Over the past five or six years or so a number of voices have emerged from the chaos of the college football blogosphere to speak with some authority about the game. These folks have found a niche addressing the educated fan tired of the insipid paint-by-numbers analysis of the regular media but who may not be versed in enough nuance of the game to grapple with hyper-detailed breakdowns done by the sport's specialists.
One of the best of this group is Chris Brown whose observations about the game at his website Smart Football are a must-read for any serious fan. Recently, Brown collected several of his best posts from the the past few years and made them available in a book The Essential Smart Football. While this tome is about football as a whole, it also serves as an invaluable guide for the layman trying to understand Coach Saban's approach to the game.
If you are curious about the inner workings of the game but didn't know really where to start to find out, there are three recently-published books -- including this one -- you might consider purchasing. First is Pat Kirwan's Take Your Eye Off The Ball which is a superb primer on all the basics you were too intimidated to ask about.
Don't know the difference between the 3-4 and the 4-3 defense? Here ya go. Confused about these guys Mike and Sam everyone's talking about but you can't find on the roster? Now you know. Did you wonder why Les Miles refused to play Jarrett Lee in the BCS National Championship game? Well, actually, nobody has an explanation for that.
The second book is Tim Layden's Blood, Sweat and Chalk which gives an excellent historical take on evolution of various football strategies. When it comes to football there is nothing new under the sun and understanding where strategies evolved from tells you a lot about where they are going.
Once you've got those two under your belt, The Essential Smart Football puts it all together and lays out what exactly you will be seeing when teams take the field next season. And given the impact Coach Saban and the Alabama defense has had on the game in the past several years, there is plenty here for the Crimson Tide fan eager to learn more about just how their team goes about being dominant and awesome.
If you are specifically interested in Coach Saban's strategies, when you pick up The Essential Smart Football the best place to start is, logically enough, the first chapter. That said, "The Evolution of Urban Meyer and The Spread Option Offense" doesn't talk much about the 2009 SEC Championship game. Instead it provides a synopsis of how the spread offense blossomed at the college level through the prism of Meyer's progression as a coach.
Brown explains that Meyer's offense is focused around a refinement of the option designed to capitalize on the fact the offense has a mathematical advantage at the line of scrimmage if you use the quarterback correctly. The defense finds itself making tough decisions every time the ball is snapped.
You have to have safety-type players who can play the quarterback but also can, if it is a pass play, race back and play as either an intermediate defender or as a deep safety. The defense must be able to play man coverage, and it must have the ability to blitz and attack both the quarterback and any other backfield player. Finally, the defense must have the ability to zone blitz to put pressure on the quarterback but still take away the short slants and quick passes, or at least threaten to do so.
In other words you have to play defense like Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
There are several other chapters in the book that discuss this type of offensive development (notably the one on Steve Spurrier's career arc) but the point is the same -- Alabama's defense was designed to handle the growing dynamism of offenses at the college level. Now you can flip back to page 95 and feast upon the chapter you really bought the book for, "Nick Saban's Defense School."
This piece is actually revision of a post that appeared on Smart Football prior to Alabama's 2008 season opener against Clemson (and re-posted a year later). In it Brown starts with an excerpt from Saban's playbook that states his core defensive philosophy -- stop the run on first and second down and play solid zone pass defense on third. Simple enough but then Brown breaks down how Saban goes about doing that and it gets hairy real quick.
In a nutshell: to handle dynamic offenses you want to use Cover 1 (a single safety deep) in order to load the box against the running game but then you are vulnerable to the pass. So you go to the Cover 3 (three deep defensive backs) but give the offense better odds with short passes and the run.
Saban's solution is to customize these schemes to meet the specific threats by using a system of pattern reading. That puts players in position to match what the offense throws at them. Once the ball is snapped, they are in place to react accordingly. Brown explains:
Pattern reading... is much like a matchup zone in basketball. Defenders are responsible for zones, but they play tight to receivers who come through those zones. Moreover, pattern-read teams begin by immediately coaching their defenders on how to recognize popular pass route combinations (and indeed, the very concept of pass combinations themselves).
Even this boiled down, these ideas are not the easiest thing in the world to grasp for someone who doesn't watch game film several hours every day. Which is why The Essential Smart Football is a vital resource for the lay reader. Brown explains the core concepts clearly and doesn't get lost in the thickets of jargon. Read through it a few times and you are much better prepared to move onto something more formidable such as Brophy's superb pieces over at Cripes! Get Back to Fundamentals (see below).
One theme that becomes clear reading The Essential Smart Football is that football strategies are not static. No defense is absolutely perfect and, as surely as night follows day, there will come an offensive attack that will prey on its weaknesses. So what would that be in terms of Saban's defense?
A promising candidate is Gus Malzahn's "multiple attack" offense. Despite its complicated razzle-dazzle reputation, Brown shows the offense is very basic in design and shares a lot of traits with other strategies that have had success against the Alabama defense.
The chapter on Malzahn's offense in The Essential Smart Football argues that the heart of his scheme is a customized inverted veer -- an option where the running back heads outside and the quarterback stays inside. Similar to Meyer's offense before it, the threat of that particular run made everything else those goofball sideline play calling cards contained work.
(If you watch this interview with Malzhan in January he explains exactly how he used this type of play to handle the particular challenges of the Alabama defense.)
With a once-in-a-generation talent like Cam Newton, this attack proved nigh-unstoppable since defenses were forced to play up to account for the danger he posed as a runner. Once they did Malzahn was more than happy to pick apart the secondary with short passes and various misdirection runs. Tim Tebow's particular skill set posed a similar quandary.
Malzahn gussied it up some but, in the end, what you have is the defense facing the same run/pass dilemma that prompted Saban to come up with his particular scheme in the first place.
On the up side, we're not ever likely so see anything like the 2010 Auburn or the 2008 Florida attack again. On the down side, somewhere an offensive coordinator had a epiphany watching them play and is plotting an even more refined version. But it's cool. Bill Belichick is already one step ahead of 'em.
Obviously, The Essential Smart Football is about a lot more than just Alabama football and there is a ton to learn from this book once you get through the Saban-specific pieces. Brown's articles look at a lot of trends and themes that affect the game as a whole examining how they came about and where they are likely to lead. The only thing more thought-provoking than the subjects he chooses are his insights on them (the pieces on the decision-making process of players and the "constraint theory" of offense being particularly interesting).
Also, he's a big fan of Homer Smith.
One of the more compelling ideas Brown espouses over the course of the book is that a program's success on the field often has a lot to do with raw chance -- a coach with the right strategic vision ends up at a school with the right set of players to implement it. Like, say, Stanford in 1940. Achieving consistent success is something else entirely. The best coaches, Brown insists, are the ones that put their players in a position to succeed. And that's a sentiment every Alabama fan would certainly have to agree with.
OK. So you've gotten through all this and read the books we recommended and you still want to know more. Turns out there a number of really instructive posts on the websites of Brown and the aforementioned Brophy which go into much more detail on the above topics.
In addition, we produced a week-long series two years ago that looked at how these strategies were expressed statistically in the Tide's production. Those pieces also looked at how Saban's defensive approach works in tandem with the team's offensive strategy. Brown also penned an article touching on that for Grantland.