Smart Notes 9/17/2009

Credit where it is due. Trojan Football Analysis shows that Ohio State’s defensive plan against USC was creative, as they came out in a completely different look than they normally do. Trojan offensive line coach Pat Ruel observed that, “Half [of OSU’s] line was playing a Bear front and half was playing an Under front and they were stopping our outside zone running plays.” Offensive linemen Jeff Byers added, “We spent all night trying to adjust to what they were doing up front. They did not come with the stuff we practiced against.” The fact that the offense, Tressel’s main focus, didn’t do the same still troubles me.


– Myles Brand, president of the NCAA, has passed away. There are many sports related obits (including this one from the NY Times), but don’t forget that Brand made serious contributions to his field as a philosophy professor, including “well-known work in metaphysics and epistemology, especially action theory, as a professor at places like Pittsburgh, Arizona, and Illinois/Chicago.”

Rethinking Fourth Downs. From Brian Burke:

Imagine that for decades no one ever thought of the punt. Teams knew nothing else than to run or pass on 4th down. And then one day it’s invented. Some guy comes up to a coach and says, “Kick the ball on every 4th down and the other team gets possession 37 yards further down the field.” The coach would think he was crazy: “Wait, you want me to give up one quarter of my opportunities for a first down on every series…just for 35 yards of field position? Do you realize how much that’s going to kill our chances of scoring?”

[T]hat coach would be absolutely right. . . . Every single serious study of 4th-down decisions has found that, in most situations, teams would be better off by going for the conversion attempt rather than kicking. . . .

. . . I also think it has something to do with what economists call Prospect Theory. In short, almost all people tend to fear losses far more than they value equivalent gains. In this perspective, a punt is considered the “break-even” decision. A failed conversion attempt is seen as a loss, and a successful attempt is seen as a gain. But the loss is feared disproportionately, and the result is clouded decision-making.

– Who does a good job in NFL free agency? Via Pro Football Reference Blog.

– Why are people successful? What motivates? Wilbon:

It’s now a rather famous anecdote in the life and times of Michael Jordan that he was cut from the varsity when he was in high school. You think that’s merely a footnote more than 30 years later? You think Jordan’s forgotten the details or is willing to let go? Guess whom Jordan invited to the Hall of Fame Friday night? Leroy Smith, the kid who took his spot on the high school team. Jordan said he’s still saying “to the coach who picked Leroy over me: ‘You made a mistake, dude.’ “

– A story about quasiparticles. From Gravity and Levity:

Imagine, if you will, that you are an alien from some advanced and distant civilization. You find yourself fascinated by humans, whom you observe from your own planet through an ultra-high-powered telescope. As individuals, you think you know what humans are like: at least you have a sense of their characteristic size and patterns of motion. But you are puzzled by the behavior of large groups of humans. You therefore decide to make a study entitled “the properties of large, densely-packed groups of humans”. You begin your study by turning the gaze of your telescope to the biggest, densest group of humans you can find: the crowd at a football stadium.

The collection of humans inside the football stadium seems at first to be an enormous, chaotic, impossibly-complex collection of individual movements. But after a long period of observation, you see something truly remarkable: the humans begin doing “the wave”. What a startling observation this would be! From 80,000 humans packed together and moving around in a hopelessly complicated mess arises something remarkably simple: a single wave, which moves around the stadium with its own characteristic size and speed. You complete your study by observing “the wave”, writing down laws that describe its size and speed, and trying to predict when and where it will occur in the future.

– “It’s the downside of celebrity without the upside of it.” College athletes under the (social networking) microscope.

– A history of violence. Urban Meyer and Kiffin the Elder have a good relationship. How will that manifest itself when the Son of Kiffin, with Dad in tow, faces the Gators?

– This is unfortunate. “Fatty acids derived from pork bone fat are used as a hardening agent in crayons and also gives them their distinctive smell.” Ugh.

A little late, but I love this. Old media covers from the WizOfOdds.

– Statistical sagas [edited]. The Doc wonders how Georgia beat South Carolina despite the stats; Blutarsky notes that he might not have been paying enough attention to the right ones, and Dawgsports notes that the problem might be in focusing too much on the box score.

A Rand row. Jonathan Chait vs. Will Wilkinson on Ayn Rand.

