A Game of Inches

It’s a game of inches… – Vince Lombardi (maybe)

In the process of becoming the most successful coach in the history of the NFL, Vince Lombardi uttered perhaps the most famous commentary on the game of football.  Or at least I think he did – there are plenty of people willing to attribute those famous inches to him second hand, and yet I’ve been unable to find a reliable first hand source.  In any case, whoever said it was right.  I was dramatically reminded of this by a play I saw three weeks ago while watching the Broncos-Raiders game.

Denver has the ball and it’s 2nd down and 4 yards to go on the Broncos 41 yard line with the score tied 7-7.  The play is going to be a run, and everyone knows it. Most play callers would consider taking a shot at passing down field in this situation, but John Fox (the Broncos head coach) has installed the most run-heavy offense in the NFL.  He would happily go an entire game without passing twice in a row if down, distance and score allowed him to.  The Broncos passed on first down and the favorable circumstances allow nearly any play to be called, so it’s going to be a run.

The Broncos line up in shotgun formation with one running back, Willis McGahee.  For any other team in the league is primarily a passing formation with the lone back serving as additional pass protection, but not here.  The Raiders safeties, knowing the run is coming, cheat forward into the box to provide extra bodies in the run game.  The Broncos new quarterback, Tim Tebow takes the snap and effects the hand off to McGahee, who dives for the weak side A gap next to the center.  This the classic draw play every single team in the NFL runs, and every single defense practices against week in and week out.  And that practice pays off.  Two of the Raiders three linebackers crash the gap McGahee is headed for.  Their tackles push the Broncos center and strong side guard back into the play, congesting the running lane.  But perhaps the most dominating effort is put in by the Raiders strong side defesive end, Jarvis Moss, who beats Ryan Clady (the Broncos left tackle) around the end and looks poised to tackle McGahee in the backfield.

At this point, the play deviates from the standard NFL draw play.  In the normal version, after completing the handoff the quarterback simply steps back from the play and watches.  This takes advantage of an NFL rule which makes it a penalty to hit a quarterback post-handoff if they do not further participate in the play.  Thirty one starting quarterbacks in the league are happy to not participate.  But there are thirty two starting quarterbacks in the NFL, and Tebow is the odd man out.  After the handoff, he dashes to his left, away from the play, passing the hard charging Jarvis Moss as he goes.  There is a reason for this – it sometimes gives the runner a subtle advantage, drawing a linebacker or safety away from the running play on the off chance the quarterback retained the ball.  This defensive player assigned to maintain quarterback containment is known as a ‘spy’.

What Tebow is doing is not an NFL play – it is a highschool play.  NFL and even most college teams are not willing to risk a hit on a valuable quarterback just to gain a one man advantage in the run game. But Tebow has always been a little odd in this regard, and throughout his college and nascent pro careers has always tried to pull away a spy on draw plays.  Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t mind getting hit – Tebow is about 30 pounds heavier than the average NFL quarterback and is one of the strongest men in a league full of strong men.  His physical strength is grossly out of proportion to what the quarterback position requires – any collision away from the play will be a fair fight.  But this proves irrelevant – the Raiders do not assign a spy to Tebow.  Having seen game film, they know he runs out on draw plays.  They are not fooled, and all three linebackers plus Moss converge on McGahee.  Even the cameraman is not fooled – he has been briefed too.  McGahee stays centered in the frame, about to get squished flat.

There is only one problem from the Raider’s perspective: McGahee does not have the ball.  There was no handoff, and everyone including the cameraman has been fooled.

At this point, the play enters its second phase.  The ball is in fact tucked in the crook of Tebow’s left arm, where Moss cannot see it.  He becomes aware of his mistake only when the Raiders free safety Michael Huff, who has a better view of the play, yells and alerts everyone to the deception. Mostly this doesn’t matter – every Raider except Moss and Huff is out of position tackling McGahee. They are out of the play.  Moss spins and peruses Tebow, but by the time he gets turned around he is two steps behind.  All that’s left is a sort of fat man time trial in which Moss must attempt to close those two steps.  This is not a fair matchup, however.  A combination of genetics, conditioning, playing weight, and the size of the gap ensures Moss cannot win.  He might as well be on the sidelines. The play is just Tebow and Huff, and Huff is out of position because he cheated up in run support so he is chasing too.  This is a chase Huff will win – the same factors of genetics and playing weight that allowed Tebow to outrun Moss will allow Huff to outrun Tebow.  But Huff’s advantage is narrow – it takes 32 yards for him to run Tebow down and out of bounds.  The average NFL running play gains about 3 yards.

