Should Georgia Have Spiked the Ball?

The best game of the season — and one of the best conference championship games I’ve ever seen — came down to one final bizarre play: Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray scrambled his team to the line at the eight yard line, dropped back, and threw a fade route to receiver Malcolm Mitchell. The ball, however, was tipped at the line by Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, and it fluttered and landed in the hands of Chris Conley a few yards short of the end zone. Conley instinctively caught the ball, was tackled, and the game clock expired.

Tough call

Obviously, that’s not how Georgia drew it up. And, immediately, led by Gary Danielson, the chorus began: Georgia should have spiked the ball instead of running a play. But I’m not so sure. I think spiking it would have been fine and maybe even advisable, but what I don’t think a spike would have been is necessarily outcome determinative. Richt and his staff had a reason for not spiking the ball, and having the ball tipped and then caught by some other receiver very easily could have happened after a spike as well. Per Blutarsky:

To Spike or Not to Spike. That is the question.  Actually, I’m not sure why spiking is such a slam dunk decision in minds of many people today.  If you read Weiszer’s post on the play, you get a valid rationale for what they called…

“We were moving the ball effectively. By the time we got down to the red zone we didn’t really want to spike the ball. We wanted to keep the personnel they had in the game. We decided to hurry up and get to the line and get another play off. There was a little bit of confusion.”

… and you get an explanation for why it didn’t work out.

Mark Richt on spiking the ball: “Well, spiking the ball takes time. We had plenty of time to call play, so we called the play and we were taking ‑‑ the goal was to take a shot at their back right end of the end zone and the ball got batted, the ball got tipped and it landed to a receiver that was running a speed out.”

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Nick Saban on Texas A&M and Kevin Sumlin’s “Freeze” Play

Gotcha that time, didn’t I?

But Saban isn’t content to merely have his most productive defender on Johnny Football duty. Thursday night, he pulled a page from Texas A&M’s playbook and tried to recruit a 12th Man to help eliminate one of Sumlin’s most effective schemes. “There is one aspect of this game that nobody has said anything about,” Saban said. “These guys have a hard count, and they’ve gotten the other team to jump offsides an average of at least four times a game. One time at Houston, they had [an opponent] jump offsides 11 times in a game. Now, they don’t just get you to jump offsides. When you jump offsides, they do what Sam Wyche used to do at Cincinnati. Everybody runs a takeoff. So they throw the flag. The defense is offsides. The defensive players stop. Everybody takes off. Free play. And they throw it up. Three or four times a game. … These guys have to communicate some kind of way. They can use hand signals. We can make it difficult for them. Those kind of things affect them as well create a lot of passion and enthusiasm for our players with the kind of atmosphere we create in that stadium Saturday. I’m telling you, this is the most important one of the year from that standpoint.”

That’s from an excellent piece on this weekend’s matchup between Alabama and Texas A&M, from Andy Staples. Make sure to read the whole thing. Also, how do we think Saban knows about the game when Sumlin and Kingsbury were at Houston? Was that part of their game prep?

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The interplay of recruiting, eliteness and pro-style versus spread schemes

Blutarsky and B&B discuss some interesting points. Explicitly or implicitly, the discussion turns on the role of schemes and top-flight recruits, coupled with scheme transitions. In short, are there advantages to recruiting to pro-style offenses versus the spread, and is it wrong (or at least misguided) to hire coaches who will transition their team from one to the other? And what’s the better plan for the long-run? I don’t think there even could be an answer to these questions, but below are some non-systematic thoughts.

