Exactly how they drew it up

It’s already been dubbed the “bouquet pass”:

The circumstances: Tiny Bethel (Kan.) College surprisingly led nearby Sterling College 20-0 late in the third quarter of coach Mike Moore’s final game.

(H/t Dr Saturday.)

Thinking about thoughts, fourth downs, and the nature of evidence

belichickWhen it happened, I knew the Belichick story would be big, but I think few could have anticipated the shape or dimension of the conversation. Some of this I credit to the rise of new media: The immediate reaction to the call on NBC and ESPN was: Bad, awful, stupid call. But there was an undercurrent chorus of, “Hey, wait a minute. It actually kind of made sense.” I’d like to count myself as part of that chorus, but clearly the guy who quite nearly turned the entire debate on its head was my friend and New York Times co-blogger Brian Burke, whose post on Belichick’s call was cited everywhere from ESPN apparatchik Adam Shefter’s twitter feed to a piece by the excellent (and decidedly mainstream) Joe Posnanski on SI.com. (I’d like to think I helped, as I linked to Brian’s bit within about a half hour after the game, and my tweet of his piece was one of the most retweeted things I’ve ever sent.)

Credit where it is due, the interesting thing is what happened after that: A mess. Some people ossified in their views: Trent Dilfer tried to back up his bombastic criticism of Belichick, though he had more passion than arguments. Peter King said the call “smacked of I’m-smarter-than-they-are hubris,” and compared Belichick to Grady Little. In the process, King messed up his math, but that was really besides the point for him. The call just didn’t feel right.

Although some stats junkies went the other way and proclaimed that it would have been affirmatively stupid for Belichick to have punted, most people, when faced with the compelling statistical evidence that the odds were roughly in Belichick’s favor (or at least so close as to be even with all the late game variables at play), were left in a fit of consternation. And this is why I think the decision has struck a national chord. It gets to the core of how people see themselves versus how they actually make decisions.

Most people fancy themselves as being driven by the evidence such that they will always follow it, but that’s not really true. As amazing and wonderful as the human brain is, it is full of inherent biases, and information, even compelling information, that does not comport with those biases is often devalued, even on a subconcious level. (One famous experiment confronts people with radios where the speaker is discussing views contrary to or similar to those already held by the listener, but the volume is set too low to be heard well. The listeners frequently turn up the volume when the speaker is saying things they already believe; they rarely turn the volume up if the speaker is discussing the contrary views.)

And so it was with the Belichick debate. It’s not that you must agree with the decision, but any reasonable person has to say, as Posnanski did, “Well, hmm, it seemed nuts at the time but I get it now, based on the evidence.” As Keyes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?” Yet many people still refuse to reconsider their view on the subject. It was wrong and no degree of evidence can change my view or even make me reconsider. Consider Colin Cowherd’s admonition on SportsNation that “stats are overrated.” (Though I agree that many stats are.) The upshot is that, despite our best views of ourselves, it is very difficult to actually say that we are rational creatures in practice. As Jonah Lehrer wrote:

The reason I bring up this analysis is to demonstrate that even defensible decisions can have wrenching emotional consequences. Belichick’s call might have been statistically correct, but it felt horribly wrong.

. . . The point is that there’s often an indefatigable gap between the rigors of cost-benefit analyses and the emotional hunches that drive our decisions. We say we want to follow the evidence, but then the evidence rubs against a bias like loss aversion, and so we make an exception. We’ll follow the evidence next time.

It’s not really fair to pick on Tony Dungy, who was an excellent football coach, because his excellence had nothing to do with any training in statistics or probability. But his comment that “you have to play the percentages and punt” is symptomatic of a wider issue, which is that when something “feels horribly wrong” we inherently want the evidence to comport with that feeling and we convince ourselves that it does. Dungy is a conservative guy, he likely would say that punting gives him plenty of chances to win, he’s a defensive coach so he has no qualms about showing faith in his defense, and, bottom line, the idea of putting that much significance on one play just didn’t sit well with him. That’s all fine, but it has nothing to do with the percentages. Yet his brain and experience had told him that somehow the percentages supported it too, and thus Belichick’s move was the “risky gamble.”

