Thursday, March 13

Woody, Woody, Woody

I was reading an article on The Cleveland Fan yesterday and saw a quote from one W.W. "Woody" Hayes (like Hayes, this author was once part of the New Philadelphia High football team) regarding offensive philosophy:

"There are three things that can happen when you throw a pass, and two of them are bad."

I know Woody was a legend, winning three national titles, thirteen Big Ten championships, and so on, and I in no way mean to belittle what he accomplished, but: wow. That quote displays a shocking lack of understandment of risk/reward (expected value) as well as football strategy.

To begin with, there are far more than three things that can happen when a pass is thrown. Here are seven: incompletion, interception, completed pass, offensive pass interference, defensive pass interference, roughing the quarterback, completed pass with subsequent fumble. By my count, three of those are good, but keep in mind that I could easily have made a list twice that long. When you hand the ball off, ostensibly Woody's preferred mode of attack, there are also many things that can happen: fumble, lose yards, gain yards, face mask penalty, holding, too many men on the see what a stupid exercise this is? Woody reducing all possible passing scenarios to three, then declaring two bad, it completely nonsensical.

Even if you grant him his point, which I do not, it's still not a legitimate argument for or against passing. In basketball, three things can happen when you shoot a shot (make, miss, block) and two of those are bad. Swinging at a pitched baseball has far more negative outcomes than positive. Yet no one's suggesting we stop swinging and shooting in these sports. I imagine Hayes meant this as a sort of compact general statement in favor of rushing the ball, and his implication that there is more risk associated with throwing than running is correct. However, in modern football, teams at the upper-collegiate and professional levels score points and win primarily by passing the football. Rushing is important to keep defenses honest and often to keep the chains moving, but dismissing the passing game based on this arbitrary math is a good way to keep your team out of the end zone.

Now, let's fast-forward to today, where fans and writers still pick on Jim Tressel for losing to LSU and Florida in the past two seasons' BCS title games. Can you imagine Woody trying to beat those clubs with this sort of philosophy? Not a chance. Of course, they would have gone roughly .500 in 2006 with Troy Smith handing the ball off every down, so they wouldn't have even appeared in those games, but you see my point.

Hayes had tremendous success building his program around power-rushing offenses, and that's terrific. He also, undoubtedly, knew a lot of things about winning football, far more than me. Still, I'm not sure we should celebrate the sort of shaky logic underlying this particular idea. It makes me wonder if Hayes would have been able to tailor his philosophy to the modern college game. Tressel, for example, is a fairly conservative offensive coach, and he's shown an ability to adapt to his club's strengths. I like to think that Hayes' will to win would have overcome his stubborn philosophy, but I guess we'll never know.


Anonymous said...

I agree that there are several flaws in logic with that statement, but any time I think of Woody only one quote comes to mind, without a doubt my favorite all time quote. After a late OSU touchdown in an route of michigan, Woody opted for a two-point conversion. After the game, when asked by a reported why he went for two, he replied, "Because I couldn't go for three." You gotta love that much of a dedication to hate of "that school up north." This is also the man that once ran out of gas in michigan and pushed his car across the border because he refused to get gas in that state. What a man.

Andy said...

Excellent comments, Figgs. I like that quote from Woody much better (maybe I'll use it as a lead-in to a pro-2-pointer column I'm thinking about). The gas in Michigan story sounds mythical each time I hear it, but it's still classic.

I like how he would neither say the name of his chief rival nor even call them a "team" but always a "school" as you correctly wrote. That's great.