1. For the truly elite-level recruiting teams, I think the agnosticism of pro-style treats them well because they basically recruit incredible players and then figure out the system and scheme later. Moreover, spread offenses, option offenses, and really any pass-first offense (including West Coast attacks of which I’d put Georgia in the category) require very good quarterback play. Alabama and LSU are basically designed to win in spite of their quarterbacks; Nick Saban does not want to return an all world defense with a bunch of five-star playmakers and lose because his QB was a junior and had some “growing pains”, which absolutely happens at every level. In other words, if you get be a top 5 recruiting team every year, it’s not that you want to be pro-style it’s that you want to be “system neutral.” They can get superior talent and can fit plays around those incredible guys. Note that this isn’t the same as “fitting your scheme to your players,” because we’re talking about first round draft choice guys not guys with certain strengths and certain weaknesses. I leave aside whether pro-style is truly more attractive to recruits or not.

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The Gods of Probability Laugh

Via the Mathlete:

In this week’s slate of games, there were 93 punts from opponent territory. Of these 12 came with the game within two scores and 3 or less yards to go. The ultimate chicken of the week goes to Frank Solich at Ohio (NTO). Facing a 4th and 1 from the Buffalo 36, Solich decides to “trust his defense” and punt the ball away. The gutless decision of the week is based on situation and not result, but man does the result really make this one good. Ohio punter Paul Hershey boots the ball 11 yards and Buffalo proceeds to march 75 yards for a touchdown on the ensuing drive. Ohio lost by 1.

Amazing. Also, Buffalo has the 91st ranked rushing defense in the country.

It’s the process, recruiting edition

The article is a bit dated, but is still fascinating. Nick Saban on his recruiting method:

[T]he Nick Saban doctrine of recruiting. It is meticulous, methodical and relentless in every single aspect of the recruiting process. . . . Belichick, Bill Parcells and other player pro directors all influenced Saban and his recruiting approach. It’s a five-phase process that first begins with identifying needs of your current personnel based on attrition two to three years down the line out of a five-year player cycle.

Second, Saban sets a standard at each position, identifying key characteristics within each position with the offensive and defensive systems that he runs. Each prospect who is recruited, depending on the position, has to meet certain measurables (height, weight, speed, etc.), among other criteria. Rarely will Saban deviate.

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Why it’s almost always a bad idea to go for a two-point conversion in the first half

The 2000 Outback Bowl, one of the most entertaining games in the ballyhooed “Big 10 vs. SEC” category, featured (at the time) the “largest comeback” in bowl history. Purdue, on the strength of game MVP Drew Brees’s four touchdown passes, built a 25 – 0 lead in the first twenty minutes. But Purdue lost 28-25 after Georgia tied the game at 25 to send it to overtime and then kicked the game winning field goal in the the extra period. Brees would finish with over 370 yards passing (on 60 attempts!) while Bulldogs quarterback Quincy Carter went 20-of-33 for 243 yards, had no picks and ran for one touchdown while throwing for another. But it was Purdue’s Tiller who was the affair’s de facto protagonist: His first-half gameplan’s featured a brilliant aerial assault which blitzkrieged Georgia coach Jim Donnan’s blitz-happy strategy (in an early example of the folly of trying to outblitz the spread), but some of his in-game decisions lacked, uh, rigor.

The score should stick out to you: 25? Purdue got that odd total by scoring four touchdowns but then following them with a missed PAT and two failed two-point conversion attempts. The missed PAT was not what one hopes for, but the problem was that Tiller then fell into the classic two-point conversion trap: The coach thinks that because his team missed a PAT he “must” go for two so that his team can have the “correct” score (i.e., some multiple of 7). This is wrong. Unless going for two is simply a better strategy in general (more on that later), it is almost always a bad idea to go for two in the first half simply to achieve some desired score because in the first-half there are far too many unpredictable end-game scores for it to make any specific score worth the cost of choosing a suboptimal strategy to engineer that desired number — it’s only at the end of the game that some specific score (seven versus eight versus or two versus three) really makes a difference. Indeed, this effect was even more acute here because Georgia had no points at all, so it’s not as if Tiller could envision what combination of scores Georgia would actually get to match his team. Put another way, given the point differential, why did it matter that his team was up 21 versus 20, or 27 versus 26? Indeed, it turned out the key difference was not between getting the two-point conversion and getting the PAT, it was between getting the PAT and getting nothing at all — having 19 instead of 20, and 25 instead of 26.

