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.


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