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A Reaction to David Strategies vs Goliath Strategies: Part 2

You can read Part 1 of this series here.

In this installment, we will examine how the effective use of a high risk plays by Goliath can lead to more points scored, thereby potentially creating larger margins of victory.

Think about the real David and Goliath

(In the interest of full disclosure, I happen to believe there is a completely religious explanation for this story. However, I'm going to try to stick to the physical explanations.  Not to be glib... but Notre Dame and BYU would win a lot more games if there were a religious explanation to college football.) 


If David had missed with his sling, and had gotten into hand-to-hand combat with Goliath, he would have physically stood no chance.  It was a risky strategy.  But David knew that this strategy could take advantage of one of Goliath's weaknesses.  By using a long range weapon, David was able to attack from a distance, avoiding a direct confrontation with Goliath.  David also knew he was skilled enough with a sling that he could execute his plan.   In the story, David refuses Saul's armor because he is not prepared and skilled enough to use it; instead he chooses the sling because he had been able to kill a bear and a lion with it in the past.  By practicing, and defeating lesser opponents (the lion and bear) in the past, David had improved his chances of hitting his target and reducing the level of risk he was taking.  David knew that he was good enough at executing his plan to beat Goliath... to him, his approach wasn't risky at all, but the best way to win.  However, if David plays like Goliath then David can't expect to beat Goliath.

Now look at the counter angle.  If Goliath had spent as much time practicing with a sling, given his size and strength advantage, think of his potential results!!!  He could have thrown much larger stones and thrown them much farther.  He could have hit David with a boulder as soon as he stuck his head out of his tent.  It could have been over before it ever started giving Goliath a remarkably decisive victory.  If Goliath plays like David (and is skilled and experienced at it) then Goliath can still expect to beat David, and perhaps more decisively.  Think of it as Old Testament "style points for the voters."

Here's the added advantage Goliath would have had: he could still fall back on his strength and size.  By thinking and preparing like a David on his offense, he would be more aware of what he could do defensively to stop David.  Imagine the battle playing out this way:  Goliath throws a giant boulder at David but misses; David returns fire but Goliath is expecting this as a part of the battle and is able to deflect the stone; they return fire back and forth until each is out of ammunition; now it is a battle of strength that completely plays into Goliath's hands.

Think of UF.  To me, the Urban Meyer offense at Utah is a prime example of a David strategy.  As he moved to Florida, he helped a Goliath school with Goliath resources begin to think like a David.  People said that his offense would never work in the SEC, the QB would get killed, defenses were too fast, etc.  But Meyer knew that his approach took advantage of a weakness in defenses, and if executed properly wouldn't be nearly as risky as people thought.  Think back to the Ole Miss game from 2 years ago (the game that might have won Tim Tebow the Heisman).  When the basic structures of the Meyer offense failed to work against the Ole Miss defense (Goliath being unable to hit David with his sling), and Ole Miss still allowed UF to stay in the game (Goliath managing to fight to a draw with David in a slingshot battle), UF was able to run Tim Tebow left/Tim Tebow right to win the game (Goliath is able to fall back on his superior size and strength combination to win the battle). 

But what if Goliath is facing another Goliath?

To me, a David strategy is not just risk for risk's sake.  A true David strategy is a risky approach that is aimed at capitalizing on a systematic weakness in your opponent's gameplan that will offset your deficiencies in strength, size, and speed.  A team could run Hail Marys every play, but it is unlikely that this exploits some advantage.

Let's continue with the Utah/Florida example.  What are some of the advantages Utah could gain by using the spread option featuring wide receivers?  It has been detailed on this site many times before how the spread option attack requires defenses to defend 11 players, not 10.  Currently, so many teams use this approach that it isn't even considered risky anymore, but 5-10 years ago, people everywhere but the state of Nebraska assumed that exposing your quarterback to contact was a sure way to get him killed and cause turnovers.