This is a  very different question from whether going for two is better in general: it’s generally not, otherwise it would be a dominant strategy (in the game theory sense) and teams should go for two all the time. (Note that for this analysis I’ve assumed you have a good PAT kicker. Not having one can dramatically change the approach in, say, high school. For Purdue this shouldn’t have been an issue, however, as despite the fact that Purdue missed its PAT its kicker was actually an All-American placekicker, so it truly was Tiller just trying to recoup the score.) My criticism of Tiller is that his odds of converting didn’t change when he missed the first PAT (and they possibly went down given some game theoretic alterations in the defense’s response), so the fact that he changed his strategy was not rational and in actual fact ended up hurting his team’s chances of winning.

Those are the universal reasons why I recommend against going for two except as part of an endgame strategy. But another complaint applies to Tiller’s choice to go for two in this particular game when he had such a big lead. Remember, the probability of winning a football game is not only about expected values but also about the variance of those returns. Risky strategies are better for underdogs not necessarily because they increase their expected offensive or defensive prowess, but because the variance is good in and of itself: risky strategies flatten the bell curve; the risky strategies cause a wider disparity in the outcomes, even if the average outcome is the exact same, thus increasing the “tails”, or the underdog’s chance of winning the game. The Citadel is not going to beat Alabama with a strategy of three-yards and a cloud of dust, punts, and “let’s play for field position.” And the phenomenon works the other way too: if you’re expected to win, uncompensated risk (i.e. that doesn’t carry a higher expected return, like Purdue’s excellent passing attack with Drew Brees) is not your friend. And there is no question that going for two is riskier than going for one.

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Bidding for the kickoff

A system for bidding for the kick-off:

Dispensing with a coin toss, the teams would bid on where the ball is kicked from by the kicking team. In the NFL, it’s now the 30-yard line. Under Brams and Jorasch’s rule, the kicking team would be the team that bids the lower number, because it is willing to put itself at a disadvantage by kicking from farther back. However, it would not kick from the number it bids, but from the average of the two bids.

To illustrate, assume team A bids to kick from the 38-yard line, while team B bids its 32-yard line. Team B would win the bidding and, therefore, be designated as the kick-off team. But B wouldn’t kick from 32, but instead from the average of 38 and 32–its 35-yard line.

This is better for B by 3 yards than the 32-yard line that it proposed, because it’s closer to the end zone it is kicking towards. It’s also better for A by 3 yards to have B kick from the 35-yard line, rather than from the 38-yard line, it proposed if it were the kick-off team.

In other words, the 35-yard line is a win-win solution–both teams gain a 3-yard advantage over what they reported would make them indifferent between kicking and receiving. While bidding to determine the yard line from which a ball is kicked has been proposed before, the win-win feature of using the average of the bids–and recognizing that both teams benefit if the low bidder is the kicking team–has not. Teams seeking to merely get the ball first would be discouraged from bidding too high–for example, the 45-yard line–as this could result in a kick-off pinning them far back in their own territory.

“Metaphorically speaking, the bidding system levels the playing field,” Brams and Jorasch maintain. “It also enhances the importance of the strategic choices that the teams make, rather than leaving to chance which team gets a boost in the overtime period.”

This has been proposed before and I think it’d work well. It would also provide more opportunities to second guess coaches — a favored activity.

Nick Saban on preparing for all possible circumstances

On his radio show recently (see this link at around the 17 minute mark) Saban discussed how his staff prepares for all the myriad game situations. He said before the game they have a forty-five minute meeting whereby they discuss, among other things:

  • How they will handle the coin toss
  • Which side of the field do they want to def;end (wind, weather, etc);
  • Whether they want to go on offense or defense first;
  • When they will go for two;
  • When they will get into their two-minute offense, and how they will handle field goals with the wind and late in the half, etc;
  • When they will and won’t go for it on fourth down;
  • And then player specifics, including exactly how many plays each will play before their backup will come in (for defensive line rotation, for example), how many carries or touches certain players should have or are limited to, and so on.