The fourth down debate is significant (though I risk inflating its significance), because it forces you to consider how you actually tackle problems. Indeed, the entire point of probability, statistics, and science generally is to make progress in spite of, not because of or consistent with, our preconceived biases:

(more…)

SportsNation site of the day: Me

That was us, yesterday:

You can check out SportsNation on ESPN2 or online. They picked up on my Belichick bit from yesterday. The show is supposed to just be fun, though I note that my point was more that Belichick had a legitimate case that the odds were very close, if not actually in his favor. It’s fine if you want to disagree, but that disagreement is going to be based off your gut, in which case I think it’s difficult to say he clearly made the wrong choice. But overlaying it all is that few people are able to think about possible outcomes, rather than purely with hindsight.

And (I know the show is just supposed to be entertaining), Colin’s criticism that “stats can be overrated” reminds me of the words of wisdom of another great scholar:

arrested-development-segway

“I hear the jury’s still out on . . . science.”

Me on Cincinnati and Brian Kelly

Available over at Dr Saturday, so check it out. Thanks, as always, to the Doc.

You tell me

You go back now, you go against Kentucky, we ran that ball and ran that ball and BAM BAM BAM. Now we’re striving for what right now, more balance, right? That means less touches, right? That means the amount of touches are less and you’re dividing them three ways. You see what I’m saying? In one breath it’s throw it, throw it, balance it, balance it. The next breath it’s where are the runs? Well, it’s in there. It’s in there. There’s a reason why statistically we’re pretty good in every category in the SEC. Pretty good. There’s a reason for that. I’m a realist, man.

That’s Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio. There’s also a reference to falling off a pickle boat. H/t Dr Saturday.

Flashback: Oklahoma vs. Nebraska

I recently stumbled on these great (and long) clips on youtube of the 2000 Oklahoma-Nebraska game. Then #1 Nebraska got out to an early 14-0 lead before OU scored 24 points in the second quarter and went on to win 31-14. The game featured two of my favorite quarterbacks of the last decade, the brilliant Eric Crouch and the wily Josh Heupel, running two of my favorite offenses ever: the Nebraska I-option attack and the Airraid offense. (Mike Leach had installed the Airraid at Oklahoma and then left to become head coach of Texas Tech. In 2000 Oklahoma used the old school, Kentucky era Airraid, full of two-back sets and the staple plays like mesh, Y-corner, all-curl, and — on the famous post route to Curtis Fagan for a touchdown against an all-out blitz — Y-cross. Oklahoma would later evolve away from the true Airraid under both then offensive coordinator Mark Mangino and later current Kevin Wilson, among other coaches.)

Oklahoma of course had the better day against a Nebraska defense intent on blitzing. And Heupel, a noodle armed JUCO transfer whose receiver targets consisted of a slew of converted runningbacks and defensive backs (Stoops was only in his second year at OU), showed that being a great quarterback can be as much about brains and accuracy as it has anything to do with arm strength or raw athleticism.

(Incidentally, before watching these clips again I had forgotten what a good jet sweep team Oklahoma was at the time. I used to watch the passing cutups of the ’99 and 2000 OU teams over and over and over, but had forgotten this aspect of their run game.)

Reggie Bush, superfluous?

ReggieBushShutdown Corner wondered aloud recently whether Reggie Bush, whose role in the New Orleans Saints offense has rapidly diminished, hasn’t been relegated to just a peripheral role? Consider that Mike Bell and Pierre Thomas have carried the rushing load and that Drew Brees has a plethora of surehanded receivers. But I still like Bush as a valuable weapon — though in his newer, more limited role.