The aspect of this offense that makes it so different is that instead of running the option with running backs, Meyer began to incorporate wide receivers into the running game more frequently.  By flooding the field with 4 and 5 WRs, Meyer created speed mismatches on the field.  When a wide receiver is given the ball in space against a linebacker, the receiver can usually find a few extra yards.  No offense to Utah's receivers, but they are rarely going to have a speed advantage over the top flight secondaries in college football.  However, Utah's receivers can probably outrun most teams' linebackers.  By using receivers as runners out of the backfield, Meyer was able to create a mismatch in his own favor.

The misdirection and option component of this approach is what makes it a risky strategy for an underdog.  If the defensive line is immediately able to get through the offensive line, then slow developing misdirection plays become 7 yard losses.  If linebackers are in the backfield every down, affecting the timing of the option pitch, fumbles happen.  And we've already mentioned the risk of injury to the quarterback.

However, Utah was able to improve their inputs to the point where these negative outcomes weren't as likely and was able to win a lot of games under Meyer.  Urban gets hired at Florida and uses the same principles to take advantage of the same defensive inefficiencies.  But instead of wide receivers who run a 4.6 he has guys who run 4.4s and 4.3s like Percy Harvin.  He has guys carrying the ball who can not only match linebackers' speed, but far surpass it.  Even safeties and top-flight corners have trouble keeping up.  Suddenly, plays that may have picked up 6-10 yards at Utah are becoming 80 yard touchdowns.  Florida has become a school with Goliath players and Goliath resources yet thinks like David and has been able to thrive.

(Editor's note: Just don't expect their guys to succeed in the NFL, where it is a completely different game.  Read that again recruits: UF's offense may work in college, but it currently isn't the best  preparation for the league. These types of speed mismatches don't exist in the NFL, and therefore teams can stop the spread option more effectively.  So if you're a recruit who has NFL aspirations, UF's offense may not be the one to prepare you for your goal.  \end obligatory recruiting pitch)

Gladwell highlighted the press in basketball as an example of a David strategy.  Why is this a David strategy?  Because Goliath doesn't focus on beating the press as much as David focuses on executing it.  Because it takes Goliath out of his comfort zone.  And honestly, because frequently the top point guards in the country have a certain level of confidence/cockiness in themselves that makes them want to beat the press by themselves and not rely on their teammates.  The goal of the press is also to force the ball into someone's hands who is not used to handling the ball-- an inefficiency in Goliath's approach.  This is how a team can use the David strategy to capitalize on an advantage.  It's a risk, but if executed correctly it's not just a risk for the sake of being risky. 

It all depends on how effective a David school can become at perfecting their approach in order to reduce the associated risk while maintaining their strategic advantage.

How can teams improve their inputs?

Today, let's start by trying to identify all of the possible components that go into a successful offensive play (Note: This list is probably nowhere near complete, but it represents my good faith effort to isolate all of the potential sources of variation for a typical play.)  For the sake of argument, let's assume this play is a 4 wide receiver passing play taken from Tulsa's playbook (referenced as a David strategy in the Smart Football article) in which the running back stays in to act as an extra blocker.  Our play is designed to have options at all levels of the field: the left outside receiver is going deep on a fly route, the slot receiver next to him is running a 15 yard post over the middle, the slot receiver on the other side runs a 7 yard out, and the outside receiver on the right is running a 2-3 yard drag over the middle.

As far as I can tell, here are all the things that have to happen correctly in order for this play to succeed:

  1. The coaches have to understand the in-game situation, the defense's tendencies, and the offense's strengths and weaknesses in order to call this play at the correct time
  2. The coaches have to put the right personnel on the field to execute this play
  3. The players must understand the terminology and how it translates to their movements in the play
  4. The players must line up correctly
  5. The quarterback must make the correct pre-snap reads in order to anticipate his best option for success
  6. The center must snap the ball cleanly, and the quarterback must receive it
  7. The quarterback must drop to the required depth to scan the field and to help his offensive line
  8. The offensive line and running back must hold off the pass rush to allow the quarterback time to let the play develop and eventually throw the ball (Amendment 1: Errors here can frequently be accounted for by a mobile quarterback)
  9. The quarterback must correctly read the defensive secondary to understand where he should throw the ball
  10. The quarterback must select a receiver, and throw a pass with the correct amount of speed and touch to allow the receiver to make the catch
  11. The receiver must make the catch and potentially look for extra yardage without fumbling the ball

