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The Art of Smart Football: The Theory and Strategy Underlying

Americas Most Popular Sport

Spring 2018
Wednesdays, 7-8PM

Contact Information
Instructor: Ashwin Varma
Phone: 832-386-5044
Office: Lovett Commons
Office Hours: By appointment

Course Description
Football, contrary to its depiction in modern media, is a sport for those who think. With twenty-two
players roving across a wide plane of grass and repeated opportunities to coordinate their actions,
football is the most elegantly complex of the major sports. For every seemingly gravity-defying catch
and physical, bowling run, there are the countless hours that went into designing itcarefully placing
players in exactly the right places to spring open the harmony of physical bodies flying around the field.
It is an interplay of mind and muscle, a blend of athleticism and intelligence. In short, from Tom Bradys
precision passing to Marshawn Lynchs raw power, the brilliance we admire on Sundays is built in the
This course will use a historical perspective to analyze the theories and strategies used by footballs
greatest teams and track their evolution through time. Students will discuss and critique the various
topics drawing on frameworks from game theory, physics, geometry, statistics, and psychology. In short
this is a course for those who arent content to just take in an interception or touchdown, but dare to
ask why?
This course will explore playing styles, team-building strategies, in-game decision making, and
endeavor to give students a deep-dive into the Xs and Os of football. We will use history as a guide,
examining some of college and professional footballs greatest players, coaches, teams, and games
and connecting their approaches to the concepts we are learning. Structurally, this class will center
around discussions of various texts, breaking down game film, and employ a case-study approach to
understanding various concepts in practice. We will occasionally foray onto the football field itself, in
order to visualize the implementation of certain concepts covered in class, as well as experience guest
lectures from current college football coaches. Students will leave this course having developed a
greater appreciation for the unique intellectual nature of football and be able to apply their knowledge
in analyzing the sport hereafter (including for Powderpuff!)

No prior knowledge of football is required!

Course Specific Objectives

1. Build a working understanding of common offensive schemes and how each strategy attempts
to negotiate space and/or create leverage for players (i.e. understand the theory behind the
2. Analyze defensive responses to changes in offensive strategy and how they attempt to counter
offensive theories to constrict operating space (e.g. Tampa-2, 4-3 Under Front, One-gap
technique vs. Two-gap technique)
3. Go beyond the simplified analysis of games presented on commentary towards being able to
accurately identify schemes and concepts in real time.
4. Understand methods of game-planning for opponents, including identifying opponent scheme
and tendencies, scouting individual players, and installing opponent-specific plays and
5. Develop methodologies for analyzing All-22 film to analyze player and team performance.
6. Create a framework for understanding how coaches make in-game decisions (going for it on
4th Down, play-calling, etc.)
7. Compare and contrast different offensive and defensive styles and tactics.
8. Learn to contextualize various metrics and statistics with appropriate game analysis and

Course Materials
1. All required texts and film will be provided through the Canvas/Class site (The Art of Smart
Football, Chris B. Brown; various articles by coaches, players; All-22 film to be analyzed, etc.)
2. Highly recommended: The Essential Smart Football, by Chris B. Brown
3. Other recommended texts: Take Your Eye Off the Ball, by Pat Kirwan; The Games That
Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays, by Ron Jaworski.

1. Reading Responses (30%): Students are expected to respond to the various video and
reading assignments (comprised of coaching articles, excerpts from relevant texts, All-22
Film, etc.) through an online discussion forum. These responses can be focused on main
findings/points, questions about, and/or criticism of, the material. Responses should be roughly
100-200 words and will be used to guide class discussions. Responses will be due one hour
before class and will be graded on completion. Submission of 8 responses required to receive
full 30%.
2. Final Paper (30%): (Due 4/12) Students will write a short paper analyzing a chosen football
topic, detailing the theories underlying their topic, its current usage, teaching methods, the
history/development of their topic, and its weaknesses and strengths. Guidelines: 4-5 pages

Grade Policies
40% - Attendance and Active Participation in Discussion
30% - Reading Responses (Due before each class)
30% - Final Paper (Due 4/19)
Following Rice University standard grading system for Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory courses, a grade of
60% or above will be counted as Satisfactory (S).

Attendance Policy
Attendance is expected at each class. Legitimate conflicts must be cleared with the instructor at least
24 hours in advance of class. Two unexcused absences are allowed, after that, -5% for each missed
Rice Honor Code
I expect academic integrity from all my students. All students will be held to the standards of the Rice
Honor Code for all assignments. Details about the Honor Code can be found online in the Honor
System Handbook at

Disability Support Services

Any student with a documented disability or condition affecting academic performance should: 1)
make sure this documentation is on file with Disability Support Services (Allen Center, Room 111 / / x5841) to determine the accommodations you need; and 2) talk with me to
discuss your accommodation needs. All discussions will remain confidential.

Syllabus Change Policy

This syllabus is only a guide for the course and is subject to change with advanced notice.

Course Schedule
Unit Overviews: This course is split into three units:

1. Unit 1 Introduction and History: This unit will serve as a basic introduction to footballs rules and
history for those who have not been exposed to the game. It will also go over the necessary vocabulary
needed to understand the course material going forward and prepare students to understand the
particular jargon often employed by coaches, necessary to process future texts.
2. Unit 2 Theory, Concepts, and Scheme: The second unit is the largest and will delve into the various
schemes, concepts and theories that one must understand to have a comprehensive knowledge of how
modern football functions. We will use historical case-studies from teams who featured certain concepts
or schemes heavily to understand how the whiteboard connects to the on-field product. We will cover a
variety of topics, including but not limited to: leverage, formations, blocking schemes, defensive fronts
and coverages, coordinating run defense, route trees and combinations, offensive and defensive
philosophies (e.g. The West Coast Offense, The 46 Defense), terminology and linguistics, etc.
3. Unit 3 Technique, Game-planning, and Decision-making: The third and final unit will step back
from macro-level schemes and abstract concepts to focus on micro-scale initiatives. We will learn about
how individual players build skills that allow them to play effectively, as well as study how coaches
prepare for opponents and make harrowing in-game decisions.

