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

If you've followed me elsewhere besides just my blog, you probably have an inkling that one of my biggest peeves is fans selecting specific play calls to complain about postmortem. It takes a conclusion - that a play was not successful - and applies no additional logic to apply a critique. Certainly, like wins, all that matters in the end is that you got one or you didn't; in the end it doesn't matter if it was close or it shoulda or coulda or woulda. But if you want to honestly evaluate anything, you need to dig deeper than that. You need to understand your own teams strengths and weaknesses and those of your opponent. You need to understand tendencies, again, both your own and your opponents. What have you practiced (and the success of what you practiced) and what haven't you. There are a lot of unknowns we can't glean, but if we take some time, we can better understand inputs and give a much more thoughtful, thorough, and accurate critique of "play calling" or some such vague thing. The internet went mad this weekend because "Michigan's play calling was awful". Sure, the offensive tackles performed terribly, but it isn't hard to scheme around that, is the thought. I've called plays on Madden, is the idea. I watched the game and it didn't work and therefore this thing that I have a vague notion about must be the culprit, is the conclusion. Meh. Let's take a look, I guess.


What Am I Complaining About?
Play calling itself is a bit of a ambiguous thing. Certainly, it is the down-to-down in-game play calls that are made. But is it also the scouting and game-planning and tendency breaking and tendency defeating? Is it also the playbook that you take into a game or into a season? Is it the preparation during game week and throughout the year to prepare to execute these schemes? Is it also the actual drawing up of plays, the motions, the creativity and simplicity and coachability? Is it execution? A lot more goes into "play calling" than just selecting an image on a screen, there is a lot of grey area, some we can understand and some we can't, and I think that gets lost a bit on the casual fan.

But still as I noted in the introduction, it's a fan favorite to complain about. From my tweeter tweets:

And should I add, everything you did do was the reason you couldn't do.

Good play callers exists. What does that mean? Well, it gets back to those ambiguous things. But certainly, there are people in-game that are better at dissecting coverages and tendencies and dialing up the right play at the right time to rain fire from the sky and bring not 10, but 11 plagues in the form of the personnel grouping they've created on the field like the vengeful, threatening Old Testament God they are (sorry for the blasphemy). I'm reminded of this from Bill Belichick, which is basically football porn.

That's phenomenal anticipation, in-game coaching, and adjustments, and impeccable timing with the call. Yet, all those things could have ended up different and wrong. The Texans may have called a different coverage that down, may have adjusted differently themselves, and the Pats may have dialed up a play that they thought was going to be a game-changer because of the evidence they had, and ended up with a double covered receiver and a sack. It didn't, so it was great. But if the Texans just happened to call a different coverage that down, was the thought process behind the play call really any worse? I'm a bit doubtful. You only have the inputs you are given, and you work off of that.

And with all that, 90+% of your play calls aren't going to be like that. You're going to call inside zone from your base formation  and execute it or not, or whatever. If it doesn't work you're predictable and if it does, it's whatever. "Call more of the touchdown play", as they say.

Realistically, the best in-game play callers are going to make your likelihood of success better by what. 5%? 10%? One or two or three big plays in a game? And certainly, that can make a huge difference. That's a huge difference from a Jeff Fischer Rams team to a Sean McVay Rams team. But there are simply an absurd number of inputs that get absolutely ignored when someone just looks "play call". Because if a Jeff Fischer Rams team, on one down of one game, gets a play call from Sean McVay, the change in the outcome is so drastically small because of all the other critical factors that go into *this play call*.

And probably, it annoys me, because it's the lesson that seemed most shocking to me as I entered the world of young coaching. Growing up, I was that kid that would set up chess pieces and checkers pieces on the table and start drafting up play designs. I had binders full of plays like a Mitt Romney campaign. Ideas and hopes and concepts and packages and I only need a group of guys to fulfill my dreams. And then... well then, calling a simple play call was only a really, really small part of it.