One overall step to the play's success, as we have discussed earlier, is that the defense cannot simply make a superhuman effort and make a play.  The offense could do each of these steps correctly, and the play still might not work because of the skill or luck of the defense.  Other factors such as weather and stadium atmosphere could increase the likelihood for error, but I am assuming these fluctuations' influences can be expressed in one of the 11 steps above.

The steps for a successful running play tend to be much simpler.  Steps 1-4 and 6 are the same, but the remaining steps simply require the offensive line to make their blocks (similar to Step 7 above), the ball to be exchanged from the QB to the RB effectively, the running back to read his blocks, and for the running back to run to the open spot in the field.  Much less room for error here, meaning a gameplan that includes more running plays would be considered less "risky" than a wide open passing attack.  Shorter, quick-read, routes can also have a similar effect.

The weight room, film room, and practice field are the laboratories where teams can experiment with and perfect these inputs. Successful study by the players and coaches is the best way to optimize performance in steps 1-5.  Repetition is what will improve performance in the remaining steps.  It is during practice that coaches are also able to determine potential sources of special cause variation.  If a quarterback has poor footwork or bad field vision, it is during practice that a coach can make the necessary corrections.  The preparation during the week before a game is the experimental phase where a team tries to optimize their inputs to perfect their performance on Saturday.

So who should be more effective at optimizing this play?  David College for the Deaf and Blind where their coaches make $35,000 a year or Goliath University where they have unlimited pocketbooks to hire the best coaches and trainers and can afford to recruit the best players from all over the country?  In theory, the schools with the larger athletic budgets should be the ones that can afford the coaches who can most successfully break down a defense, develop a cohesive offensive strategy, find players that fit that strategy, teach the players how to execute, and motivate the players on a week to week basis.  It should be the Goliaths.

Obviously there are some limitations to this idea, or else Texas and Alabama would have hands down the best position coaches at each position.  Personality conflicts, coaches' regional preferences, etc mean that the richest schools can't just put together an All Star team of coaches.  However, I believe the general point still remains: a school with the resources of a Goliath should be able to afford to put together a better coaching staff from top to bottom than a David school.  If that Goliath school expects to receive value for its investment, then it should expect its coaches to be diligent and effective workers who are able to break down film, prepare gameplans, and prepare players to succeed.  In this way, Goliath should be able to maximize the effectiveness of a David strategy better David can.  Consequently, it is the Goliath schools of the world that should be the most capable of reaping the benefits of a David approach while limiting the associated risks.

What might be the benefits for Goliaths to use a potentially riskier David strategy?

In order to compare the results of two different approaches, let's develop a fairly simple measure of the success of a play.  Let us just use the change in expected points resulting from the play based on the research of Romer in 2005.  Starting with the ball at your own 15 is worth zero points on average, and every gain or loss of 14 yards is worth an approximate expected point (Some of you may know I am taking some liberties with the approach here.  Romer estimates the value of a 1st and 10 at each yardline, not necessarily the value of a 2nd and 6, etc.  If I were writing a research paper I would be much more stringent with the assumptions, but for now this is what we're going to go with.).  So for our response measure, we will use the change in expected points associated with the play. Fundamentally, the most negative thing that can happen on an offensive play is a turnover.  Research has shown that the expected points lost by a turnover usually is around 4.

So let's describe two potential Goliath strategies.

As an aside, we're going to assume each team has the same caliber defense and plays the exact same schedule under the same circumstances.  Let's assume the defense will give up an average of 1 TD per ten minutes of opponent's time of possession.