He said the point is to decide all of this stuff before the game ever starts. I’m sure much of it gets discussed earlier in the week too, but the point is to have it all finalized.

Interestingly, Saban noted that Charlie Weis mentioned — and he could confirm that he did this when he worked for him — that Belichick still conducts this same 45 minute meeting where, no doubt, the infamous fourth down play was decided there. It seems a bit wild to think that they discuss that possibility every week (though they do so from a high level of generality, no doubt), but I believe Saban on such a point.

It’s a lesson to all coaches: Always good to prepare, and for head coaches, whether they like the meeting or not it’s good to have your whole staff involved to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th and 2 from his team’s own 29

belichickIn tonight Colts-Patriots game, with the Pats up by 6 with just over two minutes to go, Belichick directed his team to go for it on fourth and two. Tom Brady threw a short pass to Kevin Faulk just past the first down marker, but he bobbled it, and the officials ruled that by the time he corralled the ball he was short of the first down marker. First down Colts. They then drove the thirty yards and managed to pull out a win in a game where they had trailed by 17. Peyton Manning again led an incredible fourth quarter comeback.

Yet the focus is on Belichick’s call. Before, during, and after it, the announcers panned the decision. Tony Dungy all but said it was stupid, and Rodney Harrison pretty much did say that. But was it so bad?

I don’t think so. I haven’t crunched the numbers but the call doesn’t strike me as being as stupid as everyone seems to be saying. But if you are going to say it is stupid, at least do the analysis.

The goal is, obviously, to maximize your chance of winning. If you punt, your chances of winning are your odds of stopping a streaking Manning who has just torched your defense the whole fourth quarter. He will have to drive about 70 yards. Because of his excellence in clock management, the two-minute warning, and their timeout, time was not really a factor. (The analysis would be much different if there was only, say, a minute left.)

If you go for it, your chance of winning hinges on two outcomes: (a) if you get the first down, you win the game; and (b) if you don’t get it, you still have a chance to stop manning. So your chance of winning if you go for it is the sum of (a) your chance of converting; and (b) your chance of stopping Manning from the 30 yard line.

My best estimation is that the odds of converting on fourth and two (around 60% for the league, so probably closer to 65% for New England) plus stopping Manning from the thirty are greater than your odds of merely stopping Manning from seventy or so. Remember, the decision is also context specific: Manning was playing great and they had a gassed defense.

But feel free to disagree with me, though if you do I want to hear your reasons, not conclusory statements that it was stupid. I will say this: Agree or disagree, it was the ultimate compliment to Manning and showed similar faith in his own guy. I don’t have a problem with the call. As Herm Edwards says, you play to win the game, not to satisfy someone else’s preconceived notion about what makes a good football call.

Update: Brian from Advanced NFL Stats confirms the analysis. Great work from him:

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You’d have to expect the Colts had a better than a 30% chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats’ 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it’s pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that make punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash.

Two coaching decisions, a review

Scenario 1: Your team is up 28-23, though the other team has moved the ball quite efficiently all game. There is 10:56 left in the fourth quarter, and you have fourth and goal from the one yard line. A field goal puts you up by eight points; a touchdown probably ices the game. (“Checkmate,” as Urban Meyer would say.) What do you do?

Scenario 2: Your team is up 21-17. The other team has the ball on roughly your two-yard line. Thirty-six seconds remain; they have just run the ball on second down so the clock is moving. They have no timeouts, but you have all three of yours. The other team has just quickly driven the field to get into this position. Question: do you call timeout to preserve some time for yourself in the chance that they score a touchdown on third or fourth down? Or do you leave the pressure on them to execute on those two downs over thirty-six seconds. What do you do?

Analysis (and identities of the coaches) after the jump.

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