Although I think it’s quite possible that the Saints left several wins on the field the last few years by not going with a more trusty back between the tackles, I don’t think that devalues Bush, it just confirms what he is not: an every down back. Indeed, I look at him as basically the same as he was in high school: a wing-t wingback. That translates to the NFL as a third-down/scatback for spread sets and as a receiver, and as a slot receiver or otherwise split receiver who can motion into or out of the backfield. He is best used off misdirection as his impressive reverse and leap for a touchdown against the Dolphins showed, and as an outlet receiver. He runs fairly good option routes when covered in man-to-man by linebackers (though he gets too cute, as he does with so much else, by hopping around instead of just running a sound route), and he has averaged around ten touches a game. In his second year, by contrast, he averaged around 19 touches a game; in his first and third years he averaged closer to fifteen touches per game. I think ten is the more appropriate number. Most of the reduction has been in his rushing attempts, though his receptions has gone down too. Ultimately, I think they should continue using him as they are though maybe with a bit more motion and the like to get him favorable matchups, and this offseason he should really focus on becoming a better receiver and route runner.

The boys at the PFR Blog point out that players similar to Bush — good athletes, good receiving prowess, but little aptitude as every down, between the tackles runners — have switched to wide receiver and had success. (See also this post by Chase Stuart about Frank Gifford, Lenny Moore, Bobby Mitchell, and Charley Taylor: four of only a few players who have gone to the pro bowl as both runningbacks and wide receivers.) I agree with the sentiment if not the prescription. In modern football you don’t need to switch roles so dramatically, but the name of the modern game is versatility and “hybrid” guys give you that.

Ultimately, I think Bush’s future would be as (best case scenario) a cross between Marshall Faulk and an excellent slot receiver like Wes Welker or Brandon Stokely. Obviously Bush has more speed than all of those guys, but he hasn’t yet developed their awareness on the field. I know this sounds like the worst of all worlds but if you did it right Reggie Bush could play almost the whole game and simply move from halfback, to third-down back, to split receiver, to wing-back, all within Sean Payton’s versatile system. Now, the Saints have a lot of good players, but I’m not ready to relegate Bush to purely being an ornament. He’s just a different type of player. A big factor in his development, however, is likely whether he learns to embrace that more limited role.

Football teams, brain injuries, and independent doctors

From The New York Times, reporting on Congressional hearings regarding head-injuries by NFL players:

Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League, defended the league’s response to the issue of concussions and the care of retired players before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in a hearing called to discuss the long-term effects of head injuries in football.

Goodell joined a chorus of voices discussing the issue at the daylong hearing. While DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the N.F.L. players association, called for more independent study of head injuries and promised that players’ safety would not be a bargaining issue with the league, a former N.F.L. team executive, Gay Culverhouse, made an impassioned plea for doctors independent of the teams to oversee care of the players.

It was Goodell, however, who was the focus of interest for Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, the committee’s chairman. Conyers pressed Goodell to address the link between concussions sustained while playing football and long-term brain deterioration. The N.F.L., mostly through the comments of Dr. Ira Casson, the head of the league’s concussion committee, has frequently played down studies that have made such a link and cited the need for further study.

Asked by Conyers whether he believed there was a link between concussions and dementia, Goodell replied, “The answer is, medical experts would know better than I do.” He went on to say that he encouraged the debate and that the league was adjusting rules and standards of care to make the game safer even before the answer is found. . . .

“In a matter of public health, I do not think it’s acceptable for the league and the players association to hide behind the collective bargaining agreement,” Conyers said. “These are life-and-death issues that go to the heart of our most popular sport.”. . .

In his opening remarks, Smith, the director of the players union, did not directly take issue with the N.F.L.’s approach, although in the statement he filed with the committee he assailed the N.F.L. for “denigrating, suppressing and ignoring” research that has linked football concussions to long-term cognitive degeneration. He did, however, declare that medical issues should not be subject to negotiation in the collective bargaining agreement.

