The Rulebreaker

by | July 23, 2014, 6:00am 28

Every offense has rules, and every team has that one player who can’t be convinced to follow them. Despite the immense amount of frustration that these players generate in their teammates, there is often a lot of value in what these players bring. An offense where everyone follows the same rules and does the same things in the same circumstances is often too one-dimensional and too easily shut down by opposing defenses. The rule-breakers in a team offense often provide a necessary degree of unpredictability and multidimensionality. Intelligent teams make allowances for this type of rule breaking; in fact, when properly designed into the offense, rule breaking isn’t breaking any rules.

In reviewing the US Open film, I was struck by the similarity between the manner in which Revolver deployed Beau Kittredge and Bravo utilized Jimmy Mickle. Both of them fit into the classic role of the rule-breaking best player; the surprise is to see this happening at the top of elite ultimate. This role has long been a staple in college teams because of the lack of depth at that level. In college, these players typically operate as handlers, and their rule breaking is limited to liberal shot selection, holding the disc and a lot of gimme-the-disc reset cutting. What Kittredge and Mickle are doing is more expansive than classic college version of this job, and importantly, it’s designed to be part of their team’s strategy.

They are employed as downfield cutters in pull plays. Both players are the featured targets in the 3-spot on a majority of pull plays from their team, with each operating within his team’s offensive framework. For Kittredge this means isolation cutting out of the sidestack. Because he is so feared as a deep receiver, he often gets free yards coming under. Bravo organizes space through motion, almost always beginning their plays with a misdirection cut (or two) by a secondary receiver and then working Mickle back into their wake. Because he is so feared as thrower, he is often wide open going deep.

They both can cut whenever they want. Other players on their team are often required to clear into dead space or wait patiently and spread the field, but not these two. They are entitled to cut when and where they want, often bending the shape of the offense to their cuts. As an example, Kittredge often runs full speed for the endzone immediately after releasing the disc. This cut is almost always open (the marker started even with him), but it eats the entire lane from short to deep and its success requires some very intelligent cutting/clearing from the other downfield players.

They provide a pressure valve for their teams. When the stall count gets high and the offense is struggling, both teams turn to Kittredge and Mickle. For Revolver, this usually means hucking it to a not-very-open Kittredge. Bravo’s work is more complex, with Mickle often working the early part of the stall count to set up a crease he can exploit between six and eight; a surprisingly high percentage of Mickle’s touches come in this part of the stall count. (Defenders typically position themselves to deny the horizontal cut to the open side; this is standard positioning. Mickle will jog set up to get a window above or below the defender and then attack it. Essentially, the crease is created by the defender getting an eighth or quarter step out of position.) One of the things both teams do very well is throw to their receiver; what this means for Revolver is hucks high and far. For Bravo this means soft throws up into lateral space around the disc. There are very few defenders who can manage Mickle’s size and quickness under these circumstances.

Both operate away from the disc. This is very different from the classic college approach to this position which holds the rule breaker constantly near the disc. Revolver and Bravo are talented and don’t need their best players to handle the disc every second or third pass. Although there are times they do…

Both are often isolated in endzone offense. In this phase of the game they are so similar, each providing a big, athletic target. Where Kittredge uses speed, Mickle has quickness, but the differences are minor.

There are some real differences in the way these two players are employed by their teams. Revolver has a long history of relying on a handful of dominant players to drive their offense; a big part of their clarity of spacing is built around the fifth, sixth and seventh players on any given line spending a lot their time to get out of the way usefully. Within that framework, Kittredge is merely accepting the mantle left to him by Cahill and Watson. So what you see from Revolver is a lot of clarity and a lot of open space. Bravo is working with a very different model. They free everyone up to do everything which is why you see Matzuka going deep so much, Watson and Westbrook doing a little bit of everything…the only consistent o-line guy with a clearly defined role is Roehm. In this anyone can do anything offense, Mickle stands out more for how often they go to him than how he fits.

Their cutting styles are different as well. Kittredge’s is simple – he just asks you if you can keep up with him in a straight line. Since you can’t, he is open. Mickle’s is built more around the jogging or walking set up followed by explosiveness; he works his defender for a little horizontal crease and then attacks it.

I would expect to see more of this kind of offense in the future; the only reason more teams don’t use it is because they don’t have the top end talent to pull it off. As the talent pool expands, there will be more and more players who can carry this load and more and more teams will choose to put their eggs in one basket. This is how professional sports work; despite huge numbers of talented people, strategy runs ever more strongly through the most talented.

Part of my motivation in thinking about this was wondering about terminology. We can expand our strategic understanding just by naming things; Kittredge and Mickle are doing the same task and once that task is identified it can be simply named. I could have just as easily written this article about the peculiar take on handlers used by Karlinsky and Matzuka or about the role Genevieve LaRoche fills for Fury; they are handlers and cutter, but their roles are defined beyond the basic vanilla elements of those job descriptions and once described, could be named.

