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Gobbler Country Playbook Special Teams Decisions Like Taking a -4

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The Playbook has looked at offense and defense, but we are Virginia Tech, and we do love our ‘BeamerBall’. Special Teams decisions mean something. Frank proved that. They can mean the difference between winning and losing. Momentum, field position, and points are all at stake. We look at some of the issues. GO HOKIES!!!

Oscar Bradburn practices placement
John Schneider - SB Nation

We’ve taken a trip through Strategic thinking, and some issues in game to game tactics for both offense and defense. It’s by no means exhaustive, but the purpose was always to get you, out there in Hokie Nation, to think a bit about what it actually takes to do this stuff. One aspect of the game that we haven’t discussed at all, really, is Beamer Ball. That’s Special Teams and the sorts of plays and decisions that can make a huge difference in the outcome of a football game. The full range of points is available to special teams, just as they are with offense or defense. The reality is more like the discipline is “transitional”. More often than not, a Special Teams play is all about exchanging possession of the ball.

There are actually two different types of Special Teams. There are offensive special teams, Field Goals, Points After Touchdown (Including the totally Offense oriented 2-point conversion), kick-off returns (while they still exist), and punt returns. The transitional play types are kick-offs, and punts. So we are here to talk about some of the most frustrating decisions facing a coach. They are frustrating because few of them are positive choices. Almost all of them are “least bad” options or flat transitions (like a kick-off after a score).

The Least Objectionable Transition That’s Not a Kick-off

Punting is just flat out frustrating. It’s not as difficult a decision as one might think, though. Let’s go back to one of our chief tormentors of the 2016-2018 run, Paul Johnson and the Georgia Tech triple option. The decision for him was relatively easy. If the ball was 4th and short, he was always likely to go for it anywhere on the field. If it was the same down and yardage, AND the ball was between his 40 and the goal line, he was more apt to go with it than not. If the ball was inside your 40 (or 50 as the game pressed on) he was virtually guaranteed to use all four downs. This was a near mathematical certainty because the odds of getting a first down are north of 60 percent for everything below 3.5 yards. Johnson, whose offense averaged over 3 yards a carry, was nearly guaranteed a 1st on 4th down and 2 or less. It was a very easy decision for him. (Check out this article from Advanced Football Analytics to see some interesting answers to questions about the whys and wherefores of football decision taking.)

So, why punt?

There are a few reasons to look at, and not one of them is trivial.

  • Well, sometimes even a 40% failure rate is not tolerable early in the game when nearly everything is at equilibrium. That calculation will change given the game situation. If you have a solid lead and your defense is working, the risk is too great to justify the try.
  • Momentum is a huge factor in all football games. Those aren’t robots out there on the field. Neither are they computer programs with hard coded parameters attached to their motion objects. Let’s say you take your 60% shot and try for it on 4th and 2. You get snuffed. We’ve seen that emotional balloon popped on both sides of the line of scrimmage for us. If you have a good punter who can not only lay wood to a long punt, but intelligently place the ball in a disadvantageous distance for the opposition, it’s often better to punt.
  • Hey, nobody likes a wiseacre, and going for it in your own territory risks handing an opponent a short field. Take a look at the analytics about drive distance and probabilities and get back to me on whether or not trotting out Oscar Bradburn to drop a dead duck on the opponent’s 4 yard line was a good idea. Of course that ends the Special Teams situation, and brings up something that we struggled mightily with last season… defense….

So, unless the game is in jeopardy, and it’s now or never, punting isn’t a really difficult decision for a coach to take.

BLOCK IT! BEAMERBALL FOREVER!

Frank Beamer’s spirit over Lane Stadium still lingers like the faint smell of a smoked turkey leg that you swear is still there in the warmth of May Commencement.

This is a short one. Do you go for the block, either punt or field goal? It’s bitten us with penalties before (some absolutely incorrectly thrown flags for Emmy winning drama performances included). An all out block attempt has its real risks. The major trick is that contacting the ball in any way ablates the flag (for now, anyway).

If the #25 on Fuente and Shibest’s Special Teams Squads means anything, it means “No Risk-it, no biscuit.” (h/t to BA) it most definitely means that more often than not, Virginia Tech’s opposing punters better get the ball out fast, and the line better block. Or a Hokie is going to come blasting in and block... the punt.

‘Nuff said on that one.

There’s Another “Going for It” situation; a Field Goal

It’s 4th down and goal-to-go… or even 4th down and short (1 or 2) from something like the 10. Your drive stalls out, and a fade pass in the corner of the end zone nearly results in a touchback pick. What do you do? Do you settle for running the field goal team out or do you go for it? Lots of risk taking fans would stand up and holler GO FOR IT!!! Well, as relatively easy as the punt question was to answer, this one is frustratingly difficult.

