Last week, Don Kausler Jr. wrote a really interesting piece on Alabama’s inside zone running play. If you ever wondered why experience on the offensive line is so important or why offensive linemen tend to get the highest Wonderlic scores at the NFL Combine, then Kausler’s piece is a must-read, because he lays out the complex analysis required by Bama’s offensive linemen on each play.
Unfortunately, the quality of Kausler’s work was lost in the Twitter reaction because he made the mistake of quoting Gary Danielson. Gary being Gary, he turned an essay about the inside zone running play into a commentary on "the spread":
"You can depend on these plays that they’re running over and over again. When you’re a Georgia player and you get to the sideline and you look at a coach, the coach looks back and says, ‘I got nothing for you. They’re knocking your ass off the ball.’ There is no tweak to stop that. You might have a tweak to stop the spread, but there is no tweak for the inside zone."
Yes, Gary, the spread offenses that you claimed would be dying out after Tim Tebow left the SEC do not run inside zone. Spread coaches really dislike the play. And there is no tweak to stop the Alabama inside zone play, with the possible exception of whatever it was that Western Kentucky did to hold the Tide to 103 yards rushing on 31 carries.
Danielson’s statement was annoyingly incorrect for a host of reasons. First, he referred to the "spread" as a play, rather than as an offensive scheme. In context, what he appears to be referring to is the zone read play, and the tweak that he has in mind would be the scrape exchanges that defensive coordinators have developed to make life tougher for quarterbacks. Danielson’s poor use of terminology – lumping an entire offensive approach and a base play all together in a confusion gumbo – would not be such a concern if here were not, you know, paid to communicate about football.
Second, as the links above make clear, spread teams run inside zone all the time. The primary innovation of the zone read play is that it makes life easier on the offensive line because one box defender is left unblocked and is then read out of the play, thus allowing the linemen to double defenders elsewhere. This was a basic tenet of option plays for decades before Rich Rodriguez accidentally invented the zone read play at Glenville State. Yes, there are tweaks to stop this play, but they are not entirely obvious, as evidenced by the ridiculous amount of room that Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson had on zone read plays Sunday.
Third, there are tweaks to stop any play. Scrape exchanges have become popular in dealing with the zone read play, thus creating cat-and-mouse games between opposing coaches and players, but that does not mean that there are not counter-measures for an inside zone play where the quarterback is not a running threat. Most basically, a defense can commit extra players to the box to outnumber the blockers. This is exactly what Georgia was forced to do when Alabama ran wild on the Dawgs in the SEC Championship Game. The solution was to take advantage of the resulting weakness of the defense down the field.
Danielson’s statement leads to all sorts of interesting questions, none of which are intended by the speaker. "Is he really this stupid?" was the first one that came to mind. Danielson seems like a bright enough guy in terms of his ability to break down what is happening in a game and use language to convey what he is seeing, so this is not a question of intelligence. Unlike some other former players in the media, we can rule out, "too dumb to function."
Instead, there are two ways to look at Danielson’s statement specifically and a lot of football commentary generally. These two ways are not mutually exclusive. The first is that Danielson is ideologically committed to a certain position – that a traditional, pro-style offensive approach is superior to the run-based spread or the Air Raid (assuming that Danielson knows the difference between the two – and he ignores evidence that is counter to his position. For instance, everything that took place in front of him during the Texas A&M-Alabama game.
Danielson illustrates confirmation bias every time he opens his mouth on the issue of the "spread." In fact, Gary unwittingly bolsters the research that has shown that people who hold strong beliefs will often cling to those beliefs with greater intensity when confronted with evidence contradicting those beliefs.
After a season in which Alabama suffered their only loss to an Air Raid team from the Big XII – a conference whose offenses were viewed by Danielson and others as merely being the beneficiaries of playing bad defenses – and mere days before two NFL teams with rookie quarterbacks deployed zone read-influenced offenses in a playoff game, Danielson chose to double down on the claim that traditional offenses are unstoppable, whereas the "spread" can be beaten. Danielson is hardly the only person in sports commentary who is evidence-resistant (listen to old school, "get stuck in!" British soccer guys try to process the success of Barcelona and Spain if you want to hear rage against the dying of the light), but right now, he might be the best example.
The second is that Danielson is just pandering to his audience. Gary may well have concluded (or a wily producer at CBS concluded for him) that the majority of SEC fans who watch afternoon games on CBS are traditional in their thinking about offense. Thus, by telling fans what they want to hear – the old days of tough running and defense are not gone; the football that you grew up on has not been replaced by all of this fancy, new stuff – and by acting as an acolyte for the style employed by the dominant team in the conference, Danielson is trying to endear himself to the audience.*
* - The irony in all of this is that the spread-to-run offense has older roots than the pro-style attack favored by Alabama and Georgia in that the former comes from the old single wing days. Also, a wishbone coach would immediately recognize the zone read principle of leaving a defender unblocked in order to create a double-team elsewhere.
Danielson is hardly the only figure in football who tells his audience what he thinks it wants to hear. Bret Bielema recently placed himself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain his, "We at the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC, in any way, shape, or form," remark after having taken an SEC head coaching position. Bielema chalked it up to pandering to Wisconsin fans. We all forgive a little bit of sucking up. What coach has not dedicated a big win to, "Insert Name of Employer] Nation, the greatest fans in America?" Do we now expect most utterances from coaches at press conferences to be whatever they think we want to hear?
Danielson and Bielema both illustrate a small downside to the passion that SEC fans (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Big Ten fans) bring to the table. When you have fan bases who get caught up in the, "my team good, your team Commie-Nazis," mindset and then take to Twitter to cast out heretics, you end up with coaches and talking heads who tell those fans what they want to hear.
No one is going to go to the trouble to pander to supporters of Big East programs. Thus, the reward for SEC fans being at the top of the give-a-shit ratings is not just that their athletic directors bring in a steady supply of Florida Atlantic and Jacksonville State, knowing that those fans will buy tickets regardless; it is also that when SEC teams do play big games against one another, their adherents are treated to a walking, talking personification of confirmation bias.
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