11 for '11: The Intoxicating Potential Of Manny Diaz

This entry is the first of 11 posts on the '11 football team as we head towards fall camp. Special thanks to our gracious sponsor Nestea Bold, for wishing to sponsor a post with a bold declaration about the upcoming season, providing the perfect gateway into this series.

Given the way I felt when Will Muschamp announced his departure for Florida, I hardly believe it myself, but as we near fall camp and the 2011 football season, I have to say: I absolutely love Manny Diaz, perhaps... gulp... even more than I did his charismatic predecessor. How's that for bold?

First, to anticipate a few objections: Yes, there are undoubtedly some cognitive biases animating my gushing, hopeful conclusions: post-purchase rationalization, availability heuristic, ingroup bias, system justification, and the like. Yes, my inability to be anything other than a serial optimist -- not to mention my propensity to get punch drunk on potential -- probably has something to do with it, too. And most of all, yes, the results on the field will speak for themselves and I won't be preferring Manny Diaz over Will Muschamp if his defenses fail to deliver at least equivalent value. Yes, I might feel quite differently three years from now. Maybe even three months from now.

That acknowledged, I don't mind telling you why heading into his first season in Austin I'm head over heels for Texas' new defensive coordinator...

STATS ARE FOR WINNERS

Will Muschamp famously growled, "Stats are for losers," which some interpreted as a repudiation of a data-driven approach to football analysis. But as Billyzane neatly put it, Muschamp more likely was saying: "As long as we're not allowing the other team to outscore our offense, I don't care what the statistics are." At least in that limited sense, there's harmony between Muschamp and Manny Diaz, who himself said in an interview with Bruce Feldman:

"[Points per game] is ultimately the [only stat] that matters because we play for points... The whole name of the game is just about winning and losing. That's really the one that thing matters."

Beyond that foundational agreement, however, the differences between the two are quite stark. To begin with, it would never even occur to Diaz to make that point by saying, "Stats are for losers," because, well, Diaz is deeply interested in learning from statistics. Not just traditional stuff, either, but truly advanced metrics -- the kind of cutting edge analysis that until recently had largely been confined to the realm of baseball. As far as Diaz is concerned, stats are for winners.

As a companion point, consider that Manny Diaz's interest is deep enough that -- get this -- he reads blogs on the Internet to find new ways to think about the game. In his interview with Feldman, Diaz provided links to three sports blogs -- including SBN's exceptional Football Study Hall -- when asked for citations as to where to find cutting edge statistical analysis of football. My guess is if a reporter asked Will Muschamp if he reads any blogs, he'd either ask what a blog was or respond that, "Blogs are for losers." (Nerds, Will. Blogs are for nerds.)

What I'm really getting at with this are two related points. First, I'm incredibly impressed that Manny Diaz appreciates the potential to add value through data-driven analysis. He clearly understands its limitations, and he explicitly states that it is but one of many instruments in his coaching toolbox. But he is serious about it, and in a way that suggests a real understanding of how to add value through statistical analysis. While countless coaches routinely demonstrate their ignorance of even the most basic statistical concepts, (e.g., 4th-and-short decision-making), Manny Diaz is seeking to improve his edge through the study of second- and third-level equivalent points-per-play. That is encouraging, to say the least.

Second, both Diaz's interest in advanced data analysis and the manner in which he seeks it out paint a picture of a man with broad interests and a capable, keenly developed intellect and ability to reason critically. Those attributes are in part a product of his background, which is not that of a former player -- the profession's artificial barrier to entry based on an assumption that playing experience on the field is a prerequisite to coaching on the sidelines. Manny Diaz is a particularly fresh breath of air in a profession that is almost exclusively filled with former players, many of whom have limited perspectives shaped by their limited experiences.

None of this, of course, is to say that Will Muschamp is not intelligent or studious. He clearly is bright and posseses an unparalleled work ethic and a keenly instinctive football mind. But the two coaches are definitely different, and though Muschamp is terrific, the more I have learned about Manny Diaz, the more uniquely appealing I've found him to be.

STRATEGIC PRESSURE

Most college defensive coordinators deploy pressure tactically. Manny Diaz deploys it strategically.

The tactical use of defensive pressure is situational-based, as when calling for a blitz on 3rd and long to make a deep completion more difficult. Well deployed, tactical pressure is a valuable and effective weapon in a defensive coordinator's arsenal.

Manny Diaz's deployment of pressure is different. While he does use pressure tactically (by calling for more or less of it on a given play), attacking pressure is more than a component part in Manny Diaz's defense -- it is the core of his strategy. 