“The players of the N.F.L. will not bargain for medical care,” he said. “We will not bargain for safety. We will continue to bargain with the league, but medical care is not a bargaining issue.” . . .

Dr. Robert Cantu, a researcher from Boston University’s School of Medicine, said he believed there was “ongoing and convincing evidence” of a link between sports concussions and long-term illness. Culverhouse, former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and daughter of the franchise’s original owner, made the most emotional plea in her opening statement, choosing to focus on the status of team doctors. She called for independent doctors to work at games, caring for players on both sidelines.

“What this committee has to understand is, the team doctor is hired by the coach and paid by the front office,” Culverhouse said. “This team doctor is not an advocate for the players. That doctor’s role is to get those players back on the field. I have seen a wall of players surround a player as he has his knee injected so he can get back on the field.

“The players get to a point where they refuse to tell the team doctor they have suffered a concussion. They do not self-report because they know there is a backup player on the bench ready to take their position. The team doctor dresses as a coach on the sideline and he acts in many ways as a coach on the sideline. If a player chooses independent medical counsel he is considered ‘not a team player.’ He becomes a pariah. We need to stop that.” . . .

I thought this was interesting, especially this latter part. Here’s my question: Why hasn’t the players’ union hired independent (at least independent of the NFL and individual franchise) doctors to be on hand? They could be paid with union dues and they could negotiate in their collective bargaining agreement that the NFL allow these doctors full access. It’d be a second-opinion for every player, and seems like a good check. I don’t mean to impugn doctors here, but when a normal employee gets an injury or illness he doesn’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) go solely to his company provided clinician to determine whether he can work or not.

I don’t know if it’d fix these other issues, but I’d like to see teams have more independent doctors, and the players union could furnish them. Colleges and high schools have fewer choices for this, unfortunately.

Is coaching overrated?

So asks Gregg Easterbrook, in an article titled “Coaching is Overrated”:

Changing the playcaller sure helped the Redskins!

In the cult of football, surely few things are more overrated than play calling. Much football commentary, from high school stands to the NFL in prime time, boils down to: “If they ran they should have passed, and if they passed they should have run.” Other commentary boils down to: “If it worked, it was a good call, if it failed, it was a bad call,” though the call is only one of many factors in a football play. Good calls are better than bad calls — this column exerts considerable effort documenting the difference. But it’s nonsensical to think that replacing a guy who calls a lot of runs to the left with a guy who calls a lot of runs to the right will transform a team.

One factor here is the Illusion of Coaching. We want to believe that coaches are super-ultra-masterminds in control of events, and coaches do not mind encouraging that belief. But coaching is a secondary force in sports; the athletes themselves are always more important. TMQ’s immutable Law of 10 Percent holds that good coaching can improve a team by 10 percent, bad coaching can subtract from performance by 10 percent — but the rest will always be on the players themselves, their athletic ability and level of devotion, plus luck. If the players are no good or out of sync, it won’t matter what plays are called; if the players are talented and dedicated, they will succeed no matter what the sideline signals in. Unless they have bad luck, which no one can control.

Yes and no. I wholeheartedly agree that playcalling is overrated, and he is right that much of the commentary after games involves a lot of second-guessing full of hindsight bias. Few ever pose the “should he have done X?” question in terms of the probabilities and tendencies at the time, or in the context of the 10 or so seconds available to make such calls. Indeed, I have even argued that there’s a case to be made that the best playcalling might be a controlled but randomized “mixed-strategy.”

