Friday, February 26, 2010

Game Dynamics and Football: Part I: Base Rules and Talent

Any type of true game is governed by principals and many of these principals apply across many games. There are principals shared in football, backgammon, poker, chess, basketball, and many others. If you look at games in depth enough it becomes easy to see how principals apply. In part I I will discuss 2 dynamics things that play a role in football and compare them to other games.

Dynamic I: Base Rules- Field Size & the Number of Players Effect on Scoring

Fundamentally, base rules have the most significant impact on the way a game is played and developed. Monopoly would change if the players started off with less money. Poker would change drastically, if 6 cards made a hand as opposed to 5. Basic rules are prior to any of the in depth strategies and tactics that influence a game. Two of the most basic rules in football are the size of the playing field and number of players.

In football the field size is approximately 100 x 53.4 yards (120 counting End-zones). At any time up to 11 players from each team may be on the field. The game that we work with and enjoy is fundamentally shaped by those two characteristics. Both of these things influence the number of points that can be scored on average. The relationship of these two factor has an immense impact on the number of points that can be scored in a football game.

Consider this example. If football was played on a 20 x 20 field, with 11 players the game would change dramatically. Passing would not be a big part. Offenses would look more historical, the single-wing, wing-t, power-I, and double-slot would dominate the scene. The game would be one long rugby scrum. Why? Because there would not be enough space to score quickly and throw the ball. The defense would load all 11 guys in the box to stop the run. It would be harder to find "holes" in the defense. The game would be drastically different than the one we see on TV today, just because of 1 rule change.

Now imagine that the # of players allowed on the field increased to 12 and the field size remained the same. Ceteris Paribus (all other things being equal) the amount of scoring would decrease on average. Adding a 12th player helps the defense tremendously because, they have an extra person to defend the same amount of space. The offense is in the business of creating unprotected space. "Holes" and "windows" are offensive words to describe unprotected space. Conversely, defenses are based around protecting space, by having "gap" assignments and coverage "zones." The basic struggle in football begins with the defense creating a plan to protect space on the field while the offense at the same time maneuvers to create unprotected space. With 12 players the defense would be able to better defend the field. The 12th player would not have an overall net-positive effect for the offense. Think about it. One of the time tested principals "the offense wants to trade the defense 1 for 1 with defense" is a principal for a reason. Trading one for one is a way of creating more space for the offense. The field size remains the same while the # of players active on a play is lower.

The principal holds true if you lower the number of players to 10. The offense would be able to even easier to find unprotected space, Especially in the passing game. If you have ever played 7 on 7 touch football on a full size football field, you will know what I am talking about. The defense would have more players stressed. The would be caught in position where they are needed to play run first and play a major part in pass coverage as well. Also, the limited number of players would make it easier for the offense to get single coverage on a WR. In short, reducing the number of players would allow points to increase.

Arena football is a prime example of this dynamic. Arena football had to create some seemingly bizarre rules to allow the sport to function properly. Why did these rules come into effect? Because there was a conflict with these basic rules of field size and the number of players. The field is essentially reduced 50% in size, but the number of players is only reduced 27%. This created a playing environment that had players defending less space than they would in typical football. Given the logic I presented earlier, Arena football would be a defensive game. However, it is not. Arena football is the exact opposite, a score-fest. Does this mean I was wrong about the previous statements. No! Other variables changed besides the field size and number of players. Rules were put in place to assist the offense. Some rules limited the defenses ability to defend space. For example, rules limit the sides a blitz can from, and until recently, severely limited the mobility of the "Jack Backer." Also, simple rules like forward motion gave the offense an added boost. These rules helped to equalize and overcome the fundamental advantage the defense had in the amount of field each player had to defend. Overall, the rule changes allowed the arena football teams to score more points on average than NFL teams.

Dynamic II: Talent Level Effects on Strategy and Tactics

I should not have to prove to anyone how big an impact the talent of a team has on its performance. Experience tell us that the team with more talent wins more that a team with less talent. No team, no matter how much more talented is a 100% favorite. I will admit at times a team might be around a 99% favorite, but there is always a chance for the underdog to win. What having a talent advantage does give a team, is winning chances above 50%, making them the favorite. Looking at talent in a vacuum, we can begin to approximate winning percentages. However, other factors like a teams overall strategy, tactics, and the level of proficiency a team has at those things can have an effect on a teams winning chances as well. Before taking into account those things we must first consider, the effect talent has on the development of strategy and tactics.

Strategy deals with the overall view and philosophy of how to plan to win the game. Some teams prefer to run the ball, control the clock, and play field position. On the other hand some teams like to turn a game into an aggressive score fest. Tactics is the means by which a team executes their overall strategy.

An Example- Chess

The game dynamics of strategy and tactics play a huge and clear role in a game like chess. Consider a chess game where the black side starts the game with one less pawn. The person with the additional pawn (white), can be considered "more talented" in this example. Lets look at the overall strategy for each side in this example.