Note: I watched a lot of film for this article, but for a variety of reasons this year’s US Open Finals is not a good representation of the strategies described here. For Mickle, I’d recommend the pool play game vs Revolver and Kittredge, the 2013 Nationals footage. 

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  • Guest

    Lou just curious who do you think fulfills this on your team?

    • Burruss

      Ideally no one. Following the principles of Clown Tent, we try to build an offense that maximizes each individual person's game and fits those pieces together. The challenge is getting the disparate pieces to fit together rather than changing the shape of the pieces.

  • robpg

    An interesting set of information. This is something I'm sure most people assumed, but looking at it in depth gives a lot of credit to the teams/players and their schemes.

    What I'm now interested in is the second level strategies of these teams and how they work outside of Mickle/Kittredge. Time to hit the tape.

  • Martin

    Lou, this is one of your best pieces yet. The freedom that Matzuka, Mickle, Keegan and Watson having given Bravo's offense has made it much more difficult to game plan for them than in years past. Great job!

    Keeping in line with rule breakers on teams: which teams from the past do you feel like had too many/too few rule breakers?

    • Burruss

      Boston (both DoG/Ironside) have struggled with a lack of rule breakers since the retirement of Mooney and Seegar – it has been the missing piece in many of their failed campaigns over the last decade+. As a counter argument, Fury is a system team, through and through, and their last decade has been pretty successful…

      Looking at this years teams, Bravo might have too many rule breakers: Mickle, Matzuka, Westbrook, Gibson although I think the return of Ackley and the probably shift of Farrell to full time defense should stabilize both lines.

    • wannabe breaker

      i think there are two points here: first, it's confusing that bravo went out of their way to get another rule breaker in matzuka when their strength has been so many athletic system guys with one or two rule breakers. i wonder if there will be too many cooks in the bravo kitchen this year.

      the second is more for lou. i'm interested in the threshold for rule breaking. my team had i believe too low a threshold for rule breakers and it diminished the discipline of other players by allowing a not superior player (unlike mickle and kitterdge) to break rules, so everybody felt like they could do it. i think this kept us out of the semis.

      what do you think is a good threshold for allowing a player to be a rule breaker?

      • Burruss

        There are two paths you can go down that involve rule breakers. The first and most common is to have your best couple of players be rule breakers – usually no more than three at the most. As an example, many teams have a no-turnovers rule which drives a pretty conservative, possession offense. The problem is that complete conservative offenses get eaten by good defenses and so the best solution is to have a couple of rule breakers who are going to take some chances with the disc. Too many, though, and your overall strategy of limiting turns is shot. With this strategy, you only want one or two of these players on the field at once and they should be your best couple of players. So it's more about a system threshold than a talent threshold.

        The other path, which is what Bravo is doing, is to set everyone free – this strategy is riskier, but has a much bigger upside. The challenge they have is to integrate everyone's idiosyncratic style. Defined O and D lines would help here (which they didn't use at the Open) because they'd shrink the number of personalities to integrate.

        In either case, consciously and openly pursuing the strategy makes all the difference. This provides clarity for everyone.

  • guest

    "As the talent pool expands, there will be more and more players who can carry this load and more and more teams will choose to put their eggs in one basket" … but wouldn't that also mean there will be more and more players who can play d against it?

    • Burruss

      If you look at professional sports as an example, you will see that the number of attacking players who can dominate a game far out numbers the number of defensive players who can erase them. In soccer, is there a defender who can manage Ronaldo or Messi one-on-one? In basketball, is there a defender who can shut down Lebron without some help defense?

      Although I encouraged people not to watch the finals, it is instructive on this point. Gibson and Kittredge are matched up on each other for long stretches of the game and neither is able to do much to stop the other.

      • Where can one find the US Open finals?

        • Burruss

          It's currently on ESPN 3 (and will be for another week or so), but eventually it will shift over to the USAU video page. They've stepped up the pace of transfer, so I'd hope to see it there in August.

  • Mike Payne

    Ironically, Beau follows 'the rules' in the Revolver offense as much as any of the other downfield players. That's because there are no rules (best way to build an offense!)

    • Burruss

      Part of my point (which I might not have expressed clearly enough) is that Beau's 'rule breaking' is integrated into the overall offensive scheme and that this is something that intelligent teams do. I agree heartily with you that the best way to build an offense is without hard and fast rules, but all offenses have some general guidelines or principle that they follow. Do you want to add yours into the comments below?