The other coaching bogeyman is the aura surrounding “in-game adjustments” or “halftime adjustments,” both of which are supposed to be the “hallmarks of good coaching.” This is another thing where there’s a kernel of truth surrounding by a lot of speculation. Yes, a good coach will not do the same thing over and over again if it isn’t working, or if the other team has figured it out. And yes, coaching a game involves an ongoing process of what the other team is doing (this is one reason why I think, even if adjustments are part of the game, “halftime adjustments” are very much overrated). But if you want to see a bad coach then I’ll show you one who tries to “adjust” to everything the other team is doing with new schemes and ideas built-in midgame. Instead, teams with good coaching pretty much run only things within their plan — i.e. stuff they had practiced during the week. Indeed, much of what fans or commentators will pick out as an “adjustment” was something in the original gameplan that just didn’t get called until the second half because of the flow of the game. Yet how can good coaches both “adjust” throughout a game and also not deviate from what they have practiced?

This brings me to where I depart from Easterbrook, that coaching is minor. (I don’t really know how to judge “overrated” — in relation to what? overrated by whom?) While playcalling is definitely overhyped (hey, the talking heads get paid to talk about something), preparation is extremely important, and much of a gameplan involves contingency planning. It also means that the “base stuff” should have the counters built in, the constraint plays are already there, and the defensive adjustments are easy to make because they are a part of the system. A good offense “implies the counter,” meaning that if a defense adjusts in some way, then playcalling is simple because there’s an obvious counter play to be called. On defense you take away the other team’s best stuff, and focus on other things as it comes, though by dictating to the offense through aggressiveness and by trying to confuse it. Unlike Easterbrook I can’t hang a number on how many wins or losses “coaching” is responsible for (and if I could I’d imagine it varies by level), I can safely say that I think weekly preparation is underrated, because it is rarely talked about — other than platitudes like “we had a great week of practice” — has a long-tail in terms of continual refinement of technique and effort that can only improve incrementally, and that everything run in the games is stuff that has been practiced over and over and over.

Two final points on the Redskins situation. (more…)

The best sentences I read today

As I continue to watch Michigan’s quarterback run the read option against the [Minnesota] Gophers, I now find myself wondering if this play is authentically simple or quietly complex. The read option is a combination of three rudimentary elements of football: spreading the field, running a back off tackle, and the quarterback keeper. It would be an easy play to teach and a safe play to run, even for junior high kids. But it’s still new. It didn’t really exist in the 1970s and ’80s, and when I first saw it employed in the late ’90s, it seemed like an idiotic innovation. It seemed like a way to get your quarterback killed without taking advantage of your tailback. I had always believed teams could not succeed by running the ball out of the shotgun formation. I thought it would never happen. But I was wrong. And I suspect the reason I was wrong was not because I didn’t understand what was happening on this specific play; I suspect it was because I felt like I already understood football. I had played football and written about football and watched it exhaustively for twenty years, so I thought I knew certain inalienable truths about the game. And I was wrong. What I knew were the assumed truths, which are not the same thing. I had brainwashed myself. I was unwilling to admit that my traditional, conservative football values were imaginary and symbolic. They belonged to a game I wasn’t actually watching but was still trying to see. . . .

. . . Barry Sanders running to daylight. Earl Campbell running to darkness. Settling for a field goal late in the first half. Playing for field position when the weather is inclement. Blocking sleds. Salt tablets. Richard Nixon’s favorite sport. That’s what football is, always — and if we stopped believing that, it would seem to matter less.

But that isn’t what football is.

It isn’t. It changes more often than any sport we have. Football was Nixon’s favorite sport, but it was Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite, too. Football coaches will try anything. They’re gonzo. . . .

. . . I don’t know what I see when I watch football. It must be something insane, because I should not enjoy it as much as I do. I must be seeing something so personal and so universal that understanding this question would tell me everything I need to know about who I am, and maybe I don’t want that to happen. But perhaps it’s simply this: Football allows the intellectual part of my brain to evolve, but it allows the emotional part to remain unchanged. It has a liberal cerebellum and a reactionary heart. And this is all I want from everything, all the time, always.

The above is from an excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s new book, Eating the Dinosaur, that appeared on ESPN.com You can find many more good sentences at the link.