

So, I guess that long wind-up leads me to this conclusion:

1.  If you have a talented group of players, the scheme will not matter a lot - you should have a good offense.

2.  If you have less talented players, the gimmicy offenses WILL help you against lower-talent teams, but they will NOT help you against the better teams because in the end, it is about talent.

(obviously, these are very broad, sweeping conclusions, and scheme will have SOME effect)


September 16th, 2011 at 10:17 AM ^

Your counterpoint isn't even a counterpoint, it's basically the same thing you said at first (for the record, I agree with your post, that wasn't a knock on it).

It was the defense that mattered. Even as a top five offense (which I do think we were close to) you cannot expect to put up 40 on a top ten defense in order to win a game. Good defense marginalizes a good offense, by definition, no matter what style either plays.


September 16th, 2011 at 1:45 PM ^

Calling the spread a "gimmick" is absurd. It's just a scheme designed to get speedy playmakers 1 on 1 with defenders in open space. It also forces defenses to allow mismatches and gives playmakers options to exploit those mismatches. Just like I-form is designed to maximize a power advantage, spread is designed to maximize a speed and smarts advantage.

Rather than the spread minimizing your chances against top defenses, I'd say it's just the opposite. Do you think we would have had more success trying to bullrush through the Wisconsin D in a power I? The spread minimizes your talent disadvantage by creating mismatches and one-on-one opportunities. You can get big plays with a few playmakers. Wheras a power game relies on your ability outmuscle your opponent on every play. If you have slow, strong linemen, a pocket statue QB, and big receivers you should run pro-style. If you have agile linemen, a smart dual-threat QB, and fast receivers with an eye for blocking, you should run spread. If you have strong, big, agile linemen, big and fast receivers that can run routes and block, and a dual-threat QB with a laser cannon arm, it doesn't matter what you run because you're better than everyone else.

Pro-style teams are just as capable of faltering against solid defense. THAT'S WHAT MAKES THEM GREAT DEFENSES: THEY ARE HARD TO SCORE AGAINST. See: Wisconsin v. TCU. Or see every Bo/Mo/Lloyd team: great against outmatched opponents, but mediocre against top competition. Oregon looked bad against LSU, but that LSU defensive line looks very, very stout. I doubt there are many teams, spread, pro, or otherwise, who will have much success against that line.



September 16th, 2011 at 10:07 AM ^

Denard Robinson can't effectively be used under center, that the only way he'll be effective is in the shotgun.  (I'm sure he'd agree!)  And it's too bad UMs offensive line can't block man-to-man, because "they weren't recruited for that type of offense."  (I'm sure Molk and Lewan and Omameh would agree: the only thing they should be asked to do is reach block, because they really can't hold up to the big boys.)

Isn't that the emerging conventional wisdom around here?  


September 16th, 2011 at 10:14 AM ^

Bo went to some hot new coach's conference and listened to him talk about schemes forever. The coach went like 5-5 on the year, after Bo asked him why they didnt have a good record and the coach said they didn't spend enough time on Blocking and Tackling.

If you can block and you can tackle you'll be a good football team. I think that schemes can help - but only so much. Execution is what wins.

In regards to Michigan, I think that the shotgun is a necessity, it is on all levels. 2 of the most successful teams in the NFL use shotgun more than anyone - Pats and Colts. I think we have a huge advantage over anyone we play - denard's legs. Any advantage we have should be utilized. Denard should be a run threat on every play - whether that's out of the shotgun or under center I dont care. Brian showed the "speed option" from under center a few weeks ago - run that. I don't care. Just let Denard be a threat to run and we've already got an advantage. We should exploit it somhow.


September 16th, 2011 at 10:17 AM ^

The 1 point everyone always leaves out when they discuss this topic is what would a traditional offense do?

So let's get this straight Oregon's spread offense if fine in 95% of their games but it is a gimmick because when they play Auburn or LSU with 6-8 NFL players on their defense and several weeks to prepare they don't score 50 pts like they did all season so it proves it doesn't work?

The reason defense are really good is because they don't let teams score.

Does Wisconsin's power game not work because TCU shut them down in the Rose Bowl?

Did Nebraska's Option I not work because Miami used to shut them down in the Orange Bowl?

I've never seen so many people hang on to a concept despite the overwhelming evidence in their face.

Florida, Oklahoma and Auburn have won the NC in the spread, Oregon was in the champ game.  What more evidence do people need?   If it works in the SEC it will work anywhere in college.    

So please stop.  You can like the spread or not.  A lot of systems are successful you can pick the one you want,  but if you say it won't work in the Big Ten or in big games you are not smart or you are so close minded you are ignorant to the facts.



