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Monday, January 02, 2006

Michael Lewis takes on football

I was going to write something up about the weekend--our return to the Bay; NYE @ our place, Il Pirata, the 22-Fillmore, and the lounge; the trip earlier this evening to the Metreon to see "Casanova" (very much worth seeing, I thought!) But it's getting late, so I'm going to put all that off until tomorrow.

For now, just wanted to post the link to a long piece by Michael Lewis that ran in the NYT Mag one month ago:
Coach Leach Goes Deep, Very Deep
By MICHAEL LEWIS (NYT) 8821 words
Published: December 4, 2005

This came up in conversation with Gary while we were sitting on the patio at the Metreon, overlooking Yerba Buena Gardens. (An aside: it always amuses me to note that Yerba Buena translates to Good Herb.)

Michael Lewis came up because we were talking about Long-Term Capital Management, and Gary recalled that Lewis had written something about it.
This page mentions the article that Gary must have been referring to:
A New York Sunday Times article says the big trouble for LTCM started on July 17 when Salomon Smith Barney announced it was liquidating its dollar interest arbitrage positions: "For the rest of the that month, the fund dropped about 10% because Salomon Brothers was selling all the things that Long-Term owned." [The article was written by Michael Lewis, former Salomon bond trader and author of Liar's Poker. Lewis visited his former colleagues at LTCM after the crisis and describes some of the trades on the firm's books]
I've had "Liar's Poker" on the to-read list for the last few months. I might pick up "Moneyball" at some point also.

But back to the topic at hand: football. The "Coach Leach" article linked-to above is fascinating, and reveals that Lewis's next book is going to be about football. Not sure where I read that--perhaps in that issue of the Mag itself--where Lewis makes the point that football is perhaps the most complex sport ever invented, but there's little in the way of writing examining the game--as compared with baseball, in particular.

I needed to post this tonight, b/c I just checked tomorrow morning's TV schedule on Tivo, and Texas Tech's bowl game starts at 8am (PT). So consider reading through Lewis's article while you're watching Leach's off-the-hook offense at work. I might re-read it while doing so.

Lewis is an incredible writer--he not only makes the topic (football, specifically offense) interesting, he makes his hero to be quite a character.

Here's one excerpt with Leach's background (this is all after he became, and then quit being, a lawyer:

The last 20 years have been an odd journey, with coaching jobs at College of the Desert, Cal Poly, Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and a European league team in Pori, Finland. His first year coaching Division 1 college football was 1997, at the University of Kentucky. He arrived from Valdosta State with the head coach, Hal Mumme, and turned the Kentucky offense from joke into juggernaut. The year before he arrived, Kentucky's quarterback passed for 967 yards. In Leach's first year, his quarterback, Tim Couch, threw for 3,884 yards; the year after that, Couch, who lasted for only a few disappointing years in the N.F.L., threw for 4,275 yards. After Kentucky, Leach moved to Oklahoma for a single season, 1999. That year Oklahoma went from 101st to 8th in the country in offensive scoring. Its quarterback, Josh Heupel, passed for 3,850 yards that season, which was 1,700 more than any quarterback in Oklahoma football history had thrown for in a season. The next year, running Leach's offense, Oklahoma won the national championship -- but by then Texas Tech had picked up the pattern and hired Leach to run its team. ''Mike was different,'' says Patty Ross, who has long served as an assistant to Texas Tech head football coaches and who didn't know what to make of this new one. ''We had always had West Texas guys. We always ran the ball here. The first time Mike's offense came out on the field everyone is like, Whoa. He has that play he calls the Ninja -- when they all line up on one end. I'm not sure anyone had ever seen the Ninja. It was just a shock effect. Mike's personality was like that, too."

Another excerpt, where Lewis describes some of Leach's offensive formations; it contains Lewis's thesis that Leach is changing the "geometry" of the game:
The big gaps between the linemen made the quarterback seem more vulnerable -- some defenders could seemingly run right between the blockers -- but he wasn't. Stretching out the offensive line stretched out the defensive line too, forcing the most ferocious pass rushers several yards farther from the quarterback. It also opened up wide passing lanes through which even a short quarterback could see the whole field clearly. Leach spread out his receivers and backs too. The look was more flag than tackle football: a truly fantastic number of players racing around trying to catch passes on every play, and a quarterback surprisingly able to keep an eye on all of them. This offense was, in effect, an argument for changing the geometry of the game.

I just recalled that after I read the Leach/Texas Tech piece, I looked up a previous NYT Mag Lewis piece, on Eli Manning:
The New York Times > Magazine > The Eli Experiment

Published: December 19, 2004
You have to love that the 2nd section of the essay is titled "Plato's Cave." Here's why:
The people, and the cameras, will follow every move Eli Manning makes. They will come away feeling as if they have achieved a fairly exact accounting of what Eli Manning did as a quarterback. And that is an interesting thing: an exact accounting is exactly what is not possible.

The millions of people watching the game on television -- the beneficiaries of 13 camera angles and endless commentary from smart people, many of whom played the game -- in a way have it the worst. The man who oversees the cameras, Richie Zyontz of Fox Sports, explains that ''the guys who work the cameras are trying to make a nice picture. The risk is always that it's too tight.'' Focusing on what grips a television audience -- facial expressions, violence, emotion, pretty women -- the camera will miss the subtleties of the game: the missed blocks, the badly run pass routes.

The naked eye, no matter how well trained, isn't much better. From the chaos on the field it isn't always obvious, even to official scorekeepers, who did what. The Indianapolis Star recently published an article showing that the statistics compiled by the Colts coaching staff -- from the tapes of the games -- were alarmingly different from the official records kept during the season. The scorekeepers, for instance, credited the Colts linebacker Cato June with 59 solo tackles and 15 assists; from tapes the Colts coaches know that Cato June had 49 solo tackles and 40 assists. If the human eye can miss something as central to the action as a tackle, how can it be expected to comprehend the dozens of things that occur away from the ball? Statistics -- the answer in other sports -- don't help all that much. Football statistics do not capture the performance of individual football players as cleanly as, say, baseball statistics capture the performance of individual baseball players. No player ever does anything on a football field that isn't dependent on some other player. The individual achievements of football players are often, in effect, hidden in plain sight.

But here's the other interesting thing: this hidden game can be seen, though not by the average viewer. Shot unceremoniously from two pillboxes on the stadium's upper rim, the videotape made by the Giants coaching staff frames all 22 players on the field. The view the coaches want is the view from the cheapest seat in the house. ''When former coaches get into the broadcast booth, that's the first thing they want to see, the all-22, the eye in the sky,'' Zyontz says. The coaches want to see that shot because they know it is the only shot that will enable them to figure out who did what -- and assign credit and blame -- on any given football play.

''After a game,'' Coughlin says, ''you obviously know what happened. But a lot of times you don't know why it happened.'' If even the coach, who, during a game, is privy to overhead still photos of the action and countless conversations with players, doesn't understand who did what, what hope is there for a mere spectator? In some strange way, until you see the tape, you haven't seen the game.

Giants Stadium, on this afternoon of Eli Manning's debut, is Plato's Cave. The millions of people watching the game are inside the cave, staring at shadows on the wall. The shadows are distortions of the reality outside the cave, treated, erroneously, as the thing itself. No matter how he plays, some part of Eli Manning's game, like his personality, will remain hidden from public understanding. It may be a trivial part; it may be the telling part -- the point is that no one can know for sure if the Giants have given their money to the right guy.

1 comment:

Quantjock said...

Michael Lewis is an excellent writer. If he can make bond trading exciting.. football is going to be easy!!