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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Breaking down play selection, or how Johnny Manziel became Johnny Heisman

You want to know why Johnny Manziel won the Heisman and Kliff Kingsbury got the head coaching job at a Big 12 school just years after being a grad assistant? Why Texas A&M has the best offense in the country? I can tell you with two statistics what it was that set these two apart. Spoiler: It's all about play selection.

The first stat in the table below is an estimate of how often you would be right if you tried to guess what a team would do (run or pass) in a particular situation based on what they've done historically in that situation. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Air Force, Army, Navy and Georgia Tech have high scores, and Leach slides into the top 5 for the same, but opposite, reason. These teams are predictable because they run (or in Leach's case throw) the ball as often as they can. No surprise, then, that both strategies depend heavily on in-play adjustments and precise execution - they have to overcome the fact that everyone in the stadium knows, generally, what they will be trying to do.

What team is hardest to predict? That would be your Aggies of Texas A&M. And why are they so hard to predict? A lot of teams are balanced on 1st down, but the Aggies are balanced on 2nd & 3rd down. The only situation in which the Aggies run or throw the ball more than 61% of the time is 2nd and short. But that's   not the important part.

The Aggies run the ball 58% of the time on 3rd & 11 or more. Now, a few other teams run the ball quite a bit on 3rd & long; Florida runs the ball 59% of the time. But Florida runs the ball on 3rd & long because they gave up on the drive and don't want to risk a turnover. Only the Aggies and three super run-heavy teams (Army, Air Force and New Mexico) run the ball more than 40% of the time on 3rd & 6-10 and 3rd & 11+. The Aggies run the ball because Manziel scampers for 30 yards on a regular basis, but they still have the equally viable option of throwing the ball in those situations. It's that particular quality that made Manziel and the Aggies so hard to stop. Kingsbury was smart enough to introduce a playbook that gave A&M options and clever enough to keep defensive coordinators on their toes in-game.

Other notable results in the table:

Georgia Tech runs the ball 80% of the time on 1st down and throws the ball 85% of the time on 3rd & long. That's weird.

Despite suffering through a revolving door of unspectacular play at quarterback, BYU threw the ball 58% of the time on 2nd & short. Only Leach and Midwestern Miami passed more.

The correlation between play selection on 3rd & long and 2nd & short is especially low; knowing whether a team likes the throw the ball in one situation tells you very little about whether they like to throw the ball in the other.
 

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