Goliath University believes in the old Big Ten philosophy, 3 yards and a cloud of dust.  Let's say they've even perfected their approach to the point that they can get exactly 3.3333 yards every time without ever turning the ball over.   There is no risk involved and they know exactly what they are going to get with every play.  Per play, they expect to get around .23 points.  In true Goliath fashion, however, they run a quick, no-huddle offense in order to maximize the number of trials on the field.  Over the course of the game this translates (assuming about 100 plays per game) to about 23 points and let's say a little over 30 minutes T.O.P.  They'd win most of their games, but they'd lose any game where their defense gave up 24 or more due to random variation in the amount of time their opponent held the ball.

Goliath State University instead takes a more wide open approach, similar to Tulsa's offense.  They throw the ball a lot more often, and go downfield more frequently as well.  There is a lot more uncertainty associated with this approach, as there are many possible outcomes to their plays.  However, through the strength of their preparation, they have a 50% chance of completing any given pass.  Each of their 5 options (4 receivers and a QB run) has a 10% chance of success. 

  • If the QB runs, there is a 70% chance he will gain 4 yards, a 25% chance he will gain 14, and a 5% chance he scores
  • Receiver A is running our deep fly, and there is a 50% chance he gets a 40 yard completion and a 50% chance he scores
  • Receiver B is running the post, and there is a 80% chance he will get a 14 yard completion and a 20% chance he scores
  • Receiver C is running the out, there is a 95% chance he gets 7 yards and a 5% chance he scores
  • Receiver D is running the drag, there is a 95% chance he gets 4 yards and a 5% chance he scores

The expected point value of this play is:

.5*.1*((.7*.23+.25*1+.05*7)+(.5*3+.5*7)+(.8*1+.2*7)+(.95*.5+.05*7)+(.95*.23+.05*7)) = .468 expected points per play

As a result, their expected points per play is around .468.  However, because of the high-risk/reward nature of this strategy, they do have more turnovers than Goliath U.  Once in every 30 plays, they will throw an interception, resulting in a loss of around 4 expected points each time thereby reducing their expected points per play to around .334.  Over the course of the game (again, 100 plays) they can expect to score 33 points.  However, since they are passing more often and the clock stops more frequently, they may only have 20-30 minutes T.O.P.  This means their defense gives up anywhere from 21-28 points on average. We will discuss in Part 3 what these changes in points scored and points allowed can mean in terms of probability of losing a game.

(Note: Remember, we are talking here about expectation.  Goliath State's point output will fluctuate a lot more than Goliath University's.  This is where the risk/reward aspect of the approach comes in.  We're addressing that in Part 3.  Right now, we can simply see that GSU can expect to score about 12 more points that GU on average and their expected margin of victory has increased from 2 to 5 points.) 


The key to the above example was that Goliath State University had managed to reduce the chance of a turnover into 1 in 30.  If you can reduce the variation of a risky approach through film study, personnel decisions, and practice, you can ensure that your David strategy will yield points per play than a conservative Goliath strategy.  What teams are most likely to have the resources to perfect these David approaches?  Goliaths.

Obviously, the percentages of success given above are fairly arbitrary and do not necessarily translate.  Unfortunately, we currently do not have the data to fully know what the exact percentages are in given situations.  Coaches try to estimate these probabilities as much as possible when calling plays but they are working with a limited sample size.  Obviously a different set of percentages may lead to a different conclusion as to what strategy our school should use (If we can't eliminate enough turnovers, or if our plays don't have a chance to score, we should stay conservative).  We will discuss an approach to estimating these percentages when discussing probabilities in Part 3.  Let me just preview that discussion by saying this: I think schools should hire as many graduate assistants as possible to play as many games of NCAA Football as possible (I'll explain later).

In Part 3, we will look at margin of victory from a probabilistic perspective, to show that even with increased variance a David-like approach will not necessarily result in more losses for a Goliath University.