      Looking in from the outside, the Revolver offense has a clear shape and a very defined characteristic. So whether that personality developed organically or through rules, there is a definable personality that is built by the players on the field. This personality could be retroactively codified into 'rules'. I've actually tried this as an exercise with my own team – despite never having a defined offense, the Oregon teams have a clearly defined personality. I've gone back, watched film and tried to decipher what the 'rules' for my team actually are. It was difficult to be the observer and the observed, but it was a great activity to work on to help me understand better what we were doing and where we might improve.

  • Mike…maybe principles would be a better word? Best offenses are the ones where the 7 know eachother insideout…the German-O in it's heydays depended a lot on knowing one another and isolating cutters….some principles but basically loads of freedom for thrower and cutter.

    The Revolver O seems to have some similar principles…only you guys are way better athletes and throwers than we ever were.

    • Burruss

      Jens,
      Any chance you'd be interested in writing a treatment of the original German-O? I'd love to read it.

      • Lou…I'd love to do that. I will be in Lecco for WUCC however. Will get to it once I am back.

        • Burruss

          Good luck? Have fun. Let me know when you've got it – and thanks!

  • FD88

    This is a great continuation of your piece about Clown Tent a couple years back (http://skydmagazine.com/2012/01/clown-tent-successes/), specifically the last bit about Doublewide's integration of Brodie (the video link doesn't work anymore, unfortunately). At what point does relying on a rulebreaker become a double-edged sword? For example: DW rose to the semis through integrating Brodie, but won it all in 2012 without him (although with a healthy injection of other elite talent).

    Bonus question: do you think that there are successful defensive rulebreakers out there? or are defenses in club successful BECAUSE the players adhere to the rules of the defense? Ex.: Revolver's success with excellent vanilla man-to-man defense.

    • Burruss

      The 2011 DW was like watching two different systems trying to work together – the old DW system and the Brodie system. It was powerful, but limited. In 2012, they'd figured out how to integrate the talent and were more coherent. In the article, I talked about how the best teams work rule breaking into their system – DW's transition from 2011 to 2012 is a great example of this.

      Defensive rule breakers…boy, I wish there were more. We are in a phase of the game's development where the majority of the best teams are playing vanilla man-to-man (and playing it very well). At the college level, there has always been a place for the poaching defender, Brodie was great at this in 2010 as was Shannon O'Malley. Like the club game, though, college teams have moved away from free floating poachers.

      This is a role that can be developed – the two best I ever saw were Aaron Switzer (Portland) and John Hammond (SB-Seattle-Atl). Both of them could make a block materialize out of thin air…

      • I am not sure you can call Kid a rule breaker…he never really adhered to rules…the Condors might have been closest to keeping him on a leash ;-)

        • …rephrase: him playing within a system or a set of rules was his rule breaking ;-)

      • Sockeye's 2002 defense is my personal reference for defensive rule-breaking within an emergent system. As I remember it, that starting D line fielded three smart, poaching players who would work off each other to varying degrees. John Hammond would freelance dramatically, Roger Crafts would also freelance but less spectacularly than John, and you (Lou) would poach intelligently but also, most importantly, cover and play clean-up for John and Roger. The other four guys on the line were fast lock-down defenders (Mark Stone, Andrew Fleming, Ryan Seguine, Blaine Robbins, Giora, etc.). The result was a hybrid that was pretty good at messing up offenses with predictable structure and/or key players.

        • Whoops, that was MC not Ren. Shared-computer problems. :-)

        • Burruss

          This is a pretty accurate assessment of the defense. It was pretty well established by 2002 so that when Fleming and Prosu…damn it, Giora joined the team, the defense was explained to them in those terms. I've tried without success to replicate it over the years – it relied on some pretty unique skill sets and some unique combinations.

      • FD88

        Would you be interested in writing a post about defensive rule breakers in the future? I've loved your previous posts about poach-switching in defending the "3" in an offense, but it would be great to hear about techniques/tricks that those kinds of guys follow. As a follow-up question, do you believe that Sockeye's defense last year was a deviation from the norm of vanilla man-to-man or are they just as adherent to a defensive system as a team like Revolver? Thanks for the writing and the replies!

        • Burruss

          I'm going to switch focus to defense in the coming weeks. As for Sockeye, I think that there has been a culture of help defense in Seattle that hearkens back to the teams from the early 00s. It's remarkable that a team with almost no holdover in personnel would maintain an identity over a decade, but Sockeye is not the only team to do so – most elite club teams hold on to an identifiable culture. So…yes, it is an adherence to a defensive system/culture.

  • Seamus

    Interesting stuff. However, I wonder if the name for this role will catch on. In our sport, the phrase 'rule breaker' could have some negative connotations

    • Burruss

      I didn't like the name very well, but it was better than the alternatives. I think it is good for a broad category of player; Kittredge and Mickle are a subset of that group.