  • I love the fourth down analysis. To that end, fourth downs become more makeable when you know you’re going to go for it on fourth down. On third and nine, you don’t need to run an out right at the first down stick and get all nine yards. You can run something underneath and if the guy doesn’t convert the first down, you still have a manageable fourth-and-three or fourth-and-two.

  • Brad

    I am not so sure about the 4th down stuff. I think there is a case for going for it a little more on 4th down, but most of these analyses have used models (which ultmimately require simplifying assumptions) to come to the conclusion that punting is often a bad idea.

    But really analyst have only been studying the subject for 10 years or so, but the football coaching conventional wisdom has been built upon a century of experience. That experience has has included thougsands of highschool, college, and pro teams experiementing around the margins with what works as far as going for it on fourth down. For now I would be willing to bet more on the strategies that emerged from that competitive evolutionary process than what a model however well thought out told me. Is it more likely that your model is right or that you are missing a key feature that the conventional wisdom is capturing.

    This reminds me of financial markets, where every so often someone will come up with a model that shows how the market was getting it wrong all along and “irrational”. Most of the time these folks will make money for a while until the event that was not included in their model happens and they blow up. That is the story of Long Term Capital Management. Turns out the market was not as stupid as they thought.

  • Chris, you know I think very highly of you, so I’m going to operate from the understanding that a miscommunication has occurred here. I don’t know how what I wrote is markedly different from what Senator Blutarsky wrote. I did not “dismiss” the statistics, I merely noted that they only told us so much, as evidenced by the fact that Dr. Saturday misapprehended the course of the game because he read only the stat sheet and (by his own admission) did not see it.

    As I indicated, stats often are more useful in assigning blame than in giving credit. What Dr. Saturday characterizes as “wasted yards” weren’t wasted by South Carolina; their effectiveness was limited by a Georgia defense that bowed up in the red zone. South Carolina’s offense looked a lot like Georgia’s in the mid-1990s, when the Bulldogs passed effectively but failed to run the ball well, so they moved freely between the 20s but had trouble with the short field.

    I’m not dismissive of statistics. I merely recognize their limitations in games involving emotional young men rather than seasoned professionals. There is a difference. I didn’t indicate that statistics were meaningless, but only that they are incomplete. The Senator and I were making the same point using different words, and the Doc (despite usually being quite right) was simply mistaken.

  • Brad: I hear you totally on the fourth down. I do think the analysts have come far enough to say that in those situations where (a) you’re in your opponent’s territory, where the value of their having the ball is either negative to them (meaning you are more likely to score first), or very low, and (b) the fourth down is makeable, and (c) depending on where how close to the goal line and how good your kicker is, it is a good idea.

    In fact, a lot of these studies assume NFL level field goal kickers and punters, which is arguably the biggest difference between the pro game and the lower levels: how routinely amazing the kicking is. I think Fourth and four from the 33 should be gone for more, and fourth and one on the goal line in the first half is, to me, an automatic “go for it.”

    Other than that, I agree you accept all the conclusions at your own peril.

  • Kyle: Sorry! I didn’t mean for it to sound negative. I took your post as just savoring a sweet win. I’ll edit it to clarify. Totally didn’t mean to be negative.

  • Kyle, I edited it. It did sound snarkier than I intended. I linked to it because I thought it was worth linking to.

  • Brad

    In addition to the factors you mention, I also believe that psychology has to be a factor. Even if a coach can train himself not to be swayed by his emotions what about his players?

    My father who was a highschool coach for 30 years mantra is always, get the lead, get points on the board if you haven’t scored. This changes the dynamic of the game if only for psychological reasons. This refers more to the field goal vs go for it decision.

    Once you have the lead your position is no longer likely or statistical but it is real. You may not accurately know the probabilities that you will score against a given team on a given night from a certain yard line or vice versa. But once you score you know you are ahead that is a certainty.

  • Adam
  • jgordon1

    Regarding the TFA analysis…looks like OSU moved the 5 tech to a 3 tech..surely a common adjustment that a big time coach should be practicing..cripes, we do this on the hs level all the TFA’s third picture..this is just a very common under adjustment to double tight..they put a safety on the the last picture..they are playing a “wide” under with a nickle substution for a defensive lineman..again the front is a 5,0,5. again, I don’t know how a guy with NFL experience could be fooled..we play these fronts all the time and judging by our points against… we aren’t fooling anyone

  • Thanks, Chris. Much obliged.