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The Play Calling Paradox – “What Is Open?”

The Play Calling Paradox – “What is Open?”…

In a recent Sports Illustrated article, Sean McVay said the following:In the back of my mind, [when making the Super Bowl game plan back in L.A.], I operated knowing I had another week. That urgency to completely finalize the gameplan wasn’t quite there, and that led to me watching so much film that you can almost water down your thought process.

I have succumbed to this same fate as a coach many times in post season play.  Information overload can debilitate a good game plan strategy.  If you are fortunate enough to make it to the last game of the season, then there is a good chance you have every game of the final upcoming opponent at your disposal.  The temptation is to breakdown every game and sift through each scenario to extract the best answers to every uncertain situation that could arise in the final game.

This is one of the biggest mistakes that I made early in my coaching career.  I felt like I needed a contingency plan for every situation imaginable in a game.   I treated football like a game of chess.  Chess is a game of strategy that contains a “correct move” for each situation. However according to John Von Neumann, the creator of Game Theory, chess is not a game.

Chess is not a game. Chess is a well-defined form of computation. You may not be able to work out the answers, but in theory there must be a solution, a right procedure in any position. Now real games… are not like that at all. Real life is not like that. Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do. And that is what games are about in my theory. 

— John von Neumann

Real games operate in an environment of uncertainty.  In fact, uncertainty is the number one factor that inhibits good in game decision making.   For example, in football I can make the best play call to attack a weakness of a defensive coverage and the play can still fail. Negative outcomes do not always equate to bad play calls. Moreover, the best schematic play call may not alway be the best decision in a given situation.  The absence of understanding “why” a good play call failed can cause a play caller to quickly lose confidence and rhythm.

The ability to extract the “why” behind a negative outcome to a good play call decision is shrouded in uncertainty. The reasons “why” the right play call failed can be contributed to a variety of uncertain factors. The primary issue is the human factor.  There is no guarantee that an opposing coach will call a coverage and alignment that I anticipate on a given down.  Even if they do, there is no assurance that all 11 players will execute the anticipated call correctly.  This uncertainty creates a fundamental problem that every coach and player must address.  We will never be able to control the uncertain.  All we can control is our decision making.

Good decision making is grounded in knowing how to function in uncertainty. This was evident by Captain Sully Sullenberger when he safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan after both engines were disabled by a bird strike.  His decision making was brought into question in an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. During the trial the NTSB showed through simulations that Flight 1549 could have made it back to LaGuardia had the decision to return had been made immediately after the bird strike.

Captain Sully challenged the board.  He argued that computer simulations left out the human factor and uncertainty of how to properly handle the situation they were in.  Furthermore, he defended the comparison of the computer simulation against the real-world environment of pressure.  The simulations conducted by other pilots were void of the environmental pressures of uncertainty and responsibility of the 155 souls placed in Sullenberger’s hands.

Similar critiques occur across the country every football season.  Critics, fans and even teamates criticize every play call that failed against their team’s favor.  It’s easy to determine the best decisions that should have been made after the fact.  However, deconstructing good decision making becomes more difficult when the environmental uncertainty and pressures are placed back into the discussion.

The NTSB finally ruled that Captain Sully made the correct decision after considering the simulated scenarios were void of space and time factors in the situation. The simulated pilot scenarios neglected the time necessary for the pilots to assess the situation and the risk of crashing in a densely populated area.  Furthermore, the normal procedures for engine failure were designed for cruising altitudes, not immediately after takeoff. This was an uncertain high-pressure situation in which these pilots had never been prepared for.

Similarly, these situations occur in coaching war rooms during football season.  The game planning process occurs on a white board that is lacking the tools to gage the environental pressures of uncertainty.  Play call decisions are simulated through drawings to prove validity.  Information overload on the computer screen distorts disernment as coaches become cloudy to see what matters most. Finally, the created game plan is designed for a static white board world instead of the uncertain chaotic world on the field.  Coaches can avoid these pitfalls by using a decision making process that operates within the uncertain reality of the game of football.

In an interview after the trial a reporter asked Captain Sullenberger, “How do you deal with uncertainty?”

He responded, “Paradoxically, what helped us on flight 1549, to handle a novel and unanticipated situation for which we had never specifically trained, was having a robust safety system, a firm foundation in which we operated, where we had already built a team, in which we had already established well-defined roles and responsibilities, and in which the team had been schooled and the consistent application of best practices and procedural standardizations. That gave us the foundation on which we could improvise.”

This is the paradox of play calling in football.  The best decisions in pressure situations require a process that can weigh the probabilities of both certain (known) and uncertain (unknown) factors.  What separates the elite from the novice decision makers in any domain is their ability to see through the smoke of the uncertainty. Everything is information if you know what to look for.  For example, If a guy asks a girl to marry him and she doesn’t give him an answer, it is still an answer.  No answer is an answer. The point is that uncertain situations still present information even if it appears to be absent. The skill to quickly extract information from uncertainty is the differentiator in experts.

A defining moment in my coaching career was self-discovering that uncertainty and probabilities are a part of the game.  It released me from the self-imposed prison of thinking that I needed more information to answer uncertainty.  I didn’t need more information.  I needed the right information.  I didn’t need more plays.  I needed a better process.  I needed filters to see through the smoke of uncertainty to recognize the most important patterns.  I needed networking tool that could sequence the best plays based on probabilities. I needed to take control of the only thing I have control over, my decisions.  This was the origin of R4.

R4 is a football decision-making system that operates at an expert level.  It is modeled after research in the field of artificial intelligence.  Developers that created machine learning had to reverse engineer how the human expert brain operates.  Therefore, they were able to extract the key components that allow an expert to accelerate the best decision despite uncertainty.  These components are covered in the newest book of the R4 series “What is Open?”

Chapter 7 of the book introduces the game planning and play calling inference engine called the R4 Grid.

The R4 Grid is a 16-box framework that allows coaches and players to sequence the “best” plays together based on the  highest priority threat to a given play.  This accelerates the ability to identify the non-negotiables critical to the success of a play and tether the “best” plays in a formation based on probabilities.  The grid provides game planning guard rails that promote adaptability with simplicity.

The plays are broken up into four categories of Strong Run, Weak Run, 3-Step, and 5-step. These categories are sequenced into a Rhythm, Read, Rush and Release section.  The sections create a progression platform that allows a coach to game plan the “best” play call contingencies based on the defensive coverage, alignment and personnel.  In addition, the R4 grid provides pattern recognition for the user.  Mental models are driven deeper into memory by revealing the relationships of sequenced concepts.

The R4 formational grids provide a consistent workflow that aligns every coach and player to operate within the space, time and talent limits of the game.  The result is less time wasted in the office, more efficient practices, empowered coaches, and adaptability in an uncertain environment.

As Captain Sully noted on dealing with uncertainty…

“The team had been schooled and with a consistent application of best practices and procedural standardizations. That gave us the foundation on which we could improvise.”

“What is Open?” has hit #1 Best Seller on Amazon.  If you would like to find out more about R4 and the game planning and play calling process buy it here.  If you want a deeper dive into the R4 system sign up and become an R4 member for the online coaching curriculum platform here.

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