The Rulebreaker

by | July 23, 2014, 6:00am 0

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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