During his introductory press conference in Austin, Diaz confessed:

I always think that schemes are overrated. There are people that play 3-4 in read and there are people that play 3-4 in attack. Then there are people that play 4-3 in read and 4-3 in attack. So a lot of times people will get all jarred up about what you do front-wise. I think historically if you look at where I've been, the one thing that comes through is that we're going to attack. We're going to attack out of a multiple array of fronts. If I had my druthers, I'd like to play a 5-4-5, which you're not allowed to do, but I want the offense to feel that way. That's all I want. I want them to look at us and feel like we got about 13-14 guys running around. When we got it going the way we want it, we just want to look like we have an unfair advantage.

For Diaz, the value of most (otherwise smartly designed) defensive schemes is tied to a strategic approach to defense that he does not share. While the details of such schemes are essential to the success of a read-and-react defense, Diaz's approach is actually to flip that strategy on its head -- to make the defense the group doing the dictating, forcing the offense to react. What Diaz is espousing isn't the usual, "we want to be aggressive and really get after 'em" boilerplate coach-speak. It is the core strategic value around which he builds everything that his defense does. 

The more you study and think about Diaz's strategic vision, the more you realize that it is genuinely radical.  And genuinely brilliant.... not simply because it is different, but because of the insightful premises on which Diaz's conclusions are based.

Diaz recognizes that the most difficult thing for an offense to do is pass the ball downfield and to the sidelines, and that at the collegiate level the success rate is typically very low. He understands that with limited practice time, consistently coordinating and executing blocks is a real challenge for all but the most experienced and developed collegiate lines. Diaz knows that if he succeeds in limiting the run game and reaches a certain threshold of negative plays, only the very best college offenses are capable of creating a sufficient number of big positive plays to sustain drives and score points.

Put another way, Diaz does not see in collegiate offenses a deterrent to attacking and being the aggressor. While many an NFL offense possess the blocking and hyper-skilled, mechanical precision that can routinely punish aggression, at the collegiate level it is rare. Accordingly, in Diaz's view, the absence of such a deterrent compels a defense to attempt to maximize negative plays and force the offense to beat it in the most difficult way possible. And if his defenders are tackling well, that's precisely what Diaz's strategy succeeds in doing.(NOTE)

It will be interesting in the next few years to see how well Diaz's strategy fares against the Big 12's best offenses, and no small part of whether he's able to be as successful as Muschamp often was will be his ability to make similarly superior in-game adjustments, but I already admire the way that Manny Diaz thinks about playing defense, the insights on which his strategic vision is based, and the calculated reasons he believes it will work. It is smart, insightful, coherent, and purposeful -- thoughtfully conceived for reasons that make a great deal of sense. Diaz has identified what he perceives to be an inefficiency in defensive strategy and has constructed a targeted approach aimed to better exploit collegiate offenses' greatest vulnerabilities.

THE INTOXICATION OF POTENTIAL...

Honestly, I could go on and on about why I'm so enticed by Manny Diaz and his potential impact as our defensive coordinator, but the laundry list of virtues all tie in to the same broad themes animating my observations above.

Diaz's unique background valuably informs his approach to learning and coaching.  He is not a former player whose experiences are almost wholly shaped by a life inside the game. He passed on playing small-college ball to pursue an academic degree at a larger, better institution. After college he worked as a behind-the-scenes video analyst for NFL Primetime, studying the game by watching and breaking down videos just like you and I do all the time here at Burnt Orange Nation.

That separation from orthodoxy seems to have liberated him in a useful way, and helps explain why and how he studies and thinks about the game. He professes an admiration for data analysts and seeks out useful advanced metrics that can add depth to his understanding of the game and his team. His intellectual interest in that and other like regards is of sufficient depth that he was able to correctly identify Bill Connelly's frontier-leading work at Football Study Hall, a sports blog. At the same time, Diaz is energetic, commanding, and charismatic in ways that scream 'football coach,' equally comfortable and capable teaching physically obscene athletes as he is studying complex formulas on a sports blog.

And most important, Manny Diaz's particular background, temperament, and intellect led to the development of a smart, unique strategic philosophy for playing defense. Diaz embraces and aggressively deploys pressure -- not as a pure end unto itself, but as a reasoned consequence of his analysis of the capabilities of a collegiate offense. It is exciting that he arrived at his strategy independent of the canonical teachings of other defensive coaches, the strategies of which may or may not be optimal, and are at least potentially self-reinforcing and limiting. And as with every promising new idea, it can be intoxicating to revel in the possibilities and potential.

Alas, that intoxicating anticipation will soon give way to the sobering reality of facts and results. And, no: if Diaz's approach fails to deliver top-level results on the field, there won't be any reason to prefer him or his approach to any defensive coordinator who can do better.

But if under his direction Texas does consistently field high-elite defenses? Well, that being equal, I dare say it: give me Manny Diaz over anybody... even Will Muschamp.

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