Much like Charlie Weis, Brian VanGorder seems to suffer from a basic math problem that wouldn’t even rate as a good SAT question. His recent comments about “tools” and “inventory” point to a rather simple root cause for Notre Dame’s big play woes: his players don’t have enough practice time to be able to execute what is schematically possible, however enticing, without a high risk of error.
Charlie Weis always bemoaned what was possible and that his players just weren’t able to execute the plays that were possible; seemingly forgetting that there are more moving parts on pass plays and thus more risk. VanGorder has fallen into the same schematic trap and he actually knows it (as he’s acknowledged at times), “We got a lot of packages and can play a lot of players in different ways and schemes, and that wasn’t the game really to do that,” VanGorder conceded after North Carolina abused Notre Dame’s defense. That could sum up his first two years and possibly his third.
To win, players need to be able to play without over-thinking and, as Tony Dungy preached, make plays in a repeatable consistent manner without error… and with 20 hours of practice time there are only so many “tools”/”inventory”/”pre-snap adjustments” that a team can practice and reliably count on executing in a game without a breakdown.
The problem is that Van Gorder starts with “inventory” and “tools” rather than a basic concept of time needed to execute with high probability.
In reality the equation is:
Total Practice Time [divided by] Practice Time Needed for High Execution of Each Permutation of X =
Note that the first two are relative constants (the first one is absolute.) But VanGorder starts with inventory and adjusts practice time for his tools to fit that inventory,
Total Practice Time [divided by] Inventory (X) =
Practice Time Available for Each Permutation of X Inventory (NOT ENOUGH)
So, unless the learning sinks in at a whole new level, this approach almost ensures that the massive breakdowns that happened at Auburn and his first two years at Notre Dame will continue.
He seems to get it intellectually, but he’s undeterred: “I think the biggest adjustment is how many times a college player has to see something before he solves a problem… And then once he solves it, the ability to recall and not allow it to happen again is difficult… Some guys need to rep 10 times, some guys need to rep 100 times.”
But instead of scaling back to fit the number needed, Van Gorder’s been trying to get the team to drink out of the firehose faster: “You’ve got to try to figure out which way they learn best and try to incorporate that in practice so their development will be faster.”
VanGorder will even have coaches check the notebooks of players after meetings to make sure they get the concepts right
But his math is backward because, like Weis, he starts with what’s theoretically possible. That’s apparently by design. When Van Gorder was hired he didn’t talk about execution excellence, he talked about the schematic possibilities he learned from Rex Ryan:
“Rex is different than (most) coaches in terms of his approach and how he sees the game and, schematically, how he works and coaches a game. It was invaluable for me, which tied into some core things to open my eyes again to somebody that’s really unique in the business. I think he sees the game differently, and he’s created things, from a schematic standpoint, that are problematic for offensive coaches… When I’m a coordinator again, how am I going to take these things Rex is doing and incorporate them into this solid system I’ve been a part of for so many years?’ I was already thinking ahead and planning ahead in respect to the many things I’ll take from the Jets and from Rex. It was a great influence.”
Yet Ryan has a hard time executing at the NFL level where you have far more time to practice.
What’s possible isn’t what’s probable.
Buffalo Bill, Preston Brown said this about playing in Ryan’s defense: “It’s so much thinking involved with it. A lot of guys [have] never been a part of [it]. It’s definitely been difficult. At times, when [they] let us play, you can see we can be one of the best defenses in the league…We have to understand that even though Rex is a defensive guru, that’s a lot at one time… . It’s been an issue with the personnel coming in and out. I mean, you can see it on games: People are running in and out; we’re changing plays here and there. So it’s definitely been an issue.”
Star Mario Williams bemoaned it as well: “You saw the game, and you’re trying to switch personnel as they’re coming out of the huddle… I don’t know who in the world is calling, saying what personnel they’re in or whatever, or how is that confusing. But apparently it is. My mindset is, if you’re an attack defense, you don’t let anything else dictate what you do. We’re gonna put who we’re gonna put out there, and then we’re gonna execute and make plays with the guys out there. I don’t care — I don’t need to wait on you to make a decision.”
But it wasn’t just confusion and the timing that Williams complained about, it was how he was being used dropping into coverage: “I think I probably set a record on dropping [back] today, but that’s part of the scheme for us to go out and be put in a position to win,” Mario Williams said. “Whatever’s called, you have to go out and do it.”
Ryan’s reasoning for failure wasn’t that he had “too many tools”, it was that he failed to bring in players that already knew his scheme. Ryan is essentially admitting that there’s not enough time in the NFL to learn his defense and that he needs veterans of his system to make it work
And that’s the NFL
It’s harder in college as Todd Lyght acknowledged: “Just understanding the time restraints you have with the 20-hour rule, where you only get them for so much amount of time,” he offered. “In the NFL, you had them all day, so you could be very detailed in what you do. ”
Max Redfield sees it: “I would say consistently being successful in that scheme is harder than learning Chinese… It is the communication that is demanded from the safety as well as how many different responsibilities that can happen on a play-to-play basis. Responsibilities can change based on the formation, based on the receivers’ splits — and then after the snap of the ball, based on what the receiver runs. Knowing all those different things that you have to process in a split second is a lot, as well as communicating and making sure everybody else is lined up. It’s a lot, but it’s something that is demanded from you.”
As did Kerry Cooks: “It’s hard for a young guy to really understand and grasp all the things we’re asking him to do,”
Yet, VanGorder continues to talk about the tools in the toolbox, not how efficient the defense is at executing/using each tool. Ironically, the more stunts and slants and drops we run the more confused WE look and the more plays we give up. At times our defense looks like a game of musical chairs where the best rushers drop into coverage, and the actual rushers are running around each other while ND gets scorched. That mentality has led to horrific breakdowns that put Notre Dame 85th nationally in giving up big plays, 96th in big running plays and 95th in red zone defense. That’s one year after setting a record for points given up and a few years after his Auburn defense imploded. Not all of this is bad, some complexity it is certainly needed to keep offenses off balance, but ND appears to be too cute by half. In fact, cutting out half the permutations is probably where ND should start. It should be simple enough so that even if you lose a few key players, the defense won’t lose cohesion (as happened when Schmidt went down after Navy).
“Our players that are dialed in to it all, it’s pretty consistent for them. Now, a player that comes here and plays in our defense, he’s going to put a lot of tools in his tool box. But it’s not just wild tools thrown from all over. It’s pretty consistent for the player.”
If consistency in giving up big plays is the goal, Notre Dame is already there. It’s likely that Notre Dame will consistently give up big plays until the inventory fits practice time. One wonders what the defense would have looked like last year if Nyles Morgan weren’t kept on the sidelines because the injured Joe Schmidt was the only middle linebacker who could, as Elston revealed, get everyone lined up correctly. “Athletically he struggled at times in space to make plays and everybody saw it, but the tradeoff was he was going to be in the right spot and get other guys around him in the right spot.” That’s some tradeoff, putting an admittedly inferior athlete with an injury in the middle of the defense because it was too complicated for the superior athlete. I suspect that if ND just cut down the number of adjustments, stunts, slants and drops, Morgan could have played next to Jaylon Smith and those two could have choked off the middle third of the field.
Perhaps VanGorder will be right (he’s said before that it takes three years to “get” his defense), but Notre Dame’s defense has resembled an old Pac 10 defense for the last two years and time is running short for Kelly to deliver on his championship promise.