The white side wants to play a very straight forward and simple strategy. The best plan for white is to trade pieces off: a rook for a rook, a queen for a queen, and so on. His goal is to trade off enough piece that allow him to turn his extra pawn into a queen. Using the queen the white side will easily checkmate the black side. On the other hand, Blacks strategy is to prevent this from happening. Somewhere down the line, black needs to win a pawn back to equalize the game.

Tactically, both sides want to execute their desired strategies. What type of tactics would each side like to employ? First consider black. Black's will need to keep pieces protected and develop a complicated position. One where each move is difficult to decide. Black hopes that he can make better tactical moves than white can. In short, black wants to complicate the game and put more emphasis on decision making and less on the strength of each others pieces. There is a risk-reward to this plan. The reward is, this game plan will increase the likelihood of white making a mistake that will equalize the game. The risk is that black is more likely to make a mistake himself and get crushed by white. White wants to keep the game simple. He is content to move the game along and trade peaces off. His moves will seek to keep his decisions easy. Ultimately, white wants to avoid mistakes. His strategy will be more defensive and conservative. The goal for him is to keep decisions easy and rely on his advantage in pieces to win.

From chess a simple game strategy becomes apparent:

When you have an advantage, you want to keep the game simple and let your advantage take you to victory. When you are at a disadvantage, you want to complicate the game and lower the impact that your opponent's advantage has on the game.

For both players the goal is to maximize their chances to win.

Application to Football

Does this simple strategy apply to football? Yes, but not as simply as it does to chess. Unlike chess pieces, football players think for themselves separate from the people in charge of game strategy (coaches). Lets look how a talented team might put together a strategy, for an upcoming season. If this team will have a talent advantage over most teams, it would be beneficial to utilize a conservative football game plan. Offensively, this game plan should seek to protect the football by establishing the running game, and using passes only when necessary. The running game will be simple and favor match-ups over misdirection. They should deviate from this plan enough to mix up their calls to keep the defense honest. Defensively, the plan should be to play sound gap control zone defense will force the opposing offense to work to score. The idea behind this strategy is to limit mistakes and allow their talent to win football games.

The strategy for an under-talented team is different. From the opening kickoff the weaker team should be more aggressive. Onside-kicks, trick plays, 4th down attempts, and blitzes will all be a part of their game-plan. This type of team will need to do things to compensate for their lack of talent. If this team were to play the other team mentioned in the previous paragraph, these things would need to be done. If possible, on defense this team will need to be multiple and confuse the up front blocking assignments of their strong opponent. Creating situations where defenders are unblocked due to error, offsets some of the talent disadvantages. If this plan is successful, they will force the other team to throw more, in effect create more turnover opportunities. This is exactly what the stronger team wants to avoid. On offense the weaker team needs to be deceptive and creative. Misdirection, well-planned passes, and trick plays will keep the stronger team on their toes. This game-plan puts the weaker team in a position to get beat by a significant margin more often, but does allow them more of a winning chance.

This is not absolute by any means, and there many more variables that apply to game-planning besides talent. Things like continuity, mixture of personnel, player types, coaching philosophy, and system familiarity all influence the development of football strategy and tactics. Teams with weaker talent have won with a simple straightforward ball control philosophy and strong teams have been successful with aggressive, creative, and deceptive strategies.

The idea behind what I am stating is that talent can play a big role in the development of overall strategy.

If you have a talent advantage it is in your best interest to let it win for you; conversely, if you are at a disadvantage it is in your interest to limit the impact talent has on the game.

This is a complicated way of saying what all great coaches believe: Put your players in the best possible position to win. Teams like Boise State and SMU are examples of sound game-planning when you have a talent disadvantage.


Game dynamics are important to consider in all games. There are too many to consider, I have just touched on a couple of basic ones to illustrate that football is subject to the same dynamics as other games. In Part II I will discuss the game dynamics of the play-calling and scouting.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Football and Strength Training Part II: The Power Clean

The power clean has been considered the ultimate lift for the football athlete. It is a full body exercise that requires speed, explosion, and strength. It has been said that the best athletes can power clean a lot. I agree with some of this. However, the power clean is not as important as many believe. In my opinion it is not even necessary for building great football players. I believe this because of some fundamental problems I have with the power clean as a training tool.

Elements of the Power Clean

Let’s begin by analyzing what it takes to be “good” at the power clean.

  1. Great Form
  2. Explosion
  3. Quickness
  4. Strength in the hips and legs

First and foremost is great form. With a lot of practice, an athlete can develop the proper muscle memory to pull the bar up, explode underneath it and catch it in a good front squat position. The people that excel at the clean do a great job of getting underneath the bar and catching it in a solid position. Second, is explosion. An athlete must be explosive in order to get a good amount of weight moving off the floor. Third, is quickness. Once an athlete explodes the bar off the floor, he needs to be quick at getting underneath the bar. Finally, the athlete needs to have good strength in the hips and legs to push the bar to a finished position.