The Raiders and television audience have just seen a play all but unheard of in the NFL – the read option.  It masquerades as a draw, but in reality is something entirely different.  The quarterback reads the position of the defensive end away from the play (Moss in this case) to see if he intends to crash down the line in run support.  If it looks like he will, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs it around the end.  If the end stays at home and keeps contain, the quarterback hands the ball off.  The read option is remarkably effective if the read is correct.  If the quarterback hands the ball off, it typically takes two defenders out of the play – the end, plus frequently a linebacker spy assigned to the quarterback.  If the quarterback keeps the ball, it’s because all defenders have crashed inside and the way is clear into the defensive secondary.

The problem with the read option is that it results in the quarterback being hit nearly every play – either as the ball carrier, or a cheap (but legal) shot away from the play.  Most teams and quarterbacks will not tolerate this – in fact Tebow is the sole exception in the league, and as a result the Broncos are the only team in the league with the read option in their playbook.  And on this day they’re going to use it – repeatedly.  Mostly the defensive end stays at home, and McGahee gets the ball.  Because the end is out of the play, McGahee runs notably better than he otherwise would, averaging over 8 yards per carry.  When the end does crash the line on one play in the fourth quarter, Tebow keeps the ball and burns the Raiders, around the right end this time, for 28 yards.  In disgust the Raiders assign a linebacker spy to Tebow, taking a second man out of all running plays.  Two plays later, McGahee scores a 24 yard touchdown through the A gap – the Raider’s adjustments to contain the read option have left no one to tackle him.  That touchdown puts the game away and served as the exclamation point on what was arguably the most dominant running performance seen in the NFL in recent memory.

I find all this remarkable simply because of how many small things had to go a certain way to get those 32 yards.

  • Tebow had to be a running quarterback
  • Tebow had to be willing to run the option read and get hit every time he did
  • Moss had to decide to crash the line
  • Tebow had to correctly read Moss’ intentions
  • Tebow had to fake the handoff convincingly enough that no one noticed
  • McGahee had to effectively hide that he didn’t have the ball and convincingly hit the A gap as if he cared what happened
  • Tebow had to run out on previous draw plays so it wasn’t immediately apparent he had the ball
  • Moss had to miss the ball as he ran past Tebow
  • Tebow had to be faster than Moss
  • Huff has to be cheating up in run support

Take away any of those conditions, and the play either doesn’t get run at all, or doesn’t work nearly as well.  Football really is a game of inches – move the ball a few inches, and the handoff is transparently a fake.  No one bites.  The play fails.

Of course, you might wonder who even cares?  It’s just a football play.  But there’s a larger point here about the difference between strategy and execution, and the way small execution details lead to big differences in results.  This is at least as applicable to trading as it is to football.  The analogy is that trading strategies are like football plays sitting the in the playbook.  The good strategies, like good plays, are proven recopies for success based on sound principles.

Unfortunately neither trading strategies nor football plays are particularly portable.  You could show the coaching staff for the New York Giants the read option page out of Denver’s play book, and the Giants would be no closer to having Denver’s running game than they were before seeing it.  Denver would still be the best rushing team in the league, and the Giants would still be the worst.  Eli Manning can’t run the ball or read a defense the way Tebow can.  Brandon Jacobs is no substitute for Willis McGahee.  Truth be told showing New York the playbook page would tell them nothing new – the play is well known and widely run in high school and college ball.  New York could run the play, but the inches wouldn’t be there.  They would fail.

It’s the same way with trading strategies.  There are plenty of good trading strategies out there – a whole playbook full.  Some are public knowledge.  Some take a little work to discover.  A few are deep dark secrets only a handful of people know.  But just working with the publicly known ones you can make a lot of money.  So why don’t more people make that money?  Why do such a high percentage of traders fail?  It’s the inches.  It’s the mistaken belief that if you get the strategy right, the execution will take care of itself.  The exactly opposite is really true – if you get the execution right, a wide range of strategies will be profitable.  It’s far too easy for a novice trader to believe that just by having the right strategy they will succeed.  So they set out to find that strategy.  They Google for it.  They pay some scam vendor for it.  They buy a book that promises to deliver it.  They randomly try strategies on backtesting software until they think they’ve found a winner.  And you know what?  None of it works.  None of it makes any difference.  Because the problem isn’t the strategy.  It’s the execution.  It’s the inches.

At this point, I owe you a detailed example of how the inches manifest in trading – concrete examples the little details that make or break you.  But this post is already painfully long, so you’ll have to wait a couple of days.  Meanwhile, consider how nearly everything in life comes down not to the high level strategy, but to the low level execution.  And consider if you’ve been harboring a mistaken belief that trading is somehow different.

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