An Interview with Alex Kirby - Superbowl Breakdown

Interview with Alex Kirby

Note – I received a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes. Also, the link to the book is an affiliate link and I will be paid a small commission if you purchase it after following the link.

Alex Kirby is a football author, blogger, and is very active on Twitter. He gave me a copy of his latest book Every Play Revealed Volume II - New England vs Seattle to review and I’ve enjoyed reading it over the past few weeks. This is a very technical book with a detailed breakdown of the Super Bowl, and is best read while re-watching the game if you have that option.

I made a specific suggestion in my review of Alex’s first breakdown book of the National Championship game, and I appreciate that Alex included the result of each play in his breakdown this time.

Rather than write a comprehensive review, I thought I would do an email interview of Alex instead. A lot of questions came to mind as I read his last two books, and perhaps you might have the same questions.

  1. What inspired you to create the original detailed breakdown book on the Ohio State / Oregon national championship game?

    For one thing, they are two great teams with two very interesting schemes to study. As much as I love breaking down individual plays and the mechanics behind them, it’s always been more fascinating to me to look at why coaches make the calls they do. I wanted to go from start to finish in a game and see if I could pinpoint things that I know a coach would be looking at, and what decisions they would make in response. It was an idea that I’d had for a while, and once the National Championship Game was set, I figured it was as good a chance as any to look at something like that, since it was a game that I knew a lot of people would be talking about for a long time, even though it didn’t turn out to be as exciting as I’d hoped.

    As a younger guy who at one time was trying to break into this business, one thing I had a lot of experience with is the actual process of breaking down film and helping to put together scouting reports. I developed processes that worked for me, and I always had questions about why teams did things the way they did. Unfortunately, especially when you’re working at the college level, breaking down film during the season is more about getting the work done quickly so you can move on to your next task. I always had questions, but I didn’t have the time to sit down and take extensive notes on what a team was doing and why. Now that I’m out of it, I have time to pursue a lot of the questions I had about the game, and these two books are the result. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the entire process, since staring at the same game over and over again will start to drive you crazy, but I learned a tremendous amount, not just about the X’s and O’s, but also about how to go about breaking down a team for a project like this for the next time I decide to do it, whenever that may be.

  2. Briefly describe the approach you used in your breakdown. Did you sit in front of a TV / DVR with a remote and watch / rewatch and take notes? Or…

    Fortunately I have a personal Hudl account that I use for detailed projects like this. I went though and labeled everything just as if I was analyzing any opponent’s film, and then I proceeded to break it down from there. With this latest project looking at New England and Seattle, I did try to find a few more subtle things to chart as well, since breaking down Bill Belichick’s defense is a much different task than a lot of other projects I had taken on before.

    I also made sure to go back and watch the TV broadcast version from beginning to end and make notes about that as well. There are things that you’ll miss if you just watch the coaching tape, like injuries, tempo of play, etc, so that helped.

    Another thing that was a challenge when putting all the information together was to make sure I was looking at things in a linear fashion. In other words, I had the benefit of looking at the entire game from start to finish. During the course of putting this book together, I probably watched every play in the game at least 100 times, so it got to the point where when I watched a play on a drive, I could pretty much tell you the next 3–4 plays after that. That’s good in some ways, but also bad in others.

    The book is all about coaches making choices and adjustments they had available to them in that moment. When you’re asking why a team called a play in the second quarter, you have to find a way to separate everything in your mind that happened in the game after that, since it had no influence on what they were doing up to that point.

    To illustrate what I’m talking about, I make a point to post drive reviews after a score or any other change of possession. I want to bring the reader some idea of what the coaches on both teams are talking about, and what they might go over with their players. You may have the benefit of knowing all the plays that both sides will run in the game, but they do not. They have to make decisions in the moment, so one thing I did was create cutups of all the plays up to that point in the game. So for example, I’d have a cutup of just the plays on each team’s first drive, then a separate cutups of each team’s first and second drive combined, and so on.

    I wanted to analyze only the information they had available to them at that point in time, because one thing that drives me crazy about most analysts is that they specialize in second-guessing the coach when they have the luxury of going back through the entire game and drawing conclusions from that. There are definitely a couple of places where I make a point to disagree with a strategy used, but I make sure to base my evidence only off of what has already happened.

  3. Regarding the technical aspects of your breakdown (e.g., naming formations and plays, team-specific terminology) did you find yourself having to do a lot of research in the hope that you got it right? Or did you have enough background and innate knowledge to write the breakdown?

    This is something that I struggled with, just because I’ve got my own terminology that I’ve used as a coach when doing these breakdowns at the high school and college levels, so there was very little trouble on my end about what to call something in my own notes. The trouble comes when you translate that into the terminology put into the book.

    I wanted this to be a very detailed and informative report, but as you know, you can call a formation 1,000 different names depending on the staff you’re working on, and the coaches you’re working with. I was very conscious of using the most generic terms to describe certain formations, coverages, etc.

    As for the actual schemes themselves, I saw very few things that most coaches at the college level, and maybe even the high school level depending on where you’re at, haven’t seen in some form or fashion. There is always the matter of trying to guess why a team did something, and obviously I can’t get inside Bill Belichick’s head, but I think in that department I did pretty well.

  4. How did you report the motivational aspects of your breakdown (e.g., why a team likely ran a particular play or defensive look). Post game interviews of coaches, looking at prior games, or something else?

    I didn’t have much help in this department from any postgame materials, except for the final play where Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson, since Pete Carroll explained why they did what they did, so I made sure to include his comments in the book, but other than that, it was just a matter of sitting down, taking notes, asking questions, and finding an answer to them.

    I approached it with the assumption that much of the first quarter, and in Seattle’s case, some of the 2nd quarter had been pre-scripted, since they didn’t see the ball much in the first half. You start out by grouping together the similar formations, motions, personnel groups, etc on offense, and watch the different looks the defense gave those same formations as the game progresses. Even if they play similar fronts and coverages to that same formation, there were often subtle alignment changes based on tendencies that the offense showed.

    I wanted to be able to give specific examples of changes that were made over the course of a game by giving people a “before” and an “after” case, with a specific reason.

  5. As a high school coach (or even a youth coach), how will reading the detailed breakdown of a top level college game and the Superbowl help me improve my coaching?

    There are two things I think can come from reading something like this, no matter what level you coach at. The first is that I hope it gives people an example of how you can really get inside the head of a coach by looking at the minute by minute and play-by-play decisions he makes. Now, this whole thing took me almost two months to put together, so it’s not a quick and easy process, but I learned so much from it that I plan on doing another one soon.

    The second thing that I want to emphasize is that while in some ways NFL schemes are more complex than other levels of competition, in a lot of other ways, I didn’t see anything ground breaking or revolutionary for much of the game. The Seahawks ran a lot of inside zone and simple “spread” concepts that a lot of colleges and high schools use, New England basically ran press man-to-man with a free safety over the top for much of the game, and in reality, Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme came down to allowing his best athletes to run after the football, and finding the simplest ways to do that.

    So even if you’re a coach who will never run any of these concepts, and prefer to stick with the Wing-T, at the very least it will help you think about why do you do the things you do on offense and defense when it comes to scheme, and what you can do differently to put your athletes in positions where they can let their natural talents flourish, and make the game easier for them.