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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pistol in the NFL, Fad or Future?

What do Research in Motion, the wishbone, Mike Leach and the "pro-style" quarterback have in common?
As a matter of fact, [college football] is not and cannot be stationary. Nor is it merely expanding in a steady manner. It is incessantly being revolutionized from within by new [strategies], i.e., by the intrusion of new [formations] or new methods of [disguising coverages] or new [ways of getting playmakers] opportunities [in space] into the [sport's] structure as it exists at any moment. - Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, with some modifications
In 1968, Emory Ballard and Darrel Royal unleashed the wishbone on the college football world and rode it to 30 straight wins. College football programs around the country hopped on board the wishbone gravy train. Was the wishbone so successful because it is a superior offensive strategy? If so, why don't more teams run the wishbone today? If not, why was it so successful in the 1970s?

In 2007, Apple released a new product they called the iPhone. At the time, the high-end cell phone market was dominated by Research in Motion, maker of BlackBerry phones. By 2012, not only had the iPhone nearly driven RIM into oblivion (and, technically, it did since RIM no longer exists), particularly in the United States, but Apple's market share was under siege from Samsung and Android OS.

Leading up to Super Bowl XLVII, and given the success of RGIII, Russell Wilson and especially Colin Kaepernick, a popular question was whether or not the mobile quarterback, pistol, and read-option were the future of the NFL. The proponents focus on how successful these players and strategies have been this season. The opponents note that mobile quarterbacks tend to get injured (Michael Vick!, RGIII!!) and that NFL defenses will solve it in time.
[Innovative] competition is as much more effective than the other as a bombardment is in comparison with forcing a door, and so much more important that it becomes a matter of comparative indifference whether competition in the ordinary sense functions more or less promptly. - Joseph Schumpeter
This is where the NFL falls flat; it is asking the wrong question. To say that a team shouldn't experiment with a Johnny Manziel because he isn't the "future" of the NFL is like saying that Apple shouldn't release the iPhone because it is not the end-all of cellular communication. Is Colin Kaepernick the future of the NFL? Of course not. Kaepernicks are only slightly more common than Bradys and as rare as Mannings. If they weren't rare, and NFL defenses were built to stop them, the Kaepernicks would struggle. But that is exactly the point. Kaepernick and RGIII allow teams to do something that other teams cannot. Because it is new, because it is "innovative" (forgetting for a moment that this is old hat for college football), because it is a fad is exactly why it is successful.

Would you be better off with Peyton Manning running a traditional, "pro-style" offense? Of course. If you can run out Aaron Rodgers, do that. If you have the strongest, fastest, smartest, prettiest, toughest players, use them. If you're Alabama or LSU, you're going to scream to the world that the only way to win at a high level is with a super-human defense and a powerful running game, and that programs that don't build these teams are inferior. If you're Nick Saban, you even try to bully the rules committee into outlawing innovative offensive forms.

If you're not Alabama. If you're, say, Texas Tech, you find an innovator to do something no one else is doing and win 9 games a year for a decade. When that innovator gets musty, you kick him out and [hire a musty, disgraced coach from the SEC, and when he's left,] you hire Leach 2.0 and win 9 games a year for another decade. If you're Texas Tech you won't beat Alabama with this innovative style, but you wouldn't have beat them at their game either. And even if Texas Tech can't beat Alabama, Texas A&M can. But for some reason, the Oregon's of the NFL have resisted (until recently) becoming more like the Oregon's of college football.

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