Thursday, October 9, 2008

Tedford's Game Management Style

Tedford - upper management written all over him?

In what is becoming an almost humorous pattern for Cal fans, particularly Johnny-come-latelys who don't remember (or were still in diapers during) the dark ages of Cal football, there is upheaval, despair and criticism following another win. The message boards and blog comments are full of crazy things like Tedford was setting up Riley to fail so he purposely called bad plays while Riley was in, and Tedford is worried about Longshore's pro career and that is why he is playing him. Aside from these comical rants, more than a few fans have criticized the play calling and game management, and have proposed what they believe to be superior game plans. Thankfully for the players and the rest of us, these "fans" are not allowed anywhere near the team and will never have the ability to call a single play for this program.

But the comments about the play-calling and game management did get me thinking about Tedford's approach to game planning and game management, largely because I, like most of us, was a bit on edge when the Bears kept going 3 and out in the second half last week. Obviously, game planning, even a particular game plan for a particular game, is not a simple concept, and it is ridiculous to think one can adequately address in a single blog post what it takes a whole coaching staff an entire week to put together, informed by decades of coaching and playing experience. Then again, if I let that stop me, I'd have an existential crisis and this blog would not exist.

Let's start with this weekend and then step backwards from there. The obvious question is whether it was prudent to go completely into run mode in the second half to nurse the lead, running Vereen straight into an 8 man front, time after time. Many fans have been critical of this approach, saying no, you must mix it up and throw the ball, even with a lead. Ironically, many of those same fans think the primary reason Longshore should not be starting is because he throws INTs in the 4Q. Can you really blame coach for wanting to keep the ball out of the air in that situation?

Tedford said the reason he went conservative was due to bad field position late in the game, not wanting to turn it over deep in their own territory. You have to figure with the way ASU was playing, all they were hoping for as the game wore on was a turnover. They had terrible field position, couldn't run the ball, couldn't generate big plays, and couldn't drive. If you think about it for a few seconds, it seems pretty obvious. Your defense and punter have dominated in two phases of the game. Why put the game in the hands of the third phase unless and until you absolutely have to? That mindset is vintage Tedford.

For all of the hype about Tedford's offensive ingenuity and wizardry, the reality is that his approach to game planning and game management is largely conservative and methodical. When he first came to Cal, the offense needed to be a bit more dynamic because it did not have the talent to dominate through pure execution, strength, and speed. It needed the advantage of upredictability, in much the same way many of the non-BCS schools have put themselves on the map, using unconventional offenses and gadgetry to gain an edge.

I think Cal fans got accustomed to this and are somewhat surprised, even dismayed, when the offense becomes more steak, less sizzle. But the truth is, that's the Tedford offense at its core. If you listen to opposing coaches talk about Cal's offense, they don't sound confused or curious about what he is going to do. They typically say things like, "Very well coached, very balanced, nothing fancy, but what they do, they do very well." Tedford is not Urban Meyer or Mike Leach. He is not trying to completely bewilder the opposing defense.

Tedford is more "rope a dope" than "float like a butterfly sting like a bee."  If there is a certain gaminess to Tedford, it's that he likes to set defenses up for a few back-breaking, well-timed plays during a game. Much has been made this week about Cal's seeming predictability in certain formations, particularly running plays out of the I-formation. And while they certainly have tended toward the run out of the I for example, the idea that Tedford has no idea of these tendencies seems facile. I have noticed since the 2004 season that Tedford tends to keep things pretty straightforward 90% of the time, focusing on precise execution and attacking the defense's weakness (the "rope"). But then he will call certain plays only a few times all season, and they will go for big gains most of the time (the "dope").

(Though I would note that despite being fairly straightforward in the run game the past 6 years, his teams have still managed to be at or near the top of the conference in rushing. This suggests that the "rope" works pretty well by itself (or maybe it's the fear of the "dope" - makes you wonder.))

Perhaps my favorite "dope" play was the double play-action fake deep TD pass to Jackson vs. UCLA, a highlight I never get tired of watching. Here, let's watch it again:

When I got the chance to speak with Tedford this summer at the coaches' tour, I asked him about the constant struggle to innovate, especially now that there is more film on his offense. What he said next, and how he said it, was pretty eye-opening. First of all, the question seemed to strike a nerve, but not in an annoyed way, more in a passionate way. He got very animated, with maybe a slight tinge of defensiveness but also humor, and said it's not always about outsmarting the other guy. Much of what goes right and wrong is just "old-fashioned football" he said: blocking, tackling, catching, assignments (many of which the fans don't see or understand). Some of it is a guy making a fantastic play, and that's also part of the game.