Date Main Objectives/Highlights Readings/Assignments

- Unit 1: Introduction and History -
Football 101: The Basics
TIYBOM: Intro (p. 3-12)
Introductions, syllabus, and class
1/11/2017 NPR Article: Neuroscience of Musical
Perception, Bass Guitars, and Drake
The rules, scoring systems, and field.

TIYBOM: Chapter 1 - What is Music? (p.

Behind the Facemask: Why do we have
1/18/2017 positions? 13-18 end of first paragraph, p. 53 last
Define the common positions in football on
both sides of the ball (quarterback, halfback,
fullback, guard, tackle, cornerback, safety,
linebacker, etc.)
Understand the division of labor necessary in
these positional groupings and the value of
different personnel groupings.

Twins, Empty, and Ace: Footballs Formation


Overview of the basic arrangements of TIYBOM: Chapter 3 - Behind the Curtain

1/25/2017 offensive and defensive players from various (p. 81-85) and Appendix A
personnel packages. UNIT 1 QUIZ TODAY
Analyze the advantages and disadvantages of
various formations.

Angles, Leverage, and Space: The Holy Trinity of

Football Theory

Analyze why the angle taken by offensive or

defensive players can determine the success
or failure of an offensive or defensive play. **May be at different time than
2/1/2017 Understand the concept of playing with scheduled class time, time TBA
leverage, i.e. playing in such a way that takes
advantage of spatial positioning.
Breakdown what creating/constricting space
means in the context of offense and defense.

- Unit 2: Theory, Concepts, and Scheme -

Zone and Gap Running Schemes

Breakdown the two most common running

schemes in football today.
Trace each schemes evolution through an
Reading: Grahn et. al. 2009
analysis of some famous historical teams:
2/8/2017 TIYBOM: Chapter 2 - Foot Tapping (p.
Tom Osbornes 1980s Nebraska teams and
55-57, 58 last paragraph - 59)
Alex Gibbs 1990s Bronco teams.
Understand how the basic concepts are
deployed today by teams as diverse as the
Atlanta Falcons, Michigan and Clemson.

The Evolution of Defensive Fronts and

Coordinating Run Defense
TIYBOM: Chapter 8 - My Favorite
2/15/2017 Track the development of the basic modern Things (p. 217-222)
defensive fronts: The 4-3 and 3-4, their gap
responsibilities, and the philosophies behind
Understand modern hybrid fronts deployed
by teams such as the New England Patriots
and Seattle Seahawks.

The School of Pass Defense

Overview all the basic forms of pass

coverage, including zone (three-deep, two-
TIYBOM: Chapter 5 - You Know My
deep, four-deep, quarter-quarter-half, etc.),
Name, Look Up the Number (p. 129-131
and man (Cover-1), including the theories and
2nd to last paragraph, 148 beginning
2/22/2017 techniques behind each coverage.
from last paragraph - 151 up until the
Understand the modern evolution of pattern-
beginning of last paragraph)
matching approach to pass defense including
Reading: Janata 2009
those used by Gary Patterson of TCU and
Nick Saban of Alabama.

The Most Important Position in Sports: The Art of

Modern Quarterbacking and Throwing the Ball

Understand a basic route tree and basic route

combinations, including how to take
advantage of specific coverages (e.g. flooding
Reading: Salimpoor et. al. 2011
zones, stretching zones, etc.).
TIYBOM: Chapter 6 - After Dessert,
3/1/2017 Cover the evolution of passing offenses, from
Crick Was Still Four Seats Away From
Sid Gillmans Air Coryell offense to Bill
Walshs West Coast offense to Mike Leachs
Air Raid.
Dive into how the games best quarterbacks
like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers read, and
break down defenses.

Football as Philosophy: The Famous Schemes of

Football History

A look into Buddy Ryans famous 46

3/8/2017 Defining the modern spread to run offense, No Reading!
from Rich Rodriguez to Urban Meyer and Gus
Analyze the history and theory of the zone-

3/15/2017 SPRING BREAK Have fun! Stay safe :)

- Unit 3: Technique, Game-planning, Decision-making -

Its All in the Details: How Technique Sets Up the
Video: Various Oliver Sacks videos
3/22/2017 How has music changed lives? Reading: Thaut et. al. 2009
Applications of music-science research UNIT 2 QUIZ TODAY
Neurological Music Therapy
3/29/2017 No Class Today - Willy Week!! Enjoy your BB 2018!
Should I Run or Pass? An Exercise in Game
TIYBOM: Chapter 7 - What Makes a
How does musical expertise change the
4/5/2017 Musician?
Video: Oliver Sacks patients
Is music a specialized cognitive function?
Case studies: Oliver Sacks patients

Prepare to Win: Game-planning for your Next

TIYBOM: Chapter 9 - The Music Instinct
How has music evolved throughout time?
Reading: Googles Magenta Project,
How are our modern technologies changing
4/12/2017 David Cope - Experiments in Music
the way we think about music and creation?
The evolution of music, and music from an
evolutionary perspective.
Era of AI technologies

4/19/2017 No Class Today - HELL WEEK FINAL PAPER DUE