September 16th, 2011 at 10:24 AM ^

Ziff, I think you're right.  But I think the argument could be made the opposite way.  My impression is that some folks around here think that the spread is really the (single) best way to go, that Borges is making a terrible error by not, in effect, going full-bore spread (in order to maximize Robinson's threat).  Yes, clearly the spread can be successful.  But it isn't the only offense that can be successful.  And it probably WON'T be successful if you have little or no RB production.  Borges is trying to cultivate a serious pass threat, as well as RB production: not to emasculate Robinson but to make him more of a threat (since Ds won't be able to key on him).  He, Borges, feels an effective way to do this is by blending elements of the I, under center play, etc., with the shotgun.  So while you're right that it's silly to dismiss the spread, it's also silly (of some) to treat it as a magic bullet.


September 16th, 2011 at 11:06 AM ^

I think it's fair to disagree.  Last year, RR ran Robinson so much, I maintain, only when it became evident that there was NO production from the RBs.  It was Robinson -- or no ground game.  That is not exactly ideal.  Part of that lack of production, in more than a few cases, was inadequate blocking by the line.  This year?  Let's face it -- ND dominated the line.  Pass protection was solid; run blocking wasn't.  During the ND game, no RBs produced yards on the ground.  Borges is trying to change that.  You don't change that by continuing a scheme in which your RBs contributed nothing.  Folks here apparently think UMs current O-liinemen are INCAPABLE of blocking in a traditional ground game; and that Denard's talent is wasted unless he's exclusively in the shotgun.  I think the players disagree; and I think Borges disagrees.  Last year's spread was "Denard or Bust."  That's not a winning strategy.  

EDIT: Here's my main beef.  Some folks here seem to think the entire offense should revolve around Denard-as-Weapon.  Every other weapon is subsidiary.  I think Borges is trying to develop other, legitimate weapons: Hemingway, some RB (whoever that is), Smith as a wildcard.  Instead of one silver bullet, have that special weapon, but other VIABLE weapons.  it's not as though Michigan has one skill player, and ten blockers.


September 16th, 2011 at 10:28 AM ^

especially the last paragraph.  In essence, you don't have to like the spread offense, i.e. you can run something non-spread and be very successful, but just because you don't care for the spread doesn't mean you can't be effective with it.


I heard an example of this with Craig James calling the game last night:  LSU was pounding the ball, which was totally unsurprising given there incredible group of RB's.  But James went past the simple positive evaluation and said something like "this is why there defense is so good, they face a power offense every week, so they are able to dominate people physically." The guys on the LSU defense are FREAKS!!!  They are ALL big and fast, and I think they have had more DL drafted in the first round over the past few years than anyone else.  This is born out in every metric:  total D from last year, cumulative recruiting rankings over the past few years, etc.  But no, Craig thinks it's because their offense practices the I-form during the week.


September 16th, 2011 at 10:43 AM ^

I actually agree with a point that you do not directly make, but which you imply - there is no one "good" offense and the spread is not a gimmic.  Perhaps when the spread first came into existence, it could be called a gimmic - sort of like the forward pass when it was first used - but not it is so widely used that it is as mainstream as manball. 

At the end of the day, with the wide variety of schemes out there - power I, zone read, passing spread, speed option, triple option, pistol, etc. - I think that the most important thing is picking a scheme that first the players on the team (and then recruiting players that will fit the scheme).  So, if you run the spread, don't go out and recruit a Chad Henne rocket-armed, slow guy.  Similarly, if you are running the Power I from under center, Pat White may not be your first choice.  (this implies that Denard should function out of the gun more, but at this point, does anyone still disagree with that)

I do disagree with one point, although only in a nuanced way - the spread can work in any league, but it may have LESS success in the B10.  And here is why:  the B10 features huge D-lines (think Wisco and PSU).  SUbjecting your QB to constant poundings by these hambeasts (which the spread usually does) will lead to your QB getting banged up early (think Denard missing time in 9 games last year).  This is not good.  Also, while I do not have the figures to back this up, the players best suited from the spread come out of the south more frequently than the midwest.  Because the B10 traditionally recruits from the midwest, even a school like Michigan may not be able to obtain the BEST players to fit the spread.  And, by having to focus our recruiting efforts in the south or west, we are then leaving the best midwest prospects for teams like OSU, MSU, and others.  This is a large part of what allowed MSU to get so good so fast - they were getting kids that would usually go to Michigan, instead of the 2-3* kids they traditionally get.  Allowing your top rivals - who you play yearly - to get top kids that you would otherwise steal has a direct negative impact as it makes your opposing teams better.


September 16th, 2011 at 11:38 AM ^

I like your thoughts there with the recruiting and it may have some merit.

On the subject of the dlines I think that is a myth though.   The D lines in the SEC are better.   It is a hard thing to quantify, but I will go by the NFL draft.  I'm pretty sure there was an analysis done showing the amount of SEC d lineman in the NFL.   I think the eye test is enough.   Watched LSU last night they are a lot scarier than anything the Big Ten's rolling out there.  

You are right on though.   Find a scheme that matches your school, talent and play to your strengths and you'll be fine. 

Wisconsin is a great example.  I've always like Nebraska and they played the same way.