From what I have seen, athletes, regardless of size can excel at the power clean if they possess these 4 attributes. In short, a good solid athlete that develops proper technique will be able to excel at it. Many argue that there is a good correlation between teams with players that have good power cleans and a team's winning percentage. However, I believe that the correlation is founded on the fact that the team has good athletes. Athletes with good form can power clean, period! The power clean can serve as a good assessment of athleticism, especially at the higher levels. However, the proposition that the power clean can be at the core of football training in the weight room, is not valid.

Problems with the Clean

First, consider what it takes to implement the clean properly into football weight programs. Much time must be dedicated to developing proper form. This can take a great deal of time, especially for lesser athletes. Flexibility, explosion, quickness, and flexibility must all be fine-tuned to allow this to happen. Getting these things to sync up is a challenge. The major requirement here is the close monitoring and training by a coach whom is knowledgeable about the lift. Finding a steady group of coaches whom are well schooled at the clean is a difficult thing to do. For the most part, strength and conditioning coordinators that want to implement the clean into their program properly must spend a good deal of time training the coaching staff to monitor and correct the athletes properly. Probably the biggest flaw with the power clean is the resources and time a team must commit to it. Time is always against us, and the more time we have to dedicate to something means less time to work other things.

Second, the claim that through the power clean an athlete can become significantly better is suspect. Again, consider the 4 qualities I discussed at the beginning. I have already discussed the problems with developing form. Next, consider the development of explosion, which is developed by moving a reasonable weight faster. This can be done with your own body weight, resistance bands, or free weights. Beginning athletes don’t have the coordination down to properly move the bar off the floor with a reasonable weight. So the weights they begin working with don’t really push their bodies to exert the force needed on the field. I am not saying the power clean does not help an athlete become more explosive, but the amount of explosion developed is not optimal given the time it requires. Third, consider the development of quickness. Even if an athlete has the coordination to clean properly, can cleaning weights through repetition make an athlete quicker? I don’t think it can to the extent many believe. Finally, how much does the clean to do to develop strength in the hips and legs? A good power clean for a person weighing 140 pounds is 250lbs. A good squat for the same person is 400lbs. If a person is working out on a 5x5 plan with 75% of the 1-Rep max, then the bar should be loaded with approximately 190lbs for the clean and 300lbs for the squat. Which weight load would be more developmental for the hips and legs? Obviously the squat weight. The full workout for the clean would tax the body with 4,750lbs of weight, while the squat workout would tax the body with 7,500lbs of weight. When the body is stressed by heavier weight it is forced to get stronger. That is why as an athlete's workout loads must increase in order for their max to increase. The clean does not put enough pressure on the body to develop strength in the hips and legs to the highest levels.

As football coaches, what do we want our athletes to get out of the weight room? In general, we want their bodies to get stronger, more explosive, and less susceptible to injury. A strength coach can put together a workout plan that accomplishes these goals much more effectively than a program built around the power clean. For developing strength in the hips and legs, the box squat is very effective and takes a fraction of the time to teach compared to then clean. An added bonus from the box squats is the heavy stress it puts on the glutes and hamstrings. Most high school athletes are underdeveloped in this area. Another bonus from box squats is the development of explosion. As athletes begin to get stronger in the box squat, they begin to move weight faster. Also, explosion can be developed through plyo-metrics and weight exercises like box jumps with dumbbells. Quickness that translates to football performance can be better developed through various agility drills that most coaches employ during off-season.

Another goal that coaches have in mind from weight training is the ability to hit and drive (or tackle) opposing players more effectively. If you consider what it takes to hit and drive another person back you will see that it involves the uncoiling of the hips from the “football position.” This uncoiling is directed at the opposing player. To put it clearly, the power from the hips is exerted forward. In the power clean the little hip push that is used, is pushed near vertical. This is not the ideal angle for hit and drive. Again, box squats and machines like Hammer Strength’s Ground Based Jammer can work this motion much more effectively.


Even if you plan to use power cleans as a secondary lift, do you plan to teach the proper technique? Do you have the time to? Are the benefits worth the costs? Can the goals of a weight training program be accomplished without the power clean? To last question I believe yes.

I know the clean is a good test of athleticism and requires great skill to preform at the highest levels. I just don't think it is necessary for developing strength and power in football players.

I know many coaches might disagree with this, I have debated with many about this. I have just watched players work their tails off at the power clean and achieve minimal gains. Their development as athletes can be better done with other means. The time it takes to develop the power clean is not worth their minimal reward. Even the deadlift (another lift that takes a minimal time to learn) can produce good gains in the explosion and strength areas. If I decide to write about strength training some more, I will discuss the deadlift in more depth and the benefits it can have for the football player.