The numbers say that you should go for the first down or touchdown to either nab the 6 points or extend the drive with a first down. The reality is that discretion is the better part of valor; and grabbing whatever points you come away with is a good thing. Again, it’s highly dependent on the situation on the field. It’s not just about down and distance. It’s also about the game situation. If you have an entire quarter left, grabbing 3, getting a defensive stop, and then going for another drive for something better, is a good idea. (It’s lower risk, yes, but not a horrible thought.) If you are one or two full scores behind (7-14) the 3 isn’t really going to do you much good, you still will have to drive and score a TD with a PAT or 2 to make a dent, tie, or take the lead.

There is another bummer in the mix. The play can fail. It’s complex. It requires precision execution, and kickers are definitely not robots; neither are the long-snappers and holders. Field goals (especially in college) are kicked from off angles, and kickers tend to be, well, college material… So, a field goal isn’t an automatic 3. Shane Graham #2 we haven’t found of late.

Either way, there is a serious momentum hit if you miss. The same goes for going for it, BTW. Either way, it ends up being a stop. So, no points go up for all that driving and clock burning. That’s deflating for the ‘O’, and certainly a big boost for their D.

There is another transition situation that relates to Field Goal vs. Punt.

If you are on the opponent’s 40 yard line, can your field goal kicker hit that shot? Tech has had several seasons of long FG heartaches. It was more often than not a better bet to get Oscar out on the field and bury the opponent with a well-aimed comatose skunk that pinned them, than trying a long 3 one only to have the ball come back to better field position for them. Either way, this is the chance to shine by taking the “least bad” option from the pile. If you have a good, accurate long kicker and a good defense, then grabbing a -4 is a good bet. If not… back off and punt.

Kick-offs (as long as they last) are Not Immune to Risky Chances

Here’s a link to a video from Advanced Football Analytics on some decision guiding numbers about on-side kicks.

Needless to say the numbers are pretty dicey. Even the listed general number of 26% makes the situation a bit difficult to gauge. The reason is the situational function of the play. A SURPRISE on-sider is more likely to work than the expected play; DUH! Of course it is. The receiving team, in an obvious on-side situation is going to have the “Hands” team out. They’ll line up in a location where the kicker could be expected to kick the ball (here the old fashioned straight away kicker is actually an advantage).

Things a coach will have to ask himself about trying an on-sider:

  1. Is the kicker good enough to put the ball in the best place possible?
  2. How many times has this been practiced, live, on Special Teams?
  3. Can we do something “unusual” to put a wrinkle in the play?
  4. How good have the ground-ball and fumble drills been?
  5. Regardless of position who has the best ground hands and ball skills to recover the flopping cat?

I know that Special Teams coaches practice on-side kicks… how is it that they always look like it’s an ad hoc scramble drill? That’s the risk, here. The coach might get a plate of poo handed to him. The team is one score behind after a successful drive. There are less than 2 minutes left on the clock; and few or no timeouts left. That’s a guaranteed on-side kick attempt.

Of course then you can be Sean Peyton, and start the second half of the Super Bowl with an onside kick to keep the opponent rocked back and get a shot at the offense to take a crack at an unprepared defense.

Boom it or Try to Snuff it?

Place kickers with cannons for legs are becoming the norm in the kickoff world. Back in the day of the 20-yard touchback on kickoffs there wasn’t too much argument with having Joey Slye blast the ball into the parking lot, and give the opposition an 80 yard drive to deal with. That all changed a bit with the 25 yard touchback rule (on kickoffs, only - punts and turnovers are still placed at the 20.) There were some serious coaches who didn’t cotton too much to the concept of giving the opponent’s offense five free yards.

That suddenly became the game. Can your kicker and coverage team buy back some yards by kicking the ball short of the goal line, or shallow enough to bait the returner into trying something. The end result is an interesting play concept set that will remain until the Risk Avoiders kill the kickoff.

So the issues are:

On the receiving team, if the ball goes into the endzone to you require your returner to take a knee? The answer is ‘yes’ if he can’t get past the 25; which he rarely can do from inside the end zone.

On the kicking team, can you cover a short kick and get it consistently between the 10 and goal line? If the answer is ‘yes’ then the risk level might just dictate that you don’t give the opposition free yards. The momentum builder for snuffing a return inside the 25, plus the longer field to cover for the opposition could mean the difference between getting a stop or not. If you are facing a high powered offense kicking short of the line might actually be a better choice.

See, that one isn’t so easy on either side, either.

Ultimately, It’s All About What You are Willing to Risk

Most managerial functions come down to Risk Assessment and Management. There are many business disciplines that have been invented to assess and control risk. Risk avoidance is a primary driving emotion and motivation for most people’s lives. Are you willing to take a risk? A head coach of any sport is going to be forced to take calculated risks on every play, in every game, and in every season. Choosing Player ‘A’ over Player ‘B’ has risks attached. Websites like Advanced Football Analytics are all about providing some sort of quantitative information on ‘risk’. The advent of advanced computers, “big data” and now AI, has all become a part of the game. Very few coaches take decisions based on gut feelings. That is, until gut feelings are the entire reason for choosing a particular play. That’s probably what divides a great coach from a journeyman. That’s the next article, and the final in the playbook.

Putting it all on the Line When “The Numbers” Don’t Mean Winning

GO HOKIES!!!!