But then he said some of it is well-timed plays. He specifically referred to that very play, the play action TD pass to Jackson vs UCLA. He said they knew going into the game that UCLA safeties bit hard on the run, so they waited and waited, and set them up, and then ran the play and it went for a TD. The look on his face when he said it went for a TD was one of gratification and intensity. His expression was one of unwaivering certainty, but also a little bit of wryness. It's funny, but I don't remember us running that exact play much, if at all, last season before or after that. It's like he saved it just for UCLA. We ran out of that same formation, and we ran the reverse with the WR coming across. But never double faked like that, at least that I can recall. In other words, he was pretty selective about when he used it. Wonder how many other plays he has like that on that giant play card.

The thing is, if you are sound in what you do, and talented and deep, you can afford to be vanilla on offense much of the time in college football. You can seize the advantage with turnovers, field position, a select few well-timed big plays, and stout defense. You can be plain 90% of the time and go for the knockout punch 10% of the time. This is largely the Tedford way. The twist Tedford adds, that distinguishes him from guys like Tressel, is that he likes to mix it up early and strike early with some different looks, before settling down into a more straightforward game plan. But make no mistake, if Tedford can win by nursing a lead with his punter and his defense, he will not hestitate to do it.

Unfortunately, we haven't necessarily had the talent and depth to do that with consistency. We were able to in 2004 and 2006, but QB and defense injuries and lack of talent prevented it in 2005 and 2007. With a young and talented defense right now (no senior linemen or DBs), a freshman punter who is top 10 in the country already (despite a sore knee), and a strong running game, I would not be surprised to see more of this approach this year and next.


T said...

Nice work SDGldnBear.

I'm sure you know I disagree about 90%+ the same play out of the same formation being ok under any circumstances (very generally, I think 75% is much healthier).

But the main thing I would bring up with respect to your well-thought-out post is that you do not mention the word "Cignetti." The example you cite with the 2007 UCLA fake end around, and and indeed you could cite other examples such as the Desean double-moves against Oregon that were called by Tedford (sans Cignetti).

This year they are called (or not called) by Cignetti. Tedford obviously provides lots of direction pre and post-game, but Cignetti now makes the play-by-play calls during the game as I understand it. So the effectiveness of Tedford's timing of the "change-up" plays is less relevant this year than information we can glean on the effectiveness of Cignetti's timing and frequency of "change-up" plays.

And frankly, I'm not ready to throw Cignetti under the bus yet, but I'm in wait-and-see mode. I'm ok with the "rope-a-dope" approach that Tedford and Cignetti apparently agree on in general, but I am still trying to figure out whether Cignetti is effective at the "a-dope" part of game-day playcalling. And yes, in the 3 games I charted, the 57 out of 61 (93%) lead plays out of the Standard-I and to a lesser extent 21 of 27 (78%) passing out of the Offset-I and 24 of 24 passing out of the 4+ WR set, all concern me a little. Bread and butter is great, but not if Cignetti lets the bread get stale.

T (OneKeg)

ps the 78% passing out of the Offset-I is of course not too bad, but one thing that puzzles me - why do we play-action on many of those passes? If the defense is paying attention, they are unlikely to bite on the run. Maybe Cignetti just hopes the defense isn't paying attention?

SDGoldenBear said...

OneKeg -

Glad to see you here! Your studious assessment of the play-calling/formation tendencies posted on BI was impressive and informative, and it got me thinking a lot. I've actually got a post coming tomorrow or Wed about those tendencies as called in the ASU game, so I'll look for more comments from you then.

Onto your comment. A lot of good points there. First, I definitely agree with you that you can't really address Tedford's game management from his play caller (in this case, Cignetti). This is definitely true between the last scripted play and the first play of the third quarter, where Tedford doesn't have much opportunity to go over things with Cignetti. In that period of time, Cal's tendencies are largely on Cignetti. However, the scripted plays and the second half approach probably have a lot of input from JT. Things looked very Tedford-like in the first two series and the second half playcalling vs ASU.

Your mention of the Jackson double moves vs. Ore - great point. That's actually an area where I'd like to see more from Cignetti. Don't know if it's that our receivers aren't there yet, or what, but the WR patterns seem a bit simplistic right now.

As for play-action out of the offset I, I tend to agree, especially because Longshore's play fakes and the RB's fake are very weak, and the defense does not respect it. However, as Cal mixes in more run out of the offset I, that play fake may actually accomplish something. Here's hoping.

So what can we conclude? Like you said, the jury's still out on Cignetti. I think he is maybe a bit on the conservative side from what we have seen thus far (though they tried some subtle changes that I'll point out in my next post). At this point, I would say I am not unhappy with him, and I think he called a decent game vs a good ASU defense in the first half. Let's see how he does against Stoops' zone blitz defense this week.

Thanks again for the comment.

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