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Coach Tedford the Playcaller, Part I



This is the first post of several concerning a discussion Hydro and I were having about Coach Tedford's playcalling. This first post is a general discussion of conservative versus risky playcalling..

Hydro's discussion a few months back on the nature of our playcalling against USC did get me thinking about what a team needs to do to upset the powers that be. Is it really all adrenaline, hype, and a midget running back that breaks through the tackle box?

Then the wise Chris of Smart Football posted something prescient to that internal dialogue. There are many snippets that I found useful, and I'd thought I'd present them here.

On the flipside, almost every week of the season I see teams go to Southern Cal, LSU, or Ohio State, and pretty much give up all hope of winning in the name of "keeping it close and winning it in the fourth quarter." As outlined above, this might be the worst strategy against such teams. They have little chance of winning on the merits, so what they need to do is flatten the tails and increase the chance for a shocker: take risks, and hope theircoin flips go in their favor. Maybe they won't. Maybe they get blown out. But not taking those chances is a surefire way to set their low chance of winning in stone.

This has been very much the strategy with USC the past several seasons. Let's examine four of the last five Trojan losses against Pac-10 opponents.:

2008: Oregon State builds a 21 point lead against USC, holds on.
2007: Oregon builds a 14 point lead against USC, holds on
2006: Oregon State builds a 23 point lead, holds on
2003: Cal builds a 14 point lead, holds on

The interesting thing is that in every year USC won the division, and all those teams eventually blew winnable games due to perhaps taking too many risks. But it does lend credence to the idea that playing for the go-ahead early on is wiser.

As for our history against them?

Cal vs USC
2008: Cal trails by a touchdown the majority of the game, gets one crack in the third quarter, gets hosed by a call I still don't understand, ballgame.
2007: Tied game going into the 4th quarter. Loss.
2006: Tied game going into the 4th quarter. Loss.
2005: Blowout
2004: Trailed by 6 going into the 4th quarter. Fail.

Only two teams have come back to beat USC in the 4th quarter since 2003: Stanford (fluke of flukes) and Texas.

Yet, much like with David Romer's paper where he observed that NFL coaches probably don't go for it on fourth down enough, there are external and likely irrelevant reasons that deter coaches from employing a true "risky-underdog" strategy: the risk that the coach will get fired. I am advocating here that underdogs go for it and increase the calculated risk they take on. (Keep in mind that you can go overboard on this. Chucking the ball forty yards downfield every play, while risky, would not increase your scoring or even chance of winning because you'd become predictible and downright silly. It's about calculated risk.)

Cue Riley's 2nd half performance against the Trojans, where after a solid first drive he spent the rest of the game chucking up balls, hoping that something amazing would happen. But USC began keying in on stopping those deep throws and the risky strategy became predictable.

But there are real costs -- at least for the coach -- of getting blown out. And make no mistake, the bargain for a greater chance of winning includes the greater chance of getting thrashed. Maybe this should be irrelevant -- a win is a win and a loss is a loss. But a blowout loss has collateral effects, even if they are purely psychological and emotional. You can lose recruits, you can lose donations, and you can lose your job. Look at Mike Shanahan with the Broncos. He was on the hotseat, but he lost his job primarily because Denver got blown out in their final game. I don't necessarily think that was because his team took on increased risk, but people do not tolerate ugly defeats, rational or not.

As far as I know, and at least in recent times, Tedford rarely loses games by more than two touchdowns. However, it also makes it tougher for us to beat USC, because we might be holding ourselves back from making too many mistakes to try and take the game at the end.

Similarly, there might be real gains for an underdog to just "keep it close" with a big boy without ever having a real chance of winning. People discount moral victories, but if such and such team can "keep it close" with USC, then they get all kinds of accolades and possibly even confidence going into the following weeks. But if they employed the risky-underdog strategy, then they might gain a slight marginal increase for a victory, with a steeper increase in the chance of getting buzzsawed right off the field (remember skewness).

Pretty much. We've prided ourselves on close losses to USC. Even though we haven't beaten them in six years, we've played them well, and always had a chance to take each one. But no dice.

What do you guys think of Tedford's playcalling in general? Does he playcall too conservative, too risky, or just right for you? Be sure to vote in the poll.

Hydro's response is after the jump.



Hydro: I think this is a very thoughtful blog post.

Now, what can Tedford take away from this? The possibility that he needs to be more aggressive on offense when playing USC since the talent level between Cal and USC is not equal (for clarification, by "aggressive" I mean passing more since for the average pass attempt gains more than the average rush attempt).

Upon first thought, this seems a bit wild. The last thing I think a coach would want to do is get wild and risky against USC's defense. Getting risky can lead to turnovers (in this case interceptions). The more times USC's offense has the ball, the more times they'll score since USC's offense is probably better than any Pac-10 defense. The traditional coach's manual would probably say something like "minimize turnovers, and maintain ball possession to keep the opposing offense off the field." This indeed seems to be the mantra which Tedford has followed over the years (most noticeable and memorable in the 2008 Cal vs. USC game).

Has it this strategy worked? Well, if you're looking at mere wins and losses, then the answer is No. So does that mean Cal needs to be more aggressive and pass more?

Well, every game is different. But I would still say No. Cal doesn't need to be drastically more aggressive on offense (pass more) in 2009.

In the 2008 Cal vs. USC game, Cal attempted 31 passes for a 4.5 yard average. Cal rushed the ball 20 times for a 3.0 yard average (excluding negative rush yards from QB sacks on pass plays). In terms of achieving an equilibrium of pass attempt yardage and rush attempt yardage, Cal did pretty well. Perhaps a few more passes would have been statistically beneficial but otherwise I think the run/pass ratio was fairly acceptable. Had Cal's pass attempt average been something like 5.5 yards per attempt, and Cal's rush average been around 2.0 yards per attempt, then yes, I would say Cal should pass more.

But Cal had a decent pass attempt and rush attempt equilibrium. So there really isn't any need, statistically at least, to pass much more. As of now, I've been talking lots of stats, but let's talk real life too. Cal's defense last year was darn good. One of Cal's best defenses in the Tedford years, if not perhaps the best (some say 2004 was the best defense but a few people say otherwise). In 2008, Cal didn't need to get extraordinarily risky on offense to beat USC when Cal had such a good defense. Cal could rely on its defense to keep the game close. Cal's defense did keep the game close and it really came down to the Cal offense. Unfortunately, Cal's offense did more damage to itself with untimely and critical penalties than what USC did to it. So while Cal's offense failed to score, I wouldn't necessarily say that it's because they were massively out-gunned.

Without a doubt, USC's team is more talented than Cal's. More of their players will probably get drafted and get drafted higher on any given year than Cal's players. But Cal isn't so far behind USC that Cal needs to get drastically aggressive. As Smart Football suggests, it's really those teams that are head and shoulders far below the superior team that need to be very aggressive. I don't think Cal qualifies as that team. Cal wasn't that team in 2008, nor is Cal that team in 2009.

In 2009, Cal will have a pretty solid defense returning and (hopefully) a better offense. With a solid defense, Cal can rely on its defense to keep the game close and won't have to just start rolling the dice on offense. Instead, Cal can stick with the usual gameplan.

Do you guys feel that Cal should stick with the usual gameplan to beat USC?