December 27, 2009

Simplicity Vs Detail

Something that’s been on my mind a lot recently has been the idea of keeping things simple vs allowing complexity. Part of it is the conflict between my two defensive backgrounds: in high school I played in an Under Front 4-3 that was 100% quarters, 100% of the time, whereas in college I played in the 4-3 version of the TCU 4-2-5 (No 3-spoke secondary, but A LOT of conceptual carryover) which was a “scheme for smart kids” as our DC phrased it. There’s something to be said for both approaches, which is what I want to examine in this post.


A common phrase you’ll hear around sports and football in particular is that “You can’t teach speed”. Another that I’ve heard and used is “Luck follows speed”. Either way, when playing defense the importance of playing fast, in addition to being fast, cannot be underestimated. Some of the best collegiate defenses over the last few decades have been predicated on speed and the ability to run to the football, thereby constricting the playing field and making breakaway plays occur less frequently. One of the best examples of a speed defense wrecking absolute havoc on an offense would be Miami’s woodshed beating of Nebraska in the 2002 Rose Bowl. Miami’s defense, loaded with future first rounders and oozing speed, athleticism and quickness, swarmed all over Nebraska’s I-Option.

The reason I mention all this is that one of the best ways to get your boys to play fast (which is almost as good as BEING fast) is to simplify and remove thought. The more thought that happens, the slower the boys will play and the worse your defense will perform. When all 11 guys KNOW their assignment, KNOW what they’re supposed to be doing, and aren’t processing, but are just reacting, you’re doing something right. The idea is to have kids entering a zen-like state of play where conscious thought doesn’t exist anymore. For my high school team, we had 1 front, 1 coverage, and very few adjustments. I learned almost everything I would need to know as a middle backer by the end of my sophomore year. By the time I was a senior, I was helping our HC with the gameplan.

By simplifying your scheme, you allow for this kind of automatic play which should minimize ‘busts’ in coverage, incorrect run fit reads, and mis-alignments. You’ll have an easier time identifying your problems because the number of things that can go wrong are significantly less.

The main problem I have with this approach is simple: when you’re good, it’s good and when you’re bad, it’s bad. I don’t mean to suggest that less talented teams simply MUST have more complexity to their schemes, but I do think that if you’re less talented you will have problems if you take the simplicity route. When you have 5 future college athletes on the same D, such as my senior season, you’ll do special things against most teams.


In college I played in a scheme that was darn near impossible for freshman to start in at some positions because you just couldn’t learn everything you needed to learn. Obviously, you have this kind of luxury at the collegiate level because you are drawing from 4 classes of athletes, whereas in high school you really only have juniors and seniors.

At heart I’m a pretty simple guy and that generally gets reflected in most aspects of my life. If I could get away with it, I’d wear a white collared shirt and blue jeans with sandals every day. I’d eat cereal, sandwich, and steak & veggies for my 3 meals a day if I didn’t think I’d end up looking like Mark Mangino. Any girl I’ve dated can tell you that it’s a great thing for them because I only spend money on food, gas, and them.

Football-wise, I’m not much different. I want a defense that protects it’s LBs, stops the run, forces turnovers, and suffocates the offenses. I don’t really care in what form that comes in, I just want good defense. Offensively, I wish I could coach a flexbone or split back veer offense. Run the same basic stuff over and over and over and have the defense be wrong and wrong and wrong. Don’t get so complicated that you have nothing to hang your hat on, nothing vanilla to fall back to.

Our 4-3 Under with Quarters coverage lasted a long, long time under my HC before he left to take another job and stayed around under our former HC. Our former HC was over matched for the position and lacked long-term goals. Our athlete development suffered, the talent well dried up, and the scheme suffered. In order to compensate, the defense had to add complexity. In adding complexity, the scheme became more compromised. Eventually our former HC decided to burn it down and start over, enter me.

The irony of the situation is that I’m now running a fairly complex 3-4 defense for my alma mater. We were left trying to compensate for our sub-par athletes with a scheme that was predicated on simplicity, so we embraced the horror. Our guys had to learn not one, but TWO coverages. They had to learn to slant AND to play shades. They had to learn a 3-man front, a four-man front, and a bear front. They had to make their own adjustments on the field based off of film study and intuition. They had to learn SIX blitzes after having three for most of their career.

The dangers of complexity are several. One, mis-alignments are bound to happen and will frequently happen in moments of stress, confusion, or importance. It’s been my experience that those moments usually are some kind of horrible combination of the three. Two, limited practice time means limited experience at each new thing. Practicing our 3-man front, four-man front, bear front, different coverages, blitzes, and whatever else might come up over the course of our weekly practice is almost impossible. A lot of times we’d go into a game only having seen or repped certain things once, if at all. I frequently had to tell my guys “We knew they ran it, but we just didn’t have time to practice it all”. Three, THINKING. I dunno about you, but just hearing what my guys are thinking on a day to day, moment to moment basis is frightening. Considering that, the idea of them thinking about what they’re doing on the field is just horrifying.

The benefits? We were unpredictable, adaptable, flexible, and, at times, dominant. We finished the season with the second best defense in the league, fifth best defense in the area (3 counties), and best season in at least 4 years. Our guys had fun running a defense that was very similar to what they would watch on Saturday and thought they could see on Sundays. The troubles of complexity and ensuing stress created a lot of issues, but it never got boring for our guys when they were constantly being challenged to do something different than the play before and the one before that. At one point in a game this year we ran a different front, stunt, and coverage on 3 consecutive plays, something unheard of in prior seasons. For us, considering where our program is at and where we want it to be going, we wanted to run a defense the kids found fun and exciting, which this was.

Where I Stand

If I had my druthers, I’d run my defense very similarly to how TCU runs their 4-2-5 with a 3-spoke secondary that is divorced from the front 6. But, at this point in my career I’m married to the 3-4 scheme that I’ve created. So, I’m torn between my own natural desire for simplicity and the complexity that I’ve created for myself. I love my 3-4 that I’ve created, but it is learning intensive and there are some instances where we’re just hoping everything goes well. I love simple defense, but I worry over what would happen when we face a team who’s categorically better than us or has us figured out. Right now, I’m a complexity guy, but I’m looking to get back to what makes me feel comfortable, which is simplicity and execution.

1 comment:

  1. Great Insight! I have this discussion all the time with people. Its a difficult balance of two conflicting factors to maintain. I believe athletes today can handle more than most give them credit for.