The Unfair Game: The Option and the Underdog

There’s not a ton to say about the OU-Tulane game. OU won by a significant margin, Baker Mayfield had an “off” night that resulted in merely going 17-of-27 for 331 yards and 4 touchdowns, Ceedee Lamb looked incredible until he was sent off on an extremely questionable targeting call, and Abdul Adams bounced back after being seemingly supplanted against Ohio State. Tulane’s offense started strong, but after second half adjustments by OU’s defense was thoroughly stymied. Marquise Brown is very, very fast.

Yeah, not feeling like there’s much for a column here this week. Well, guess I’ll pack— Hang on. Tulane’s offense started strong? Don’t they do kind of a weird option thing?

There’s a column here after all.

I’ve been getting a lot of clips from Moneyball in my YouTube recommended videos. Moneyball’s a pretty good movie. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill turn in strong performances with a Sorkin script centered on the extremely Sorkin concept of thinking entirely too hard about baseball, deconstructing the game into its basest elements only to suddenly see the forest in the trees because “you can’t help but be romantic about baseball”. It sits in the same uneasy territory as The Social Network (also a Sorkin project) as a mostly-or-purportedly-mostly-true film centered on unrepentant “disruption” of industry norms by assholes who get to be assholes because they’re actually visionaries. Judging by the comments and titles of the clips in my recommended videos, lots of people love Moneyball for its depiction of the power of statistics and the value of analytical thinking. I think there’s something there (The Oklahoma Drill podcast crew are all noted fans of advanced statistics in sports analysis), but to me the heart of Moneyball is a speech Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane gives to his scouts after growing frustrated at what he sees as a wrong-headed approach to the challenge of replacing Jason Giambi. The problem, as Beane sees it, isn’t that they have to replace Giambi or Johnny Damon, it’s that the organization thinks they have to replace Giambi and Damon. “The problem we’re trying to solve”, Beane explains, “is there are rich teams, and there are poor teams, then there’s fifty feet of crap— and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game”. Beane, faced with a room full of scouts who, after some prodding, admit that there’s not another first baseman in the league who could fill Jason Giambi’s shoes, “and if there was, [they couldn’t] afford him”, declares that “If we play like the Yankees in here (the boardroom), we’ll lose to the Yankees out there”. That statement speaks to a profound truth in sports: the playing field might seem even, but it almost never is, and there’s almost no sport where this has rung as true for as long as in college football. College football, therefore, is filled, and has always been filled, with examples of teams attempting to even the playing field.

The obvious truth of football is that the team that is bigger, faster, and stronger should probably win. There’s some nuance there— it’s generally hard to be bigger and faster—and there’s still room for random error, but for the most part the sport is set up in such a way that the team that can get push on the line and separation in space is 90% of the way to victory. But you don’t have to go far in football’s history to see athletic prowess stumble. Not very far at all, in fact, because the very first instance of an upset in American football happened in the game that birthed the sport: Princeton vs. Rutgers, on November 6, 1869. The rules of that game would be largely unrecognizable as modern football; players weren’t even allowed to advance the ball by carrying. It was certainly physical, almost reprehensibly violent, but at the end of the day the smaller Rutgers team was able to find victory against an opponent that physically outmatched them by moving the ball up the field in a flying wedge shape, the first true formation in American football. In the grand tradition of game-changing tactics, the better, stronger athletes then adopted the formation, and it became the de facto bludgeoning tool of the superior opponent until 1906, when it was outlawed in a desperate attempt to save the sport and the lives of its participants that also gave birth to the forward pass.

This is the shape of the game’s development: when a team has far superior athletes, it’s tempting to win by force alone. In order to compete, smaller teams had to devise schemes that could level the playing field. Pop Warner’s “single wing” formation brought misdirection running to the table, establishing the “speed beats size” paradigm at the heart of modern spread concepts. In the single wing, the goal was to “spread out” a defense with the hope of forcing a slower defender to make a solo tackle. This would become the foundational thesis by which college football teams punched up. It propelled his teams at Carlisle Indian School to prominence, only for the scheme to then be adopted by much of the college football world. You can trace this pattern for every game-changing scheme: The wishbone, the air raid, the spread option, and hurry up-no-huddle all shook up the college football status quo until they became the status quo.

Willie Fritz’s Tulane option has its roots Pop Warner’s single wing, and the principles are the same as they were for Warner: If we run it up the gut, if we try to out-muscle them, we’ll get stuffed. If we drop back and try to throw deep, we’ll get picked off. Instead, we need to put our opponent in positions where they can’t help but make mistakes. Sometimes, hell, most of the time, it’s a futile effort; Tulane got walloped anyway, and Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s lost to the Twins early in the playoffs. But had Tulane gone out and tried to play football the way Oklahoma, or Alabama, or Florida State had, they’d have likely fared even worse, so why not try something different? If you’re Texas A&M playing Alabama, why not let Johnny scramble for his life? If you’re Mike Leach in Washington State, why not throw the ball 70 times? I have infinitely more time for a team like Georgia Tech or New Mexico trying to overcome a hopeless talent gap in a new or interesting way than I do for yet another Georgia team rolling into Tuscaloosa to try and out-Alabama Alabama. As futile as it might seem to play Alabama at all, at least trying something unusual might work. I’d never bet on, say, Kansas State to beat the Crimson Tide, but if it happened, I’d understand why. The same could not be said for teams like Georgia, or Florida, whose losses represent more than lack of ability— they represent a failure at comprehending the nature of the challenge before them.

I don’t know exactly why this sort of underdog thinking isn’t prevalent at the professional level. As much as I’d like to chalk it up entirely to front offices being run by dinosaurs incapable of original thought, I suspect there’s other factors in play. The salary cap limits the degree to which teams have to think of themselves as rich or poor. The draft rewards losing and presents itself as a negative feedback loop— bad teams don’t see the need to change what they’re doing, since their badness should theoretically let them acquire higher-caliber players. What innovation occurs in the NFL tends to instead happen at the top, as competent front offices look to squeeze any edge they can out of their rosters. This is why Belichick’s infinite football super-empire still feels the need to run tackle-eligible passing plays, while the Browns continually reassure themselves that this quarterback will be the one to pull them from the mire.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite vignettes, taken from Clemson-Boston College from 2016. Clemson is so much better than Boston College it’s unbelievable. Boston College knows this, and they are doing everything they can to prolong the inevitable. On 3rd and 3 from Clemson’s 42, with a little under four minutes remaining in the first half, they run a halfback pass back to the quarterback. This is an audacious play; halfback passes, in my experience generally only ever end in either touchdowns or interceptions. In this instance, the pass is complete to Patrick Towles, who shuffles forward for a gain of five yards and a first down. Boston College ran a halfback pass to the quarterback in the flat. It was simultaneously heroic and pathetic. Every ounce of it was absurd. The next play, Patrick Towles is sacked, erasing more than half the yardage he gained on one of only four career receptions. Boston College punts three downs later. Clemson wins this game 56-10. You’d be forgiven for looking at that halfback pass and wondering what the point of it all was. Every single offensive yard gained by Boston College was gained by herculean effort, by emptying a bag of tricks, and it all amounted to a shellacking. Something about that play, though, is always going to hang with me. During that play, I kind of fell in love with Boston College.

There’s a nobility in the fight against insurmountable odds. There’s a genius in creativity against an omnipotent foe. If you’re going to lose, then that’s fine, that’s expected. But if you fight, it’s because it matters. And if it matters, you should fight to win.

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