I have begged for a playoff since I've been old enough to watch football.  It has many benefits but the most important for me being a Mich fan was the variable of home playoff games.   I always wanted to see how teams like Mich and Neb would do against the Florida and California teams if they had to come up north and play in bad weather.  I always felt it was such an advantage for the passing teams to play in perfect weather all the time and play essentially at home in the bowls against Mich and the midwest schools.








September 16th, 2011 at 10:50 AM ^

Yeah this whole forward pass thing is never going to get you anywhere. Running every play is for the Elite teams.------1905


No offense intended to the OP it is a good read. I just don't buy it. The great thing about football is any gameplan run the way its designed has as good a chance to win as any other gameplan. It always comes down to "Want to win" imo. 


September 16th, 2011 at 10:57 AM ^

The gimmicky offense/defense meme needs to stop.  TCU consistently has one of the best defenses in the country with a gimmicky 4-2-5 and beat Wisconsin last year in the Rose Bowl, maintaining a perfect season.  In the mean time, last year's NC game was played between two spread option teams with questionable defenses.  Furthermore, Florida won two NC's with their gimmicky offense, and WVU beat up on superior teams in Oklahoma and Georgia with both a gimmicky offense and a gimmicky defense.  Perfect execution with good players in any scheme will get solid results.


September 16th, 2011 at 11:48 AM ^

Like said in the OP, I don't have it figured out, and how it applies exactly to UofM.

One thing is that regardless of offensive or defensive scheme, the right players make a huge difference. Fast and big is always good. With the athletes they had, Florida and Alabama and Auburn and LSU were going to be good, regardless of scheme. In other words, it wasn't just the spread that won games.

Conversely, with the "decimated defense" in the secondary, nothing was going to make a big difference for Michigan. (BTW, I do think Mattison is already making a difference, even without the best personnel, and by the end of the year, his coaching and scheming will be enough to account for an extra win or two.)

I also think that new offensive schemes that catch people unawares makes a difference. When people aren't used to the spread, or to speed, they don't know how to defend it well. However, over time, the defense catches up, and you have to come up with another new wrinkle.

I also think that fundamentals (tackling, blocking, footwork, timing) make a difference. Success is built on the discipline of little things. I can't believe how happy I am to see Michigan stop a team on 3rd & 1 with solid tackling.

I also think that familiarity with what you are doing makes a difference. Having the same coaching personnel, and players who have spent a redshirt year learning and conditioning, and freshman year learning and conditioning, means that you have players (especially OL, DL, & LB corps, also somewhat in the secondary) who can play instinctively, intuitively knowing EXACTLY what they need to do and where they need to be. Iowa in the past has been an example of a defense who has succeeded with less than perfect athletes because they know exactly what is expected of them.

I do think we would have had an awesome offense this year, running what we did last year. But even so, I don't have angst about Borges and Hoke and the changes made. As Hoke has said, "This is Michigan!" which means that we should be able to get the elite athletes who will allow us to compete with any scheme, including a pro style offense.


September 16th, 2011 at 7:40 PM ^

The Grantland article is interesting. It makes several strong points:

1. A well run system (that is using the football cliched, "well executed") can be successful even if there are only a limited number of possibilities.

2. At lower levels of play - where the physical variation is less (where you don't find that many players who are 300+ lbs or who can fly 40 yards in 4.3 seconds, or 250 pounders who can do a 4.5) coaching and execution can be very important.

3. But just as there is no perfect play, there is no perfect scheme or system. In the old wishbone, it became recognized that tackling the QB and often the pitch man was critical. In the original shot gun (see the 1950's 49ers of the NFL) pressuring and hitting the QB/TB was the key. These ideas work because as one of the coaches noted, the defenses they face don't have the time to work with the defenders so that they are comfortable with dealing with these sorts of offenses - but as we saw with the old original wishbone, I-bone, veer, broken wishbone, etc., defenses given time and experience can compensate. Look at our spread offense under the past regimen, in some games it worked well, in others, it blew up, especially if the opposing defenses dominated the line and had quick LBs and safeties.

4. Back to the chicken and egg dilemma - does the system work because of great execution or great players - or both. Against competition where there isn't a great variance in physical ability then practice may make perfect, but once you have players who could blow up your system having someway to counter them becomes important.

Finally, the title speed chess is a bit of misnomer. Speed chess typically refers to a game of chess where each side has only 5 minutes or less to complete the whole game. It is regarded by many chess fans as a measure of pure chess reaction and raw skill, because one's instinct or instinct honed by experience is critical as most top speed players play within a few seconds. Rather than lesser players dominating due to sheer speed and luck, speed chess however typically has seen very strong players dominate - the greats in classical time limit chess (40 moves in 2.5 hours for each player, so a single game could take 5 hours) like Bobby Fischer, Gary Kasparov, Tigran Petrosian, Vladimir Kramnik, and the current wunderkind Magnus Carlson are also killers at speed - they see more and deeper at greater speed.

See http://www.chessbase.com/newsdetail.asp?newsid=5918

They see in one look more than other grandmasters see in 10 minutes. This would be like a traditional pro-I power house crushing teams while running their same playbook but at a no-huddle pace.