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Hot Pot: How Can Lacrosse “Never Punt”?

0 - Published November 20, 2013 by in Hot Pot

Grantland recently ran a feature video (above) on Kevin Kelley and Pulaski Academy football team because of their “no punt” approach to the game. The team only does onside kick attempts, and always goes for it on fourth down. It’s not a tactic bred out of desperation or insanity, instead it is born from mathematics, and a willingness to look at the game in a brand new way. Can the sport of lacrosse benefit from this type of new thinking?

Coach Kelley credits books like Freakanomics, Outliers, and The Tipping Point as part of the inspiration to take a new look, and be a “contrarian thinker”. He also credits a rough childhood, which he says placed a premium value on creative thinking, and finding solutions. They don’t punt, or do typical kick offs, because the numbers don’t add up. It’s really as simple as that, and the video explains it nicely.

Kelley and Pulaski Academy are also not the first ones to try this in sport. Billy Beane became baseball famous when the Oakland A’s started winning games with lesser known players, and a smaller team bankroll. When the book (and later, movie) Money Ball came out, the entire world started to learn what Beane was learning: established numbers aren’t always the best, and established practices can be improved on, often with cold, hard math.

Teams like the New England Patriots have done this to find top players from the rough, and the Miami Dolphins have tried new schemes, and found new wrinkles, which were contradicted conventional thought, and were often picked up by others. Tufts (and two years later, Loyola) won a national title in men’s lacrosse by throwing slow-down lacrosse out the window, and pushing the ball consistently, with whomever happened to be on the field. A couple of college football teams in Texas do the same thing on the gridiron, and are offensive juggernauts.

But now that we’re seeing Pulaski Academy take things even further, should we expect to see some big changes take place in other sports (like lacrosse) as well? I personally think we should see some really big changes in lacrosse, and soon, because the atmosphere is ripe for experimentation, and rapid success. If I knew what all of these big changes were going to be, I’d have a D1 head coaching job, but we can look at changes and wrinkles from the past, to help us see part of the future.

Defensive Schemes

NCAA D1 lacrosse has long been dominated by man to man defenses, with scripted slide packages, and lots of backside help. However, at lower levels of NCAA lacrosse (and with Virginia recently) zone defenses have proven extremely effective, even against teams with multiple “zone buster” type shooters. This doesn’t mean the zone is going to become THE defense, but it lends credence to the belief that there is room for improvement and change when it comes to defensive schemes. If everyone is doing it one way, there is usually another way. That’s just evolution.

I could see a box and two backer zone working well against a team that likes to dodge from X and up top and then look inside. I love a long pole fan (four poles up top) against a team of midfield heavy dodgers. I like a lock and 5-man rotation against a team with a stud initiator. I’d love to see more three man zones used in on-ball side action, like in box lacrosse. If a team could do all of the above? Defense really could win you a championship! This type of play requires smart, athletic players who can think for themselves, and a coach who will let them play, and even make mistakes from time to time. It’s a risk because it’s less scripted, but there is a big potential pay off here as well.

The math question here is: do teams get better at scoring on you as the games progressed last year? If so, they are figuring your standard schemes out, and that means you need to be able to hit them with something new later in the game. To go even further, I’m curious to see if any teams will really start to press out, and play takeaway again. Few do this now, but I wonder what the math says? Has anyone bothered to look?

Face Offs

We still live in a world of FoGos. These guys win draws and gain possessions… at least according to the stats we currently keep. So how can a team still win a war, while losing a battle? If you win a face off, you win possession. We all know that. But a lot happens after that stat is marked down, so perhaps the post possession win is where can you impact the game? Say you’re losing 80% of your face offs. It’s an extreme number, but it makes the point. Could it be that it would be better to lose 100% of the face offs, and then get the ball back 50% of the time? If you have a good LSM, you might be able to do this, and the numbers seem to say yes.

Send your LSM out to face off. Put TWO poles on the wings. All other players lock off their opponents. The LSM knows he will lose the F/O, and his goal is to not allow the FoGo to go forward. He should also know that now the FoGo only has two outlets: a) go back to your goalie, or b) keep possession himself. Cut off the throw back to the goalie first, force the player up field, and then take the ball away. Even if this approach only worked 30% of the time, it would be better than the previous approach of losing face offs at an 80% clip. It’s thinking different, and it’s risky, but at some level it also makes a lot of sense.

Getting Crazy

The above two examples are pretty cut and dry. They are also somewhat tested, and have been spoken about before. But what are some the even more out there ideas that teams could try?

LongPole Attack/O-Mid – I haven’t seen an attackman with a longstick in decades, but I’m not sold that it couldn’t work. A tall attackman with a pole would be a great target to feed. As long as he wasn’t handcuffed by a tight pass, his reach would be undeniable. Cut 8 inches off of the pole, and the high feed might make a comeback. Shots would come from different angles, and the dive could be alive and well once again because of the longer reach. It sounds crazy until someone does it, and it works. What benefit do you get from having a LP on the ride? Could be big, but perhaps not. We’ll need to see someone try it!

Non-Offset Heads – Some of the guys playing D1 lacrosse right now are so good that I don’t think they need offset heads anymore. With everyone else going offset, if one player went back to straight, could it change their shooting angle enough to throw off goalies? I don’t know, but I don’t doubt that it’s possible. If Wells Stanwick used a non-offset head and his feeds came out even quicker, how would you stop it? Like I said, it’s crazy, but not inconceivable.

The Runaway Goalie – When goalies clear the ball, chaos breaks loose. Sure, the other team might get an empty-netter once in a while, but maybe it’s worth the risk. If you have an athletic stopper, let him push the ball more. Chaos is good for the offense, just ask Tufts! Could this become a scheme teams use to see success? With the right personal, I believe they could.

More Shots Vs Quality Shots – I’d love to see someone do analysis on whether long possessions helped teams win games. In my opinion, many teams pass up good shots in the hope that they will generate great shots. If you can take 4 times as many good shots to great, and your scoring rate only drops from 50% to 20%, is waiting for a great shot a good thing? According to the math, it’s probably not. This takes a lot of thinking, and probably some serious number crunching, but I’m curious as to how many teams actually look at this.

Man Down Defense – How often does a team give up a goal when man down? How often does it happen when they are even? Is sitting back when man down helping your team win games? Conventional wisdom says it is does help, but is this true? Like the above More vs Quality argument , each team has to look at this for themselves.

I am just starting to scratch the surface of things that we could be doing differently in college (and high school and youth) lacrosse. The real test waits until we find someone willing to take the risks, who will stick with it, and eventually win games. When that happens, expect a lot of other coaches to follow suit, and pay more attention to the math.

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