Posted by Chase Stuart on October 29, 2010
Courtesy of Brian Burke, one of the best things I've ever read about football:
Gregg Easterbrook thinks the 3-4 defense is part of a cyclical fad. ... [I think he] is right about the 3-4 trend being part of a cyclical trend. But it's much more meaningful than a fad. It's part of a concept I call strategic intransitivity, something I learned from Michael Maubossin, author of Think Twice.
A good example of intransitivity is the game rock, paper, scissors. Imagine a paper-scissors world, one where one strategy has a strong upper hand over another. That's where today's defenses find themselves. Defenses have been the paper, shredded every Sunday by scissors-wielding Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys. Slowly the paper strategy will adapt towards a more rock-like strategy, pounding the scissors into little pieces. Then offenses respond with more paper-like tactics, and around we go. The evolution of these strategies occurs over decade-long periods. The bottom line is that there is no single "best" strategy, only successful strategies given the current strategy choices of your opponents.
It's tempting to think of football strategy as something akin to Maslow's hierarchy: after satisfying one need, you move on to the next, more advanced stage. The high-risk deep passing game gave way to the safer, ball-control power running attack, replaced by the more-rewarding-but-still-safe West Coast Offense which, aided by certain rule changes, was followed by the high accuracy but big play yielding spread offense. But that's probably not the best explanation of things. Offenses today are averaging 21 to 22 points per game, just like they did in 1995 and 1987 and 1967 and 1953. And the rock-paper-scissors analogy is a good way to remember that.