The most important part of being a successful coach is being a successful teacher. Ignoring the role for most coaches of being a great mentor (which shouldn't be ignored, but let's try to focus on results for a moment), teaching conquers all. Lloyd Carr was boring. Jim Tressel was boring. Mark Dantonio has run the same damn base D with only small tweaks and tags 90% of the time in his tenure at MSU. Urban Meyer rode essentially the same base playbook to a National Title at OSU as he did to an undefeated season in Utah a decade earlier. X's and O's are great, their fun, it's the classic war strategies that we've managed to squeeze into a game. And they are important, otherwise so many "football people" (I include myself in that group, whether I deserve to be or not) wouldn't obsess over them and react like a kid getting an N64 for Christmas every time they came across an interesting set of routes and blocks on their twitter feed.

But with all that, it's still teaching. Teaching is how you get guys to execute. It's how you translate technique that makes their jobs doable. It's how you impart enough knowledge so that your players can maintain their assignments against a variety of looks. And then it's preparation. It's repping the plays. It's planning for the plays. It's understanding the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your opponent. And it's all these things that are so, so, so much more important than pressing Left-A to select your Techmo Bowl play because at the end of the day Bo Jackson defeats anything. I had to learn that lesson. Fans generally don't, because it doesn't really effect them. What effects them is the outcome, and what they know from the outcome is "did it work or didn't it." The rest doesn't matter. So if the answer is no, then what's the simplest thing for them to point to that they can vaguely understand: play calling. But Occam's Razor only applies if you have proper perspective. 

Anyway, examples.

Michigan - Notre Dame Play Calling Examples
I'm taking the easy way out here because I made twitter threads about this. So this is going to be a lot of embedded tweets. These focus on two plays that people were probably the most critical of.

First, a play action call on 2nd and Goal from the 2.

I should add. This play took 4 breakdowns for it not to be at least "no gain": both OTs get beat; one who loses a counter move once the DL realizes he's not playing the run; the other gets beat to the outside in the direction of the slide protection. Both of those are terrible ways to lack execution. The third is the TE not getting vertical quick enough to cut off LB flow. The 4th is the QB holding onto the ball and not throwing it away. 4 breakdowns to result in a sack. On a run play, only one breakdown could result in a negative play, and push you into a situation where you don't have 4 downs to get a TD. There is a logically argument in here that a pass in that situation is the best call (I still don't agree, but it's there).

Here's another play, a 3rd and short speed option call.

So this really boils down to execution, right? What goes into execution? Well, all the other things I talked about. "Execution" isn't an excuse to throw players under the bus for not performing, getting guys to execute is the hardest but most important part of coaching.

Michigan did a lot to try to mitigate their weaknesses, as detailed well here. They game planned, they scouted. They didn't execute well enough. But still it's "play calling" that we hear complaints about again and again, and that just isn't right.

But It's Not Just Play Calling
It isn't just play calling that gets the blame. There is also a tendency of "I've seen other players make this play, ours should to." To a degree, that isn't wrong. A major part of winning is making plays. Stealing an INT over top of a safety and scoring a TD instead is "making plays". But that shouldn't just be expected.

Here's a chance for a TE to "make a play", or for a QB to "make a play" by throwing it higher, depending on where you want to place your blame to simplify the wrongs of the world in your mind. But even then, it's too simplified, it often magnifies minor aspects as the primary problem while screening away the more detailed issues that need to be corrected.

What Is Supposed to Be Your Takeaway Here?
I dunno man. I mean, I get it. Simplifying things in our minds is a defense mechanism, it's a learning mechanism, it's an application mechanism and an efficiency mechanism. It's a strength that helps us better function in life, and work, and play, and everything else. It is, in my mind, the reason Christopher Nolan is considered one of the greatest directors of his era: his ability to simplify relatively complex ideas to make his audience feel smart for getting it.

I don't expect the casual fan to start digging through All-22 to resolve problems that they don't really care to resolve. It's unrealistic. But maybe tone down the rhetoric. Maybe don't pretend you know when you don't. Feel free to give opinions, but understand it isn't facts, and understand that you don't have all the facts to support an opinion, all you have is your limited perspective. And that's fine. "Life is as simple as you make it." But ignorance isn't necessarily a positive trait. Knowledge is power. Opinions are opinions, facts are facts. And it's important to understand that "life is as simple as you make it" requires allowing in ignorance, ignoring knowledge, and replacing fact with opinion and treating it the same; and those things don't make you right. Because things are never really as simple as they seem. And probably the most important part of being a coach is being a good mentor, and maybe this is just my coaching lesson for the day.